When you take a protein powder supplement you expect it to help you reach your protein intake goals and you expect it to help you build muscle, right? Well, all is not as it seems in the protein powder world because our body can’t use as much of it as you think. In fact, our body only uses 17% of this protein and the other 83% is turned into calories (sugar) and waste! Keep reading to find out more.
Protein is the foundation on which our bodies are built. In fact, there are more than 50,000 different proteins found in the human body. These proteins form our organs, bones, tendons, ligaments, blood, several hormones, our immune system, our neurotransmitters and all of the enzymes of metabolism, digestion and detoxification.
Protein is made up of smaller units called amino acids. Of the 22 different amino acids our bodies use to make protein, 8 of these proteins are essential which means they must come from our diets as our bodies cannot make them.
A protein’s quality is judged by the amount and proportion of the eight essential amino acids it contains. Once eaten our digestive system breaks this protein down into its individual amino acids where they can then pass through the wall of the small intestine and be used by the body.
Once this happens one of two things will happen. Either the amino acids will be used by the body to make protein (the anabolic pathway) or they will be used for immediate energy (the catabolic pathway). The pathway they choose depends on the ratio and amounts of the eight essential amino acids in that protein.
If the protein has a ratio of essential amino acids that is correct to what the body needs, that will be a quality protein. If it is missing essential amino acids, or if they are in an improper ratio, it will not go down the anabolic pathway and will be a lesser quality protein.
Nutritionists have a way to measure this quality index of a protein. They call it NNU (Net Nitrogen Utilization.) Of the three major food groups, proteins, fats and carbohydrates, only proteins haven nitrogen. NNU measures how many grams of nitrogen go in the body when protein is eaten and what didn’t come out of the body again is what the body used to make its own proteins and that is the NNU of that food.
Some common examples of NNU in foods is:
Beef, poultry, fish and eggs have an average NNU of 32%. This means that if you were to eat a can of tuna with 28 grams of protein, the actual amount of that protein that the body could use would be 33% of that or about 9-10 grams.
For dairy products and soy products the NNU is much lower at 17%. NNU is a measure of a protein’s quality.
Vegetables and nuts have much lower NNUs (under 10%). This is why it is difficult to get adequate protein if one is a vegetarian or vegan, since the quality of the proteins is much lower.
You probably didn’t realise that most protein powders, even those from whey but especially from soy and rice, are low quality proteins. This means that our bodies cannot use these proteins very well to make body protein. Actually, only about 17% of them are used leaving 83% to get turned into calories (sugar) and nitrogen waste. And when you eat it, it takes 2-4 hours to be digested and into your system. So when your cells need protein to recuperate or build up the body, they have to wait.
A properly balanced essential amino acid formula is the answer as it requires no digestion, is absorbed into the blood stream in 23 minutes after ingestion, and is 99% utilized by the body to make protein. In fact, 10 grams of a high quality essential amino acid formula is equivalent to 40 grams of protein with no calories.