Functional Medicine Doctor’s Guide to Protein Powders

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Dr. Aaron Hartman

December 21, 2021

Today, we wanted to take the time to delve into the topic of protein powders. We’re going to be highlighting protein-based and plant-based powders that include collagen. As you probably already know, collagen has many incredible health benefits! However, a lot of collagen proteins are tainted with mold as well as lead. When making beef collagen, sometimes the hides are allowed to sit and get moldy before the extraction process. Chicken-based collagen can be contaminated with lead because of the feed that the chickens eat. The lead builds up in their bones and ends up in the actual collagen.


To avoid risk of contamination, I like to get a certificate of analysis from companies, so I can see what’s in the testing for the products and evaluate from there. For example, I contacted the protein powder company, Vital Proteins. Vital Proteins would not give me their certificate of analysis. They said it was “proprietary.” For the pharmaceutical-grade supplements I recommend, I can call and get a certificate of analysis for pretty much any of their products. It’s just part of their open-door policy about full disclosure. When a company says, “My collagen is proprietary” – that makes me question the quality of their product.



I tend to use a Designs for Health product, Whole Body Collagen. This product has some beef and actual skin collagen in it. These are all hydrolyzed, so they’re super hypoallergenic. You can certainly buy cheaper collagen powders, but you’re more likely to have mold and lead contamination issues.


Whey proteins are a bit tricky. Whey is the liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained. This protein gets tricky because when most whey is heated, glutamine is turned into monosodium glutamate (MSG). This means that people with MSG sensitivities will likely react to whey protein. To avoid this, you want to purchase whey protein produced using a cold filtering process. Also you’ll want to look for a whey protein from cows fed heavier grass as a source for their milk, such as those from New Zealand or Argentina. Designs for Health is a good example of that!


Tera’s Whey is a product I used for a bit because of their cold filtering processes, but it’s very expensive. Designs for Health whey comes in a bigger container and I can also get their certificate of analysis pretty easily.


Vital Proteins also makes marine collagen. Marine collagen is great for the skin and nails, but again, you have to be mindful due to issues with arsenic in seafood. If I’m looking to purchase marine collagen, I will go with Vital Nutrients, which is a totally different pharmaceutical-grade brand. However, I do like Whole Body Collagen by Designs for Health or CollaGEN by Orthomolecular because they already include the full mix of collagen with FORTIGEL, which is basically a joint-based collagen.


As far as plant-based products, there are rice and pea-based protein powders. The tricky thing with rice is that arsenic can accumulate in the rice from the soil. So the question is whether or not the company that makes these rice-based products are testing for arsenic. Usually plant-based protein powders are a mixture of rice and peas. because rice and beans are actually a mostly complete protein together.


People will also use hemp proteins as they are an even more complete protein. I can’t really speak to hemp proteins because there are very few pharmaceutical-grade products that actually have hemp proteins. To find a hemp-based protein powder, you can look into nutritional-grade products that have the same process of checking the raw materials before they enter the factory, during the process, and after they’ve been packaged to make sure you’re actually getting what the ingredients label states. Some factors that can affect product quality, and are often missed, are processing with heating and cooling, adding chemicals, etc. These can change the actual constituents within the product or make new constituents. As an example, this happened in the 80’s when many people were sick with pneumonitis from a tryptophan source from Japan. This was a national catastrophe and for over a decade, the United States didn’t get tryptophan from Japan because of this quality issue.


I also tend to use Metagenics products. Metagenics has a pretty good medical-grade product line that is mostly rice, pea and plant-based. Vital Clear is another product by Vital Nutrients, which is also rice, pea, and plant-based. All of these are going to be more pricey than some of your cheaper nutritional grade powders because of the higher quality.


If you’re chemically sensitive or have another sensitivity, be careful with some of the combination products, like the medical-grade foods, because there are more ingredients and it’s therefore more likely that people will react with them. Physician’s Formula has a really good elemental formula for people with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and gut issues. It tastes terrible, but it’s a good source for people with SIBO when you’re trying to do a nutritional fast.


If you’re looking for an inexpensive product, you can certainly find them on Amazon. I’ve personally learned the hard way that you get what you pay for. I’ve personally experienced issues with lead contamination from some teas and my lead and aluminum levels actually went up after drinking it. However, a well-sourced protein powder can be a healthful addition to a quality diet.

Since 2010, Richmond Integrative and Functional Medicine has been helping people to restore their health and hope with an integrative approach to conventional and alternative medicine that’s entirely science-backed. We at RIFM believe everyone is made for health. We offer a comprehensive, in-person patient membership program to ensure you get access to the care you need to thrive.


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