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The Environmental Impact of Protein Powder Production


Protein powder – the very name has become an integrated part of bodybuilding and gym rat life. It’s the most known food supplement in the world of fitness, along with creatine and gainers. But have you ever wondered how exactly is this magic powder created?

Long gone are the days when only whey protein powders were available. True, it’s still the most common type of protein powder, however, alternatives like soy, pea, and hemp are right behind the frontrunner.

Each of these types is made differently and each creation has a unique impact on our environment. So, let’s take a closer look at the eco-(un)friendliness of protein powders.

A Protein-Packed Punch to the Planet

First, let’s take a closer look at the main ingredients in your favorite tub of gains:

  1. Whey protein
  2. Soy protein
  3. Pea protein
  4. Rice protein

All innocent enough, right? Well, not exactly.

Disclaimer: This article will be purely about environmental impact of protein powder production, here we will not discuss which protein is best for the human body and why.

Whey Protein: A Milky Situation

Whey protein is derived from the watery byproduct of cheese production, and it has a bit of an udder problem. You see, it’s part of the dairy industry. And dairy is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and water pollution.

Cows release methane (yes, from both ends) at a rate that would make any environmentally conscious person shudder. So next time you chug that whey protein shake, remember you’re not just consuming liquid muscle—you’re also partaking in an environment-damaging cocktail.

With that being said, since whey protein is a byproduct, one can argue that it’s actually a benefit to its creation – in other words, by producing whey we are killing two birds with one stone.

And this is technically true. Even if we stopped the creation of whey, the production of cheese and other dairy products would continue, so what’s the point?

I’ll leave that dilemma out there, so each of you can decide whether it’s good or bad.

Soy Protein: The Deforestation Dilemma

Soy protein isn’t any better.

Sorry guys, eco-friendly is not so eco-friendly after all.

While it’s plant-based, it has a shady history with deforestation. The production of soy protein often involves clearing vast swaths of rainforests, displacing countless species, and contributing to climate change.

So, as you sip your soy protein shake, think of it as a delicious deforestation smoothie. Yum!

Pea and Rice Protein: The Lesser of Four Evils?

Pea and rice protein powders are less-known alternatives, and ironically, their impact on our planet’s health is not as damaging as the production of whey or soy protein powders. With that being said, they are definitely not without production problems.

And these problems come in the following forms:

Water and Land Usage

Compared to whey and soy, pea and rice proteins require less water and land to produce.

Peas, for example, are nitrogen-fixing plants, meaning they can convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can use as a nutrient. This reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers, which in turn helps to minimize water pollution and energy consumption.

If you think about it, it’s actually a pretty cool feature. You go peas!

Rice protein, on the other hand, is derived from the bran layer of rice, which is often discarded during the production of white rice. By using a byproduct of another food source, rice protein production can help to reduce waste.

This is actually very similar to whey byproduct, only this one is purely plant-based.

Pesticides and Chemicals

Pea and rice proteins are often produced using fewer pesticides and chemicals than soy and whey proteins. While pesticides can still be used in the production of peas and rice, they typically require less compared to soy, which often relies on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and heavy pesticide use.

However, I’d like to point out that not all pea and rice protein production methods are created equal. Some producers may still utilize large amounts of pesticides and other chemicals.

If this is a big issue for your personal, I’d recommend to research the specific brand and product you’re considering.

Transportation and Carbon Footprint

While the overall carbon footprint of pea and rice protein production is generally lower than that of whey and soy, transportation still plays a role in their environmental impact. It’s crucial to consider where your protein powder is produced and how far it must travel to reach your doorstep. The more local the production, the better for the environment.

Packaging: A Plastic Problem

Yup, it would be a proper environmental article if we didn’t mention plastic in one way or another.

You might’ve thought that a plastic tub housing your precious protein powder was a convenient way to keep your gains fresh. But that plastic is a menace to the environment.

From production to transportation to disposal, plastic contributes to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. And when it ends up in landfills or oceans, it can take centuries to degrade. So next time you unscrew that lid, remember you’re dipping into a tub of environmental regret.

The good news is that a lot of brands have already switched to eco-friendly packages, mostly in form of huge, multi-layered bags. While some of not 100% eco-friendly, it’s definitely better than those big-ass plastic containers.

Shaking Things Up: Time for a Change?

As you can see, there are some huge differences among different types of protein powders and their respective production cycles. Not everything is just about plastics and not everything is just about methane.

I’m looking at you – soy.

The good news is with the most information available to the general public, each of us can make a difference, whether it’s buying your protein in an eco-friendly package, or switching to a different protein powder type altogether.

The choice is yours. Peace out.

Jake Dennon

I am an avid sports enthusiast who has been fortunate enough to train with some of the best athletes and coaches in the world.

As a child, I had a keen interest in martial arts (karate). I've trained with one of the best trainers in my home country.

Moving into my teenage years I tried everything from calisthenics to weight lifting to Taekwondo and everything in between. While I do love all kinds of sports, my passion still lies in martial arts.

The combat sport coaches I have been trained by have also trained some of the top fighters in the industry. All of these brilliant trainers (and all the ones in between) have shown me just how rewarding keeping fit and healthy can be.

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