Fancy health-foodie types and fitness bloggers are whipping whey protein powder—not to mention pea protein, soy protein, and the like—into all kinds of foods these days. This is the era of smoothie bowls, protein-powder pancakes, and protein balls.
This isn't new. But you've probably also heard some heated debates over whether extreme temps (high and low) can damage the quality of your protein powder, thereby reducing its ability to help you build muscle (and maybe even wasting money in the process).
So we asked Marni Sumbal, R.D., C.S.S.D., L.D./N., owner of Trimarni Coaching and Nutrition, whether or not your kitchen ingenuity with protein powder might actually be a misguided attempt to get more protein into your diet.
Will freezing protein powder ruin it?
Answer: not really.
"You shouldn't worry about losing nutrients from freezing a smoothie or protein powder and water," Sumbal says. "Freezing overnight should keep the protein intact, but be sure to mix completely before freezing so you have a well-mixed drink when you thaw it out in the fridge," she adds. (Pockets of powder are an unpleasant surprise.)
Bottom line: Even if it's not exactly the same taste and texture, you're still getting the same nutrients.
"The consistency of the drink will be most affected if you make it the night before, then store in the fridge," Sumbal says—especially after thawing at room temperature, in the fridge, or in the microwave. The consistency might not be as smooth and it might slightly alter the taste. "My best advice is to prepare the smoothie ingredients the night before, then blend or shake up in the morning with your liquid and protein powder."
And if you must freeze your muscle-building concoction the night before, then have it thaw while you're in the gym or commuting to work, that's fine for the most part, too. If you're using milk or fruit and veggies, just make sure you freeze immediately (instead of letting it sit around at room temperature) or chill it.
Does cooking denature protein powder, destroying its ability to help you build mass?
"The only time you alter the structure of protein is when you cook it, like incorporating powder in protein pancakes," Sumbal explains. But here's the thing: It doesn't damage the protein."
The process of "denaturing" happens when the shape and structure of your protein's amino acids begin to change. But this is the same for any protein source—eggs, fish, chicken, etc. Your body is still absorbing the same amount of protein, whether you're eating it cooked or not.
More specifically, cooking or heating protein powder at or above 160 degrees Fahrenheit is when whey starts to break down, according to research published in the Journal of Dairy Research. Specifically, direct, long-lasting heat damages "amino acid bioavailability," meaning it your body has a harder time digesting and using the protein.
Whey becomes harder to digest at 167+ degrees Fahrenheit, though whey protein concentrate cooked at 194 degrees Fahrenheit for 5 minutes retained 80% of its solubility. In fact, it takes a lot of heat and time to really beat up the available amino acids in whey protein—250°F for 83 minutes, according to the study, which is probably a lot longer than your typical protein shake session.
To be fair: When you bake or fry food, the oven or pan is almost always hotter than the internal temperature of your food, meaning neither are likely to excessively denature your protein.
A better balance: "Don't always cook your protein powder—instead, opt for a shake every now and then," Sumbal says. Try mixing protein powder into your oatmeal, coffee, smoothie bowls, or shakes.
Check out these 10 creative ways to use protein powder for some more clever ideas.