If you were taking protein powder before you got pregnant, it’s normal to wonder if you can continue to take it during pregnancy, and whether it’s safe or beneficial for you or your baby.
Protein powder can be safe during pregnancy, but choose ‘clean’ powders without additives such as sugar, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and other chemicals. A better way of increasing your protein intake during pregnancy is by eating a variety of quality, protein-rich foods instead.
The way protein powder is regulated differs from country to country, and the ingredients in something labeled “protein powder” can also vary wildly.
This guide should give you an understanding of the regulations in your country and to help you make an informed decision when deciding whether to take it when pregnant.
Be aware that a lot of the current information on protein powder during pregnancy comes from companies that sell it. This doesn’t mean their advice is necessarily wrong, but it may not be objective.
Country Regulations on Protein Powders
In the USA, protein powder is regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), but it’s classed as a food or dietary “supplement”.
This means that it’s not regulated in the same way as food, and it’s down to the protein powder manufacturers themselves to evaluate the safety and labeling of the powder (source: FDA).
In the UK and EU – it’s a similar set up, where protein powder companies are trusted to produce a safe product. One UK parenting website quoted a nutritionist advising that protein powder was not recommended in pregnancy, because many women already have sufficient protein in their diet, and consuming a powder may mean getting too much (1).
The European Food Safety Authority specifically investigated a proposed whey protein powder, and noted it was likely to be safe as a food, but only if the dosage and directions were followed (source: ESFA).
In Australia and New Zealand, protein powders usually fall under section 2.9.4 of the Food Standards Code covering sports supplements. The code says that all such supplements should have a warning on the label, advising those who are pregnant to avoid use (source: AU Govt).
The law in Australia is undergoing a review and supplements may be more tightly controlled soon, but this as yet is unconfirmed (source: Dynamic Business).
In Canada, the Natural and Non-prescription Health Products Directorate (NNHPD) means that regulation is better controlled, and any products that have been authorized for sale and considered safe in Canada will have a code on the label (source: Canada Health).
However, you should still bear in mind that many supplements for sale in Canada are imported or shipped from the USA, where they may not be regulated in the same way.
Is Protein Powder Safe During Pregnancy?
If a protein powder is ‘clean’, without many added ingredients, then it’s likely safe during pregnancy, but that doesn’t mean that you should definitely take it, and not without consulting your healthcare provider first.
There are a few reasons why you might want to reconsider taking it during pregnancy.
The first is that there are currently no scientific trials or studies on the long-term effects of taking it, even if you’re not pregnant (source: Harvard Health).
One of the biggest concerns is that you are relying on the manufacturer, and have to trust that that what they’re saying on the label is accurate. Many protein powders contain added ingredients, including artificial sweeteners, sugars, thickeners or artificial flavors – some of which may not be safe during pregnancy.
Some ‘added ingredients’ include vitamins or minerals. At first, this sounds like a benefit, but the quality of an extract or vitamin can also vary.
Unless you pay careful attention to your intake, taking a prenatal vitamin and having a fortified protein powder might mean you end up taking too much of one or more nutrients. This includes essential nutrients that are usually ‘good’ during pregnancy, like DHA.
You can have ‘too much of a good thing’, and high dosages of normally safe vitamins can be harmful in pregnancy. For example, vitamin A is essential but can be harmful in larger amounts (source: National Institute of Health).
This is why, in general, pregnant women are told to avoid food or dietary supplements not intended specifically for pregnancy.
Types of Protein Powder and their Pregnancy Safety
The protein source used to make protein powders can vary. Common proteins used for making powders or protein shakes are:
There is nothing directly harmful in any of the above sources of protein during pregnancy, so it comes down to personal preference, or whether you’re following a vegan or vegetarian diet.
When it comes to protein powder during pregnancy, what’s more important is to choose a clean protein powder without additives. However, not all powders are ‘clean’ even when they’re labeled as such.
In 2018 The Clean Label Project tested over 130 commercial best-selling protein powders in the US. They found that many of them were contaminated with harmful substances such as lead (75% of those tested), Cadmium (74%), and BPA (55%) (Source: CLP White Paper).
Surprisingly, organic and plant-based protein powders (often marketed as vegan or vegetarian protein powders) tended to contain more contaminants than alternatives such as egg-based ones, too (source: CLP).
Soy Protein Powder During Pregnancy
The only protein powder you may wish to avoid is soy protein, as soy protein (also called soy protein isolate) contains phytoestrogens, which mimic estrogen in the body (source: PubMed).
Its full effect, if any, on pregnancy is unknown, so it’s better to avoid large amounts of soy protein until more studies come to light.
Protein Sources From Food Instead of Powder
The upshot of this is that it’s better to get your protein from a variety of high quality food sources during pregnancy, rather than from a powder or supplement. Thankfully protein is usually quite easy for most of us to add to our balanced diet.
When you’re pregnant, your protein needs are approximately 75 – 100g a day (source: APA).
Examples of good protein food sources include:
- Low mercury fish
- Hard-boiled or otherwise fully cooked eggs
- Nuts and seeds
- Beans / Legumes (e.g. chickpeas, lentils)
- Lean, quality meat (e.g. grass-fed beef or pasture-raised chicken)
Although protein is essential in a healthy pregnancy, there’s no benefit to you or your baby from taking a higher dose of protein than you need (source: Cochrane Systematic Review).
When You Need Protein Powders To Supplement Your Diet
Of course there may be reasons why you have to fall back on protein powder as a food supplement during pregnancy.
These reasons may include:
- If you’re suffering from extreme nausea or morning sickness and a protein shake is one of the things you’re able to tolerate
- If you’re vegan or vegetarian and use powders to supplement your protein intake
- If you have intolerances, allergies or other dietary needs that mean you can’t eat many other protein sources
In these cases, choose a sugar-free quality powder without added ingredients.
Which Protein Powder is the Best for Pregnant Women?
Since everyone’s nutritional needs are different, there is no single ‘best’ protein powder for pregnant women, and you should always contact your healthcare provider before adding supplements to your healthy diet.
If you need to use it for one of the reasons stated earlier in this article, then you’ll need to know what to look for when shopping around for a quality protein powder.
Some tips are:
- Choose a sugar-free / no added sugar version. Bear in mind that it’s not always listed as ‘sugar’ on the label, it could be a natural sweetener or another form. Flavored protein powders almost always have a lot of sugar in them. Look at the carbohydrate content as another way of checking for sugars, even if they’re ‘natural’.
- Avoid any additives, even ones that look ‘good’ like vitamins and minerals. If you’re also taking a prenatal vitamin then you could easily take too much of any one nutrient, vitamin or mineral without realizing.
- Opt for protein powders without preservatives, thickeners, ‘stabilizers’ or other similar added ingredients. Some of these are controversial and best avoided, such as carrageenan or soy lethicin and isolate.
- Remember “100% natural” doesn’t mean 100% safe.
- A good tip is to choose brands that have additional certification. A good starting place is the Clean Label Project, who check for contaminants, and the “Certified for Sport” label from NSF, who also check the ingredients of certain brands.
Many pregnant women frequently want to check one particular brand of protein powder, asking if it’s pregnancy-safe. Here are the most popular ones queried:
At the time of writing, none of the above brands make a protein powder that doesn’t have at least some added ingredients.
That’s not to say they’re unsafe – in fact, some of the manufacturers explicitly state on their site that their products are suitable for pregnant women, but you may want to read the label of each flavor or formulation before deciding if it’s for you.
Brands of “Clean” Powder with No Added Ingredients
After searching through dozens of protein powders, I managed to put together a shortlist of them that only contain minimal ingredients and scored highly on the Clean Label Project’s review of protein powders.
This is not a recommendation or endorsement of the following products since everyone’s dietary needs vary, but this should save you the trouble of reading loads of ingredient labels and help you make an informed choice.
If you’re vegan or just want something with one single ingredient, then Now Foods make a protein powder made solely from peas, and have both an organic and non-organic version. The single ingredient is pea protein, and that’s it.
Jay Robb’s Unflavored Egg Protein (view it on Amazon) only contains sunflower (not soy) lethicin and flash-pasteurized egg white powder, and nothing else.
Jarrow Formula’s Unflavored Whey Protein is similar and it only contains sunflower lethicin and whey protein derived from milk. View it on their site.
Is Homemade Protein Powder Safe When Pregnant?
The other option besides buying (often expensive) branded products is, of course, to make protein powder yourself – that way, you’ll know what’s in it, and have more control over the ingredients.
Homemade protein powder is usually safe in pregnancy, but the considerations about not consuming too much protein are the same.
There’s no hard and fast rule about what to put into a homemade protein powder, but common ingredients are:
- Toasted and ground nuts
- Seeds and legumes
- Dried milk powder (some people add this for texture)
- Ground oats or rice
There are plenty of recipes around, on both blogs and Youtube. Here’s a popular nut-based one from Fusion Cooking:
Overall, if you need to use protein powder for dietary reasons or you just want a protein shake from time to time, then look for the highest quality, cleanest protein powder you can – and be mindful of how much protein and other additives you’re really getting.
You may also be interested in: