The question almost seems like the result of a dare between fatigued grad students: What if we took chicken feathers, which are 90 percent protein by weight, and turned them into some kind of weird, delicious protein drink? What would happen?
There’s actually an answer-and it might benefit you in the saddle.
Researchers from Massey University’s School of Sport, Exercise and Nutrition in New Zealand wanted to look at the potential sports performance effect of keratin-a fibrous protein with a good amino acid profile that makes up the outer layers of human skin, as well as the horns, hooves, claws, and hair of numerous animals. That’s why you’ll often see keratin as a hair treatment.
Lead researcher Stephen Stannard, Ph.D., told Bicycling that they found a company that owned the intellectual property rights for a specific processing technique involving chicken feathers, a rich source of keratin that’s cheap and easily obtained.
After determining that the feathers were actually palatable and safe to consume-thanks to a hydrolyzing process, which uses water to break down compounds-they recruited 15 male cyclists for the study, and gave them either the keratin protein in both shake and protein-bar form, or the same made of standard casein protein. Each cyclist received 0.8 grams of protein per 2.2 pounds of bodyweight.
After four weeks of regular consumption-along with their exercise training-researchers found that while the keratin protein group didn’t experience any significant changes in total body mass or percentage of body fat, they did show a greater increase in leg lean body mass than the casein group.
According to Stannard, the researchers aren’t sure what to attribute this change to, but there are some clues that may explain it.
“It could be related to the high levels of sulfur amino acids in the hydrolyzed keratin,” he said. “One ideas we have is that it ‘spares’ the non-protein amino acid taurine, making this more available for other processes.” One such process may be muscle building, since taurine helps repair muscle damage caused by exercise.
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He added that future studies could give a more definitive answer, but he is able to confrim now that the concoction didn’t taste well, feathery.
“Not at all,” said Stannard. “The supplement we gave was much like any other protein powder because we put some flavor like chocolate and vanilla in with a sweetener. This is no different to isolated whey or soy protein-based supplements. It did have a very slightly ‘waxy’ texture in the mouth, but this was not rated as bad by the study participants.”
Indeed, he adds, some of them preferred it over their usual dairy-based supplements.
Unfortunately, they can’t re-stock their supply, and it will be a while before the general public can give it a try, since the keratin powder was created only for the research. Until chicken feathers make it to the mainstream protein aisle, you can stick to regular protein powders, like whey or plant-based forms, or whole foods that can help you recover after a hard workout.
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