With so many protein powders and supplements available it can be challenging to navigate the marketing labels and find what works best for you and your goals. Using protein supplements is not essential by any means and I always advocate food first. However, protein powders can come in handy for busy schedules or increasing protein and calorie intakes during intense training. They also make deliciously satisfying protein smoothies.
Not all protein powders are created equal, we must remember they are manufactured foods after all. It’s important to choose one that suits your needs, as some people report that certain types can make them bloated, gain weight or retain fluid, particularly if they have intolerances to certain ingredients.
Regardless of what protein you decide on it’s important to ensure it is clean, natural, high-quality, un-denatured and free from GMO, added sugar, chemicals and additives. Check the ingredient label and nutrition panel first: – is it low in sugar? Do you recognize the ingredients? (often the less the better). Is it filled with other “supplements”? Do the macronutrients fit your needs?
What type of protein?
• Whey: A by-product of milk and cheese manufacturing, whey is a good source of protein with optimal concentrations of essential amino acids, particularly leucine. Whey is fast digesting and great for post-workout shakes. Whey protein concentrate retains some lactose, but whey protein isolate contains very little because most of the lactose is lost during processing. Something to consider is you are intolerant. Whey has been studied and shown to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and increase and maintain muscle mass.
• Casein: The semi-solid “curd” protein of milk. Casein is a very slow digesting protein as it forms a gel in the stomach (which can cause inflammation, bloating and stomach upset in some people and may affect absorption of other nutrients). It is not as good at stimulating protein synthesis as whey, as the amino acids slowly absorb into the bloodstream. However, it is useful for reducing muscle breakdown and as such is often consumed at night.
• Plant-Based proteins: There are several good options including brown rice, pea, alfalfa, chia, hemp, flaxseed, artichoke and quinoa. The best choice are rice and pea protein blends, which make a complete protein source (providing all essential amino acids). This is an excellent plant-based option, extremely hypoallergenic and provides other important nutrients such as fiber and B vitamins. It is the closest plant-based protein to whey in terms of essential amino acid score. Studies have also shown its effectiveness in stimulating muscle protein synthesis.
• Soy: A good option for vegans and dairy or lactose intolerant. Soy protein powder has a moderate digestion and absorption speed (neither fast or slow). Several studies debate on whether soy consumption effects hormones due to the phytoestrogen activity. Something to be aware of.
• Egg white powder: A great source of easy to digest essential amino acids including a high leucine content, making it another good option for those avoiding dairy, soy and gluten. It is quite fast absorbing and may not make you feel as satiated as a plant-based protein.
• Collagen: Usually derived from beef gelatin therefore not suitable for vegans/vegetarians. Collagen is very different to other proteins, as it is used by the body to build connective tissue including in joints, ligaments and muscle tissue. It is limited in some essential amino acids, however don’t let that turn you away. There is very interesting new research on the effectiveness of collagen peptides in gaining strength and building muscle. Worth the research.
Some protein powders have added carbohydrates (such as mass gainers), others have small amounts of fats added (such as MCTs), and these all have a purpose depending on your goals (i.e. muscle gain or fat burning).
What should I look for on the label?
1. Dextrins/Maltodextrins: Added as fillers to bulk it out, improve taste, texture and mixability. In some powders, high amounts are added to increase carbs (e.g. mass gainers) and this will raise glycemic load as they are fast absorbing carbs. It can cause gastrointestinal distress (bloating, flatulence, etc.) in some people as they are often made from processed GMO corn or wheat.
2. Artificial sweeteners: Look for a protein powder that uses natural sweeteners (Stevia or natural flavours). Avoid sucralose, splenda (955), aspartamine, equal, NutraSweet (951), saccharin (954) and xylitol. These have been associated with health issues and can cause headaches, migraines, bloating, acid reflux and weight gain.
3. Skim milk powders/milk solids: These are cheap bulking agents often used in low quality powers. They are highly processed and high in lactose sugars which can cause bloating and other gastrointestinal upset, particularly if you have a lactose or dairy intolerance.
4. Vegetable oils/fats: These are used to improve the taste and texture. They are high in inflammatory omega-6 fats and often come from hydrogenated sources that contain trans fats. Trans fats have been linked to several negative health effects.
5. Thickeners/gums: Most protein powders contain thickeners or gums for mixability, which often come from natural sources such as xanthan gum, guar gum, flaxseed powder, psyllium, artichoke fiber and inulin. They digest fine for some people however, some people find they cause bloating, gas or constipation particularly if you are highly susceptible to digestive issues, on a low FODMAPS diet, or have poor gut health or gut bacteria imbalances such as SIBO and yeast infections.
6. Fillers: Fillers are used to bulk up the powder or for mixability. Lecithin or soy lecithin is a common one used (you will notice this on a lot of processed and packaged foods), which is made from a waste product from manufacturing of soy oil. This is one to avoid if you have a soy allergy or avoiding soy. Sometimes fillers are natural such as coconut flour or psyllium and usually don’t pose a problem unless you have an intolerance or allergy.
7. Gluten: If you have a gluten intolerance or have decided to go gluten free, check to see if the label states gluten free. It can be tricky at times as gluten can be hidden in other listed ingredients such as dextrin or glucose made from wheat (usually stated on the label).
Hydrolyzed, Isolate or Concentrate?
• Concentrate: The protein is extracted from a whole food using heat and acid or enzymes. They typically contain about 60–80% protein, with the remaining 20–30% of calories from fat and carbs (e.g. whey concentrate would contain naturally occurring lactose (carbs) and milk fat).
• Isolate: Further filtering occurs to remove most of the fat and carbs. Protein isolate powders contain about 90–95% protein.
• Hydrolyzed: These go through further heating with acid or enzymes to break the bonds between amino acids. This means they are more quickly and easily digested and absorbed in the body.
The take home message is to do some research and read the nutrition panel and ingredient list carefully, rather than just the marketing labels.