Protein powder is the biggest selling supplement on the planet.
The market is saturated with hundreds of brands each claiming to be the best – but how many of them really live up to the promises?
Sadly, no matter how sexy the packaging or how high the protein content, there’s some murky goings on in the world of protein powder. Questionable ingredients and artificial additives on the label are one thing, but in reality, that’s just the beginning.
Before you whip up your next protein shake, it’s worth taking a closer look at exactly what’s going into it – and the effects it could be having on your body.
Is your protein powder actually doing you more harm than good? Here are some important things to look out for.
3 steps to choosing your protein powder
Step 1: What is the protein source?
The most important place to start when checking out a protein powder is to see exactly where the protein is coming from.
There are many different protein sources on the market today, but not all are created equal! In fact, the two BEST SELLING protein sources on the market are two of the worst offenders.
Whey protein, for instance, is very difficult to digest for many people. It's the reason you'll often find yourself bloated or uncomfortable shortly after a whey protein shake.
It's estimated that 65% of the human population suffer from some degree of lactose intolerance. Lactose is a sugar that we find in milk, from which whey is derived. On top of that, you have the artificial hormones and antibiotics that are used in modern day dairy production. These hormones find their way directly into the whey protein, which in turn find their way directly into your body.
The high levels of artificial hormones in modern day milk production is the reason so many people suffer from breakouts, mood swings and hormonal disruptions when drinking whey protein. And these are just the problems that reach the surface!
Soy is a known endocrine disruptor, which has been shown to cause potentially serious hormonal disruptions in both men and women. Soy also contains high levels of phytic acid, an 'anti-nutrient' which binds to and removes important minerals such as calcium, magnesium and zinc from the body.
Phytic acid also reduces the assimilation of amino acids; so despite the high protein content on the label, the presence of phytic acid means that your body is actually absorbing much less than you think.
Plant proteins like rice and pea are a better choice, but even these aren't perfect!
Brown rice protein:
Brown rice protein, for instance, is also very high in phytic acid. Phytic acid is notoriously difficult to digest, which is why many people feel bloated or sluggish after consuming cheap brown rice protein (or brown rice in general). To avoid this problem, brown rice protein must be sprouted and / or fermented before consuming to remove the phytic acid content.
The majority of companies who use brown rice protein do not sprout or ferment it because it is much more expensive to do so; but as a result, they are left with a protein that doesn't deliver the results it should be.
This is a great protein source, but conventional pea protein is processed at high heat which can denature the amino acids. More on this in step 2.
What you should be looking for
When choosing your protein powder, look for a plant protein that is raw and minimally processed. If it is a grain or seed based protein (such as brown rice or pumpkin seed) then it should be sprouted or fermented to ensure it is digestible.
Cold pressed hemp protein, bio-fermented pea protein, and sprouted brown rice protein are all examples of what you should be looking for.
Step 2: Has the protein been heated?
Excessive heat when protein powders are manufactured can denature amino acids and make them difficult to absorb.
For example: lysine and tryptophan, two essential amino acids, are denatured at heat above 110F. This means that your body cannot process them as effectively as when they are in their raw state.
Proteins exposed to excessive levels of heat are much more difficult to absorb and convert into amino acids - thus making them much less beneficial to your body,
Furthermore, heating can also oxidise volatile fatty acids (especially in proteins such as hemp and whey) which are especially sensitive to heat. It may sometimes seem cheaper to opt for non-cold processed / non raw protein powders. But the less you can actually absorb, the less value for money you are actually getting.
What you should be looking for
For get the most out of your protein powder, always look for the words 'raw' or 'cold processed' on the label.
Step 3: Read the label!
Always check the label to find out what's really going on in your protein powder! Many protein powders on the market today contain questionable ingredients that are actually doing more harm than good. Here are a few you should be looking out for:
Soy lecithin is an emulsifying agent that is made by “degumming” crude soya bean oil until the lecithin (a cell membrane) is separated from the oil, before it is dried and often bleached using hydrogen peroxide.
I touched on the health risks of soy earlier, so keep an eye out to make sure there is none being slipped into your product without you realising.
Maltodextrin is a cheap bulking agent made from genetically modified corn, commonly used as a ‘filler’ in protein powders. If you see this ingredient, it is a sure-fire sign that the manufacturer is trying to cut costs by packing out their product with cheap ingredients.
Aspartame / Sucralose:
To keep the sugar content down, companies often resort to using artificial sweeteners such as aspartame or sucralose; but just because they are ‘sugar free,’ doesn’t automatically make them healthy.
Aspartame consumption has been linked to the formation of brain tumours, brain cell degeneration, and memory loss; whilst sucralose has been shown to alter gut flora and increase intestinal permeability in animal models (no equivalent tests have yet been carried out on humans) and can also weaken insulin sensitivity.
The words ‘flavour’ or ‘flavouring’ on a label translates to ‘artificial flavouring’ – as by law, the manufacturers do not have to put the word ‘artificial’ in the ingredients list. If you are choosing a flavoured protein powder, look for 'natural flavouring' on the label to ensure it is a chemical free flavour.
Also, look at the position of an ingredient on the label. Many companies use certain ingredients as 'buzzwords' to sell the product, but do not include enough of a functional dose to actually make a difference.
By law, manufacturers have to write their ingredients' list from highest to lowest. So the highest ingredient is first in the list, with the lowest ingredient last.
The lower down the list the ingredient, the less there is in the product. If one of the biggest selling points of your protein powder is listed near the bottom of the list, ask the manufacturer how much they use and whether you are getting a functional dose.
Can you see and taste the ingredient in action? If your protein shake contains supergreens like hemp, spirulina and chlorella, does it go green when you mix it? Each ingredient should be there for it's nutritional or performance value - not just to make more sales.
What you should be looking for
Look for a clean ingredients list free from artificial additives, fillers and bulking agents. If you are choosing a flavoured option, keep an eye out for artificial flavourings and choose protein powders sweetened with stevia wherever possible.
Step 4: Why are you using it?
If you’re training hard or playing sports on a regular basis, a high quality protein powder can be an excellent way to give your muscles that extra fuel they need to recover from your workouts.
They can also be added to your recipes as a way to bump up the protein content and keep you satisfied for longer. But when protein powders start to replace real food, it’s time to take a step back.
Whole foods should always be prioritised, with protein powders considered as a supplement to a healthy diet – only if and when you need them. By all means, have one after a workout, but don’t skip a healthy, nutrient dense lunch in favour of a protein shake.
Quality vs Quantity
Are you over consuming poor quality protein?
Be cautious of cheap oversized protein bags and unnecessarily high amounts of protein per scoop. Consuming poor quality, hard to digest proteins such as these may well be doing you more harm than good.
Remember, the protein industry has massively over-hyped daily protein requirements in order to drive sales of their products. The human body can only assimilate so much protein each day – any more is just wasted money and unnecessary strain on your digestive system.
More does not always equal better. Protein quality should be your number one priority.
What we're doing about it
Here at Vivo we were so underwhelmed with the quality of protein powders on the market that we decided to create our own. PERFORM Raw Plant Protein & BCAA is a 100% plant-based protein powder that is great for your health, tastes incredible and delivers epic results.
We spent months on end researching the best ingredients, and testing our formula to ensure we created the very best protein powder on the planet today that ticks all the right boxes for health and performance.