Is your protein powder brimming with the raw, organic ingredients that will help you glow with good health? Or is it more of a toxic soup of chemical sweeteners and artificial thickeners all served with a light dusting of pesticides?
From sucralose and soy to an alphabet of heavy metals, it’s time to dish the dirt on the not-so-clean ingredients that may be lurking in your shaker cup. We’ll shine a light on some of the undesirable nasties of the plant-based protein powder world - and let you know the steps you can take to avoid them.
What to avoid: Soy
In their organic, wholefood form, soybeans are a healthy source of protein with a superb amino acid profile. By the time the beans are processed to make your protein shake? Not so much. The kind of highly refined, isolated soy you’ll find in protein powders is normally genetically modified and likely to be sprayed with a herbicide called Roundup, known to have adverse health consequences.
But that’s not all. Ingesting large amounts of soy (like in three delicious protein shakes per day) can affect the way you absorb important minerals such as zinc, iron, calcium and magnesium. The phytic acid in soy is called an ‘anti-nutrient’ because it binds to these minerals and removes them from the body. But it also does this with amino acids, meaning you may be getting far less usable protein than you think.
What to look for instead: Protein powder made from pea or hemp - or both!
If you’d prefer your vegan protein powder soy free, it’s time to give peas a chance. While organic is always best, even non-organic peas fix nitrogen into the soil, reducing the need for fertilisers. And, unlike soybeans, peas are not currently genetically modified for herbicide resistance.
Blending pea with hemp makes sure you get a full amino acid profile along with all that clean protein. You can even choose a pea and hemp blend that’s fortified with extra branched chain amino acids such as PERFORM Raw Plant Protein & BCAA.
What’s really better for your health? Read our guide to soy vs pea vegan protein powder here
What to avoid: Sweeteners
Does the ingredient label on your protein powder include the words ‘sucralose’ or ‘aspartame’? Better give that shake a swerve. Recent research suggests that sucralose may be damaging to our gut microbiomes, while aspartame is one of the most controversial food additives in the world, being linked to everything from headaches to depression.
What to look for instead: Vegan protein powder without sweeteners
If you want a vegan protein powder without sucralose or aspartame, it’s worth checking what it is sweetened with instead. Even the more natural-sounding sugar alcohols such as xylitol can have certain adverse side effects on your digestion.
At Vivo Life we sweeten our protein powders with stevia - a herb that’s been used safely for centuries. It’s FODMAP friendly and doesn’t upset your stomach if you’re sensitive to sugar alcohols - something that will be particularly important if you’ve ever experienced the horror of eating one too many xylitol-laden muffins at work.
What to avoid: Heavy metals
Prefer your plant-based protein heavy metal-free? Um, same! A 2018 study by the Clean Label Project showed that an extensive range of popular vegan protein powders had ‘alarming levels’ of cadmium, lead and mercury.
Heavy metals are found in the soil in areas that rely on pesticide use. These can build up in our cells and have been linked to problems with the nervous system, heart and brain.
What to look for instead: Protein powders that are third-party tested for contaminants
How do you know if your protein powder is third-party tested for heavy metals? The manufacturer will shout about it on the label. Shockingly, there’s no industry requirement that protein powders are batch tested for pesticides or heavy metals. But at Vivo Life, we go to great lengths and expense to test all our products, for our own peace of mind as well as yours!
First, we use only organic ingredients from trusted suppliers. We test all our raw materials at source for pesticides AND we get the final product batch-tested by an independent third party.
We’re so proud of our results that we share them on our website. Here is a copy of our most recent heavy metal tests so you can see them for yourself.
What to avoid: Xanthan gum
What does ice cream, salad dressing and wallpaper paste have in common? They all contain xanthan gum, and unless you choose wisely, so will your plant based protein powder. This common food additive makes things sticky, gloopy and creamy and although it’s thought to be safe for consumption, that doesn’t make it a healthy choice - and it may even sabotage your protein goals.
Xanthan gum is a soluble fibre that your body cannot break down. Instead, it absorbs water to become a gel-like substance once it reaches your digestive system, slowing down your ability to absorb micronutrients, as well as all that lovely protein.
What to look for instead: Vegan protein powder without xanthan gum
All the protein powders we sell at Vivo Life are free of xanthan gum - and that’s good news for your digestive system. Not only does the sticky stuff inhibit the amount of protein you’ll absorb, studies show that excess use of xanthan gum can have a laxative effect!
Read more about how you absorb protein with our ultimate guide to protein powder.
What to avoid: Lactose
Whey is by far the most popular powdered protein on the market. But if you have any sensitivity to dairy, why isn't the right choice for you. Full of concentrated lactose, not only will it give you all the same digestive issues, it’s also not suitable for vegans, or those avoiding milk because of fears that it’s contaminated with antibiotics and hormones.
What to look for instead: Protein powders free from common allergens
When it comes to protein powders, any intolerances or allergies make themselves known pretty quickly so look out for any changes in your digestion, or even your complexion. Both soy and lactose are common culprits when it comes to sensitivities. You can avoid this by choosing a plant-based protein source that is naturally allergen free, such as pea.
What to avoid: Sugar
Cheaper protein powders can be loaded with sugar to help them taste nice - not ideal if you wanted to avoid carbs, you’re a diabetic or you’re looking to reduce your body fat. You’ll need to use your detective skills to scrutinise the nutritional labels carefully to make sure you’re actually getting a plant based protein that’s low in sugar.
What to look for instead: Sugar-free protein powder
PERFORM: Vegan Protein Powder contains no sugar, so it’s even suitable for diabetics. Or try RITUAL: Vegan Protein Powder which has just 1.9g of carbs in each serving, making it a convenient way to boost your protein consumption while meeting your nutrition goals.