People have been using protein powders for years and the protein powder market continues to grow. We are able to choose between animal-based or plant-based, flavored or un-flavored, and what seems like endless amounts of other options. They are used in recipes, in shakes, for pre- and post-workouts; it seems as if protein powder is always deemed appropriate. But is your protein powder safe? Let’s dive in.
Whole Foods First
In the 131 Method we always encourage a foods-first approach. When you have the option to use a whole food instead of a powder, we encourage choosing the whole food. Not only will you be getting the protein from the food, we’ll also get all of the other nutrients that are naturally a part of that food.
Let’s talk protein shakes or smoothies, which tend to be the most common ways of consuming protein powder. Some whole foods you can use to replace a powder include bone broth, greek yogurt or kefir (if dairy is tolerated), seeds like hemp or chia, even nuts or nut butters. These are some of the protein-rich foods that blend well into smoothies or shakes while also packing in their own respective nutrients and health benefits too.
Choosing a Powder
If you are set on using a protein powder but want to ensure you do it safely, read on. Navigating the protein powder world is tricky with all of the potentials for hazardous health choices. There are many options when choosing a protein source, but for the purpose of this article the focus will be on whey, gelatin, soy, rice, and pea protein. Regardless of whether you choose an animal-based protein or opt for plant-based, the quality of our source matters! You can always check the rating of your powders on www.labdoor.com
If choosing a plant-based protein it is important to consider potential harmful contamination. Plants must grow in soil and when we are consuming it in powder form, we are also consuming a concentrated form of contaminants if they were present in the soil. This makes the quality of the soil and the use of pesticides important factors to consider when choosing a brand.
In 2018 an analysis was conducted on 134 of the top selling protein powder products to test for powder contamination. The results showed 70 percent of the protein powders were contaminated with detectable levels of lead, 74 percent with cadmium, and arsenic was identified as well (1). In addition to the heavy metals, 55 percent of the powders had detectable levels of the toxin Bisphenol A (BPA) (1). Of those powders, the organic samples had 40 percent less BPA compared to the non-organic samples (1). To avoid contaminated plant-based protein powders look for reputable brands with third party testing or certifications like USDA Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified.
Whether we are choosing whole animal products or animal-derived protein powders, we want to hold both choices to the same high standards. As we discuss in-depth in the 131 Method, the quality of our animal products makes a huge difference in its effects on our health. Both whey and gelatin protein are derived from cow, therefore the cow’s environment will impact the quality of the powders as it would dairy or a cut of beef. If the cow is given genetically modified (GMO) corn feed, mistreated, or exposed to harmful substances this will impact the milk and therefore the whey and gelatin powders.
To maximize the quality of these powders, look for grass-finished proteins. By choosing grass-finished you are ensuring the cow was fed a grass and pasture diet. The less junk the animal eats, the less junk in your protein powder. You also want to look for organic certifications to ensure the protein was sourced from cows that were not treated with antibiotics, growth hormones, or other synthetic drugs.
Just as with other foods, protein powders are subject to labels that are simply buzzwords to catch the consumer’s attention. Therefore it is important to understand some key differences when scanning your options. The term “organic” is highly regulated, whereas the term “natural” is not. Many people assume a label that claims the product is “natural” is healthier, but truthfully there is little government regulation of the term and does not reflect whether pesticides or antibiotics were used (2). Whereas the “organic” label requires government regulation and means the food was produced without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, GMOs, and ionizing radiation.
For consumers who are conscious of sugar intake, it is important to understand the difference between “sugar-free” and “unsweetened” labels. The term “sugar-free” can be used if the product contains less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving. The sugar number includes naturally occurring sugars derived from fruit, milk sugars, honey, and so forth. But “sugar-free” can still be used if the product contains artificial sweeteners, regardless of amount (2). If you try to avoid your intake of artificial sweeteners, this is something noteworthy. The term “unsweetened” on the other hand means that the powder contains no added sugars or artificial sweeteners. “Unsweetened” may still contain sugars that occur naturally, for example if it is a whey protein there will be naturally occurring sugar due to the natural lactose content of the milk.
Picking Your Protein
This is where your choice of protein gets truly individualized depending on your intentions for incorporating the powder into your diet. People may use the powder as a protein-booster for a dish or as the sole protein source of the meal, influencing the gram amount of protein to seek. Regardless of whether you are choosing a protein with 15 grams or 25 grams of protein per scoop, it is important to understand the differences in amino acid profiles.
The amino acid profile of a powder will typically be listed on the container alongside the nutrition facts label and the ingredient list. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and are classified as essential or nonessential. Nonessential means they can be made by our body, in comparison to essential amino acids which must be consumed through diet. There are 20 amino acids that play critical roles in the body, nine that are essential (eight of which the adult body needs) and 11 nonessential.
Animal-based products are categorized as complete proteins because they contain all of the essential amino acids. Whereas the majority, not all, of plant-based products are considered incomplete proteins because they may contain too little of at least one of the essential amino acids. It is outdated to think that we need to have complete proteins at each meal. We now know that if we have an incomplete protein at one meal, we can make up for those missing amino acids by eating a variety of protein sources throughout the rest of the day. More important than the amino acid profile of a meal, is your amino acid intake for the day.
- Unique Benefit: Quickly digested protein, making it popular following resistance and endurance exercise
- Types: Concentrate: retains some lactose; Isolate: most lactose is lost during processing
- Unique Benefit: *Contains glycine and proline
- Types: Gelatin is the cooked form of collagen
- Unique Benefit: One of the few plant-based complete proteins
- Types: Concern with soy protein coming from GMO-sources and possible hormone disturbance (varies per individual)
- Unique Benefit: Tends to be easier to digest in comparison to other protein sources
- Types: Isolate: highest protein concentration; Concentrate: slightly lower protein, may have fat and carbohydrates
- Unique Benefit: A great hypo-allergenic protein option
- Types: Normally derived from brown rice
Avoid The Junk
Not unlike other packaged foods, it is important to be wary of junky and unnecessary ingredients that are often put into protein powders. The best way to guarantee no unhealthy ingredients is by choosing powders that include only one ingredient, the protein source itself. These will most likely all be unflavored products. Another advantage of choosing a tasteless powder is that it becomes a much more versatile ingredient to use in combination with other food ingredients.
If flavored protein powder is necessary for you, be aware of the sweeteners used to flavor the product. Common sweeteners used include: varieties of syrup, stevia, monk fruit, sugar alcohols, and other artificial sweeteners. Sugar amounts can add up quickly and if using the powder in something like a fruit smoothie, that is adding even more! In addition, many people’s digestive systems can be sensitive to sugar alcohols in excess and some artificial sweeteners. The solution is scanning the ingredient list to minimize the amount and be selective of the sweeteners used.
Aside from the sugars and sweeteners, there are plenty of other ingredients that are frequently added to the powders. Be aware of what these ingredients intended purposes are and read the ingredient list to compare brands and find the right choice for you.
Gums: most commonly xanthan gum derived from soy or corn. Can cause gastrointestinal distress.
Thickeners: such as dextrin and maltodextrin, processed thickening agents are typically derived from GMO corn or other starches.
Skim milk powders and milk solids: used as bulking agents in lower quality protein powders.
Vegetable oils: used to make the taste richer and creamier, but most often derived from inflammatory oils such as hydrogenated oils or omega 6-rich oils.
Fillers: flours or added fibers like psyllium husk. Fiber of course is not innately bad, but the best type of fiber is obtained from whole foods like fruits and vegetables.
Pros and Cons of Using Them At All
- Convenient to travel and carry
- Fast way to include protein in a meal
- Can choose between plant- or animal-based
- Can incorporate into: smoothies, baked goods, soups, and more.
- May contain harmful pesticides and contaminants
- May contribute to inflammation if poor quality
- May be filled with other unhealthy ingredients
As we already stated, at 131 Method we do encourage whole food sources of protein over protein powders to ensure the most nutrient dense and less risky option. But we also know that certain circumstances make protein powders the best choice. We are very pro individualized nutrition so if that makes sense for YOU, great! Now you know how to choose quality protein source, interpret labels, understand the amino acid profile, and scan the ingredient list for optimal ingredient options.
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