To drink or not to drink protein powder? That is the question.
After all—it’s good for you…isn’t it?
- Your trainer says you should drink a protein shake within 30-minutes of training.
- Sarah can’t stop talking about Plexus.
- Your favorite breakfast smoothie recipe calls for a scoop of it.
- And you walk down the supplement aisle at the grocery store—only to find yourself completely overwhelmed with tons of different protein brands claiming, “Perfect Protein,” “Boost Metabolism,” and “Build Lean Muscle.”
Protein powder is one of those “gray” areas of nutrition—some people swear by it, other people swear against it. And, with hundreds of product options on shelves nowadays, there with no one simple answer.
In theory, protein powder seems like a good idea. It’s quick. Easy. And makes smoothies taste like Wendy’s Chocolate Frosty’s. But there are several “fine lines” that most consumers are unaware of when it comes to selecting the right formula for them.
Just like no two pancakes are alike (i.e. IHOP Blueberry Pancakes with Aunt Jemima Syrup are different than homemade three-ingredient paleo banana pancakes), not all protein powders are created equal.
Get the facts on How to Choose the Best Clean Protein Powder, as well as my top recommended (gut-loving) protein powder brands on the market to date.
Protein Powder Considerations
Defining “Clean” Powder
For starters, let’s define “clean”—as there are many interpretations of what this word actually means.
Is a food “clean” because its marketing-pitch tells you it’s “clean” (i.e. “Clean,” “Pure,” “Muscle-Building,” “High-in-Protein”) or is a food “clean” because it actually resembles…real food?
Your body was meant to thrive upon real, whole foods. The further away we get from eating foods our bodies were designed to eat, the more (health and digestive) “troubles” we encounter (i.e. leaky gut, inflammation, poor absorption, bloating, indigestible proteins, skin breakouts, allergies, etc.).
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that protein powder is not real. You can’t wander in nature and find protein powder growing in the ground, swimming the sea or walking the land. That said, there are more real options that “do a body” good, and can be excellent options for a snack, breakfast smoothie or simple workout nutrition.
A “clean” (body-and-gut-loving) protein powder is a formula with the least amount of ingredients as possible, and no foreign additives and fillers (i.e. “Birthday Cake” and “Cookies & Cream” may not be your BFF).
In short: “Clean Protein Powder”= “As real as possible.”
What to Look for on the Label
When you look at a nutrition label—on any food—calories and fat grams should generally be the least of concerns. The “real” proof to tell you whether or not a protein powder (or other packaged product) is a “clean” or (more) “real” choice is found in the ingredient label. Here’s what to look for.
- Additives & Fillers
Additives and fillers disrupt your healthy gut flora , wreak havoc on your gut lining and are connected to gas, bloating, loose stools or constipation, gut inflammation, blood sugar oxidative stress, inflammation, and sugar cravings.
Many of the additives and fillers in protein powders are genetically modified organisms, or “GMOs” (i.e. compounds sprayed with pesticides like Roundup, similar to those found in other processed foods like Twinkies, Oreos, Pop-tarts, Snickers Bars, etc.). And other research has also found heavy metals (like arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury) in many popular brands on shelves—including Muscle Milk and MyoPlex
If you see these additive or filler names, steer clear:
- Soy lecithin and Soy
- Natural Flavors & Artificial Flavors (unregulated term, unless sourcing is further explained)
- Silicon Dioxide
- Xanthum Gums (and other gums)
- Sunflower Oil
- Corn Syrup Solids
- Sodium Caseinate
- Mono- & Diglycerides
- Cocoa (Processed With Alkali)
- Peanut Flour
- Acesulfame Potassium
- Fructose (sugar)
- High fructose corn syrup
- Citric Acid
- FD&C Yellow #5 (and other dyes)
- Gums and Gum Blends (Cellulose Gum, Xanthan Gum, Carrageenan)
- Artificial Sweeteners (Sucralose, Aspartame, Erythriol)
- GMO-derived Plant Proteins (pea, flax, chia, etc.)
Exhibit A: IsoPure Zero Carb Protein (Vanilla)
Ingredients: Ion Exchange Whey [Milk] Protein Isolate, Microfiltered Whey [Milk] Protein Isolate, Vitamin/Mineral/Amino Acid Blend, (Taurine, Potassium [As Potassium Chloride], Chloride [As Potassium And Sodium Chloride], Calcium [As Dicalcium Phosphate Dihydrate], Phosphorus [As Dicalcium Phosphate Dihydrate], L-Glutamine, Magnesium [As Magnesium Oxide], Vitamin C [As Ascorbic Acid], Vitamin E [As DL-Alpha Tocopheryl Acetate], Niacin, Zinc [As Zinc Sulfate Dihydrate], Vitamin A [As Palmitate], Pantothenic Acid [As D-Calcium Pantothenate], Vitamin B6 [As Pyridoxine Hydrochloride], Copper [As Amino Acid Chelate], Manganese [As Manganese Sulfate Dihydrate], Riboflavin, Thiamin [As Thiamin Hydrochloride], Folic Acid, Biotin, Iodide [As Potassium Iodide], Chromium [As Amino Acid Chelate], Vitamin K, Molybdenum [As Amino Acid Chelate], Selenium [As Amino Acid Chelate], Vitamin B12), Soy Lecithin, Natural And Artificial Flavors, Xanthan Gum, Sucralose.
Exhibit B: Vega One
Ingredients: Pea protein (GMO), flaxseed (GMO), cocoa powder (processed with alkali), pea starch, organic acacia gum, natural flavor, hemp protein, sacha inchi protein, organic gelatinized maca root, organic broccoli, organic spirulina, organic kale, organic marine algae, dried fruit & vegetable blend (spinach, broccoli, carrot, beet, tomato, apple, cranberry, orange, cherry, blueberry, strawberry, mushroom), chlorella vulgaris, papain, citric acid, beet root (for color), stevia leaf extract, probiotics (bacillus coagulans), dried antioxidant fruit blend (grape seed extract, organic pomegranate, acai, mangosteen, organic goji, organic maqui)
Artificial Sweeteners are additives in a league of their own.
They are in a majority of the protein powders on shelves—also known as: Aspartame/Splenda, Sucralose, Erythritol, and Stevia, and they are what make your “Cookies and Cream” powder taste like “Cookies and Cream.” Nearly 50-percent of U.S. adults consume artificial sweeteners regularly.
Your body sees artificial sweeteners, similar to sugar, invoking a similar blood sugar response. (In fact, research presented at the European Association for the Study of Diabetes, in 2017, found that non-caloric artificial sweeteners could cause metabolic dysfunction in as little as two weeks, similar to blood sugar in type 2 diabetes).
In addition, artificial sweeteners are connected with other not-so-hot side effects, including : nausea, abdominal cramping, blurred vision, dizziness, GI distress, hormone disruption, heart palpitations.
Ideally, reach for unflavored versions of protein powders, or, at the very least, blends with monk fruit or stevia (preferably
Note on Stevia & Erythritol: Stevia and erythritol are often called the “natural” alternatives to sugar and artificial sweeteners. However, with anything: Everything in moderation.In fact, most Stevia sources found in protein powders, bars and “diet” drinks is not the actual “real” version of 100% True Green Leaf Stevia. Many food companies on the “stevia” bandwagon have discovered they can process stevia A LOT cheaper when they extract only the sweetest part of the stevia leaf—leaving the original form of the stevia herb virtually unrecognizable. To date, little research has been conducted about the side effects of stevia, but early studies show that this processed stevia can alter gut flora (similar to other artificial sweeteners ). Although stevia is currently considered the best bet when it comes to artificial sweeteners, it’s important to be aware that regular stevia consumption can lead to uncomfortable bloating, constipation and ongoing “gut issues” in individuals. The most important question to ask yourself: How do I feel?
In addition to additives, fillers and artificial sweeteners, a growing number of companies are accused of selling workout supplements spiked with cheap fillers that they’re passing off as “protein.”
Lawsuits (1, 2 ) and complaints filed against handfuls of companies show that many blends (particularly those with Soy, Whey, Whey Concentrate, Creatine, Amino Acids and Casein) may not actually contain the protein they claim at all.
For example, in 2016, a lawsuit was filed against Muscle Pharm for false claims after testing revealed that the actual content per serving of protein was 20-grams—not 40 grams like the label claimed.
And Muscle Pharm is not the only one. Other companies have been found guilty upon testing of spiking their formulas with fake proteins that don’t match their label.
American Pure Whey abruptly closed operations in 2016 when the Better Business Bureau found them out of compliance in the manufacturing and marketing of their product, and testing of their products allegedly revealed that, laundry-detergent-like additives were used in place of actual protein.
Even the protein in seemingly “cleaner” powders—like vegetarian based blends (pea, rice, hemp seed), “whey isolate,” “egg white protein,” or “grass-fed” whey may not be all they are cracked up to be.
Pea, rice, soy and seed (hemp, flax) proteins, contain lectins and phytates on their husks known as “anti-nutrients” (not absorbable) that bind to minerals from other nutrients, inhibiting absorption (1 , 2 ). A study on plant proteins and animal-derived proteins found that plant protein increases inflammation in the gut compared proteins and amino acids found in meat sources https://www.nature.com/articles/srep15220. Vegetarian protein sources also often stem from GMO (i.e. pesticide) treated plants—unless otherwise noted.
Egg White Protein
The body-building community praises egg whites for their “low fat” and “high-protein” content, but of the egg itself, egg whites are an inflammatory for many folks. Egg whites contain “protease inhibitor” proteins (ovomucin and ovastatin) that are resistant to digestion by our own digestive enzymes, as well as lysozyme—a compound shown to leak into the blood stream (outside the digestive tract) in both those with “leaky” gut and a healthier gut lining.
Typically described as the “lactose free” version of whey, whey isolates are more likely to contain less random sourcing of proteins—sometimes found in concentrates—and many people find they digest them better, but just like many of our other ingredients, many of the formulas out there include: additives, artificial sweeteners and/or have been highly-heated and processed, practically diluting the protein the label claims. Of the proteins on the market, whey proteins are one of the most unstable to heat and unless the product says “non-denatured” protein, more than likely it’s been heated, treated and lost some protein powers.
“Grass-fed whey,” this buzz term is like saying “gluten-free yogurt” (it doesn’t mean much). While grass-fed (and grass-finished) meats are the gold standard, when it comes to whey, the micronutrients, vitamins, minerals, and fats are practically stripped from the protein during processing (resulting in paying more for things you’re not actually getting). Choose grass-fed meats for sure, but when it comes to whey, grass-fed is not nearly as important a “non-denatured isolate”—especially if you’re dairy sensitive. (Note: Grass-fed “whey concentrates” and “caseins” may matter a little more, since some of the fats from dairy are still included in the formula—where “grass-fed” nutrients reside).
Casein is a milk-derived protein associated with gastrointestinal bloating, constipation and inflammation. Casein is a cross-reactive protein with gluten and other gut-inflammatory foods (like corn, soy, and eggs) also associated with side effects like allergies, skin breakouts, bowel irregularities and blood sugar imbalances. In other words: Not the ideal source of protein for absorbing the protein on the label. (If you do buy, look for denatured grass-fed casein).
Can I drink any protein powder then?!
With ALL the claims and “fine lines” to piece through, it may seem like protein powder is not the best bet.
However, above all the biggest question to ask yourself when buying or tasting any product is:
How do I feel?
Your gut is your best guide—when you are listening.
You now know to “shop smart” and be on the lookout for additives, synthesized chemicals, cheap proteins and fillers in supplements, but, at the end of the day—your body’s own signs and symptoms will be a guide as well (i.e. Are you bloated? Running to the restroom after your shake? Stuffy nose and allergies flaring up? Brain fog?, etc.).
A good way to tell if your powder is working for you is to take it out— completely—for at least one week, if not two, then re-introduce it. See for yourself.
And if you’re in the market for a new protein, here’s a hit-list of what to look for on the label:
What to Look For on the Label
- Minimal Ingredients. 3-5 is ideal
- No Foreign Chemicals, Additives, Artificial Sweeteners (Stevia, monk fruit or erythritol=Moderation; but still not ideal)
- Quality Protein (ideally: Non-Denatured Isolate, Bone Broth/Chicken Broth, Beef Isolate, Grass-fed Whey Concentrate, Collagen
- Ideal Stamps of Approval: Non-GMO, No Soy, No Grains, Organic
- Company Connection. Can you “reach” or connect to the company? Are they honest about their sourcing?
- Cost. Generally, you get what you pay for. Chances are that $20 formula from Piggly Wiggly boasting “max muscle” will leave you more with “max runs” or “max (placebo) muscle” more than anything else.
So What Do I Choose?!
I know you’re dying to know. Here are a few of my top recommendations to help you on your way (but I am all ears if you come across any great formulas too!)