This post may contain affiliate links. Read our disclosure here.
Protein powder can help you build muscle, lose/gain weight, or quickly replace a meal on the run. I find myself reaching for the protein powder a couple times a week for a healthy breakfast to get the kids out the door quickly. It’s definitely convenient, but is it improving your health? If you’re trying to eat “clean” and reduce processed foods, your protein powder may need reevaluating. Artificial sweeteners, denatured proteins, food colors, GMO’s, refined sugar…these may all be lurking in your “healthy” protein powder! Learn how to identify the “junk” protein powders and how to find the best protein supplement for your budget.
What’s in your protein powder?
If you have a tub of protein powder on hand, take a look at the ingredients. Protein supplements usually contain a lot more than just protein. You might see a protein source, flavorings, sweeteners, fillers, preservatives, and more. These extra additives can turn your protein supplement into a pretty heavily processed food.
What to Avoid: The Villains
Soy Protein Isolate – on its own, soy is a good vegetarian protein option. “Soy protein isolate”, however, is not the same as regular soy. This highly-processed soy is broken down to just its protein, becoming badly denatured and changing the physical and chemical structure of the protein along the way, and losing all its body-boosting nutrients. In animal tests, soy protein isolate has been linked to allergies and thyroid problems.
Maltodextrin – this food additive is used as a filler, a mild sweetener, and a synthetic fiber. Unfortunately, it may also be highly processed, likely derived from GMO-corn (Bt Corn, a registered pesticide), and forms a synthetic fiber that is completely indigestible by your body. Unless your product is certified GMO-free, avoid maltodextrin.
Acesulfame K (Acesulfame Potassium) – this additive has no business being in your food! This artificial sweetener was approved in 1988 and has not been reassessed for safety since, despite animals that showed tumor growth (lung, breast), leukemia, and insulin effects. But wait…there’s more! In your body, it breaks down into acetoacetamide which has been shown to affect the thyroid in animal tests.
Whey Protein Isolate – this highly-processed protein is derived from milk. Unless your protein powder is organic, conventionally-sourced whey protein also contains antibiotics and artificial growth hormones passed on from the cow. The protein processing itself also raises concerns. The end product is a highly acidifying food and is not easily absorbed by the body. Too much acidity (and not enough alkalinity) in your body over time can lead to higher incidences of degenerative disease. Avoid any protein “isolate”!
Artificial Sweeteners – Sucralose, aspartame, mannitol…these artificial sweeteners are often added to improve the taste while keeping the calorie count low.
Natural and Artificial Flavors – skip the chemical flavorings and add some real flavor to your protein shake with real cocoa powder, real strawberries, real peanut butter, real vanilla, etc. Recently, V8 juices ended up in the spotlight after Campbell’s revealed its “100% vegetable juice” contains animal products concealed in the “flavoring”. If your ingredients include “natural” or “artificial” flavors, you do not know what is truly in there!
Heavy Metals – you probably didn’t want lead, arsenic, mercury, or cadmium in your “healthy” protein shake, but you may be getting it anyways. Consumer Reports tested various protein powders and found several with heavy metal contamination. One brand, Muscle Milk, tested positive for all four metals, two in amounts above the USP (United States Pharmaecopia) limit of daily exposure.
Are regular protein powders really that bad? For occasional use a couple times a month, probably not. For consistent use, it may be. Concerns range from mild to incredibly serious. Whether you decide to switch your protein powder or not, at least be aware of what you’re consuming.
What to Look For: The Good Guys
Fortunately, you don’t have to give up on protein powders entirely, just shop a little more purposefully. There are several great protein supplements you can enjoy without compromising your health standards. Here’s what to look for:
Certified Organic – the organic certification guarantees the agricultural ingredients in your protein powder were grown without chemical pesticides, without synthetic fertilizers, and were not grown from GMO seed. It also limits the type of additives allowed in your product. Certified organic whey protein also tells you the cows were not treated with antibiotics or growth hormones.
Non-GMO Project Certification – this third-party certification tells you the product is 100% free of genetically modified organisms. Although USDA Organic certification guarantees non-GMO agricultural ingredients, the Non-GMO Project certification indicates the entire product is free of GMOs, including the handful of additives organic certification still allows.
Unsweetened or Stevia Sweetened – if you choose an unsweetened protein powder, it gives you the control to add whichever sweetener you want to your smoothie! Try honey, dates, organic sugar, fruit, hot fudge (I won’t judge you)…anything. If you like a little pre-mixed sweetness, find a product sweetened with stevia, an all-natural, zero-calorie sweetener made from the leaves of the stevia plant.
Stable Plant Proteins – although soy can be easily over-processed and denatured, there are still many great options for vegetarian protein. Hemp seed protein is nutrient-rich, high protein, and high fiber. It is easy to find in its raw, unprocessed form, making it a safe bet every time. Find the raw, whole hemp seeds and blend them in your smoothie or just eat ‘em! They’re great on salads too.
Cold-processed, Organic Whey Protein – when shopping for whey protein there are two factors to consider: the processing method and an organic source. A cold-processed whey protein contains the whole protein and has not been isolated. It is less acidic than the whey protein isolate. An organic source assures the cow was not treated with antibiotics, did not receive synthetic growth hormones, and was fed an organic diet. With antibiotic resistance accounting for over 23,000 deaths in the United States per year, it’s an issue worth prioritizing.
Paying for Quality
Protein powder supplements aren’t cheap; you can easily pay $30-40 for a conventional protein powder. My gym sells their special blend for $70! Here’s the thing…you’re already investing lots of money in a protein supplement. Why not choose a better product for about the same price? If you consume a protein supplement on a regular basis, it’s time to reconsider what you’re eating and think about switching to a cleaner product.
Here are four products I found in my local store that have clean ingredients and stable proteins:
Tera’s Organic Whey Protein, $1.90 per ounce – Grass fed, USDA organic whey protein naturally sweetened with stevia. My kids love the Tera’s Whey Chocolate flavor. Choose the natural, unflavored variety or try the vanilla, chocolate, blueberry, or coffee flavors. Save about $0.20 per ounce by choosing the non-organic, yet still rBGH-free variety, if you want to save a little more.
Warrior Food Extreme, $1.15 per ounce – Made from sprouted brown rice protein and hemp seed protein with nothing artificial at all. The protein is 100% vegan, raw, and non-toxic. Buy the “natural” and add your own flavors at home or buy the chocolate or vanilla versions for about $0.15 more per ounce.
Nutiva Hemp Protein, $0.72 per ounce – It doesn’t get more pure or simple…just one ingredient: hemp seed. Don’t overlook this plant protein. It’s easily digestible by the human body, contains a lot of fiber (26%), all 9 essential amino acids, and a slew of naturally-occurring vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. You may have to “dress it up” a bit, if you’re not accustomed to it’s flavor, but it’s extremely versatile and can be added to smoothies or blended juices.
Garden of Life Raw Protein, $1.25 per ounce – This is a popular choice, and one recommended to me by several people. Raw Protein is a nutrient-rich, vegan protein made from sprouted brown rice, ancient grains, beans, probiotics, and more. It’s formulated to be easily digestible and is a good option for those with sensitive digestive systems.
Do you even need a protein supplement? You may not. The human body can break down 5-9 grams of protein per hour. Your body could handle about 120 grams of protein per day…max. On average, your diet probably includes about 30-40 grams of protein through regular food, leaving a maximum protein supplementation of about 80 grams per day.
DIY Protein Powders
A quality protein powder will be expensive; the cheaper protein powders may have dubious ingredients. Save money and have complete control over your ingredients by customizing your own protein powder at home!
Start with an unflavored protein powder with as few of the “bad” ingredients as possible.
Add a flavoring (see below for ideas).
Add a sweetener (optional). For a sugar-free option, use a 100% pure powdered Stevia. If you want a sugar, try coconut sugar for a lower glycemic load. This is your blend; use whatever is best for your budget and health goals.
Add some extras. Maybe mix in a second type of protein for some diversity? Add some spirulina for the extra nutrients and an energy boost. Chia seeds will add a good texture and are an amazing health-boosting superfood. Almond flour adds extra protein and a sweet, nutty flavor. Try some tired pantry staples like unsweetened shredded coconut, rolled oats, or cinnamon.
Combine all these dry ingredients (always dry, nothing wet!) in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Store in an air-tight jar in the fridge.
Pure Vanilla Blend
Cut and scrape the contents of two vanilla bean pods into your dry mixture before blending. Estimate about two pods for 1 cup of dry mixture, or to taste. Save the scraped pods and air dry them. After they are all dried out, pulverize into a vanilla “powder” in the food processor and save for another batch (or for your morning coffee)!
Rich Chocolate Blend
Add one part organic cacao powder to three parts protein powder, or to taste. Example: use ¼ cup cacao for ¾ cup protein powder. Add a bit of vanilla powder (or scraped vanilla bean pods) and sweeten to taste. I use about three Stevia packets per 1 cup of protein powder blend.
Have a dehydrator on hand? Dry some berries and pulverize them in the food processor until you have a fine fruit “powder”. Add about ¼ cup of fruit powder for every ¾ cup of protein powder. Add vanilla powder and/or sweetener, if desired. No dehydrator? Pick up some organic freeze dried fruit at the grocery store!
Want a nice coffee flavor (or caffeine kick) in your protein powder? Add 1-2 tablespoons of espresso powder (not the same as espresso-ground coffee) to your 1 cup protein powder blend. Add other flavorings and sweeteners as desired.
By custom-making your own protein powder mixes, you will save some money and create a better product! Simply invest in a good quality, unflavored protein supplement to get started. Experiment with small batches of different flavors until you find a great combination!
Tips and Tricks
Switching protein powders can be annoying, especially if you’re switching to a plant protein from a creamy whey protein. Most people are loyal to their prefered brand; I know I am! I’ve been using Tera’s Whey Chocolate flavored protein for about a year. My kids love it as is – no sugar, extras, or mix-ins needed. I like the chocolate flavor a little more bold, so I add more cocoa powder to my batch.
The first time I tried a plant protein, I thought it was a cruel joke. It has a different flavor and sometimes a different (grainy) texture. I learned two key tips for enjoying a plant protein:
Give it a little extra time to hydrate and then blend again.
Make it taste good! Add whatever you need to make it an enjoyable experience for you. Over time, you will get used to (and enjoy!) the taste, allowing you to cut out the “extras”.
Do you have any protein powder stories or tips to share? Any other favorite products to mention? Comment below!
We’re going beyond the smoothie. What else can you do with a protein powder? Should you be baking with it? Is one protein better to use for baking than another? Let’s find out!