The Best and Worst Protein Powders, According to a Nutritionist

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Before you add another scoop of vanilla protein powder into your shake, scan the label for these questionable ingredients.

When protein powder brands promise healthy nutrients within tasty packages, it can be hard to resist adding a scoop to your favorite smoothies. Unfortunately, too many people assume that all protein powders are created equal and that all you need to consider when choosing one is your taste preference.

There are lots of factors to consider when choosing a protein supplement that’s right for you. But first, let’s consider that protein powders aren’t a perfect food – and might actually be a big problem.

The Problem with Protein Powder

Unfortunately, supplements like protein powders are not stringently regulated by the FDA for safety. So when you pick up that expensive tub of protein powder, how can you know if it’s actually good for you?

First, let’s take a look at our protein needs. Our bodies require an average of 40 to 60 grams of protein a day, but it needs to be balanced with fat and carbs. The right ratio depends on your diet, body type, and your digestive health.

Protein in high amounts can be hard on the kidneys, and protein powders can be especially difficult because they are not balanced by other macronutrients.  We tend to assume that people need more protein, but more is not necessarily better. In reality, the average American eats closer to twice the recommended amount.

Often, protein powders are marketed as a “purified” form of protein, but the truth is that most of these products are highly refined and processed. They are often manufactured using extremely high heat, artificial ingredients, preservatives, and synthetic vitamins and minerals.

Another factor to consider is trust. Celebrity doctors sometimes sell their own brands of protein powders, creating a false sense of trust among consumers. Many of these practitioners use the same manufacturers for their products, and few actually use their own products.

So, are all protein powders bad? No, but very few are truly good. Let’s dig into some of the problematic ingredients and explore a few of the healthier products you can purchase.

The 8 Worst Protein Powder Ingredients

Protein powders often contain questionable ingredients. Here are the eight worst offenders to avoid.

1. Soy Protein

Soy protein isolate is a by-product of other soy production – literally, the leftovers. It’s manufactured at an extremely high temperature that’s closer to laboratory science than food production.

It’s boiled, stripped, and then prepared with an acid solution to extract the protein, which is dipped again in an acid solution, and ultimately, spray-dried at even higher temperatures.

Anything that survives this harsh manufacturing process is probably not going to easily break down in response to your digestive enzymes and stomach acid. If your body can’t break down these virtually indestructible proteins, you will not get any benefit from them.

Brands with soy protein: It Works, Universal Nutrition, NOW Foods, Nature’s Plus

2. Artificial Sweeteners

People looking to boost their protein might be thrilled to see an option that contains no sugar and very few carbs, but when you see the ingredient “sucralose”, steer clear. 

This is artificial sugar, and while it might make the product more palatable without a carb count, it is a fake food. Avoid any products that are sweetened with ingredients your body cannot properly digest.

Brands with artificial sweeteners: Quest Nutrition, IsoPure

3. Rice Protein

Rice protein might sound benign, but it is processed with excessively high heat and can contain anti-nutrients. The “raw” proteins that use rice are extremely hard to digest and include extra enzymes and probiotics just to help the rice break down – it’s not because you’re getting an added bonus of digestive superpowers.

Brands with rice protein: Huel, Vega, Garden of Life, Orgain

4. Pea Protein

Pea protein is processed in a similar manner to soy protein: using high heat, evaporation, spraying, and dehydration. While fresh peas might contain some nutrients that are beneficial, the overly processed powdered version will contain phytic acid and be difficult to digest like any grain or legume-based powder.

Brands with pea protein: Huel, Vega, Reset360, Garden of Life, Amazing Grass, Orgain

5. Sugar and Sweeteners

Many protein powders contain sugar or corn-derived sweeteners like fructose and glucose. Pure cane sugar is actually the least harmful type of sweetener typically found in protein powders because it is processed far less than artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols. Even those that don’t contain sugar will sometimes contain erythritol or other sugar alcohols which, while calorie-free, will still mess with the gut.

Brands with sweeteners: Shakeology, Orgain, It Works

6. Whey Protein

Whey protein is derived from milk, and if it’s truly pure and comes from pastured cows, it can be a better option. But conventional whey protein is often highly processed and comes from cows that have been exposed to growth hormones, antibiotics, and GMO feed that makes their milk (and its whey) a junky food that offers little or no nutritive value.

Any protein that is labeled as “whey” isn’t automatically good, although some brands and products can be. The following brands don’t currently use high-quality whey protein.

Brands with whey protein: GNC, Optimum Nutrition, Isopure.

7. Additives, Preservatives, and Stabilizers

Gums, preservatives, additives, and those hard-to-read ingredients are added to protein powders to help with texture, shelf life, and taste. The downside is that most of these are not natural products and can have unnatural effects on the gut, like irritation and cramping, diarrhea, and gas.

Brands with additives, preservatives, and stabilizers: It Works, Reset360, Shakeology, Vega, Garden of Life, Amazing Grass, Orgain

8. Vegetable Oils

Whether protein powders contain vegetable oils or lecithin derived from oils, almost every product contains this – even the higher quality ones. These are used partly for texture and lubricants or emulsifiers in food products, which gives them a more pleasing texture or mouthfeel. Even if they’re present in small amounts, they’re not found in whole food sources of protein, like meat, poultry, and seafood.

Brands with vegetable oils: Profi, Reset360, Tera’s Whey, Arbonne, Orgain

The 2 Best Protein Powders You Can Buy

While most protein powders are not truly health foods, there are a few options that you can rely on if you really feel that you need extra protein. These two are the healthiest options because they each contain only one ingredient and contain zero unnecessary preservatives or sweeteners of any kind.

1. Grass-Fed Whey Concentrate

Why it works: Whey protein can cause issues for anyone sensitive to milk products, but concentrate is easier to digest and doesn’t contain any trace elements of lactose. Choosing a grass-fed product ensures that it’s a nutrient-rich product that doesn’t come from cows’ milk that has been filled with antibiotics, growth hormones, and more.

How to use it: Grass-fed whey concentrate can be added to shakes, smoothies, and soups.

Buy this: Raw Grass Fed Whey (on Amazon)

2. Collagen Peptides

Why it works: Collagen peptides contain gut-boosting amino acids and the perfect protein option for anyone sensitive to whey. Grass-fed bovine or marine collagen are available, each with a slightly different amino acid profile.

How to use it: Collagen is more versatile than whey concentrate since it virtually disappears in liquids. Add it to coffee, tea, smoothies, shakes, soups, stews, and even things like applesauce, pudding, or cakes.

Buy thisVital Proteins Grass-Fed Collagen Peptides

What you need to know when you buy protein powder – Watch these 3 videos below –

Protein Powder: How to Best Use It For Muscle Growth (4 Things You Need to Know)

Does Protein Powder Work? (Spoiler: YES, but there’s a catch)

How to pick the best PROTEIN POWDER. 💪 Everything you should know.

Bottom Line

Protein powders are often highly processed, hard to digest, unnatural, and packed with sweeteners. The best options are single ingredient grass-fed whey concentrates or collagen peptides, because they are the purest options available.

Nothing can replace a healthy, home-cooked meal. Before you sink $75 into a tub of protein powder, ask yourself if there are better ways to get nourishment.

Written by Aimee McNew

Author Bio:

Aimee McNew is a Certified Nutritionist who specializes in women’s health, thyroid problems, infertility, and digestive wellness. She ate her way back to health using a Paleo diet, lost 80 pounds, and had a healthy baby after numerous miscarriages. She focuses on simple nutrition practices that promote long-lasting results.

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