You will have noticed…. there are A LOT of protein powders out there on the market to choose from.
This can be great as it means you can be choosy, however, it also be can be VERY overwhelming. Where do you start?! A lot of us haven’t a clue what to look for to ensure we’re receiving the best quality protein our body can use.
Protein is used by the body in many ways; it’s an essential component of the blood, bones, muscles, nerves, organs, and even the immune system. It’s needed by just about every major system in the body, making it extremely important that we provide our body with the highest quality protein we can find.
How is Protein Used in the Body
Protein is used to help repair and replace body tissue that’s been damaged or broken down during the day. In order for the body to carry out this essential task, it requires a steady supply of high quality protein.
A quality protein provides amino acids, nine of which are essential amino acids, meaning they cannot be made by the body. So, they must come from food.
The 9 essential amino acids are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. If we do not receive enough of even just one of these essential amino acids, it can have serious consequences on our health. If you’re body isn’t receiving enough protein from food, it will begin to break down muscle and other protein-based tissues to ensure it’s getting the essential amino acids it needs. Something to keep in mind; the body does not store excess amounts of amino acids to be used at a later time (unfortunately). Thus, you must ensure you’re obtaining the essential amino acids through food or a supplement each day.
What to Look for in a Protein Powder
Isolate or Concentrate?
Whenever you go to choose a pre-made protein powder, there’s two options to go for: isolates or concentrates. If you’re looking for a plant-based protein powder, it’s often just isolates. Now, when isolates are manufactured, they undergo processing to “isolate” the fat from the protein. This isn’t ideal, especially when looking at whey protein powders, as this process also strips away many key immune benefits. On the flip side, concentrates do not undergo this process. The fat and protein remain intact allowing you to receive all the important immune-boosting benefits from the powder! BUT, I haven’t shared the best part, protein concentrates still contain essential bioactive cofactors like bovine serum albumin, which contains glutamylcysteine, a rare molecule known for its ability to convert to glutathione.
According to Jayson Calton, PhD in his book, The Micronutrient Miracle:
Glutathione is your body’s most powerful antioxidant and one of the greatest predictors of overall health.
A study published in the top British medical journal, the Lancet, found that individuals with the highest levels of glutathione were the healthiest, while those with the lowest levels of this important antioxidant were the sickest and often hospitalised.
Good news! The best food source for this powerful antioxidant is organic, grass fed whey protein concentrate.
One of the most commonly used plant-based proteins is soy. Now, the downside to this protein is that it’s often GMO (according to 2014 USDA statistics, 94% of the US soy produced is genetically modified). What’s more, it’s goitrogenic (meaning it disrupts hormone production in the thyroid by interfering with iodine uptake), and mimics the female hormone, oestrogen. Soy contains high levels of isoflavones, a type of plant oestrogen (a.k.a phytoestrogen) that functions in a similar way to human oestrogen (but with much weaker effects). The isoflavones in soy can bind to oestrogen receptors in the body and cause either weak estrogenic or anti-estrogenic activity (where they block oestrogen receptors, inhibiting or suppressing oestrogen production).
Some healthier alternatives to soy protein include pea, rice, or hemp protein.
Look for ‘Non-Irradiated‘
The process of irradiation involves exposing a product to radiation to kill microorganisms and extend shelf life. Irradiation damages food by breaking up molecules and creating free radicals. These free radicals go on to continue destroying vital minerals, vitamins, and enzymes in that irradiated food source, reducing its overall nutritional value.
Pesticide residue has been found in many protein powders on the market. Studies have found that pesticides can cause health issues like birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and other health problems that can occur from long-term exposure. However, switching over a more organic diet, where the only foods consumed have not been sprayed with pesticides, has been found to actually help your body flush out remaining pesticides. A study was conducted where applicants switched from eating a diet high in foods sprayed with pesticides, to eating a more organic diet, and it was found that detectable pesticide residue levels in the body were reduced by more than 80% in just 1 week! And this was from eating a diet of at least 80% organic foods (see post for which foods are safer to buy conventional, and which foods must be bought organic).
When you buy organic, you protect yourself from toxic pesticide residues that may still linger on your produce. What’s more, it guarantees that your food has not been genetically modified nor lost its nutritional value due to irradiation. According to the USDA’s Organic Production and Handling Standards,
The term ‘organic’ requires that a food be free of potentially harmful or toxic pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilisers, and genetically modified organisms. The organic seal also ensures that your food has not been processed using irradiation, chemical food additives, or industrial solvents.
Look for ‘Heavy Metal Tested‘
Who would imagine that heavy metals would be something we’d have to look out for in protein powders! Unfortunately, this is now the case for many of the powders available on the market. This is especially true for those of us who are plant-based. Protein powders made from plants are more likely to have higher contamination levels because plants (like rice) are especially prone to absorbing heavy metals from soil. Lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury are the most common heavy metals found in protein powders.
Now, regardless of the protein powder you use, it’s important to opt for powders that have “Heavy Metal Tested” written on the packaging, or, if it’s not listed, ask for the manufacturer’s Heavy Metal Toxicity Report. This will provide you with the lab analysis for the levels of heavy metals that were found in that brand of protein powder, and whether it was determined to have safe levels or not.
Opt for Non-Denatured
By choosing non-denatured powders, you ensure they were created using low temperature, alcohol, acid and hexane gas-free processing.
If Plant-Based, go Sprouted
Sprouting mimics the natural germination process of the seed, nut, grain, or legume which, in turn, deactivates harmful antinutrients like phytates, oxalates, lectins, and trypsin inhibitors. These can actually damage the intestinal lining of the gut on their way through your digestive tract, as well as prevent the proper absorption of important micronutrients during digestion. Look for the “sprouted” label on powder packaging, or ask manufacturer.
Always choose Gluten-Free
Gluten, a protein most predominantly found in wheat (among other grains), is estimated to affect approximately 30-50% of the population (I, myself, have a gluten sensitivity). Why does this simple protein affect such a large portion of the population? Well, overtime, we have genetically modified our wheat, particularly in Australia, to create a type of dwarf wheat that has more gluten in it than wheat grown around 100 years ago. When you pair antinutrients like lectin with gluten, you’re digestive system’s in for a really rough time (they’re one of the causes for Leaky Gut Syndrome). By limiting how much gluten you’re ingesting, you can help prevent this condition from arising.
Avoid these Ingredients…
Do your best to avoid purchasing a protein powder containing any of the following ingredients:
- Artificial colours
- Artificial flavours
- Artificial sweeteners
- Soy lecithin
If your looking for a place to start, I’ll share with you a few of the protein powders that I’ve found to be some of the best on the market (I use one of them myself!). I’m vegan, so I use plant protein powders. If you aren’t and would like a suggestion of a great whey protein powder to use, IN.POWER whey protein is one of the best! It contains glutathione, is certified organic, grass fed with year-round access to pasture, Non-GMO Project Verified, and American Humane Certified. Plus it contains healthy fats, like CLA and omega-3s, as well as other health-enhancing benefits.
Now, the protein powder I most often use is IN.POWER plant protein, which is non-GMO, organic, and combines plant-based proteins to create a complete amino acid profile (all nine essential amino acids included!). The other protein powder I’ve been using recently is Amazonia Raw plant protein powder, and from what I’ve researched, has been heavy metal tested.
Update: I’ve now switched to using Nuzest’s “just natural” protein powder, and Vital Protein‘s 100% plant-based protein powder (which comes in a 100% recycled plastic container!). They’re both super clean and have been given the “thumbs up” by my naturopath as being good quality protein powders (which is actually a rarity with my naturopath).
Nuzest routinely test their products for heavy metals, pesticides, solvents and other contaminants, and can guarantee their products are entirely clean and free of contaminants. Their plant protein is also free of lectins, a harmful – naturally occurring – compound found in peas and other legumes in high amounts. As stated on their website:
Our protein is entirely free of lectins. Our manufacturer tests for them regularly and the results are always negative, because the water extraction process is so effective, delivering such a high purity of protein and component amino acids. That purity is evident by the lack of strong smell or taste of Clean Lean Protein something that can’t be said of some of our competitors.
As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor before trying or using any new products. It’s important to check with a doctor before taking this or any new product, especially if taking any other medicine or supplement or if pregnant or nursing. Be sure to check ingredients to make sure there is no risk of an allergic reaction.
What protein powder to you use? Do you have any other suggestions on what you look for in a protein powder? Share in the comments below.
Lots of love,
Jayson Calton, PhD, Mira Calton, CN. The Micronutrient Miracle. Victoria: Nero, 2015. Print.
Straight Talk About Soy. Harvard T.H. Chan. Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/soy/
Anti-estrogen. ChEBI. EMBL-EBI. Retrieved from https://www.ebi.ac.uk/chebi/searchId.do?chebiId=50751
Risher, Brittany. (March 1, 2019). How to Decode Protein Powder Labels. Men’s Health. Retrieved from https://www.menshealth.com/nutrition/a26591085/protein-shake-tips/
How to Choose the Best Protein Powder for You. (June 12, 2020). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/7-tips-choosing-best-protein-powder/
Maciel, Ryan, RD, Pn2, CSCS, and Malacoff, Julia, PN1, CPT. “What’s the best protein powder?” Your complete guide to choosing the right supplement for you. Precision Nutrition. Retrieved from https://www.precisionnutrition.com/how-to-choose-protein-powder
7 Tips for Choosing Protein Powder. (01/06/2017). Planet Fitness. Retrieved from https://planetfitnessnewcastle.com.au/choosing-protein-powder/
Bennett, Chloe, B.Sc. (Updated: January 15, 2019). What to Look for in a Protein Powder?. News Medical. Retrieved from https://www.news-medical.net/health/What-to-Look-for-in-a-Protein-Powder.aspx
Cronkleton, Emily, and Link, Rachael, MS, RD. (Updated: September 24, 2021). 11 Best Protein Powders by Type. Healthline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/best-protein-powder
Is Nuzest Organic?. (Accessed: September 28, 2021). Nuzest. Retrieved from https://www.nuzest.com.au/blogs/news/is-nuzest-organic