Categories to Compare
- How it tastes (for obvious reasons). I don’t like my protein overly sweet but I have to have some sweetness so I don’t feel the need to plug my nose and chug it down.
- How well it mixes in water. Ain’t nobody got time for clumpy protein that you have to chew. I also really hate when the protein shake gets all frothy in my shaker bottle so that I’m forced to drink hundreds of tiny air bubbles instead of a smooth shake. Ugh.
- The ingredients list – A lot of popular proteins include crazy ingredients, potentially stomach upsetting sugar substitutes, and artificial colors. I included some notes about ingredients you’ll see a lot in protein powders at the end of this post…you can take a look and compare what you see to the ingredients used in each brand. In the end, you’ve got to choose what’s right for your body (though I limited the list of protein to the “cleaner” ones on the market).
- How many flavors the brand offers. This isn’t a huge deal for me, but it’s always nice to have options, especially when you like to get creative in the kitchen with your protein.
- What kind of nutrition you get per scoop. Again, not a HUGE deal since most are pretty similar, but a good data point regardless.
- How much you pay per scoop. Because I’d rather have some money left over to spend on active wear.
Let’s Keep the Junk to a Minimum
I think I did a pretty good job of filtering out the really bad protein powders that are loaded down with some of the crazy ingredients that you can read more about at the end of this post. For fun, let’s just look at a few other popular brands of protein and see how many they rack up…
Yikes. That’s all I have to say about those.
If you’re curious about the differences between whey concentrate, whey isolate, whey peptides, whey hydrolysate, and casein blends, check out this article on Bodybuilding.com for some deets.
Click here for the zoomed in, full spreadsheet of reviews!
Here’s the link to that full spreadsheet of reviews again!
Breaking Down the Ingredients
There is a laundry list of crazy ingredients that are added to our food, and protein powders are (for the most part) no different. To help you decide which protein is right for you, I put together a little list of some common ones and a snippet of info about them. Some are a bit more controversial than others, and the internet (and medical community) hasn’t yet reached a full conclusion on whether those ingredients are totally safe or kinda not.
I linked several articles to Chris Kesser’s website because he’s done a really good series of articles called “Helpful or Harmless” and those articles give a pretty comprehensive overview of each additive in language that non-doctor types can understand. Check him out.
Gums like cellulose gum, xanthan gum, guar gum and carrageenan:
- Cellulose gum is a thickening agent extracted from the cell walls of plants. It’s considered an indigestible fiber, though it doesn’t really provide any health benefits like fiber derived from whole foods. I haven’t found any evidence that shows it to be anything but harmless.
- Xanthan gum is a “largely indigestible polysaccharide that is produced by bacteria” and purified, dried, turned into powder and sold by manufacturers. Again, basically harmless.
- Guar gum is a soluble fiber derived from a bean that grows in India and Pakistan. Some studies show that increased consumption can lead to reduced body weight and lower blood glucose (because of the extra fiber) BUT it can also lead to excess gas (because of the extra fiber).
- Carrageenan is an “indigestible polysaccharide that is extracted from red algae, and is most commonly used in food as a thickener or stabilizer.” It’s been linked to inflammation and a simple Google search will lead you to plenty of articles that link it to cancer, although that link may be unfounded.
- My verdict? If you have digestive/gut issues or are particularly sensitive to food additives, gums (especially carrageenan) are probably worth avoiding.
Enzymes like protease, lactase, and papain: these enzymes are added to protein powder to help break it down into easily absorbed nutrients (ie. making your protein shake go to work for you). Some enzymes are made by the human body, others are found naturally in fruit and vegetables and extracted to be used as dietary supplements. My verdict? Not scary.
Soy lecithin is an emulsifier added to TONS of foods including our beloved chocolate. It’s extracted from soybeans using a chemical solvent (like hexane) so although it’s possible that you could be drinking remnants of that chemical if your protein contains it, those remnants are so minuscule that it probably won’t affect you. Sunflower lecithin is sometimes used instead and can be helpful for those with severe soy allergies. My verdict? Not scary enough to avoid.
Artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes:
- Sucralose is Splenda and has been linked to a host of medical issues – the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) downgraded it from a “safe” grade to “caution” in 2013.
- Polydextrose has primarily been linked to digestive upset, but nothing serious.
- Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K) has also been linked to a host of medical issues, and CSPI grades it as an additive you should avoid.
- My verdict? Avoid if you can, especially sucralose and acesulfame potassium.
Dutched cocoa or cocoa processed with alkali: Dutched cocoa is treated with alkali to neutralize its acidity and reduce the bitterness of the cocoa. It’s also a bit smoother than regular cocoa, which makes it a popular for use in drinks like protein shakes. While the alkalizing process does impact the number of flavanols and antioxidants in cocoa powder, it doesn’t seem to have a negative health effect. My verdict? Not scary.
Inulin (chicory root): Inulin is a soluble fiber found in a variety of fruits, but this particular variety is made by soaking chicory root in hot water. It can be used to treat things like high cholesterol and constipation or it can be used as a food additive for improved taste. My verdict? Not scary, but could irritate those with a sensitive gut.
Maltodextrin: Maltodextrin is a highly processed starch made from corn, rice, potato starch or wheat. It’s used as a filler or preservative in foods and has an even higher glycemic index than table sugar, meaning it can spike your blood sugar when consumed in sufficient amounts. The verdict? Proceed with caution, though it looks like it can probably be safely consumed in very small amounts.
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist. Don’t take my ramblings as medical advice. Hopefully, what I’m talking about will help you make a more informed decision about your protein supplements or encourage you to find out more information on your own.
And that’s it! Ten popular proteins broken down by the categories that matter most (to me at least!). Leave me a comment below if you liked seeing this kind of post on my blog. I’m trying to make Peanut Butter and Fitness a tiny bit more fitness focussed, although food and peanut butter will continue to be my main topics on here.