3 Things that Shouldn’t Be in Your Protein Powder (But Probably Are)
Over the years, we’ve talked a lot about plant-based protein: How much protein vegan athletes need, plant-based protein sources, and in general, how vegans get protein.
And there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to that last question…
Although we have managed to get plenty of protein from whole foods for the past few years, I’ve always acknowledged that for certain people — people who want to gain weight, build muscle, try to hit macronutrient levels, or just want some peace of mind — supplementing makes more sense.
And yes, we’ve moved past the idea that supplementing a plant-based diet somehow make the diet wrong, or unnatural. We know there are some you need, and many you don’t. Protein is a maybe, depending on age, goals, and the rest of your diet.)
But if you take vegan protein powder yourself, there’s one question you should most definitely know the answer to:
What’s in your protein powder?
We started looking more closely at protein powders a few months ago, for my kids’ sake. They’re both young plant-based athletes, and — call it parental paranoia if you want — I find myself worrying about their picky eating habits, specifically that most of the foods they love (fresh fruits and vegetables, especially in smoothies) aren’t necessarily dense in protein or, more generally, in total calories.
But when we started looking at the ingredient lists of the common plant-based powders, I was surprised and disappointed. Unfamiliar and artificial ingredients, plus sweeteners (even natural ones) that I knew they wouldn’t like the taste of in their smoothies.
Heavy Metals and Other Carcinogens
Heavy metals and chemicals in my protein powder? Nah. No way. I get the good stuff. And it comes from plants.
Think again. Last year, the Clean Label Project™ completed a study examining 134 plant-based and animal-based protein powder products from 52 different brands. They screened for over 130 toxins, including heavy metals, BPA, pesticides, and other contaminants with ties to health problems.
And you know what they found? (You might want to sit down for this one.)
Many of the most popular plant-based powders were ranked the worst for their high levels of contaminants like heavy metals. In fact, plant-based proteins ranked lower than animal-based proteins on average.
So how does that nasty stuff get into your powder?
According to Clean Label Project, “Contaminants are the result of sourcing and production practices. Contaminants can be found in soils because of pesticides and mining run-off (ex. heavy metals) and can be absorbed into plants just like nutrients. They can also be the result of the manufacturing process (ex. BPA/BPS is using the lining of cans and containers and leach into the protein powder.)”
Sweeteners and Flavorings
These days, sweeteners are added to just about every processed food, so it should come as no surprise that they’re also often added to protein powders.
But here’s the thing.
Sweeteners are totally unnecessary. Same goes with flavors (natural or not) like vanilla. The only reason companies often adds the sweeteners and flavors is to try and mask the taste.
In turn, however, they’re adding unnatural ingredients that not only taste fake, but are potentially harmful.
Take a look at common artificial sweeteners like acesulfame potassium, sucralose, or splenda, for example. These sweeteners with their potent taste not only train the brain to crave sweet foods, but are known to increase the risk of diabetes and obesity.
How about natural sweeteners like stevia or monk fruit, you ask?
In my opinion, if it isn’t serving me (or my kids), I don’t want to add it to my smoothie, where the additional sweetness only makes things taste less natural. I want my smoothie to taste like the fruit that’s in it, and no sweeter.
Fillers, Preservatives, and Gums
While the contaminants scare me most, the biggest shocker I came across in my research on protein powders was what I learned about fillers.
First, there’s a reason why you don’t see percentages next to protein powder ingredients on labels.
Many brands, like the one I used to take, boast a “blend of pea, rice, hemp, and chia” (for example) to create the appearance of a complete amino acid profile. But if they’re not telling you the amounts of each in the product, then nothing prevents them from using 95 or even 99 percent of the cheapest powder, and only blending the others to make up the remaining 5 percent or less.
There’s nothing to tell you it’s pretty much just one type of protein. And that the amino acid profile is incomplete.
In an industry so unregulated as supplements are, it’s not hard to imagine that’s what they do.
Besides cheap proteins, dextrin (a carbohydrate from starch) and maltodextrin (produced from corn, rice, potato starch, or wheat) are common fillers added to protein powder to bulk it up.
Then there are gums, like xanthan gum, which is derived from corn and soy and often used as a thickener in protein power. These gums are totally unnatural, and often cause bloating and gas.
The misleading packaging means you don’t ever really know what’s in your powder. Sure, you might have an ordered ingredient list, but when you don’t know how much of each ingredient is included, you have know idea if your powder is really what it claims to be.