PHOTOGRAPH BY OBAK/SHUTTERSTOCK
“People choose protein powders because they want to put something good in their body,” says Megan Ware, RDN, owner of Nutrition Awareness in Orlando. “So you want to avoid ones that add unhealthy ingredients to the mix.” Before you buy, learn the 6 types to avoid, plus tips for choosing the right one for you. (Take back control of your eating—and lose weight in the process—with our 21-Day Challenge!)
You’ll see quite a few protein powders that mask their taste with artificial sweeteners like sucralose. But fake sugars are an automatic red flag. “They set your body up for failure,” explains Ware. You taste sweet, which makes your body expect that it’ll soon be getting calories or carbs. When that doesn’t happen, you start to crave more sweet foods. So while you may have good intentions sucking down a protein shake, by the afternoon you might wonder why there are a couple cookies in your hand. If you want a sweetened protein powder, Ware recommends looking for one that contains stevia extract, a plant-based zero-calorie sweetener, like Tera’s Whey powder.
Derived from seaweed, carrageenan seems innocent, but there’s no reason it should be in your protein powder, says Ware. “It’s just a cheap filler.” Consider this ingredient a tip-off that the product isn’t high quality, and move onto the next.
If you’re looking for a plant-based powder (whey comes from animals), you have plenty to choose from. They run the gamut from coconut to rice to pea to hemp to soy; Ware likes Sprout Living Epic Protein Powder which is made from a combination of plant-based proteins.
There are so many different names for sugar, and this is one of them. The problem is, these sneaky names have a sort of halo effect when you’re reading the ingredients list—it doesn’t say sugar, so it doesn’t sound so bad. Ware notes that she’s also seen protein powders that contain fructose, which clients think is better than sugar because it’s from fruit. “But it is not a fruit at all,” she warns. Ideally you want a powder that contains no added sugar, like Naked Whey, where the only ingredient is grass-fed whey protein.
The issue here is that “artificial flavoring” could mean anything. The Center for Science in the Public Interest notes that “companies keep the identity of artificial (and natural) flavorings a deep secret and are not required to list them on food labels.” They also note that they’re used in junk foods—so artificial flavors could be a sign that your protein powder is veering into healthy-as-a-milkshake territory. (We like this organic vanilla whey protein powder with real vanilla extract.)
You should be able to read through the ingredients list and know what each one is. “If you’re asking yourself ‘What is that?’, you shouldn’t eat it,” says Ware. One caveat: Some powders contain vitamins and minerals, so don’t be shocked to see something like “mixed tocopherols,” which is simply vitamin E. It just takes a little Googling to decode.
When you drink a postworkout protein shake, you want one that will supply 25 to 30 g of protein, advises Ware. (Your muscles won’t be able to absorb more than that anyway, she says.) Plant protein powders can often run a little short, at 15 to 20. If that’s the case, no problem—mix it up with soy milk, regular milk, or a nut butter to get where you need to be.