Nutrition Articles

How to Choose the Best Protein Powder

Find the Right Supplement for You

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Protein supplements are popular among casual exercisers, serious bodybuilders, dieters and even non-exercisers for many reasons. Most people know that protein is an essential nutrient for overall health that helps promote fullness and also plays a role in muscle recovery and repair. The nutrient protein carries with it a connotation of being healthy, so many assume that drinking protein shakes or using protein supplements is a good step toward better health and fitness. But is this perception of health a fact or a fallacy?

It's true that protein supplements make eating this important nutrient easy and convenient. Protein-rich foods (think dairy products, meats, beans and eggs) often require cooking, need to be refrigerated for safety and don't always transport well as snacks or mini meals on the go. (Just imagine carrying and then chomping into a chunk of chicken breast between the gym and work, or eating from a can of beans while driving to your next appointment.) In contrast, supplements make it easy! They're shelf-stable, easy to transport, great tasting (if you can find one you like), and often need nothing more than water to mix up. And as drinks, they're easy to consume no matter where you are.

However, protein supplements are far from required eating for people, no matter what your fitness, health or nutrition goals might be. When thinking about choosing a protein supplement, it's worth noting that:

  • There are many foods packed with protein that you can creatively fit into your meals and snacks to meet your needs without having to rely on a supplement.
     
  • Real, whole foods—as opposed to protein powders, which are highly processed—are more natural to include in the human diet, so many people aiming for a diet that is closer to nature might not find supplements as appealing.
     
  • Unprocessed protein-rich foods also contain other vital nutrients needed by the body in their natural states, such as iron, zinc, calcium and B-vitamins.
     
  • The protein-rich foods you can buy at the store (meat, milk, eggs, soy products and more) are cheaper than almost any protein supplement.
     
  • And foods—as opposed to supplements and protein drinks—are regulated for safety. Recent independent lab tests (see Sources below) found that many of the most popular protein supplements were contaminated with heavy metals like lead, mercury and more—a byproduct of processing. That, coupled with the fact that supplements are truly the Wild West, when it comes to products (no regulation, no guarantee of potency as listed, not a lot of rules at all) means that you are putting a lot of trust into the company making the product you're ingesting. 

Despite all of these things, we can't deny that whether you truly need additional protein outside of the food you consume, people simply enjoy protein shakes—and that's an OK reason to choose them, too! They often taste great. They add extra nutrients and filling power to many dishes (like fruit smoothies) and they can be used in creative ways to boost the protein of other foods beyond shakes. (Check out these creative ways to use protein powder.) While consuming protein supplements is seldom necessary (read our previous article about determining your protein needs), when used wisely, they can give a nice little protein boost to your meal or snack. But remember: If you're already eating enough protein consuming extra is just an additional source of calories--extra calories that could be packing on pounds. So plan wisely!  
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About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.

Member Comments

  • Well written article and quite informative. Thanks. - 6/10/2014 8:14:10 AM
  • Whey protein concentrate will never cross my lips. I don't knowingly eat MSG for the same reason. It should be thrown in the trash, just like the seasoning pkg that comes in ramen noodles. MSG stands for monosodium glutamate. Glutamates attach to and stimulate neurons in the brain endlessly, until they burn out and die. No thanks, I need all my brain cells, thank you. Glutamates, regardless of the source (Accent, aspartame, equal, aminosweet, and WHEY PROTEIN CONCENTRATES), are neuro-excitotoxin
    s. Deadly to your brain cells.

    Dr. Russell Blaylock, M.D. is a nationally recognized board-certified neurosurgeon, health practitioner, author, and lecturer. He attended the Louisiana State University School of Medicine and completed his internship and neurological residency at the Medical University of South Carolina.

    /www.newsmaxhea
    lth.com/Dr-Bl
    aylock/brocco
    li-candida-gl
    utamine-gluta
    mate/2014/05/23/id/573122/
    The following is an excerpt from the above-referenced article from Dr. Blaylock:
    Q: I was told that whey protein is good for you. But you have included whey protein as one of the things that can convert glutamine to glutamate. Is whey protein good or bad for you?
    Rose W., Boyds, Md.
    A: Whey protein concentrate has high levels of glutamine and glutamate. Glutamine is converted in the body into glutamate.

    People with neurological disorders are made worse when fed either glutamine or glutamate. I have heard from a number of people who have developed headaches and had problems with nervousness and insomnia after taking high-glutamine supplements. - 5/27/2014 3:02:11 PM
  • Becky and Nicole,

    Thanks for the informative, comprehensive and easy-to-understan
    d article, without all the normal commercial puffery about protein.

    Well done!! - 3/5/2014 6:46:05 AM
  • Thank you for the useful information. - 2/18/2014 6:36:28 AM
  • I love protein powders. I use them in smoothies 3-5 times a week. I hide them in various dishes to insure my 11yo gets plenty of protein in her diet - she is not exactly following the carnivore example set by her parents! I use different brands and different flavors depending on the purpose. Interestingly, none of the brands I use are listed in this article or the Consumer Report. The article offers great information and I am thankful for it. But the Consumer Report cited in the article is from July 2010! That is nearly 4 years old and I feel certain the data is out of date. Manufacturing/tec
    hnology changes very quickly. It is useful information - it gives us extremely good reasons to further investigate the product we choose to ingest or feed our families. But we should not rely completely on old data in making this decision. - 2/13/2014 9:46:46 AM
  • LULABROS
    Really nice article, but there was a very annoying advertising poping up in every page - that wouldn' t leave - hiding 1/3 of it... - 2/7/2014 6:32:36 AM
  • I've bought protein powder before, and it sat unused in the cupboard. I'm glad I left it there after reading this. I thought about using it again after reading what others had to say, and decided that it's just too processed by my standards. - 2/4/2014 11:44:21 PM
  • Great article. - 2/4/2014 9:38:16 PM
  • BGELLIOTT
    Mostly good information, however, whether it is used/sold as a food, a food ingredient, or as/in a dietary supplement, protein is regulated by the FDA (except meat products that are regulated by the USDA or seafood regulated by the USDC). Foods and food ingredients are regulated under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 (plus related statutes and amendments thereto).

    If used or labeled as a dietary supplement (this category generally includes vitamins, minerals, herbs and/or other botanicals, etc... and could include protein concentrates, isolates and so on) it would be regulated (again by the FDA) under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994.

    Neither foods nor dietary supplements are regulated for effectiveness. This is due, at least in part, to the restriction against making specific health claims that applies to foods and supplements. The fact that a product is "not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease" (and will often display that disclaimer if the label implies health benefits) removes the need to test for effectiveness in any of those things.

    The manufacturer of a dietary supplement or dietary ingredient is responsible for ensuring that the product is safe before it is marketed. FDA is responsible for taking action against any unsafe dietary supplement product after it reaches the market. (see fda.gov for more info) So while the FDA does not do safety testing on all supplements, it is not true to say that "protein powders are [legally] not tested for safety." - 2/4/2014 4:04:10 PM
  • AZURE-SKY
    I've tried protein powders, and have to avoid soy for health reasons. Rather than have to research all the unknown ingredients in commercial protein powders, I decided to go natural.

    If I want a protein smoothie, I skip the protein powders and use plain nonfat Greek yogurt. It has no artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners. I can add whatever fruit I want to change up the taste. 1 cup of Greek yogurt contains 130 calories, 0 fat, 85 mg sodium, 9 grams sugar, 23 grams of protein, and 25% of the RDA of calcium, and the only ingredients are Grade A Pasteurized Skimmed Milk, Live Active Yogurt Cultures (L. Bulgaricus, S. Thermophilus, L. Acidophilus, Bifidus, L. Casei). - 2/4/2014 11:27:51 AM
  • This is great I began using a protein powder and this information is valuable. Thanks.. - 2/4/2014 11:09:21 AM
  • PLEIB69
    One thing that I would like to share is that Protein Powders are great but you have to know what is in your protein powder. I recently started using Isagenix Protein Shakes as part of my daily life. They are organic, GMO free and free of any artificial stimulants or sweetener. You can google every single ingredient of what it in it and find for yourself that there truely is a difference. Everything is sourced from whole foods and grass fed cows, milked in season and not pumped full of hormones or steroids. I feel like Protein powders have gotten a bad rep because some companies are focused on sales and not the ingredients that they are putting in the shakes. Isagenix is a no compromise company and sources the best ingredients that go into every product. There are great sources of protein out there, do not get me wrong, but if you can add a protein powder that is so clean and safem why would you not?
    Just wanted to share my thoughts. - 2/4/2014 9:55:26 AM
  • HOOLAHOOP2
    I have tried several protein powders only to stop. There is always one ingredient in them that will annoy me. My go to protein is hard boiled egg whites. chia seeds, beans, chicken and fish, baked. I also use nut butters, and nuts for protein. This way, I know that I am getting my protein, without some ingredient that I am trying to stay away from. - 2/4/2014 8:54:33 AM
  • It forgot another good source of protein - chia. And be sure that whatever you choose is organic or you'll be getting a lot of other "junk" that's far from healthy. - 2/4/2014 3:46:47 AM
  • Ditto - One of the best articles I've read on SparkPeople yet! Thank you so much. - 1/8/2014 6:50:45 AM

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