You know that moment when you’re standing at your favorite natural foods or supplement store, staring at dozens of containers of protein powder and wondering how to select the right one? Yeah, it’s not just you. There are countless products to choose from, each with compelling advertising slogans, fierce logos and terminology you’d need a degree in chemistry to understand.
Megan Ostler, MS, RDN, dietitian for iFit Nourish, a gluten-free protein powder that is personalized for each customer’s nutritional needs, offers insight on shopping for protein so you can get out of that store and on with your workout:
Quality of Protein
When choosing dairy-based proteins, look for “whey isolate” and “micellar casein.” Science lesson: The basic protein components of dairy are whey and casein. Whey protein, a fast-digesting choice, is made by drying out pasteurized whey either from milk or the byproduct of cheese. For concentrate, after drying the material, nonprotein components (such as fat and lactose) are removed. This is basically the same as with isolate, except that isolate goes through various separation techniques so more nonprotein components are removed. “To put that into perspective, concentrates contain at least 25 percent protein, while isolate is at least 90 percent and is considered a lactose-free product,” Ostler says. “With dairy-based proteins, you get a fairly high level of all the essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein.”
Casein, a slow-digesting protein, isn’t very soluble in water and forms micelles (clumps) in order to be more water-soluble and palatable in milk. This is important because when mixed with water, we want our protein to have a smooth texture and nice mouth feel. So micellar casein is casein that is still in micelles (versus hydrolyzed casein), which has been broken down to small peptides instead of fully formed proteins.
If you are plant-powered, select a formula that gets its protein from a variety of sources — such as brown rice, hemp and pea — to help provide higher levels of amino acids. Most plants are only high in a couple of amino acids, so by combining different sources, you are covering all your bases.
What to Avoid
- Blends: Ostler says to avoid whey concentrates, milk solids, skim milk powder and blends. “Because whey concentrate and blends aren’t as refined, meaning that they still have fat and lactose, they might be harder for some to digest and may cause bloating, gas and diarrhea — especially for those with lactose intolerance,” she says.
- Sugars: Added sugar may add flavor, but you want a formulation with very little to none. “Based on research, I feel comfortable eating sucralose and stevia, so those are the sweeteners I look for,” Ostler says. “I usually aim for less than 5 grams of added sugar.” Beware of sneaky names for sugar, such as fructose, sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup and evaporated cane juice.
- Fillers: Lactose-free and gluten-free formulas usually mean less fillers. “Fillers are exactly what they sound like, and it’s an easy way to determine quality,” Ostler says. “If it isn’t lactose-free, then it is likely a blend or concentrate — so it isn’t gram for gram protein. If I’m going to pay for lactose and fat, then I would just buy milk. Also, see if wheat-based fillers, like food starch, have been used. While it’s not dangerous, I for one just don’t want to pay a premium for protein when gram for gram it isn’t just protein.” Some protein products will have what sounds like fillers listed in the ingredients but are actually a fiber source — such as maltodextrin or psyllium — so check the label and see whether fiber grams are listed.
Protein Powder vs. Meal Replacement
If you’re looking to replace a meal, then you’ll need to replace more than just the protein. You’ll also need fat, carbs, fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals from fruits and vegetables. Because most protein powders don’t provide everything a balanced meal would, it’s best to use them in shakes with other ingredients or as a part of a meal.
“Just mix in healthy fats, carbs, vitamins and minerals,” Ostler says. “Some of my favorite add-ins are greens, berries and oats. For healthy fats, I typically add nut butters, but avocados work well, too.”