Here’s the scoop on your favorite scoop.
Before you blindly grab the first protein shake on the shelf and turn on your blender, you’ve got to read the labels. To ensure quality, look for the words “clinical, prescriptive, or pharmaceutical grade,” says celebrity nutritionist Philip Goglia, PhD, founder of Performance Fitness Concepts, a nutrition clinic in Los Angeles. Goglia says the fewer ingredients in the powder, the better. Look for the main protein source, he adds: “Everything else is just a fairy dusting of ingredients that tend to be trendy buzz words.”
Most protein powder ingredients lists continue long after the protein source. What exactly are these extra fillers and which ones should you watch out for?
Glutamic acid: This is a form of sodium salt meant to intensify flavor, as in MSG, says Goglia. He says most people don’t have a problem with it but some people are sensitive to MSG, according to the FDA.
Maltodextrin: A non-sugar sweetener, watch out as this can cause gastric distress, according to Goglia, also known as gas.
Soy protein isolate: A controversial ingredient where the protein is isolated from the original food. The concern: It’s heavily processed and animal studies have shown a connection to thyroid trouble, but according to FDA, the verdict is still out on its effect in humans. (Remember, whole foods are always the best way to eat, but then again, we’re talking about shakes.) In case you want to avoid soy altogether, watch out for these names of soy and other soy additives: Mono-diglyceride, soya, soja, yuba, TSF (textured soy flour) or TSP (textured soy protein), TVP (textured vegetable protein) or lecithin.
Contaminants: Consumer Reports tested 15 protein powders and shakes in 2010 and found that at least one sample of each product showed evidence of one or more metals, meaning that along with protein the tested products also contained dangerous ingredients, like arsenic, lead, mercury or cadmium.
Lastly, check the order in which the ingredients are listed (they run from highest to lowest percentages used). Avoid a heavy dose of sweeteners. Goglia gives a green light to a small amount of sweeteners like agave or fructose, which he describes as “the sweetest of all sugars and does not require a lot to provide a high sweetness level.”
Be wary other sweeteners you might not want to ingest, including the highly-processed high fructose corn syrup and sucralose, which the American Headache Society has been following as a potential migraine trigger for years.
So check the lists, read your ingredients and do your homework. It’s always a good idea to mix your protein with some whole foods anyway, like strawberries, kale, or banana. In your attempt to do something good for your body, make sure you’re not actually doing anything bad.