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What’s in Your Protein Powder?

Health and wellness are probably two items that rank high on your priority list now more than ever. The fitness industry has been thriving for years. Still, especially following a global pandemic, more and more people are looking into ways they can stay healthy in addition to taking precautions and avoiding germs.

You’ve likely been hearing the phrase “food is medicine” for a while now, and if this is true, you’re probably becoming increasingly aware of what you’re putting in your body. Walk down the aisles of a grocery store and pick a box up off the shelf, and you’re sure to see a lengthy list of ingredients—many of which you can’t pronounce and are even less likely to know what they are or how they work.

In general, people reach for health supplements like protein powder to keep them healthy and strong. So, you might assume your favourite whey protein brand is safe, but what if it’s making you sick?

Unfortunately, supplements like protein powders and even your vitamins and minerals can hide nasty ingredients that don’t do anything good for your body. In some cases, it can be rather dangerous. That’s why if you care about your health, it’s important to get informed and check your labels. So, let’s explore the typical ingredients of protein powders.

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Shady Protein Powder Ingredients to Avoid

Like with all processed foods, protein powders contain lots of ingredients for various reasons. Generally, protein powder alone (whether vegan or whey proteins) is perfectly safe and healthy. The problems arise with extra ingredients manufacturers might add to lengthen shelf life, improve taste, or smooth out the texture.

While ingredients vary from product to product, these are the ingredients you should definitely avoid:

Milk Solids and Skim Milk Powders

You certainly don’t want to see dairy ingredients like these in a vegan protein powder, but even if you’re not vegan or lactose intolerant, these are two ingredients to avoid. Milk solids and milk powders are frequently used as cheap bulking agents. The processed solids from milk are mainly comprised of lactose, the sugar specific to dairy.

Not only are many people sensitive to lactose, but it also causes major glucose spikes, giving you the same sugar high and crash a candy bar does. In addition, they’re hard to digest and can cause gastrointestinal discomfort.

Carrageenan

Seaweed has various health benefits and is generally considered a very healthy food. However, carrageenan is a product extracted from seaweed, and despite how healthful the whole food is, this ingredient is one to avoid.

Carrageenan is frequently used in dairy treats because it makes foods like yogurt and ice cream thick and creamy. Still, the downside is that carrageenan has been linked to inflammation, intestinal lesions, stomach ulcers, and even tumors. Scary stuff!

Gluten

Being gluten-free is fairly trendy, and many registered dieticians roll their eyes at this term. However, unless you have celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder characterized by the intolerance of gluten), there’s nothing wrong with regular gluten-filled pasta.

However, it’s best to avoid gluten in your protein powder, as it’s known to cause inflammation, mood swings, and hormonal imbalances when consumed in excess. Plus, you probably already get plenty of gluten through the whole foods you eat, so it’s best to skip it in your vegan or whey protein.

Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are well-known no-no’s, but that doesn’t mean your protein powder manufacturer has stopped using them.

The following are dangerous sweeteners to avoid:

  • neotame
  • saccharin
  • aspartame
  • sucralose
  • acesulfame potassium

Of this list, sucralose and aspartame are the most widely used and most dangerous. There is a lengthy list of potential side effects, but weight gain, bladder cancer, and brain tumors are the main ones to note. More scary stuff that you don’t want to find in your protein powders that you’re using to be healthier! 

Legitimate, Necessary Ingredients in Protein Powders

Now that we’ve gone over the no-no’s, let’s take a look at the labels of our best-selling protein powders. While it’s important to learn to read your labels, you don’t want to get too caught up on only using powders with household ingredients you can find in your pantry. The truth is that often there are some extra ingredients that are necessary to give your favourite whey or vegan protein powder all the nutrition and great taste and texture you’re looking for.

We will break down our best-selling whey protein powder’s ingredients followed by our best-selling vegan protein powder. First up:

Perfect Sports Diesel New Zealand Whey Protein Powder

As we mentioned, Diesel is our customers’ favourite whey protein powder. The nutrition breakdown is:

  • 110 calories
  • 0 grams of fat
  • 0 grams of carbohydrates
  • 0 grams of sugar
  • 26 grams of protein

At first glance, this appears to be a solid whey protein choice for those looking to increase their protein intake without increasing carbs or fats. Let’s take a closer look at the ingredient list for the milk chocolate flavour.

Ingredients in Diesel:

- New Zealand whey protein Isolate: Whey protein is the main ingredient, which is good because it’s a whey protein supplement. The whey isolate is necessary to make this supplement what it is—a protein supplement.

- Cocoa: Given that this is the milk chocolate flavour, it’s obvious that cocoa is a necessary ingredient. Furthermore, cocoa is a safe ingredient that provides the rich chocolate flavour you know and love.

- Natural flavours: The Canadian Food Inspection Agency defines “natural flavours” as “substances that impart flavours that have been derived from a plant or animal source.”

While this seems rather broad, there is a big difference between natural and artificial flavouring. When consumed in moderate amounts (like in a daily whey protein shake), we see no reason to worry.

- Cellulose gum: This is a thickening agent used to create a lovely rich, thick, and creamy consistency. While cellulose gum is an additive, it has no known adverse side effects. It is a non-digestible plant fibre, and as such, provides no nutritional benefits. This one is safe and worth it to get that delicious whey protein shake, as far as additives go.

- Stevia extract: The answer to how do they make whey protein sweet without sugar or artificial sweeteners is here. Stevia is a natural, non-nutritive sweetener with no calories and no other nutritional benefits. While it doesn’t add any nutrition, it does provide the sweetness most people are looking for.

Next, let’s look at our best-selling vegan protein:

PEScience Vegan Select Protein

Our vegan and dairy-free customers love Vegan Select, but how does it stack up? The nutrition breakdown is:

  • 110 calories
  • 0 grams of fat
  • 6 grams of carbohydrates
  • 0 grams of sugar
  • 20 grams of protein

Again, an excellent breakdown for someone who wants to increase their protein consumption without adding a lot of extra nutrition. Now, let’s look at the ingredient list.

Ingredients:

- Pea protein concentrate and brown rice protein concentrate: These are the main ingredients in Vegan Select, and they provide the bulk of the nutrition. Again, these are quality plant protein sources.

- Natural flavour: We talked about this a little already with our whey protein option. We will take natural flavour over artificial flavouring any day!

- Cocoa powder: Again, cocoa powder is used to give the protein powder a rich chocolate flavour. It is plant-based and natural.

- Stevia extract: Another familiar ingredient, natural sweetener from the Stevia plant is used to help sweeten the shake.

- Salt: In this case, salt is used in the protein extraction process of the peas. First, peas are soaked in a sodium solution to adjust the pH level and extract the protein. Salt is obviously an ingredient you want to limit whenever possible, but in this case, a little bit is necessary for all that plant goodness.

- Guar gum: Guar gum is another additive that is frequently used to thicken and bind processed food products. Similar to the cellulose gum in our whey protein, guar gum has no side effects when used in small doses. However, in large doses, it can cause some gas and bloating. This ingredient is used to improve the texture of the plant protein.

All in all, both of these products have solid ingredient lists. They are sweetened with natural sweetener, they have some natural flavouring, and one filler is used to create the texture you expect in a protein shake.

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What’s Better: Whey Protein or Vegan Protein Powders?

Whether one variety of protein powder is better than another comes down to personal preferences, allergies/intolerances, and individual goals. For someone who follows a vegan lifestyle, the obvious answer is a vegan protein.

Alternatively, whey protein is still considered king of protein supplements by many people if you don’t have dietary restrictions. When it comes to ingredients, and more specifically potentially harmful ingredients, it’s a draw. Neither is more or less likely to contain the scary stuff.

Rather than focusing on which kind of protein powder is more likely to be safe, it’s more helpful to find safe, effective brands that you can trust. At Supplement Superstore, we carry only the most trusted brands. We’ve also gone in-depth about how to choose a quality supplement brand.

If you select a protein supplement from a good brand, you can ensure that your supplement will help you reach your health and fitness goals as you intend it to, instead of putting your health at risk.

Do Protein Powders Have Side Effects?

Again, assuming you’ve gone with a quality supplement from a trusted brand, you don’t have to worry about a long list of scary side effects you’re bound to suffer from. However, as with most things, there are some minor things to be aware of.

Potential Side Effects of Using Protein Powders

  •  Some people may experience gastrointestinal upset, primarily if they use whey protein or other dairy-derived supplements.
  • If you increase your protein intake beyond what your body needs (to fuel and build muscles), you will likely see some weight gain in the form of body fat.
  • Some protein supplements (especially whey proteins) can cause acne.
  • Some protein supplements (especially rice proteins) can increase your risk and exposure to heavy metals.

What are the Benefits of Protein Powders?

Now that we’ve covered some of the potential side effects, we want to remind you of the potential benefits of using a protein powder regularly:

  • increased muscle mass
  • better recovery after exercise
  • lower body fat percentage
  • reduced risk of high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes
  • reduced inflammation
  • better antioxidant defense
  • reduced hunger

How are Protein Powders Regulated in Canada?

Before you get scared and swear off all health supplements, leaving all the potential benefits of whey protein and other protein powders on the table, rest assured that Canada does a decent job of regulating supplements.

Health Canada enacted NHP Regulations in 2004. These regulations cover things like vitamins and minerals, protein supplements, herbal remedies, probiotics, and more. All supplements must be proven safe to use over the counter and have an NHP number.

The benefits of the NHP Regulations include up-to-date information and definitions, a complete ingredient legality database, safe and effective dose ranges of active ingredients, and all products must be approved to be licensed.

In addition, these regulations mean that supplement companies and Health Canada work together to create better, safer, more effective ingredients along with accurate label claims.

The take-home message is this: any processed food is going to contain some extra ingredients. That’s the nature of processed foods, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a health supplement or certified vegan. What’s important is to avoid ingredients that are known to be harmful, like artificial flavours.

By choosing a quality supplement brand, you don’t have to worry and wonder about what’s in your product. Luckily, in Canada, the government takes some precautions when it comes to handing out NHP licenses. For added peace of mind, shop with retailers you trust, like Supplement Superstore!

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