Hearing that you need protein in your diet is old news, but what is the new news is that not all proteins are created equally, especially when it comes to protein powders. Protein powders are our answer to life on-the-go, restricted diets, and goals to a fit and lean body. That is because proteins are the “workhorse” molecules of life, taking part in essentially every structure and activity of life. They are building materials for our tissues, whether that be our vital organ and glands, our hair and nails, or our muscles and they carry oxygen while also composing our blue print for life, DNA. Therefore, making sure that you are getting adequate protein is essential to a proper diet, especially for those of us that lean towards a plant-based, vegan or vegetarian diet. So with so many protein powders to choose from, how can we decipher which are the right choices for us?
Every protein powder claims to be the best – the cleanest, the most bioavailable, the most “complete, ” and the most effective for building long, lean muscles. What they do not tell you is that protein powders, just like processed foods, can contain a host of nasty ingredients that are not only detrimental to your health, but may also impair weight loss, muscle building and energy production, and cause damage to the kidneys. Therefore, in order to decide which protein powder to grab off the shelf and invest in, I am going to give you a snap shot of what I believe to be the best and worst protein powders on the market.
To start you off, I am going to give you an overview of all the ingredients to watch out for when reading the nutrition labels of a protein powder. While I am going to give you a list of my personal favorites below, if there is a protein powder that you want to use, make sure it meets the standards before buying.
1. Artificial Sweeteners (Acesulfame potassium, Sucralose etc.)
Acesulfame potassium: As with other artificial sweeteners, there is concern over the safety of Acesulfame potassium. It is thought to be potentially carcinogenic, stressful to insulin production, may impair cognitive function, and may affect prenatal development. Other reported concerns with Acesulfame potassium are nausea, headaches, mood problems, impairment of the liver and kidneys, and problems with eyesight.
Sucralose: Sucralose, also known as Splenda, leads to more immediate side effects such as abdominal cramping, nausea, diarrhea, head and muscle aches, bladder issues, skin irritation, dizziness and inflammation. In addition, splenda has shown to reduce the amount of good bacteria in the intestines by 50 percent, increases the pH level in the intestines, and may contribute to loss of vision. More serious complications includes an increased risk for leukemia, and damage to the thymus gland.
Aspartame: Also known as NutraSweet and Equal, aspartame accounts for over 75 percent of the adverse reactions to food additives reported to the FDA. There are over 90 reported side effects that range from depression and fatigue, to hearing and eyesight loss, to vertigo and tinnitus. Aspartame converts into formaldehyde in the body, which can wreak havoc on your DNA and sensitive proteins, and disrupt normal neurotransmitter functioning.
Weight gain: Substantial research now indicates that artificial sweeteners lead to weight gain, rather than weight loss. Researchers found that consuming the sucralose was associated with higher blood sugar peaks and 20 percent higher insulin levels compared with consuming the water, which can lead to weight gain and even diabetes. Artifical sugars trick your body into thinking that it is going to receive calories to use for energy and other functions, and when it does not, it causes stress. This then leads the body to call for the additional intake of calories, which increases cravings (most always for unhealthy junk foods) and the consumption of more calories.
2. Conventional (non-organic) Soy Protein and Soy Lecithin
Soy has made it way into almost all foods and protein powders, and it is NOT a health food. First off, soy contains phytoestrogens, which are a compound that disrupts normal hormone balance. It mimics estrogen in the body, suppressing circulating estrogen and progesterone leading to lower testosterone levels and the weakening of luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). This can lead to hormone imbalance, increasing the chances of infertility, weight gain, and breast cancer. Secondly, conventional soy is almost always, if not always, genetically modified. GMO foods have a laundry list of potential health effects ranging from altered metabolism, inflammation, kidney and liver malfunction, and reduced fertility. Finally, soy contains natural nutrition inhibitors known as phytic acid, which reduces assimilation of calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and zinc. While fermented soy products such as miso and tempeh have a lower level of the nutrient inhibitors, this is not the form of soy used in protein powders.
What about Soy Lecithin? Soy lecithin is very commonly found in food products especially protein powders. It is the fat component of soy. Because the fat has been extracted from the soy, one does not have to worry about the genetically modified portion of the soy (that is contained in the protein), but the phytoestrogenic properties are still present.
Last but not least, soy extraction is most always done with hexane. Yes, hexane, a byproduct of gasoline refining. It is used in the food business as a solvent to separate the oil from the protein. Hexane is classified as an air pollutant by the EPA and as a neurotoxin by the CDC, but they do not know to what extent it can cause damage from consumption. My recommendation? If you are going to consume soy, only consume 100% organic, because you will reduce your risk of consuming hexane. Whether they have determined its health effects or not, I would rather not be the guinea pig.