4 Things to Consider Before Buying a Protein Supplement

By Christine Hronec   

Choosing a protein supplement that fits your lifestyle goals can be...well, daunting. With clever marketing, hoping to divert your eyes from the competition, most novice consumers are confused and overwhelmed by supplement options. But not all proteins are made equal. In fact, selecting a quality supplement requires reading between the lines. 

Here is what you should know before buying your next supplement. 

The benefits of adding protein

Hitting your daily protein requirements with real whole foods is not always possible due to time and financial constraints. By adding a protein supplement one can greatly improve their ability to gain lean muscle mass and reduce body fat with ease.

Of the 3 macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) protein is the only one that contains nitrogen in its chemical structure. This allows your body to be in a positive nitrogen balance which allows you to utilize fat for fuel, repairs tears in muscle fibers (to support recovery and muscle growth), and functions as the building blocks for enzymes and hormones. 

How to choose a protein powder for you

Choosing the right protein supplement can feel like a guessing game. The key to making an educated decision regarding protein supplements is to learn what to look for on a nutrition label. Understanding how to inspect a nutrition label will help decode the ingredients, providing simple guidelines to gauge the suitability of any given product. Choosing between a plant-based protein and animal-based protein introduces unique drawbacks. Plant based proteins tend to be substantially higher in carbs and have a distinct flavor profile and texture that is not as agreeable as non-plant-based proteins.

For those seeking protein supplementation, taste and texture can be deal breakers and, unfortunately, plant-based products tend to border the limits. Some companies make up for the distinct flavor profiles of plant-based proteins by increasing carb and sugar content to mask the flavor, unfortunately this cancels out the value. If you are going plant based, keep in mind that the texture tends to result in substantially thicker shakes with varying degrees of mixability compared to whey or collagen. Plant based powders tend to have flavor profiles that aren’t as easily masked compared to conventional animal-based protein powders resulting in an overall flavor that is more of an acquired taste. 

Follow these four steps to simplify your next trip down the supplement aisle.  

1- Protein Percentage- The number one thing to look for in a protein supplement is the percent protein you receive with each serving. This can be easily determined with a simple equation: 

Protein (g) / Serving Size (g) x 100% = % Protein

To ensure you are getting your money’s worth, your supplement should have a MINIMUM of 80% protein. You can obtain fats and carbs from other foods quite easily, but protein comes at a premium and your supplement should be a PROTEIN supplement, not a compromised version with filler ingredients. 

*Plant-Based Considerations - Most plant-based proteins tend to be higher in carbs with lower protein content. A plant-based protein over 70% protein is probably the lowest acceptable amount, but you will find that there are very few brands that meet this criterion. Be careful to not choose a plant-based protein high in sugars, ideally, you want to be under 5g per serving. Note that taste may be compromised as carb content is reduced and protein content is increased. 

2 - Allergens- Protein supplements are notorious for digestion issues. The key offenders are lactose (aka milk sugar), gluten, grains, soy, and tree nuts. Whey based proteins are derived from dairy and should be avoided with an intolerance to lactose. The exception is whey protein isolate, which is virtually lactose-free as the milk sugars have been removed via filtration. 

It’s relatively easy to find a gluten/grain-free protein supplement but it is not as easy to find a soy-free supplement. Protein powders are spray dried and instantiated with lecithin to make them easy to mix into water and other liquids. The problem is that lower-quality manufacturers use soy lecithin. The best quality proteins will be free of soy and instantized with sunflower lecithin.  If you have a severe nut allergy, it is advised to avoid any product that says it may contain traces or was manufactured in a facility that processes nut ingredients. The probability of cross-contamination is too high to risk. 

*Plant-Based Considerations - Plant-based proteins are free of dairy, however they are more likely to contain soy. Better quality plant-based proteins include pea, rice, pumpkin, sunflower, chia seed, hemp, and chia protein powder. 

3 - Sweeteners- It is best to avoid artificial ingredients when it comes to your protein supplement. Unfortunately, the majority of companies are still cutting corners by offering products sweetened with sucralose, acesulfame potassium, dextrose, maltodextrin, and sugar alcohols. Excess consumption of sugar alcohols such as xylitol, mannitol, sorbitol, and even erythritol can cause bloating, digestive issues, and issues with regular bowel movements. Calorie-free artificial sweeteners may taste as if you are eating full-calorie sugar, but it doesn’t reduce your natural cravings for sweets. Transitioning to natural sweeteners is an adjustment at first, but it’s worth it as you no longer crave overly sweet ingredients. The best natural sweeteners include stevia, monk fruit, or actual fruit sugar.

4 - Sourcing- If you are going with an animal-based protein source, look for labels that state that the cows are grass fed. This means that the cows are not fed grains, are not treated with antibiotics, and are fed a diet of 100% grass. This is important for those who are purists with respect to their products being grain free and hormone free from the source (such as Paleo enthusiasts) as well as those who are concerned about quality. In addition to grass fed, it’s also important to look for the words “pasture raised” as you may have guessed, pasture raised and grass fed are not the same thing. The terms grass fed indicates what the animal is fed, where pasture raised indicates where the animal eats. Pasture-raised cattle are labeled as such if  at least 30% of their food consumption is from grass grown in a pasture and not dried and stored for later use (Source: USDA).

It’s important to search for protein powders that are non-GMO. While the long-term effects of high levels of pesticides in your foods is not clearly understood, the peace of mind knowing that these toxic chemicals are NOT in your foods is priceless. When sourcing a plant-based protein powder, a product that isn’t labeled as sustainably sourced will not have a negative impact on your physique goals. However, if you value organic plant-based products, it's most likely you value products that do not have a negative impact on the environment. This will show up in higher prices as these ingredients are not mass produced or mass harvested resulting in more specialization to yield such high-quality ingredients. 

In conclusion, selecting a quality protein supplement involves reading between the lines to ensure the product is a suitable fit for your needs. Last, but not least, the flavor is important, a product can look perfect on paper but taste awful in real life. Be sure to read reviews from other consumers and carefully consider the credibility of the brand before making an investment. A simple 5-minute search on reviews related to taste can save you money when trying a brand-new product. For more information on this subject, check out the Gauge Girl Training Youtube channel.

Need recommendations? Try these 
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