Smoothies are an energizing and nutritious way to start your day. With a bewildering array of options on the market, how do you choose one? Here are tips on how to choose a protein powder to help you make a smart choice. For more information, read my e-book 12 Tips for Building Better Smoothies +12 Recipes. Find it on my eBook page.
How to Choose a Protein Powder
Protein powders are an easy way to supplement high quality protein in your diet. Once the domain of bodybuilders and elite athletes, protein powders are used by many health-oriented people and come in a variety of options to fit individual needs.
One debate over protein powder is how they are made. Some claim they are too processed to be considered healthy and while that was once true there are many clean quality options available today. Is there still junk out there? Yes, with all kinds of additives you don't want or need so reading labels is critical. Some brands include preservatives, genetically modified or engineered ingredients, artificial sweeteners and flavors, and even contaminants like heavy metals, as revealed by Consumer Reports. Not what you want in your diet.
Why Use Them?
Eating protein at breakfast (really at all meals) helps curb hunger, keep you balanced and reduce cravings throughout the day. When you add protein to a morning smoothie, it helps you feel full and satisfied, longer. And making a smoothie takes just minutes on a busy morning. It can also be taken with you on the way to work or school. Don't use protein powder just for smoothies, try these no-bake chocolate chip energy bites for a snack or treat.
Concentrates vs. Isolates
In general, concentrates tend to offer less protein per serving than isolates and are often less expensive. Concentrates are less processed. Isolates require more processing to make, offer higher protein per serving and can be more expensive, and there are differences how they are made. You've got to read the labels and check out the producers websites. You can even pick up the phone and call them. I do that frequently.
Animal-Based Protein Options
Many popular protein powders are made from whey, one of the two protein found in dairy milk. They are available from both cow and goat milk. If cow milk gives you digestive issues, try goat milk. Some people find goat milk more digestible do to the fact that the fat particles are smaller. If lactose (the natural sugar in milk) gives you problems, look for lactose-free.
You will find whey protein powders in organic, hormone-free, and grass-fed options. Grass-fed and organic are the best way to go. Be sure the label states it is rBGH-free and non-GMO. The challenge with "organic" is that current USDA regulations permit 100% organic animals to be fed a diet primarily consisting of only corn, soy, and potentially other cheap fillers. So while its organic, grass-fed, which is like beyond organic, is better.
Choose a brand where the protein is un-denatured. It's better for you. If the label does not say, call the producer and ask or look for the FAQ section on their website. Some brands process their whey protein powder with heat, which denatures the protein. Others use a cold process.
Whey powders are higher in grams of protein per serving, dissolve easily, and whip up creamier than plant-based proteins powders. Whey protein also provides complete protein, which is all of the amino acids that our bodies need to build muscle. But there are differences in how brands make their products. And of course, many people are lactose intolerant, lactose sensitive, or choose just not to consume dairy.
Another animal-based option is casein, which is the main protein found in dairy milk. Casein digests and absorbs more slowly than whey. Casein is often take before bed for muscle recovery when you won't be eating for a long period. Here is a helpful article about casein protein. Casein might be harder on the stomachs of people who have lactose issues.
If you want to skip dairy, try egg white protein powder, but check the sodium levels.
Collagen is the most abundant protein in our bodies, found in bones, muscle, blood vessels and connective tissue. It is why good bone broth is jiggly like jello. Our production of collagen naturally slows with age and with damaging lifestyle choices, like too much sugar, smoking, and too much sun exposure. Collagen strengthens hair, nails, bones, muscles and improves sleep, and is a good addition to smoothies.
Many collagen protein powders on the market come from cow sources (but are dairy-free) with the best options being grass-fed, pastured cows and unflavored. Three brands I've tried an dare very happy with are Vital Proteins, Sports Research, and Great Lakes. Find them all on Amazon with the links provided.
Plant-Based Protein Options
If you want to avoid dairy or animal products, plant-based powders are a great choice. They are blends of proteins derived from peas, grains (rice), seeds (quinoa, hemp, and amaranth), and legumes (garbanzo, adzuki and lentils). They may be a little more granular in texture than whey-based powders. A warning for those who are are nut-allergic: be careful purchasing products with hemp or pea protein in the blend, as they are classified as nuts and could be a problem for you. They are in the same family as peanuts.
Other plant-based options are pure hemp powder and soy protein powder. Pure hemp powder has an earthy taste that takes getting used to on it's own, but it is good in blends. If you choose soy, be sure it is organic or non-GMO certified (and soy is controversial). Of course if you are allergic to any of these ingredients, pass.
Even if you enjoy dairy, try adding a plant-based protein to your pantry. It’s good to mix it up. For plant-based options to animal collagen look for marine collagen.
Read Labels & Choose Carefully
- Be aware of the sodium if you are on a sodium-reduced diet
- No added sugar or hidden sugar
- If sweetened, choose a brand made with stevia (but unsweetened is best)
- Free of GMO or GE ingredients
- No fillers, additives, or artificial anything
- Organic or non-rBGH (no hormones) if whey
- Cold-processed if choosing whey
- Choose non-denatured protein if whey
- Look for gluten-free and soy-free options if needed
- Choose one that offers between 15-25 grams of protein per serving
- No stimulants such as caffeine, coffee extract or guarana
- Grass-fed, if whey
- Be careful with plant-based blends if you are nut-allergic as both hemp and peas are surprisingly classified as nuts and could give you problems.
- If using brown rice powder, be sure they are third-party tested for heavy metals (arsenic)
Sample Before Investing
Many companies offer single packet servings. Try a packet before you buy to see if it works for you, because protein powders can be expensive. If you don’t see a small packet available, call the company and ask if they offer them. When you are sure, buy larger sizes to save money.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
The Institute of Medicine recommends a daily minimum intake of 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men but these are minimums. Most people do better on higher levels. Another way to figure your need is by multiplying your weight in pounds by .36 (or .8 grams per kilo). This number will tell you approximately how many grams a day your body needs. Amounts vary with age, exercise levels, individual body chemistry, and special health concerns, but it’s a good starting point. Figure out what your body needs.
Ingredients, Sweetening and Flavor Options
- Raw unsweetened cacao powder gives a nice chocolate flavor and is a rich source of antioxidants and important minerals including magnesium and iron. It even provides a little fiber and protein.
- For sweetening, try Sweet Drops flavored liquid stevia by Sweet Leaf. So many flavors!
- Some brands add inulin to their powder or shake formulas to increase fiber. Inulin is made from chicory root. It gives some people digestive upset such as gas or bloating. Another good reason to try a sample packet first.
- If you are on a sodium-controlled diet, watch labels closely
- To add fiber, try what I use
- Warm spices, matcha powder, spirulina, and many other ingredients are nice add-ins
12 Alternatives to Protein Powder
If you are still not sure that you want to use a protein powder, try these options. Combine them to get the amount you need.
- Hemp powder - provides 6 grams of protein in 2 tablespoons, 12 grams in a quarter cup
- Hemp seeds or hemp hearts - provides 10 grams of protein in 3 tablespoons. Plus they are a source of healthy omega 3 fats.
- Creamy raw almond butter - provides 7 grams of protein in 2 tablespoons, along with good healthy fat
- Creamy raw cashew butter - 3 grams per tablespoon
- Plain Greek yogurt - provides 12-17 grams of protein in 4-5 ounces
- Ground flaxseed - provides 3 grams of protein in 2 tablespoons
- Chia seeds - provide 3 grams of protein in 2 tablespoons (and it's a natural thickener)
- Creamy tahini (sesame seed butter) - provides 5 grams of protein in two tablespoons
- Organic unsweetened soy milk - provides 7 grams of protein in 1 cup
- Spirulina - provides approximately 3 grams of protein in 1 teaspoon (good in a green smoothie)
- Try pumpkin seed powder
This post contains general health information and is not intended to be medical advice or a substitute for professional health care. Consult an appropriate health care professional for your specific needs and to determine whether making a lifestyle change or decision based on this information is appropriate for you.