The protein powder business is shady. I know this first-hand because I’ve worked in it for years, most recently as founder of a small business.
In this article, I’m going to tell you the “dirty little secrets” the industry doesn’t want you to know.
Two large, unnamed protein powder corporation owners actually threatened to sue me for revealing this stuff on my website.
Ready to hear the juicy details?
How Protein Powders Are Made
Ever wonder how protein powders are made? The answer may surprise and disgust you …
Whey Protein Processing
Most commercial whey protein powders are made using a high-heat, acid-flushed, “ion exchange” process to separate the whey from the cow’s milk.
This can strip away vital nutrients, creating an imbalanced, acidic ”isolate”. The manufacturer will then add synthetic additives (and call them “natural” … more on this below), sweeteners, emulsifiers, and other chemicals to make it taste like something resembling food.
So why do companies use it?
Because it’s dirt cheap, of course.
Ask the manufacturer how it’s made before you buy it and spend a few bucks more on an acid-free, cold-processed, organic product … it’s worth it.
What if you can’t tolerate whey proteins though? How are plant proteins processed?
Plant Protein Processing
Plant protein powders come from sources like soy, rice, hemp, peas or pumpkin seeds.
However, just because a protein comes from plants doesn’t make it better for you.
To remove oil from plants, most soy protein and some of the others mentioned above are processed using hexane, a chemical neurotoxin derived from petroleum that can damage your central nervous system.
If you decide a plant protein powder is a better option for you, look for plant-based protein powders that are cold processed and “enzymatically sprouted,” which means all-natural enzymes are used rather than chemicals to separate the protein from the plant.
Also, sprouting grains used in plant-based powders (e.g., rice, pea, and amaranth) increases many of the plants’ key nutrients.
Ingredients to Avoid In Protein Powders
Even most powders marketed as “healthy” and “clean” contain at least one of these ingredients:
1. “Natural” Flavors
Natural flavors are the fourth most common ingredient on food labels today. The FDA says as long as an ingredient originated from a natural source, food corporations can call it a “natural flavor”.
The truth is, natural and artificial flavors aren’t all that different. Here are a few examples of potentially harmful ingredients lurking in natural flavors:
- Polypropylene glycol (found in antifreeze)
- BHA, a known carcinogen
Sugar—no matter if it’s from honey, maple syrup, or coconuts—turns to fat in your body. Eating too much sugar increases your risk of dying from heart disease too. I recommend avoiding all protein powders with added sugar.
But you also have to look out for artificial sweeteners: saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, and sucralose. All of these have shown some disturbing health effects in clinical studies (yet are still approved by the FDA).
Then there are the supposedly “all-natural” sweeteners. Xylitol and erythritol are highly processed “sugar alcohols” that may cause gut imbalances.
Stevia is a “cleaner” sweetener with fewer side effects but has a bitter aftertaste when used in high doses. Plus the stevia most food companies use is a chemically-altered, bleached, stripped down version that’s likely to contain GMO fillers.
Gums are emulsifiers/thickeners added to processed foods like protein powders to make them mix better.
The problem is some of these gums can cause major digestive distress.
Most of them haven’t been widely studied, which is concerning, and the ones that have may lead to gas, bloating, and a laxative effect. On top of that, many of these “gums” are produced by bacterial fermentation of a sugar-containing medium—usually a potentially allergenic or GMO-containing substance like corn, soy, dairy, or wheat.
The Bottom Line About Protein Powders
Regardless of whether you’re in the plant-based or whey camp (both have benefits), make sure you ask the manufacturer these questions before you buy:
- How are the ingredients processed? Look for non-chemical, non-heat treated, enzymatic processing methods.
- Are the ingredients organic? If not, they’re likely sprayed with chemical pesticides and herbicides.
- Does the powder contain gums and flavors? How are those made and what are the potential side effects of each? Use PubMed, the largest online database of clinical research.
Finding a protein powder that works for you may take some time … but a little research goes a long way and can help you save money, time, and unpleasant side effects down the road.
Scott Christ is a nutrition researcher and CEO of Pure Food Company,
a small plant based protein powder business that donates 5 meals
to hungry families in need for every bag sold.