We are very excited to introduce the Protein Powder Project. Feeling incredibly disillusioned over the products on the market, we began a search to find some truly special protein powders. It was a long and frustrating process but worth it.
How it started vs. How we feel after looking at the 10,000th product label
Protein powders are a big topic, so we broke it into three parts. If you don’t feel like doing all the reading and want to see which protein powders we found. Click here and check them out. However, if you thirst for knowledge like Vikings lust for blood, read on, brave warrior.
Part one is all about the issues with the protein powder industry.
Part two is about the different types of protein powders available.
Part three is about the fantastic protein powders we found.
So what were we looking for in a protein powder?
First was minimal processing. Despite massive amounts of marketing money spent to make people think they are whole foods, most protein powders are heavily processed. Just because a company slaps words like raw or cold-processed does not mean they are. Most are the equivalent of white bread with a few synthetic vitamins or an insignificant spec of food powder added to make the label look good (fairy dusting).
It’s interesting to see people talk about eating whole foods and avoiding processed foods while at the same time drinking protein shakes made entirely of heavily refined ingredients (put down the collagen powder, it’s not what you think it is). Of course, we wanted ingredients to be processed as little as possible and made without acid washing, bleaching, or harsh chemical processing.
Protein powders should be gently-dried at low temperatures. Unfortunately, most of them are dried using very high heat, which denatures (damages) the proteins and can destroy fragile compounds.
Ensuring that the proteins are non-denatured is extremely important. Most protein powders end up denatured from harsh processing and poor drying methods. Many companies claim their proteins are non-denatured or “undenatured” (not a real thing, once a protein is denatured, it cannot be undenatured). They try to filter out the damaged proteins, leaving behind a narrow range of what they claim are “undenatured” proteins that survived the process. Unfortunately, the typical manufacturing process leaves a protein devoid or lacking in many beneficial intact proteins and compounds.
Protein powders should be free of added thickeners, gums, fillers, sweeteners, and flavorings (“natural” and artificial). Unfortunately, whey (haha, I made a protein pun, I’ll see myself out) too many protein powders have laundry lists of questionable additives.
Let’s talk sweeteners first. Most proteins contain a sweetener, such as:
These may harm the gut microbiome and increase cravings for sweet foods. Certainly not what we wanted in our proteins.
High fructose corn syrup
Most people get whey (there I go again) too much sugar in their diet. So there is no need to get some more in your protein shake.
These can cause some no so great feelings in your gut, such as gas, bloating, and loose stools for many people. In addition, they may harm the gut lining.
Unrefined stevia is green in color and has a potent flavor. It is very different than the white, heavily refined powders in most stores.
All of the “plant-derived” sweeteners are heavily refined, that to say they are “plant-based” is pure marketing at this point. They bear as much resemblance to the plant they came from as corn does to high fructose corn syrup. Many of these heavily refined sweeteners may cause unfavorable changes in the gut. In addition, all monk fruit and most stevia are coming from China now, where slave labor and environmental issues are rampant. They often come with a strange aftertaste that is unpleasant and certainly not something you want to have to choke down every day.
These are better choices than the other sweeteners, but we still felt it would be best to avoid them because most people are just getting too much sugar in their diet. However, if you need a sweetener in your protein shake, choose one of these.
Except for some unflavored protein powders, almost all contain flavoring. These flavorings can be both “natural” and artificial. We put the word natural in parenthesis because most of them are anything but natural. “Natural” flavoring can be made from many things, and there is almost no way actually to know what that is.
According to a great New York Times article on the topic:
“The loophole, as it were, is that for non-organic foods, the regulations do not restrict the dozens of other ingredients like preservatives and solvents that can go into a so-called natural flavor. Ultimately, because of the wide variety of ingredients that typically go into “natural” flavorings, “there does not seem to be much of a difference between natural and artificial flavors,” said David Andrews, a scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a research, and advocacy organization.
While food processors must list all of the ingredients on a food label, flavor manufacturers do not have to disclose their ingredients. They can add synthetic solvents, preservatives, emulsifiers, carriers, and other additives to a flavor that qualifies as natural under current regulations.”
We wanted protein powders that use whole foods such as direct-trade cacao, organic berries, and fair-trade vanilla beans for the flavors instead of flavorings made from god knows what.
Real food is always better!
Most proteins add a variety of thickening and emulsifying agents to make them mix in a certain way or improve solubility. These include cellulose gum, guar gum, and xanthan gum. Each of these has its issues and is completely unnecessary. They are cheap shortcuts that companies use instead of processes that result in better products but have a lower profit margin.
Lecithin is added to many proteins as part of the instantizing process. It is a harsh processing step that makes it mix a little easier, but it damages many of the fragile compounds. In addition, most lecithin is extracted with solvents such as hexane and acetone. We wanted proteins that were free of lecithin.
Companies will defend their additives, sweeteners, and flavorings, saying things like "A little won't hurt you" or "They are needed to make the formula work." However, they are really there to improve the profit margin, nothing else. Chocolate flavoring is cheaper than cacao, guar gum is less expensive than using a better quality protein, and refined sweeteners cost next to nothing compared to organic berries. You should want the best protein for your health, not what's best for the company's profit margin.
Heavy metal contamination, such as lead, cadmium, and arsenic, is a big problem with many protein powders, especially plant-based ones. It usually happens because of poor quality ingredients farmed in contaminated soils, particularly those from Southeast Asia, where most plant protein powders originate. Therefore, our protein powders needed to be low in heavy metals, and every batch gets tested to ensure this.
We wanted genuinely organic plant proteins (not fake corporate organic versions) grown in good soil, with proper crop rotation in an environmentally sustainable manner, without synthetic herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides. In addition, we wanted the people who grew them to get a fair price for their crops and a good wage for their labor.
We wanted animal-based proteins from 100% grass-fed animals. Animals that were well taken care of and spent their lives outdoors chilling in the fields, snacking on lush green pastures, doing happy cow things. Many companies claim to sell pasture-raised whey protein, but that has little meaning, and the animals could spend almost all their time in a feedlot, with just a few moments of pasture. Truly grass-fed is is better for you, the animals, and the environment. Check out this great article about how regenerative grazing and farming can help to combat climate change!
Regenerative grazing is the answer to our farming problems.
We wanted whole proteins, not isolates. Protein isolates strip away many beneficial compounds found in the foods that deliver the protein. It also requires a lot of processing to produce a protein isolate. We feel that the best way to get protein is from whole foods, so we wanted our powders to be real food, so they delivered the goodness those foods had to offer. An apple is more than just a single flavonoid, an orange is not just vitamin C, whole wheat is a far cry from white flour, and a steak is much more than just a collection of amino acids. So keep those things in mind when thinking about protein powders.
Many protein powders have isolated amino acids added. While people might think this is a good thing, it is one of the most common ways to adulterate a protein powder. Isolated amino acids make the nitrogen content of the protein appear higher. This helps to cheat the protein content testing and make the products seem to have higher protein levels than they do. While good testing can catch a lot of this, it is expensive, so most companies do not do it. So avoid protein powders with added amino acids (especially glutamine and taurine). You will often see them listed in the other ingredients. Unfortunately, some protein powders are adulterated with these amino acids, and it is not listed on the label. It is yet another reason to ensure that they can be traced back to the source, not just the company that slaps a label on the bottle.
We wanted companies who made their protein from seed or milk to bottle. Unfortunately, there are very, very few companies that do this. Nearly all protein powders come from a few big suppliers, and companies blend them with some additives and slap their labels on the bottle. It makes it almost impossible to know where they came from and if they were adulterated. We wanted them to do everything from growing and milling the seeds to filtering the milk from small, family farmers.
We wanted farm-to-bottle proteins. Since it is nearly impossible to know where most protein powders come from, transparency is severely lacking with almost all protein powders. They might list a country or region, but that does not tell much. There are good and bad farming practices in every country. We believe that farm-to-bottle is the only way to ensure clean and ethically produced supplements. The people who come up with new forms of adulteration will always be three steps ahead of those developing the tests to find them. Check the Rotten episode on honey (on Netflix) to learn how this often plays out. Farm-to-bottle allows us to know that the people who produce it get paid a fair price for their work, that the land it comes from is well taken care of, and any animals involved (such as dairy cows for whey) are well taken care of.
Packaging was another focus of ours. Most protein shakes come in giant plastic tubs and create a lot of waste. We wanted to find protein shakes in bags, tins, or cardboard packaging, to significantly reduce the amount of plastic used and lower the carbon footprint in shipping.
Last but certainly not least, they had to taste good and mix well. It does not matter how great the product is if it tastes bad or does not mix into a shake. We found some great products along the way, but some of them did not taste good or were very gritty, so we kept looking. Any protein shake we chose had to mix well in just a simple shaker cup. By the way, these glass blender bottles are a great alternative to plastic shaker bottles.
Looking at the lists of our wants in protein powders, we knew it would be a daunting task, but we wanted every box checked. We could have taken the easy way out, slapped our name on a private label product, and made up a great story as most companies do, but that’s not how we roll. Private label is the exact opposite of the transparency that we believe in.
Head over to part two to learn about the different protein powders available, from soy to whey.
You made it to the end. You've earned a doggo high five!