Hearing that you need protein in your diet is old news, but what’s new 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?
Check out my choices for the best whey and vegan protein powders.
*To learn more about the importance of protein, read Vegan Protein.
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.
Top ingredients to avoid in whey and vegan protein powders:
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.
3. Conventional (non-organic) Whey
Whey comes from milk, and is a natural byproduct of cheese-making. Cows in non-organic dairies are often injected with growth hormones, antibiotics and chemicals to increase the production of milk, and are fed genetically modified grain laden with pesticides. As a result, non organic dairy (milk and cheese) contains antibiotics, pesticides and hormones, all of which are toxic to the body. These toxins can cause resistance to antibiotics, damage to our cells, and interrupt our hormone balance leading to weight gain (especially around the hips, stomach and chest area), mood and menstrual disorders. Studies have even shown pesticides and hormones to be carcinogenic and can also be linked to early onset of puberty. These are the main reasons why you only want to consume organic dairy.
The majority of these toxins are found in the fat portion of dairy (milk, cheese, cream and butter), and whey is the protein section of dairy. Therefore, the risk of exposure to these toxins from consuming whey is not nearly as high as consuming other dairy products. With that being said, most of us use our protein powder every day, oftentimes multiple times a day, and so the chronic use leads to a higher exposure. While the toxins may be present in more scant amounts, they are still there, accumulating in the body over time. That is why my recommendation is to only consume organic whey, not conventional whey.
4. New Protein Powders – first batch runs
If you have kept up with the news in regards to supplements and work out performance products, than you probably have heard the mention of steroids and drugs. Unfortunately it is a common practice for steroids and stimulating drugs to be added into protein formulas. These additions help to deliver quick results for those taking it, leading to “street cred” and therefore rapid sales when a new product is first released on the market. This is a practice used by many companies, especially those companies that are marketing under the body building brand. Steroids and drugs are not typically added long term though – oftentimes eliminated after the first batch or run of the product. That is because these companies do risk being discovered by the FDA, so they take them out as soon as they get the BUZZ they need to ensure successful sales. My recommendation is to wait to purchase a protein powder until it has been on the market for at least 6 months. This way you have a better chance of avoiding harmful drugs or steroids.
5. Artificial Colors
If you see any mention of artificial colors (yellow #5, blue #1, red #40) in a protein powder, do not eat it. Artificial colors have now been shown in research to have a connection to cancer and to behavioral disorders, such as ADD and ADHD. Besides, do you really need your protein powder to blueberry blue or sunflower yellow? Avoid at all costs.
Added Bonus: Cold Processed Whey
Most whey is heat processed. When whey is processed with heat, the nutrients are damaged. The high heat damages the amino acids that make up the protein, and the nutrients that give whey its immune supporting qualities are minimized. Therefore, it is best to purchase whey that has been cold processed. This prevents the protein from being denatured, and helps to keep the nutrients in their natural state. Just like you don’t want to eat processed food products like chips, crackers and packaged foods, you do not want to eat processed whey protein either.
Note about Heavy Metals
The presence of heavy metals in protein powders (mostly vegan) has been in the media quite often lately, and so I think it is worth mentioning. To start, heavy metals are in our soil, and in the soil everywhere. To what degree depends on the location, and the environmental conditions of an area. Therefore, all of our food contains certain levels of heavy metals. From the carrots and celery you snack on, to the lettuce and kale you put in your salad, you are consuming heavy metals in every bite. So why is it in the media?
For one, certain states such as California have changed their legislation. They have lowered the limits of heavy metals that must be reported, to levels that are not actually hazardous to the consumer. In fact, there is much debate over these new limits, since scientists and experts on the topic are claiming that a bowl of salad would contain more heavy metals than what is legal based on the new laws. Therefore, because of this legislation, products and supplements now all have to have a warning label stating that metals are present, when in fact the level that they are present in their product is no more than what you would normally consume in a day eating healthy organic produce.
To sum it up, I would not drive yourself crazy about metals being present in your protein powders. Just stick with the best and highest quality brands, and you should be good to go. While there can be protein powders with toxic levels of heavy metals, if you are purchasing the high quality ones like I mention, most likely you will be okay. You should also consider contacting the protein powder companies directly to find out more. They all should have heavy metal analysis reports that they can easily send to you, and if they don’t look for another company.
If you currently have high levels of metals already present in your body, consider taking a natural chelator such as cilantro or chlorella. These foods bind to metals in the body and carry them out. So if you want to err on the side of safety, throw some cilantro and chlorella into your protein shake every day. Make sure to purchase a chlorella that is broken cell wall for optimal absorption. My favorite is Detox-ND by Premier Research Labs or Chlorella Manna Powder by HealthForce. The Detox ND is more appropriate if you have known heavy metal toxicity, and the Manna Powder is better for ongoing prevention, which in my opinion is always a good idea.
The best whey and vegan protein powders
The following powders are my favorite based on taste and quality. I have not tried each and every one, so if you have a recommendation that fits our criteria, please let me know if the comments!
The Best Whey Proteins
1. Tera’s Whey (goat and cow)
7. Mattole Valley Naturals (Cow and Goat Whey)
8. Dolce Whey by Onnit
The Best Vegan Protein
1. Sunwarrior Warrior Blend Protein (pea, cranberry, hemp)
2. Sunwarrior Classic Rice Protein(brown rice)
3. Mattole Valley Naturals (tocotrienols, hemp, chia, maca)
4. Essential Living Foods Wild Protein (Hemp, Coconut Milk Powder, Chia, Moringa, Spirulina, Milk Thistle, Burdock Root)
5. Vega Sport Performance Protein(pea, saviseed, brown rice, alfalfa)
7.Manitoba Harvest Hemp Protein (hemp)
8. Perfect Fit Protein(brown rice)
9. Green Dream by Philosophie(hemp, chia, tocotrienols, maca, spirulina, mesquite)
Closing Thoughts: Finding the best whey and vegan protein powders is worth the effort and the price. One of the first things that you may notice is the cost of these products. They are not cheap. The reason being is their quality. Just like organic produce or the best cut of meat is expensive, or even the nicest clothes or cars, so is protein powder. It is no different, and you should not view it as so.
My solution to you is to use these protein powders sparingly – once a day. Use them as an adjunct to the protein that you are getting from food so that your total intake for the day is optimal. If you are raw, vegan or vegetarian, this is going to be a bit more difficult, but there are plenty of plant-based foods that contain protein. Check out my Plant-Based Protein Guide to get an idea of which foods can act as your protein source. Another great way to increase your protein is to take an amino acid supplement. This is going to be particularly essential if you are working out and trying to build muscle, have a hard time eating enough food to meet your protein needs, or are still growing (for those kiddos out there). I personally like Branched Chained Amino Acids by Pure Encapsulations. Finally, this list is not the end all be all. I have not tried every single protein powder out there, so there are bound to be others. If there is a protein powder at your local store that you want to try, just make sure to read the ingredients. You now have the tools that you need to make an informed choice about your protein powders, so use it! Just make sure to with us what you think are the best whey and vegan protein powders.
Remember that almost ALL cheaper protein powders contain one or more toxic ingredients, and that is precisely why they are cheap. You do NOT want to be eating a toxic protein powder. I have seen this cause a lot of stress to the system, even leading to more severe kidney conditions, especially in those that are eating large amounts of the protein daily.
Happy Protein Hunting!!