Jan. 10. 2020
McKel Hill Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Hill Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

Founder of Nutrition Stripped and the Mindful Nutrition Method™

Adding protein powder to your daily routine is often considered a quick and convenient way to bump up your intake of this essential nutrient. But do you know what’s lurking in your protein powder?

Take a quick look at the label and you’ll probably spot a few familiar ingredients, such as whey, casein, pea protein, or soy. But keep reading and you may notice a few other ingredients, many of which sound like they belong in a chemistry lab rather than on your shelf. From fillers to food thickeners to artificial sweeteners and beyond, let’s take a look at some of the most common ingredients in protein powder, plus how to pick the best type next time you go shopping.

6 Common Protein Powder Ingredients

1. Whey/Casein

Whey and casein are two types of protein found in milk, and they’re among the most common sources of protein in many supplements. Whey protein is digested very quickly in the body while casein is digested much slower. However, both can be highly beneficial for muscle-building and tissue repair.

That being said, these milk proteins are high in lactose, a type of milk sugar that many are unable to digest. For those with lactose intolerance, consuming protein powders with whey or casein can cause side effects like gas, bloating, stomach pain, and diarrhea (1).

Plant-based protein powders made from ingredients like hemp, pea, brown rice, or chia seeds may be a good alternative if you find that you can’t tolerate milk-based products.

2. Milk solids

The term “milk solids” refers to the non-liquid components of milk, including proteins, lactose, and certain minerals. Milk solids are often used as a bulking agent for protein powders, and they’re especially common in low-quality products to help keep costs down.

For the most part, the milk solids found in protein powders have few benefits when it comes to health. The protein is not well-absorbed or utilized by the body and the lactose can cause issues for those who are unable to digest it. For this reason, it’s best to skip products that contain milk solids whenever possible.

3. Artificial sweeteners

Often used as a quick way to enhance the flavor of protein powders without significantly altering the nutritional profile, artificial sweeteners are increasingly common in many products currently on the market.

Although the use of these products remains highly controversial, non-nutritive sweeteners like saccharine, aspartame, sucralose, neotame, and acesulfame-K are considered safe by the United States Food and Drug Administration (2). However, several human and animal studies have found that some artificial sweeteners could have adverse effects on gut health, blood sugar levels, and body weight (3, 4, 5). Therefore, it’s best to use with caution or opt for natural sweeteners like stevia instead.

4. Fillers

Fillers such as psyllium, cellulose, or coconut flour are added to many products by manufacturers looking to boost profits by cutting costs. While these ingredients aren’t necessarily harmful, they can be a sign of a lower-quality product. For some, they may also trigger digestive issues like gas, bloating, or belching (6).

5. Food thickeners

Thickening agents like xanthan gum, dextrin, arrowroot, or gelatin are used to improve the texture of many food products, including protein powders. When consumed in large amounts, however, these ingredients can impact regularity, gut health, and digestion (7). Some are also sourced from common allergens such as wheat, soy, dairy, or corn, which can be problematic for those with a sensitivity to these ingredients.

6. Vegetable oils

Many types of protein powder contain vegetable oils to improve the flavor and texture while also adding richness to the final product. Unfortunately, these oils are often heavily processed and may contain hydrogenated fats, also known as trans fats.

Trans fats can be detrimental to several aspects of health. In fact, research has found that an increased intake of trans fats could be linked to a higher risk of heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and even certain types of cancer (8). The American Heart Association recommends reducing your intake of trans fats by limiting the consumption of fried foods, hydrogenated oils, and processed ingredients whenever possible (9).

How to Pick the Best Protein Powder

After decoding the ingredients on your protein powder, you may be wondering how to get the best bang for your buck next time you shop for supplements. Here are a few simple tips to help you pick the best protein powder:

  1. Check the ingredients label and look for products that contain as few ingredients as possible
  2. Pick a protein powder that is free of artificial flavorings, additives, and fillers
  3. Select unsweetened protein powders without any added sugars or artificial sweeteners
  4. Look for products that have undergone third-party testing to ensure quality and safety
  5. Opt for GMO-free, sustainably-sourced products whenever possible
  6. Check out my list of the best plant-based protein powders for a few of my favorites in terms of taste, price, and quality

NS Recommends

There are plenty of options available for increasing your protein intake. Whether it’s from food sources or supplements, it’s important to be sure that you’re getting the best quality possible to help optimize your health, and picking a protein powder that’s free of fillers, additives, and chemicals is a great place to start.

If you’re looking for more support and ways to boost your protein intake, then check out our Wellness Coaching. We offer appointments virtually and all of our NS Wellness Coaches are professionally trained to give you expert guidance and practical plans for long-term health! Click here to take the client quiz.