Protein shakes vary widely when it comes to quality, ingredients, prices, and intended uses—and there are no routine tests performed on them by the FDA. So how do you tell the good from the bad? Eastchester nutritionist Jacqui Justice cautions customers to “read the label.” A short ingredient list, she says, is key. “Look out for things like sugar, artificial sweeteners, and other additives.” Ideally, a high-quality protein powder should be just protein and perhaps a natural added flavor, like vanilla.
According to Justice, many protein powders also contain vegetable cellulose, which helps the powder to bind to the liquid.
Justice says the best protein powders can be found at places like Whole Foods and Mrs. Green’s, and also favors professional brands like Designs for Health, and Moss Nutrition, which are available through many dietitians and nutritionists.
It’s not just athletes who are turning to protein powders; many others use them as a way to boost their protein intake, have an on-the-go snack or meal, or help build muscle.
Here’s our scoop on a few of the most popular types of protein. Some other forms include egg white, rice, hemp, and casein.
Whey protein is the most commonly used today, and has been shown to promote both fat loss and the growth of lean muscle. Additionally, it supports cardiovascular health and a healthy metabolism. Although whey is derived from turning milk into cheese, it’s low in lactose.
The purest of the three forms is whey protein isolate, which is good for those who are lactose-intolerant. It’s also very low in fat and contains between 90 and 95 percent protein. Justice says it’s “very bioavailable,” meaning it’s easily absorbed and utilized by the body.
Soy protein is one that vegans and vegetarians might consider. This plant-based “heart-healthy” protein is rich in nutrients. Soybeans contain no cholesterol and are low in saturated fat. But soy can have an unpleasant taste and doesn’t dissolve as well in water. In addition, because it contains phyto-estrogens, its use is controversial for those with hormone-sensitive cancers or conditions, according to the Mayo Clinic. And for those who suffer from a slow thyroid, soy can slow it down even more, Justice says. “If you want to use soy, make sure to look for organic, non-GMO soy,” she advises.
Pea Protein is gaining in popularity among vegans, vegetarians, and those who are looking for an alternative to whey. It’s derived from the yellow pea, the most highly digestible of the plant proteins, which makes it a good choice for those with sensitive stomachs, says Justice, who adds that it is also hypoallergenic. (Don’t worry, she says; it doesn’t taste like peas!) One labeled “pea protein isolate” contains a higher protein content.
Premixed Protein Drinks like Boost or Ensure and other ready-to-drink shakes are used by many, but are usually loaded with sugars and other chemicals. Justice says that you’re better off making your own protein drink using a high-quality protein powder.