Protein powders can be a convenient way to bump up your protein intake if you're undertaking a solid exercise routine. Aside from repairing body tissue, a diet high in protein has been shown to keep you leaner, stronger and promote a healthy body composition. As far as protein products are concerned, they are generally marketed based on the type of host ingredient they're sourced from. A common example is whey protein which is derived from milk, but you'll also see egg protein and increasingly common are vegetable proteins such as rice or pea.
However, despite being marketed as a 'protein powder' many products are actually quite low in protein in terms of percentage of dry weight. Ideally, a protein powder should be over 85% protein - if it isn't, then you really need to be asking questions. After all, why would you want to pay anywhere up to $80 per kilo for something which is not a pure product?
So if your protein powder is not actually high in protein, then what's in it? To answer this, it helps to understand the sources of the protein a little better. For example, carbohydrates can still be present after the whey is separated from milk, or when the vegetable protein is sourced from a grain or legume. Likewise, a smaller percentage of fats can also be found. These naturally occurring compounds are not usually detrimental to the overall quality of the protein supplement provided the product is made using good quality ingredients in the first place. Just make sure that no additional carbohydrates, sugars or fats have been unnecessarily added to an otherwise good quality product.
But what about the list of often enigmatic or chemical ingredients?
Artificial sweeteners are of particular concern here. There is a growing body of research linking some sweetener compounds to toxicity in the liver/kidney, adrenal fatigue and even some types of cancers.
There's also evidence to show that many chemicals found in foods which cannot be properly digested by the body (artificial colours, flavours, preservatives) disrupt normal metabolic functions, often resulting in the compound being stored in the body's fat cells, thus making the stored fat more difficult to metabolise in the future.
It really does pay to do plenty of research on the ingredients before making a purchase, especially given the volume of protein powder which is often taken on an almost daily basis.
So what are the alternatives?
Firstly & fore mostly, if you want to increase your protein intake the best way to do this is to source your protein from clean, whole food sources. Lean meats, nuts & seeds, eggs and a limited range of grains & legumes are all readily available sources of protein. Also, when the whole food is consumed, the protein often comes pre-packed with a broad range of complimentary macro & micro nutrients which support the synthesis of one another. In short, a whole food source of protein is a 'complete meal' rather than an isolated supplement.
This is not to say that protein powders do not have their place in terms of convenience. So if having a shake or smoothie on the go is your thing, then perhaps try to source a pure form of protein that does not have any questionable additional ingredients. Look for brands which sell whey protein in it's pure form with no additional flavours, colours or sweeteners. It has a mild, neutral milk flavour which goes really well in pretty much any smoothie you can imagine and often boasts a protein level of well over 90%. Pure, raw rice protein is also a fantastic vegan alternative with a high protein level and good versatility, especially in raw cooking.
As with any formulated product, ask plenty of questions and research the ingredients well. If it's not a real food, then why eat it?