A common sight in gyms, the protein shake has enjoyed surging popularity: But are you getting the fitness boost you paid for?
You’re at the gym, exhausted after that final round of circuit training. Like many gym nuts, you reach for a protein shake, ready to guzzle down the mixture that will take your workout to the next level. At least that’s what its canister promised.
Many of us know the benefits of taking protein shakes, such as its ability to nourish, repair and build muscle, but do we understand what precisely goes into them? Recently, health supplement companies have been under fire for overstating protein levels in their shakes, using quantities of cheap fillers instead. Although these fillers are largely harmless, knowing what goes into protein supplements will prevent you from getting ripped off.
This Aerinlé guide on reading protein shake labels will help you make an informed choice for your workout needs!
Step 1: Pick your protein shake blend
Don’t let the fine print faze you. If not stated on the front, you can glean more information about the type of protein you are taking from the ingredient list, which is commonly located below or beside the ‘Nutritional Facts’ panel. By law, manufacturers are required to list the ingredients in descending order; be sure to check whether the protein blend comes first!
There are many types of protein blends suited for different needs. Some of the common ones include:
Whey protein: A by-product of cheese, whey protein is low in lactose and contains all 9 essential amino acids that the body is unable to produce. Absorbed quickly, it is the most popular choice due to its relatively lower cost.
There are three types of whey protein blends:
Whey protein isolate – With a protein content of 90 to 95 per cent, this has been processed to remove all lactose and fat, which makes for speedier absorption and digestion.
Whey protein concentrate Contains 30 to 90 per cent protein, with low levels of fat and lactose. It is the most balanced and cheapest option of the three.
Whey protein hydrolysate – This has the highest protein content at 99 per cent and is the most expensive. Easily digestible, but has a funky taste that could be hard to mask.
Soy protein: For the vegetarians and vegans, this alternative contains all 9 essential amino acids and works as well as whey proteins. One caveat may be the risk of affecting estrogen hormone levels, due to the isoflavones in soy.
Casein protein: Derived from cow’s milk, casein digests at a slower pace. This is perfect for a gradual release of nutrients while you sleep.
Pea protein: Have a weak stomach? This lactose, fat and gluten-free option may be your best bet. However, it lacks cystine, an amino acid.
Step 2: Determine the amount of protein in each serving
Ultimately, shakes are consumed to provide the body with protein. It is crucial to check the ‘Nutritional Facts’ panel to determine the amount of protein and know that you are getting all the goodness the product claims to provide. Look out for the serving size (usually in scoops), serving weight and protein weight per serving in the panel.
Grab a calculator to make sense of the numbers. Depending on the type of blend, the proportion of protein usually ranges from 30 to 99 per cent. If it has a 30 per cent concentrate, it means that 70 per cent of the product is made up of other ingredients such as carbohydrates, fats or other flavourings, that isn’t as effective. To maximise results, get a protein shake that is at least 70 to 80 per cent protein.
Here is a simple formula to find out the actual percentage of protein in your shake, aka the yield.
(g) protein per serving / (g) serving size = % protein
Using the information from the image above, the yield is:
16g/35g = approx. 45%
Do give allowance for extra ingredients (which we will go in more detail on Step 3) that may lower the protein percentage.
Step 3: Check for any unnecessary ingredients
Your yummy, chocolate flavoured shake doesn’t taste that way because of protein alone. Manufacturers can add artificial or natural flavouring and sweeteners to give your drink a more palatable taste, and these are stated on the ingredient list. Keep a lookout for complicated names that may throw you off on really simple ingredients, such as sodium chloride (salt) or natural cane sugar (which is just sugar). Also, make sure your body is not allergic to certain artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame which may cause headaches.
As mentioned, many supplement companies are guilty of overstating protein levels using fillers. Avoid choosing products with the terms creatine, taurine, glycine, leucine or beta-alanine in their ingredient lists, which are amino acids used to spike protein levels. While technically a component of protein, they cannot be used as substitutes for complete proteins.
Lastly, be wary of these ingredients that may do more harm than good such as:
Maltodextrin: A cheap filler full of empty calories used to improve taste and texture. Serves no nutritional purpose and is not needed in protein supplements.
High fructose corn syrup: An artificial sweetener that greatly improves the taste of drinks. However, constant intake has been linked to various health problems, such as weight gain and Type 2 diabetes.