What is the best natural protein powder?
What is natural?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers the term “natural” to mean “that nothing artificial or synthetic has been included in, or has been added to a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.” According to this definition, many protein powders can be considered natural, as they do not contain artificial or synthetic ingredients.
The problem with this definition, however, is that it does not address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor does it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods. Many “natural” foods that we eat underwent some degree of food processing, which calls into question the meaning of the word natural. How can an almond and a granola bar both be natural? One is naturally-occurring, whereas the other is derived from heavily-processed naturally occurring ingredients.
To further illustrate the limited scope of the FDA’s definition, I like to use the example of natural flavors, which are used in many protein powders. According to the FDA, the term natural flavor refers to
“the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”
Is it just me, or does this mouthful of a definition make no sense at all? How can we classify these flavors as natural when they are so far removed from nature? To make matters worse, while food manufacturers are required to disclose their ingredients, flavor manufacturers are not. They can add solvents, preservatives, emulsifiers, carriers and other additives to a flavor that qualifies as “natural” under current regulations. This means that the natural flavor on your ingredient list might just be a catch-all term for everything that a manufacturer would rather not spell out on the ingredient list.
Real foods are better.
Given the limited scope of the FDA’s definition, we encourage our customers to eat real foods. Unlike natural foods, real foods are always close to nature because they must be minimally processed, and can contain only one ingredient. An almond is a perfect example of a real food. It is just an almond. You can climb a tree, pick one, and eat it as it is. Natural flavors, on the other hand, are not real foods. You cannot find natural flavors in nature, and as you just learned, they often contain more than one ingredient.
Most protein powders are made with ingredients that do not qualify as real foods. They may be natural according to the FDA, but you now know that does not mean much. Here are a few of the top fake “natural” ingredients used in protein powder, and a few reasons why you should avoid them.
Most protein powders are full of food additives. Although not necessarily bad for you in small quantities, additives can add up quickly (especially if you drink a protein shake every day) and cause gastrointestinal (GI) side effects like bloating, constipation, diarrhea, gas, and stomach pain. This is because food additives are, generally speaking, hard to digest. They sit in your gut for longer than food should, which gives your gut bacteria more time to eat. As they eat, these bacteria produce gas, which causes bloating and stomach pain. Gas also slows colonic transit (the amount of time it takes food to travel through the colon), which can lead to constipation.
In the long term, food additives can disrupt regulatory pathways in the intestine, which can result in the development of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and systemic inflammatory disorders. Artificial sweeteners are among the most harmful additives in the long term as they alter the composition of your gut microbiota (the collection of microorganisms that help you digest food). This can lead to serious, chronic GI problems and widespread inflammation. Some sweeteners, especially sugar alcohols like xylitol, are also poorly absorbed by the gut (meaning they feed those hungry gut bacteria) and cause diarrhea because they draw water into your intestine. Now you finally have something to blame for those post-protein shake trips to the bathroom!
Here is a list of the most common food additives in protein powder:
acacia gum, acesulfame potassium, artificial flavors, aspartame, carrageenan, cellulose gum, dextrin, dextrose, erythritol, gellan gum, guar gum, gum arabic, inulin, locust bean gum, “natural” flavors*, maltodextrin, rice syrup solids, soy lecithin, silica, sucralose, sunflower lecithin, xanthan gum, xylitol
When it comes to identifying food additives, go with your gut. 😉 As a rule of thumb, they are the ingredients that you cannot pronounce. Food additives are not the only thing to look out for when natural buying protein powder, however. There are several other ingredients that can upset your stomach.
egg whites, coconut, cocoa, monk fruit
Protein Matrix Comprised of (Whey Protein Concentrate, Whey Protein Isolate, Calcium Caseinate, Micellar Casein, Milk Protein Isolate, Egg Albumen, Glutamine Peptides), Polydextrose, Sunflower Creamer (Sunflower Oil, Corn Syrup Solids, Sodium Caseinate, Mono- and Diglycerides, Dipotassium Phosphate, Tricalcium Phosphate, Soy Lecithin, Tocopherols), Natural and Artificial Flavor, MCT Powder (Medium Chain Triglycerides, Nonfat Dry Milk, Disodium Phosphate, Silicon Dioxide), Lecithin, Cellulose Gum, Salt, Yellow 5, Sucralose, Acesulfame Potassium, Papain, Bromelain.
*This is the actual ingredient list of one of the best-selling protein powders in the United States.
Protein concentrates and isolates.
Most protein powders are made with protein concentrates and isolates, “fake” foods stripped of everything but the protein. They are listed on the ingredient list as “pea protein,” for example, as opposed to “peas.” We will not go into the details, but protein concentrates and isolates undergo heavy mechanical and chemical processing before becoming protein powder. Sometimes, manufacturers use chemical solvents like hexane to isolate (separate) the protein from the food. This means that what you end up putting into your body looks nothing like real food. The potential problem here is that your gut might not know what to do with ingredients like these. Your gut prefers the real thing, not some heavily-processed imitation, so protein concentrates and isolates might be hard to digest for people with sensitive stomachs.
Instead of protein concentrates or isolates, we use egg whites and almonds. Egg whites are simply pasteurized and dried before becoming protein powder. Almonds are just roasted, pressed, and ground. Minimally-processed real foods like these are easy to digest and a stomach and gut-friendly alternative to protein concentrates and isolates.
Unless you have a sensitivity or allergy to eggs, egg white protein is the best protein for people with sensitive stomachs. Egg whites are low in fiber, low-FODMAP, and have the highest protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) of any whole food. Our customers have experienced fewer digestive issues with egg white protein than with any other type of protein.
If you cannot eat eggs, try our almond protein powder. Unlike protein concentrates or isolates, almonds contain lots of healthy fats, fiber, and other nutrients like calcium and vitamin E. We prefer almonds to other minimally-processed plant protein sources because they are more gut-friendly. Research suggests that almonds can improve the diversity and composition of the gut microbiome. Research also suggests that almonds possess prebiotic properties, meaning they stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut.
“I just finished my first bag and ordered 2 more! I Iove this stuff! I have IBS and every protein powder hurts my stomach…except drink wholesome!”
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. drink wholesome is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.