What is the best sugar-free protein powder?
What is the deal with sugar?
With so many fad diets and sources of nutrition advice, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction, especially when it comes to sugar. First of all, sugar is not necessarily bad for you. The naturally occurring sugars in fruits and vegetables, for example, are part of a healthy diet. Added sugars, on the other hand, are a different story.
In 2016, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) revised the Nutrition Facts label to include both “Total Sugars” and “Added Sugars.” Added Sugars are sugars introduced to food during processing. Total Sugars are added sugars as well as naturally occurring sugars like those in fruits.
The Daily Value – the amount of that the FDA recommends we eat – for Added Sugars is 50 grams per day based on a 2,000 calorie daily diet. In other words, the FDA recommends that no more than 10 percent of your daily caloric intake come from Added Sugars. This is because eating too many Added Sugars can raise your risk for chronic disease such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
There is no Daily Value for Total Sugars, and according to the FDA, “sugar-free” means that one serving of food contains less than 0.5 grams of Total Sugars.
Just because a protein powder is sugar-free, or even added sugar-free, does not make it good for you. Sugar content is one indication of how healthy a food is, but there are many other indicators that are just as, if not more, important. The ingredients in your protein powder, for example, are arguably more important than the amount of sugar.
I would argue that a natural protein powder with a few grams of sugar is better for you than a sugar-free protein powder made with artificial sweeteners.
Avoid artificial sweeteners.
Artificial sweeteners are chemicals added to foods and beverages to make them sweet, and appear on the ingredient list of most sugar-free protein powders. The two most popular artificial sweeteners are sucralose and acesulfame potassium.
Artificial sweeteners are so popular because of their intense sweetness. A pinch of artificial sweetener, for example, can be used to achieve the same amount of sweetness as several tablespoons of sugar. This allows protein powder companies to reduce both the caloric and sugar content of their products.
Although artificial sweeteners offer sweetness with virtually zero calories or sugar, they are not good for you. Several studies suggest that artificial sweeteners increase cravings toward sugary and sweet foods, which can lead to binging and feelings of withdrawal. Other studies have associated artificial sweeteners with a higher risk of glucose intolerance, which is a precursor for pre-diabetes and diabetes.
Research also suggests that artificial sweeteners are bad for your gut. In the short term, artificial sweeteners are poorly digested and feed your gut bacteria, which produce gas that causes bloating, cramps, and nausea. In the long term, artificial sweeteners alter the composition of your gut microbiota (the collection of microorganisms that help you digest food). This can lead to serious GI problems and widespread inflammation.
Finally, some artificial sweeteners can cause diarrhea because they draw water into your gut. Now you have something to blame for those post-protein shake trips to the bathroom!
Another reason to avoid artificial sweeteners is the bad aftertaste. Artificial sweeteners are often way too sweet, and have a bitter aftertaste because they activate bitter taste receptors. This bitterness, which many say reminds them of licking aluminum foil, can linger in your mouth for hours.
“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!”
What about stevia?
Some sugar-free protein powders are sweetened with stevia, an inexpensive zero calorie sweetener derived from the stevia rebaudiana plant. Stevia is over 100 times sweeter than table sugar, and is considered by many to be a natural alternative to artificial sweeteners. Few people know, however, that stevia is extracted from the stevia rebaudiana plant using chemicals like ethanol and methyl alcohol. This, one could argue, makes it barely more natural than the artificial sweeteners that it seeks to replace. In fact, a recent class action lawsuit filed in California reached a $6.1 million settlement because it was ruled that the company in question falsely labeled and advertised its stevia sweeteners as natural. Stevia also has a bitter aftertaste because it too activates bitter taste receptors.
If not artificial sweeteners or stevia, then what do you use?
In addition to our sugar-free unflavored protein powder, we make several flavored protein powders. They are added sugar-free, but do contain a few grams of naturally occurring sugar. In order to make them sweet, we use a natural sweetener called monk fruit. Monk fruit – also known as luo han guo – is a melon-like fruit native to Southeast Asia. Monk fruit sweetener is created by removing the seeds and skin of the fruit, crushing the fruit, and collecting the juice, which is then dried into a concentrated powder. As far as sugar-free sweeteners go, monk fruit is the most natural and best tasting; it actually tastes like sugar.
Given that monk fruit sweetener has only been commercially available for about a decade, its impact on, and association with, chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes has not been well documented. That said, it has been safely used in Asian cuisine for centuries and has no known side effects, even when consumed in large quantities. Moreover, small randomized trials have shown that monk fruit sweetener does not negatively impact blood sugar or insulin levels. For this reason, as well as those outlined above, we believe that monk fruit is the best available sweetener for our protein powders. Most protein powder companies do not use monk fruit because it is expensive.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.