What are the protein powder ingredients to avoid?

Written by Jack Schrupp and reviewed by Ella McGonagle, M.S. Nutrition

Wondering what ingredients to avoid in protein powder? In this article, I will cover the top protein powder ingredients to avoid. Many protein powders contain ingredients that cause uncomfortable side effects, and, in some cases, long term health health problems. Before you use any protein powder, read the ingredient list.

“If you have a sensitive gut, you need simple ingredients.”

-Brittany Carpenter, MS, RDN/LDN

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The top 3 protein powder ingredients to avoid.

1. Food additives.

2. Dairy.

3. Protein isolates.

Why drink wholesome?

Take a look at the ingredient list on your protein powder. It probably contains a number of ingredients that you do not recognize. These are most likely food additives, heavily-processed ingredients added to protein powder to improve characteristics like texture and shelf-life. Food additives help protein powder companies do things like create a dairy-like mouthfeel without the dairy. That is, everyone wants a protein shake that tastes like a milkshake, but no one wants all the calories, fat, and sugar. Food additives make this possible. That said, eating lots of food additives is not good for you. 

1. Food additives.


Food additives are one of the top ingredients to avoid in protein powder. 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 hard to digest, and 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), and 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.

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When buying protein powder for sensitive stomachs, one ingredient to avoid in particular is artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners are among the most harmful food 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, widespread inflammation, and permanent damage to the gut microbiome. 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 buying protein powder for sensitive stomachs, however. There are several other ingredients that can upset your stomach.

the alternative:

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.

2. Dairy.


Dairy-based proteins are another one of the top ingredients to avoid in protein powder. Many protein powders are made with whey and casein, which are byproducts of cheese and yogurt production, and known to cause digestive issues, especially for people with lactose intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Over one in three Americans are lactose intolerant, and the prevalence of IBS is somewhere between 10 and 15 percent in the United States. It follows that you may be lactose intolerant or have IBS and not even know it. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a poorly understood condition, and it is unclear why dairy triggers symptoms. Lactose intolerance, on the other hand, is clearly understood. People with lactose intolerance are unable to fully digest lactose, the sugar in dairy. As you just learned, partially digested food feeds the bacteria in your gut, which produce gas. 

3. Protein isolates.


Protein isolates are also one of the top ingredients to avoid in protein powder. Most protein powders are made with protein concentrates and/or isolates, foods stripped of everything but the protein. They are listed on the ingredient list as “pea protein” and “whey protein” as opposed to “peas” and “whey.” I 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.

If you think about it, your gut was designed to digest naturally occurring foods, not laboratory formulated imitations, so if you feed it anything but real food, it might get upset. The long term implications of eating processed foods are still not well understood, but more and more research is finding that it can alter the composition of your gut microbiota, and lead to permanent damage to the gut microbiome. It is therefore in your best interest to avoid protein powders made with protein concentrates and isolates. 

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Why drink wholesome?


Instead of using food additives, dairy-based proteins, and protein isolates, we make our protein powders with whole foods like egg whites and almonds. Egg whites are simply pasteurized and dried before becoming protein powder. Almonds are just roasted, pressed, and ground. Whole foods like these are an easy to digest, gut-friendly alternative protein concentrates and isolates. This is in part because whole foods contain a variety of enzymes and other digestive aids that help to break down the food, making it easier for the body to absorb the nutrients. Protein isolates and concentrates, on the other hand, have been stripped of these digestive aids, making them harder for the body to digest and absorb. Moreover, minimally-processed plant-based foods like almonds are rich in fiber, which helps promote healthy digestion and regular bowel movements.

Unless you have a sensitivity or allergy to eggs, egg white protein is the best protein for your gut. Egg whites are low in fiber, low-FODMAP, naturally alkaline, 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. We prefer almonds to other minimally-processed plant protein sources because they are more gut-friendly. Research suggests that almonds possess prebiotic properties and can improve the diversity and composition of the gut microbiome.

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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.