Ask Gerda: What to Look for in Protein Powders and Bars?
Gerda Endemann, our senior director of science and research, has a BS in nutrition from UC Berkeley, a PhD in nutritional biochemistry from MIT, and a passion for cherry-picking from our wellness shop. She spends a lot of her time interpreting research—established and emerging. And our wellness routines thank her for this. (Yours will, too. Send us your own questions for Gerda: [email protected].)
Dear goop, I’m overwhelmed trying to decide on a protein powder to use in smoothies, let alone figure out which protein bar to choose. Can you please make a few recommendations? And do I even need to worry about the amount of protein I eat? —Alex B.
Hi, Alex. If you’re left on your own to eat whatever whole foods you want, you’ll probably get enough protein (and other nutrients), but there are a couple of reasons this isn’t effortless for everyone. First, we’ve been given so much unscientific advice about how to eat—for example “don’t eat eggs”—that we’ve stopped trusting our instincts and our family recipes. Also, if you’ve had to give up dairy, as I have because it stuffs up my sinuses, it may not be easy to find a substitute: I used to rely heavily on cheese for protein. So protein powders and bars can be useful. Here’s a little info and some recommendations.
Judge the entire product—not just its protein content. The ingredient list is the most important part of the label. Look for products that contain whole foods, like nuts, seeds, and dates. Our executive editor, Kate Wolfson, says that RXBARS are the only kind she’ll eat. They’re a line of protein bars with the most impressive ingredients I’ve ever seen: just a few whole foods. The peanut butter bar provides twelve grams of protein from three egg whites and peanuts. Sweetness comes from whole dates.
Keep added sugars as low as possible. The second most important part of the label is the Nutrition Facts panel, where you can find the grams of added sugars. The Lärabar Almond Butter Chocolate Brownie bar has eleven grams of protein and contains dates, almonds, pea protein, and chocolate chips. There are two grams of added sugars, which isn’t a lot. The rest of the eighteen grams of sugar is mostly from dates—this will be sweet, so it’s more of a dessert. But when the sugar comes from fruit, like dates, that also contains minerals and fiber, it’s better than eating concentrated sweeteners, like sugar, corn syrup, or brown rice syrup.
Avoid artificial sweeteners, like sucralose. There’s no evidence that sucralose is toxic. But we don’t have decades of data on the effects of this chlorinated sucrose molecule on people. Better alternatives are the naturally low-calorie nonsugar sweeteners monk fruit (lo han guo) and stevia. Look for them in the ingredient list if you want to know whether the product is sweet or not. Or try to get away from sweet foods. I know that’s not always easy, though.
An ideal whey protein option. My favorite whey protein powder by far is Source Naturals True Whey. It contains only whey concentrate from grass-fed cows, vanilla, and just a little stevia. I prefer the taste when stevia is used sparingly. Whey protein should always be this creamy and delicious.
Some recommended plant protein powders. Too many vegan protein powders are not creamy and delicious. Our food director, Caitlin O’Malley, recommends adding fresh ginger or mint to your smoothie if you end up with one that needs a little help. But between my own taste-testing and recommendations from goop colleagues, hopefully you can avoid that problem.
Four Sigmatic makes an excellent blend of organic proteins from pea, hemp, and chia, with eighteen grams of protein per packet, plus 1,000 milligrams of mushroom powders and 500 milligrams of adaptogens. It’s smooth, creamy, and not too sweet, and it tastes fine in water and even better in a smoothie with frozen banana and blueberries. I’m impressed with the formulation.
I like to be able to control the flavor in a protein drink, which is why the original unflavored and unsweetened powder from Huel is so appealing. It’s more of a meal-replacement powder than a protein powder, with fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. The first four ingredients of the original unflavored and unsweetened powder are outstanding: oats, pea protein, ground flaxseed, and brown rice protein. (The other Huel products contain ingredients I’m not crazy about.)
One 400-calorie serving has thirty grams of protein with no added sugars and nice amounts of choline, omega-3s, and iron—woohoo, women need iron. I mixed the powder with water as directed and it was fine in a bland way, but I liked it even more blended with frozen banana, ice cubes, and dates. Caitlin has come up with more-imaginative smoothie recipes you might like to try.
The kind of protein matters—read ingredient lists to see where it’s coming from. A protein that has the right ratios of the essential amino acids is called complete or high-quality. The amino acids can be used to build muscle and antibodies and bone. Like most animal proteins, whey and egg white contain all nine essential amino acids. Soy is the highest-quality vegan protein. Pea protein is good, and even better mixed with a little rice protein. Rice or potato protein alone is not ideal. You need twice as many grams of incomplete proteins like these to make up for the low levels of certain amino acids.
Is collagen a complete protein? Collagen lacks an essential amino acid, tryptophan, so it’s considered incomplete. But it provides the amino acids required for your body to make its own collagen, so people love it for their skin. You don’t need much—2.5 to 10 grams is plenty. If collagen powder doesn’t come from marine sources, it probably comes from cow or pig hide. There’s no such thing as vegan collagen. Vitamin C supports your body’s production of collagen, so a product containing vitamin C may be said to boost collagen.
GOOPGENES contains five grams of wild Alaskan pollack collagen plus astaxanthin.
The amount of protein you need depends on your size and how much you work out. The more muscle and bone you have to maintain, the more protein you need. The RDA for protein is about forty to eighty grams, depending on your size. But this is the minimum—there’s evidence that older adults can use more than the RDA, and athletes might need twice as much.
It’s easy to get twenty grams of protein every meal if you eat meat or seafood. A smaller-than-average, three-ounce steak has twenty-five grams of protein. For vegetarians, it’s harder. A quarter block of tofu contains nine grams of protein, and one egg has only seven grams. If your mother thinks she’s getting plenty of protein from a one-egg breakfast, tell her that she needs more than that for her bones.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.
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