When I switched from whey to plant protein powder a few years back, I thought I had flipped some magical switch and attained the rank of “enlightened eater.” But after working as a consultant for some of the biggest food marketers in the world and eventually starting my own food company, I found out how wrong I was.
I’m going to share with you the secrets the plant protein industry doesn’t want you to know — so you can see through the marketing shenanigans and find out for yourself if your protein powder is healthy or not.
How Plant Proteins Are Made
Most plant protein powders are derived from soy, rice, hemp, peas or pumpkin seeds. Generally speaking, there are three methods to turn these plants into protein powder:
1. Hexane-based methods
To remove oil from plants, most soy protein and some of the others mentioned above are processed using hexane, a chemical neurotoxin derived from petroleum that can damage your central nervous system.
2. High heat methods
There are various high temperature processing methods used to make protein powder from plants. Unfortunately, heat destroys the healthy nutrients in the plant and makes it harder for your body to digest.
3. Enzyme-based methods
Natural enzymes are added to (preferably sprouted) plant seeds to remove the protein. This preserves the most nutrients in the plant and is the cleanest and least processed method.
Let’s say you’ve identified a plant protein powder that uses method 3 above. This is a good start, but now you have a bigger problem to deal with: the other ingredients.
Even “healthy” protein powders contain highly-processed ingredients, including:
1. "Natural" flavors
These are one of the most common ingredients you see on food labels today. The FDA says as long as an ingredient originated from a natural source, food corporations can call it a “natural flavor”. The disturbing part is that they’re allowed to add harmful chemicals and other nasty stuff to their “natural” flavors after the fact without telling you. Here are a few stomach-churning examples of ingredients lurking in natural flavors:
- Polypropylene glycol (found in antifreeze)
- BHA, a known carcinogen
This is a highly processed food additive usually made from genetically modified (GMO) corn. Protein companies use it to make their products mix easier.
3. Soy and sunflower lecithin
These common food additives are used to thicken protein powders and other foods. Soy lecithin is particularly troubling. To make it, soybean oil (GMO unless it says “organic” or “non-GMO verified”) is extracted from raw soybeans using a chemical solvent (usually hexane), then dried and bleached.
4. Xanthan gum
This is produced by bacterial fermentation of a sugar-containing medium — usually a potentially allergenic or GMO-containing substance such as corn, soy, dairy, or wheat. On top of that, xanthan gum has been shown to have a major laxative effect.
Look out for the plethora of hidden names for sugar, many of which are derived from GMO corn (e.g. "syrup", "juice", "concentrate", "fructose" and "sweetener"). Artificial sweeteners like Saccharin (SugarTwin, Sweet'N Low), Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), acesulfame potassium (Sunett, Sweet One), and Sucralose (Splenda) may be even worse.
But wait! What about “all-natural” sugars?
Two of the most popular "natural" sugars many protein powder manufacturers use nowadays:
1. Xylitol and Erythritol
Xylitol is a “sugar alcohol” that’s almost always derived from GMO corn using a chemical processing method called sugar hydrogenation. Sugar alcohols like xylitol and erythritol can cause gas, bloating, acid reflux, and gut imbalances.
Whole stevia leaf powder in its natural state is a healthy, green, all-natural sweetener. But the stevia most food companies use is a chemically-altered, bleached, stripped down version that's likely to contain GMO fillers. Any time you see "stevia", "stevia extract", or even "organic stevia" on a food's ingredients list, you're likely getting a processed, inferior sweetener that's NOT real food.
The bottom line
When in doubt, a little research goes a long way. Don’t be afraid to ask the companies you buy food from about their ingredients — where they come from, how they’re made and why they use them. You deserve to know.
Is Your Protein Powder Healthy? Here's How To Know.
My “is it healthy?” test for all food, protein powders included, is simple: Ignore all the marketing BS on the front of the package and head straight for the ingredients list and nutrition facts. Do you recognize all the ingredients as real food? Is it low in sugar and refined grains? If so, more times than not you have a winner.
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