Reading Labels Part 1 – Protein Powder

With literally thousands of protein powders on the market, it can be overwhelming to weed out the good from the bad. In this article we’ll dive into specific things to look for when reading protein powder labels. Which, by the way, you should ALWAYS do.

Concentrates or isolates? What’s the difference? While concentrates are the least processed of the three, they are ironically not the top choice. Why? Because they can contain anywhere from 35-80% protein by weight; the rest is carbohydrates/fats. It’s impossible to know where a protein powder lands on this percentage scale, making it difficult to know how much protein will actually be available to the body. Isolates, on the other hand, go through an additional filtration process, leaving 90% (or more) protein by weight. So you know what you’re getting. Not to mention, they are faster-digesting and may be better for people who are sensitive to milk, since processing removes a lot of the lactose.

Protein powders are most often made from whey, casein, or plant sources. Whey protein is made from milk – it digests quickly and contains all 9 essential amino acids, along with a ton of BCAA’s (branched chain amino acids). It is by far the most researched, and the one that we recommend most (unless you have a dairy sensitivity, are vegan, or are under the age of 13). Casein also comes from milk, however, it’s extracted in a different way. Casein is the solid milk extract, while whey is the liquid part. It digests much slower, making it a better option for before bed, not before or after a workout. As far as plant sources go, you are most likely to see soy, pea, rice, or hemp protein. Of these listed, only soy is a complete protein source. For that reason, plant protein blends are very common in order to reach a complete amino acid profile.

Protein powders have come along way with taste. One reason many taste good (or are at least tolerable) is due to added sugars and/or sweeteners. Not all sweeteners are created equal. So let’s look at the different types of sugar — nutritive, non-nutritive, and sugar alcohols. Nutritive sweeteners, like honey, brown rice syrup, cane sugar, molasses, and coconut sugar are less common in protein powders. They provide calories, and thus energy, to the body while non-nutritive sweeteners do not. When looking at the label, there’s no reason to freak out about a moderate amount of added sugar. As swimmers, you need some circulating glucose for energy and glycogen replenishment. If your protein powder contains a nutritive sweetener, look for around 10 g or less of added sugar.

Most often, artificial (non-nutritive) sweeteners are used. Look for names like sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, or saccharin. While research is still coming out on these, it may be wise to use these sparingly. Some studies have shown that artificial sugars can cause stomach upset and potentially disrupt the microbiome of your gut. Stevia and monk fruit are also considered non-nutritive sweeteners. While both have the potential to be less disruptive to the body and come from more natural sources, additional research still needs to be done.

Sugar alcohols are our third group seen most often. Some names to look for include sorbitol, maltitol, and erythritol. While they are typically well-tolerated, large amounts have been known to cause stomach upset and bloating.

In addition to sweeteners, it is typical to find thickening agents, emulsifiers and anti-clumping ingredients. Common thickening agents include xantham/guar gum, inulin, and dextrins. You might see carrageenan, lecithins, carboxymethylcellulose, or silicon dioxide used to emulsify and prevent clumping. Research shows that these are fine to consume in small quantities. However, try to avoid oils that are partially hydrogenated (trans fats). These have a negative impact on heart health, increase inflammation, may damage the inner lining of your blood vessels, to name a few.

Supplement companies love to sneak other “enhancers” into their protein powders (caffeine is a big one). Some will even “amino spike” to make the overall protein content look higher than it actually is. To avoid unwanted ingredients that may be unsafe, be sure that the protein powder you’re considering is certified for sport/third party tested. This ensures that there isn’t anything in the stuff that isn’t approved by your local/national association. Look for a label on the front near the bottom. Three of the most common certifications you’ll see are Informed Sport, Banned Substance Control Group and NSF Certified for Sport.

As always, protein powder should be used as a supplement only. It should not replace meals or other whole-food protein sources. Don’t forget, protein powder labels were meant to read. Now you can go read them like a boss.




All nutrition information presented and written within are intended for informational purposes only. You should not rely on this information as a substitute for, nor does it replace, professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other health-care professional. Each individual’s dietary needs and restrictions are unique to the individual. The reader assumes full responsibility for consulting a qualified health professional regarding health conditions or concerns, and before starting a new diet or supplement.