In this article we’re going to explain the process that you should go through when choosing a protein powder. We realise that, of course, this is going to appear biased as you are reading this on a website which indeed sells protein powder, so we’ll cover that little chestnut first.
What you are reading here is a general set of rules which can be applied to any brand, though we do of course hope you’ll consider Awesome Whey Protein in your list of possibilities. The things you’ll read in this article were the things that were considered during the R&D process of Awesome Whey protein and therefore our powder will, by necessity, meet the criteria below, but we would ask you to consider this to be a separate topic and a bunch of considerations which pre-date the products found on this website.
In short, the below can be applied to any brand which you choose, and we want you to be armed with the knowledge to ensure your money is well spent, whether or not you spend it here.
We’re going to talk exclusively about milk based proteins as it is these which make up over 90% of the protein powder market. The vast majority of people are able and happy to drink a milk based protein and it is these which we recommend from a price and nutritional viewpoint. There are other animal based options, of course, the main two being:
- Egg protein powder: This one is a great choice for those who do not tolerate dairy, but it is comparatively more expensive than whey and, honestly, isn’t often great tasting. The texture is typically another source of complaint, though egg protein DOES make a great cooking addition.
Beef Protein: Beef Hydrolysate is an up and coming player in the protein supplement game, which means it’s a good choice, right? Maybe not. When I say beef protein powder, you think processed steak, right? But get this:
Cows are slaughtered and processed. The prime cuts come off first, then the cheaper cuts. Then we take away the offal. Then there’s some kinda nasty bits which are used to reform into ready meals and the like. Then dog food cuts. The rest? That’s what goes into your tub – ears, hooves and other unmentionables…
Basically, beef protein is up and coming because it has a HUGE profit margin. Is it nutritionally worthwhile? Yeah, maybe, but for me I’d rather pay less money for whey which is a more expensive product to make and get something actually worth what I’m spending, and if you’re lactose intolerant, look to egg or a vegan protein powder.
There are a number of vegan blends, but this is an article unto itself which we’ll write at some point (promise). For now, our recommendation is to find one you like the taste of, preferably a complimentary blend like rice and pea.
So with that preamble out of the whey (yeah, we went there), we can talk about the differences between protein powders.
The first and most obvious thing you should be looking at when picking a protein powder is the protein percentage. This may not be explicitly stated on the tub but if you look at the label and work out (or read) how much protein is in 100g of powder, this gives you the protein percentage. Some powders will contain a moderate amount to a ton of carbs, and be considered to be meal replacement or mass gain shake, and these are to be generally discounted. Carbohydrates are the cheapest macronutrient to buy in bulk for both the manufacturer and for you, and therefore you are paying through the nose for a low-end, high-profit product, and more to the point you could do just as well drinking a normal shake and eating some fruit, or blending your regular protein up with oats or similar.
When you buy a protein, buy it for the protein and nothing else (this includes creatine, glutamine and everything else – We’ll come back to this later). Protein and nothing else. As a rule, you should look for about 70-80% protein by weight. Truthfully the difference between 70 and 80% protein by weight is going to be negligible, but much lower than this and you are paying for expensive carbs, while anything higher than this becomes exponentially more expensive.
The next choice you need to make is regarding the actual kind of powder you’re getting, so let’s talk shop.
Which protein do you choose?
The dairy based protein market is pretty varied.
The key players here are:
- Milk protein concentrate
- Milk protein isolate
- Micellar Casein
- Calcium Caseinate
- Whey Protein Concentrate
- Whey Protein Isolate
- Whey Protein Hydrolysate
And I’m sure there are others, too, but these are the main ones. Suffice it to say, if we’ve not mentioned it here, it’s probably not any good, or not distinctly different enough from some of the above to warrant a mention. So, which one is ‘the best’?
We can, for now, split the above into three categories. There are Whey proteins, Casein proteins and milk proteins. Milk proteins are a combination of whey and casein and are a pretty good bet, save for two caveats. The only real drawback to milk proteins are the price, milk proteins tend to cost a few pounds more per kilo than the other two categories.
Milk protein comes in two forms, milk protein concentrate and milk protein isolate. There is very little practical difference between the two, with the former being around 75-80% protein by dry weight and isolate being around 85% due to a lower lactose content. Both have, as above, a combination of whey and casein in a 1:4 ratio making them identically profiled to milk that you’d find in your fridge, and closer to casein than whey. Let’s discuss those two now.
Casein protein is the protein in milk which makes it congeal in the stomach, and it’s also the protein that can be bound together to make cheese. Know how cottage cheese has a lumpy bit and a liquid-y bit all mixed up? That’s the casein and the whey separated.
Micellar Casein is the more expensive version because it isn’t denatured during processing, but this makes literally no difference at all for nutritional purposes so we’ll talk about casein in general from here, and you can assume we mean both.
Whey protein is the opposite, it’s the soluble form of protein found in milk, and probably the better known – it’s considered ‘fast digesting’ but this is actually only in relation to it’s partner casein, which is digested really slowly, or other solid food proteins. Whey protein (in it’s normal form) isn’t especially fast digesting per se. There are multiple forms of ‘special’ whey proteins which we’ll come to, but for now when I say ‘whey’ I pretty much mean any of them barring hydrolysate.
So what’s the deal with casein? Well, as mentioned it’s the protein in milk which congeals due to it being insoluble – what this means is that when you drink it, it forms a kind of clot in the stomach which takes a long time to digest, a quality which has been espoused for a long time by bodybuilders who would drink it before bed in order to keep blood amino acid levels high overnight.
This is pretty well evidenced, with one study (1), considered the study that started off the search into proteins and their digestion rates, showed that whey protein and casein protein spiked blood amino acids at the same time, albeit to different degrees, but with whey protein amino acids being undetectable after around 4 hours and the casein amino acids still being present in the blood 8 hours later.
(Image Credit: The Protein Book – Lyle McDonald)
This theoretically makes casein a better ‘anti catabolic’ protein while whey is a more anabolic one, but here we are making the mistake of looking at a protein powder in isolation, drank as a shake made with water, in a fasted state (this is how most research is conducted to ensure there is no interference with other foods or compounds in the body), without any food being consumed later in the day. This makes a big difference, as most of us don’t live our lives like this.
The key thing to remember here is that we are looking to either build or preserve muscle tissue, which means that we are trying to manipulate the net result of muscle protein turnover. As you are reading this, your body is breaking down your muscle tissue but also building it back up. If the breakdown happens faster than the building you lose muscle over time, and the reverse is also true.
What this means is that it’s not overly important that sometimes one is faster than the other, what matters is the end balance – remember this as it’s important.
Casein protein should, in theory, help to mediate protein breakdown for a longer time period, but do we really need it to? In the above study, whey protein, when taken in isolation, was still present in the system 4 hours later despite being consumed on an empty stomach and in isolation – combining the protein with fats and/or carbs in a smoothie or indeed drinking your shake having eaten a couple of hours prior would more or less attenuate this problem by delaying the process even more. One study which used solid protein (which obviously digests relatively slower than whey as a liquid) in the form of a mixed meal (a highly processed, therefore theoretically fast digesting food, pizza) saw that after 5 hours, amino acid levels were still elevated - but more to the point, most of us eat every 4 hours or so anyway. In short, this extremely long time spent in the blood stream isn’t actually helpful under real circumstances, unless you are planning on drinking a plain protein shake while fasted and then not eating again for another 5 or more hours.
It goes deeper, though.
Going from the above logical argument against the necessity (though not the usefulness) of casein, we need to look at one obvious time where casein appears to be superior – before bed. During sleep we, generally speaking, don’t eat all that much, and that means that we are likely to be going 8+ hours without any food. Long has this been cited as a reason to buy casein protein powder – drink a casein shake before bed to ‘drip feed’ amino acids to your body as you sleep and you avoid any sleep-related muscle loss.
Read that out loud and something will logically tell you that it’s potentially not based in truth, because evolutionarily it makes like, no sense, but logic is much more fun when it can be backed by facts.
A pretty relevant research paper for this, is a research paper performed on fat loss using intermittent fasting (IF). No idea what IF is? IF is the dietary approach of ‘not’ eating for a predetermined amount of time, typically done by not eating in the morning, and eating from lunch onwards, giving your body roughly 16 hours without food, though there are innumerable other variations with shorter ‘windows’. In this research paper (2), researchers noted that the subjects lost no more muscle (in fact, slightly less, though this particular detail could be questioned due to some inaccuracies with the measuring equipment) than would be expected with normal caloric restriction. Fasting did not cause muscle loss, even when extended way beyond sleeping hours.
As a real kicker, the subjects here weren’t weight training and were eating around 80g protein per day, total. Baring in mind that weight training stimulates muscle protein synthesis and we’d wager that the average person reading this is eating somewhere around 1.5g protein per lbs or more, we’re sure you can see that the results here would be the least expected for you, too.
So no, feeding your muscles overnight isn’t needed, and therefore any benefits of casein from this standpoint are pretty much a moot point. But is whey better?
The two things that whey protein has going for it in this instance are it’s price and it’s amino acid profile. The first is easy to cover – whey is WAY cheaper than casein both to produce and to purchase as a consumer. The second is a little more complex.
In order to stimulate muscle protein synthesis maximally, we need to include a fair amount of an amino acid called Leucine. This is a long article by itself, but the crux is that we need around 3-4g of leucine, person depending, to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Whey protein simply has more leucine per gram of protein than casein, and other supplemental proteins.
Moreover, look again at the graph above – whey protein amino acids were present in far greater amounts in the blood than casein amino acids, and this can have a profound effect on stimulation of MPS. Another study comparing the relative stimulation of MPS from whey, casein and soy found that casein was inferior at performing this task (3).
This means that whey protein is cheaper and more effective, and any benefits that casein has nutritionally are mediated by the fact that a slow digesting protein and a steady drip feed of serum amino acids simply isn’t needed. Casein’s only real redeeming factors are that it is slightly more filling and slightly better for cooking with due to it’s thickness – the former is barely a benefit, though, because if you are looking to a liquid to fill you up you are on the wrong path to begin with, and the latter would only really make a small difference (also egg protein does a pretty similar job, just not so good on the taste front).
Circling back, milk protein is 80% casein and 20% whey, meaning that you do get the best of both worlds – a fast spike in MPS and a steady release of amino acids. This sounds awesome, but remember that the long-lasting slow drip feed isn’t needed and you’ll see that this would only be useful for those who drank milk protein on it’s own as their only source of nutrition for multiple, well spaced meals during the day – outside of this specific case, it’s difficult to form a case to use Milk Protein powder over it’s cheaper constituent, whey.
But what KIND of whey do we go for?
As noted there is concentrate, isolate and hydrolysate. Let’s look at the latter first.
When a protein has been hydrolysed, what this means is that the protein has been introduced to enzymes which, in effect, start the digestion process. This breaks the protein down into smaller ‘chunks’ for your body to work with and therefore makes digestion extremely rapid. This sounds pretty good but we need to remember that:
A) Whey protein seems to spike muscle protein synthesis within 30 minutes or so and is therefore as fast as you’ll ever functionally need.
- B) With rapid digestion comes rapid clearance, meaning that serum amino acid levels will drop far sooner than the usual 4 or so hours of whey protein.
Hydrolysed whey protein also costs an absolute bomb, and tastes like vomit (no seriously, it tastes like vomit) so we have to consider that the potential tiny benefits to be gotten from an extremely fast digesting protein are not only unlikely to have a tangible effect to your gains in the real world, you’ll pay for them both financially and culinarily. One bonus is that WPH is lactose free, though we’d personally opt for a vegan blend or egg instead, simply due to taste and again, price.
This leaves us with whey protein isolate (WPI) and whey protein concentrate (WPC). These two are more or less the same thing, but with a slight difference. The process for making WPI and WPC is the same, but WPI is put through an extra stage of purification, which results in a product which has a higher protein content. WPC is typically between 30-80% protein by weight, whereas WPI is around 90-95% protein by weight, meaning less lactose and fat, and fewer calories per gram of protein.
There are two different methods which manufacturers can use to perform this final stage, namely filtration and ion exchange. The latter sounds kinda fancy and therefore ‘better’, but this process removes a lot of the bioactives which are found in whey, purported to be health promoting, and as such a filtered isolate is a much better choice.
Is isolate better than concentrate, though? That really depends. WPI has less lactose meaning that it’s a little easier on the stomach for those who don’t tolerate lactose too well, but it does still contain some, meaning that it’s not 100% ideal for anyone who suffers from lactose intolerance. Isolate is also a lower calorie protein gram for gram, but for the extra 10% protein, you may pay 50-100% as much, and as such it’s not really, in our opinion, a reasonable trade based on that alone unless 20 or so calories per shake is more than you can justify. As a final note, WPI is generally very ‘watery’ when made into a shake which means it loses its pleasant milky mouthfeel, and everyone loves a shake that is more ‘milkshake’ like.
In conclusion to the above section, of the three proteins, whey protein is marginally better than the other options in terms of initially spiking muscle protein synthesis and it costs less, and for the estimated 95% of the UK population who can tolerate lactose (4), it’s the obvious choice. Those who are mildly lactose intolerant might be able to use a WPI without concern and if this is an issue, an egg or vegan protein is your best bet.
So now we’ve covered that, we’re done, right? Pick a whey protein concentrate which is 70-80% protein by weight – done. Not quite.
There are a few other things which you should be looking at when choosing your tub, and this is where a little extra savviness comes in.
Amino Acid Spiking
Now, this is a really complex topic and an article in it’s own right – which is evidenced by the fact that we wrote one, here. To save repeating stuff, go check that link out.
The general point, though, is that a company who adds free form amino acids to protein powders is basically ripping you off. They have no purpose in the powder from a nutritional standpoint, but they could be masking a poor quality powder, therefore improving profits for the company at the price of the quality of the product.
If the price seems too good to be true, check the label very carefully.
Whey protein is a food item which is in high demand. Sure, it’s used for us fitness types, but it’s also used in baby formula, confectionary, drinks, baked goods and even cosmetics – this means that it carries a certain baseline cost which companies can’t really go below. Simply put, supplement manufacturers are far from the big cheeses in the global whey protein market and as such, they really can’t bully prices down even if they wanted to. In fact, the only time a company had a direct impact on the market by themselves was when PepsiCo and Coca Cola bought a few thousand tonnes of whey protein each in 2010 and drove global prices UP, but that’s a digression.
There’s no chance that someone like Awesome Supplements or even the big name budget bulk protein powder websites are going to be buying more whey powder than, say, Hersheys or Starbucks and, therefore, supplement companies pay what they are told.
So there’s a bottom price which you can expect to pay as a consumer, and that is usually around £12-13 per kilo if you buy a lot of protein at a time from a budget brand. These protein powders are great, but of course to keep the price at the absolute miniumum, sacrifices have to be made. These sacrifices are usually felt in terms of taste, mouthfeel and mixability – and of course you have to buy over 5kg at a time to get these prices and that can get BORING. If you don’t care, that’s great, but for a little extra money you can buy a whey which is great to drink, great to cook with, and which you aren’t stuck with for 4 months at a time.
If you ever see proteins for less than this price (we’ve seen 5kg for £30 in some places), then you can rest assured that what is on the label isn’t what is in the tub.
You kinda do get what you pay for.
Grass Fed whey protein?
One big fad at the moment is grass fed whey protein. Issues surrounding the food which animals eat are becoming more and more common knowledge, with valid arguments coming from either side. In the USA there is no question, the horrendous cattle feed given to animals does indeed affect fatty acid profiles (back to this in a second) and taste.
In the UK, not so much. A lot of our cattle is, in fact, grass fed for at least 6-8 months of the year in many cases (this will 100% depend on the quality of the meat you buy and rearing practices, but many farmers will keep their cattle outside in the summer months and then also feed them silage in the winter). We don’t have many of the big feeding lots seen in the USA and China because our population and our overall meat demand isn’t as high, and what beef we do grow in these feed lots is used either in ready meals or shipped abroad.
Buy decent (not cheapest possible) meat and you’re likely fine.
But when it comes to grass fed whey protein, should you be concerned? The answer is a categorical no.
The reason we should look for grass fed beef products is because of the fatty acid profile of the meat. Briefly, the fat you (and your cow) store in fat tissue and muscle cells is the fat which has been eaten in almost every instance. Fat does not make you fat (unless you eat too much food, then anything can make you fat), but if you get fat you store the fat which was in the food you served yourself – still with me?
Thus, when a cow eats a bunch of grains and soy in a feed lot, what happens is the fats within those grains (largely omega 6, polyunsaturated fats) gets stored in the animal tissue. These are fats which most folks eat enough to too much of, causing an imbalance between omega 3 and omega 6 fats, which is hypothesised to be bad for health. If a cow is fed a natural diet, it’s fatty acid profile is way more balanced, and the meat tastes better, too.
BUT THIS IS THE FAT
Whey protein is, for all intents and purposes, virtually fat free. Almost all of the fat is removed from the powder, to the point that a serving of unflavoured Whey Concentrate providing 30g protein has only 2.7g of fat, 0.9g of which is unsaturated. That’s INSANELY low in the grand scheme of how much fat most of us will consume in any given day. When it comes to whey protein, it is that far removed from the milk that it was made from, that the cattle feed no longer makes a difference – when you see grass fed protein powder, you can rest assured that it is a gimmick, sure choose free range and grass fed meat if you can afford it, but your protein powder doesn’t need to be grass fed too, the perceived benefit just isn’t there.
And what’s all that other stuff?
And finally, we need to talk about all of the other stuff on a protein label. When you see a long list of stuff, isn’t that bad? Shouldn’t we be looking for something as natural as possible?
Usually yes, but it may not be as critical as you’d think.
Most (read, almost all) protein powders will contain some ingredients you may not be familiar with, which you probably wont find in your kitchen cupboards. This has led a lot of folk to look for ‘the most natural product possible’, which is totally fine. We aren’t going to tell you that this is wrong, but what we will do, is equip you with a brief knowledge of what all of these other things actually are, what they do, and why they are there.
With knowledge comes power, you see.
The most common thickeners are Xanthan gum (zan-than), guar gum and cellulose gum. Xanthan gum is a fibre produced by the fermentation of glucose, sucrose or lactose, guar gum is the ground shells of guar beans and cellulose gum is synthesised by combining the natural vegetable fibre cellulose with an organic acid. These are used to give a pleasant texture to liquids or foods, and can be found in drinks, protein powders, tooth paste, sauces and detergents.
As you can see, these scary sounding ‘chemicals’ are naturally derived by mixing biological things together, and they improve the mouthfeel of your shake. There is even some evidence that guar gum improves satiety, which could help with dieting (5).
You may have heard that oils and water don’t mix. This is because of the cellular structure of a fat, or lipids. Lipids have an outer layer which is hydrophyllic, basically meaning that this layer stops it mixing with water – something which is vital for human, and all, life.
Vital for life it may be, but useful for making foods it is not. What this would mean is that things containing any amount of fat would ‘settle’ as a sediment on the top of whatever liquid you’ve mixed it in to. Your protein shake would be like a kinda milky tequila sunrise (albeit a lot less fun).
To combat this, emulsifiers and stabilisers are added to allow fats to mix uniformly into water by breaking them up into really small fragments, and stabilisers help to keep the molecules of ‘stuff’ from re-settling at the bottom. A pretty important job, we reckon.
The most common emulsifier by far is soya lecithin, which is found in everything from tea bags to chocolate to ice cream and some balsamic vinegars – but what is it?
A lecithin is a mixture of choline, fatty acids, glycerol, glycolipids, phospholipids, phosphoric acid and triglycerides. Lecithin was originally isolated from egg yolk but can today be extracted from cottonseed, milk, rapeseeds, soya beans and sunflower seeds.
Soya lecithin is extracted via processing – a lot of processing – so much in fact that the final product is only around 35% soya oil (6). Oil is extracted from beans and then the oil is mixed with water thoroughly until the lecithin is hydrated and separates. This is then dried into a powder.
Is it good for you? Well, maybe, maybe not. In one study, eating 2% and 5% soy lethicin feed impaired the motor sensor development of rats (7) but a) we aren’t rats and b) that is a TON of soya lecithin. In human trials, there is some small (granted, not overwhelming) evidence that soya lecithin may in fact have some beneficial effects on blood markers of health (8).
What we can draw from this is largely moot, however, because the fact of the matter is that soya lethicin will make up less than 1% of foods, and an even smaller percentage of protein powders. Ultimately, this really is a case where the parts per million present in your shake is so small, that worrying about it is a little bit neurotic.
As a final point here, one paper even found that soya lecithin is so far removed from the soy it once was that it’s even safe for those with soya allergies (9) (of course, we would still always recommend erring on the side of caution for extreme allergies).
A flavouring is a thing added to a food to, you guessed it, give it flavour. These can be synthetic or natural, but honestly the difference between the two really isn’t as clear as you’d think.
Basically, a natural flavouring is one which is extracted and purified from a natural source. That doesn’t mean that natural strawberry flavouring is squished strawberries, though, it means that a strawberry (or something else) has been heavily processed until a chemical constituent of it which provides flavour can be isolated and extracted for use. An artificial flavouring is basically the same thing, except the end point chemical is synthesised directly, rather than being extracted. The chemical itself is, on a molecular level, exactly the same.
If the line seems kinda fuzzy, that’s because it is, and ultimately it’s so fuzzy that it doesn’t really matter. Neither natural nor artificial flavourings are anything close to what you’d find in nature – if your naturally flavoured strawberry drink had actual strawberry in it, that would be put on the label as a selling point, rather than hidden in the ingredients list.
So yeah, flavourings are chemicals, but is that a bad thing?
First off, please don’t be scared by the word chemical. Water is a chemical, oxygen is a chemical, and your blood is a concoction of chemicals with organic and bacterial solutes including toxic urea – words are powerful, but that doesn’t mean you should be worried about them. Both natural and artificial flavourings are bundles of molecules which, upon contact with them, excite your taste buds in a way which creates a signal to your brain, which causes the experience we know as flavour.
These molecules, when isolated, are considered to be a chemical flavouring, either synthetic or natural. This distinction is, however, tenuous, because the molecules are the same when they are still in the food. The molecules which cause your tongue to say ‘strawberry’ are the same whether or not they have been isolated and as such, they are no more harmful when included in your shake as when they are still in the fruit.
It would take an entire book (which probably exists, and I’d imagine is PAINFULLY boring) to describe what each flavouring is and what it comes from, but we’re going to sum up the general point with these:
- Each one is certified GRAS, meaning ‘generally regarded as safe’ for consumption, as determined by a pretty rigorous process involving a lot of scientific evidence in humans.
- The amount in your product is negligible in terms of impacting health anyway.
So, natural flavouring is no better than synthetic flavouring in terms of it’s actual impact, and both are harmless. Also consider that artificial flavourings are carefully formulated for maximum taste experience, meaning that in some situations an artificial flavouring (which, if you remember, is just a collection of molecules which excite your taste buds in a certain way, the same as a natural flavouring, or indeed an actual strawberry does) may be preferable when masking the taste of unflavoured whey.
Avoid flavourings if you don’t like them, but on health grounds? There is no reason to do so.
And here’s the big one. The main three artificial sweeteners in protein powders are aspartame, sucralose and stevia. Before we go into the safety of each we’ll explain the reason why one would be chosen over the other.
Aspartame is the sweetest of the three, but it also has a ‘chemical’ aftertaste not really shared by the other two. It’s also not so stable, breaking down and losing it’s taste in heat. Sucralose is generally considered the best tasting of the three, and Stevia has a unique selling point of being comparatively natural. We’ll cover each in turn, starting with Stevia.
Stevia is a sweetener extracted from the leaves of the plant Stevia Rebaudiana. This extraction is generally a very simple process: the leaves are brewed like a tea, the resultant mixture is evaporated and the remaining powder is collected.
There is a general lack of long term evidence around the effects of stevia on human health seeing as it has not been in widespread use for long (though it has been used in Japan for decades) but an extensive review of the data has found no negative effects from regular doses administered orally (17) which is in contrast to the original test-tube data which showed it could have mutagenic effects (18) (the effect that could eventually lead to cancer). We only include this little nugget because it highlights quite effectively the importance of looking for in vivo data rather than in vitro data.
Overall, the WHO expect committee have stated that 4mg per kilo of bodyweight is a safe intake, which is, as usual, a hell of a lot more than you would ever actually get from protein powder or anything else. Stevia is safe, therefore, but it’s rarely used in protein products.
Stevia is perceived as a more natural sweetener and for good reason, it’s basically just a plant extract, and this has caused certain members of the public to choose it over other more chemical – sounding things like Ace K or Aspartame. The safety of these other sweeteners is something which we’re presenting evidence for now and which we’re hoping to show to be not something to worry about, but if we for now assume that all sweeteners are safe, by what criteria SHOULD you choose?
For us, the answer is simple – taste.
In other words, if stevia is no safer than the other sweeteners, why would you choose it? Well, you probably wouldn’t. Stevia is generally considered to be less pleasant tasting than other sweeteners, having a bitter aftertaste being generally ‘not sugar’ tasting. Some companies will use it as a selling point, taking advantage of the ‘natural’ image it portrays, but a selling point is all this is, Stevia doesn’t taste good, and isn’t something we’d personally opt for if given alternatives based on this alone.
If you spend any time on the internet at all you will no doubt at some point been told that the non-nutritive sweetener aspartame is a chemical compound which has SEVERE negative effects on the health of people who consume it. It’s easily the most controversial sweetener on the market, so we’ll devote the most time to it here.
It’s been implicated in everything from ‘brain fog’ and headaches to multiple sclerosis and diabetes.
Aspartame is probably heralded as the most deadly thing in our food supply, only there because ‘they’ are hiding the truth from us, and keep pumping it into the food supply to protect profit margins and keep customers addicted. It is, according to bloggers everywhere, the worst thing you could ever ingest.
Well, it’s not. Like, at all. And here’s why...
Aspartame was discovered in 1965 by a scientist called James Schlatter who was trying to generate a new drug to fight ulcers. Half way through the process he got some of one of the ingredients on his hand and noticed it was very sweet as he licked his finger to turn a page. Hardly a diabolical beginning.
In 1980, the FDA held an independent inquiry to examine a relationship between aspartame and brain cancer which was suggested at the time. They concluded that aspartame was safe, but that FDA approval should be withheld due to ‘unanswered questions’ over its safety. Shortly after, further analysis into available data by another group who also saw flaws in the original inquiry’s approach led the FDA to approve its use in foods (10). Of course, this original stumble to approval was picked up by the popular media by various conspiracy theorists, and the accusations started.
Most safety questions which people raise come from data garnered from studies on lab rats. In the most commonly cited study (11) rats fed large doses of aspartame (around 20mg/kilo per day) for their entire life (which was around 150 weeks after weaning) were shown to fall victim to cancer more often than a control group. The main issue here is that, where this translated to humans, 20mg per kilo for a typical, small, 60kg woman would be 1.2 grams of aspartame. Baring in mind that a litre of diet coke contains 540mg, this small woman would need to drink 2 litres of diet soda every single day for 3 years to get close to this figure. The number would be far higher in larger adults, too.
The second issue here is a very simple one, we are not rats. In research reviews (Which are more useful than single studies in just about every single context) which are more recent than the above paper, there is no link between aspartame and Brain Cancer, Gastric Cancer, Pancreatic Cancer or Endometrial (womb) Cancer (12, 13). In rats it’s also very difficult to calculate doses when translating to humans for a number of reasons, suffice it to say it’s not as simple as scaling up from a 400g rat to a 80kg human because of relative parts per million and other factors – this serves to bring rodent data into even more question when it comes to extrapolation.
Anyway, what IS aspartame?
Aspartame is a methyl ester or the amino acids l-aspartic acid and l-phenylalanine (you’ll see on a can of diet drink that it contains a source of phenylalanine – more on this in a second). It is around 200 times sweeter than sugar which means that you can use 200 times less of it to get the same effect as sugar in a food item. Although aspartame contains the same caloric load as sugar (4kcal per gram) the miniscule amount you need to use in foods means that it is generally considered to be calorie free.
Interestingly, the reason that aspartame is not as stable as the other two sweeteners we will discuss here is because of this peptide quality. Peptides break down in high heat or PH, and therefore it’s often recommended that people use sucralose for baking, and manufacturers often use it in things which undergo heating at any point.
When you consume aspartame it is broken down exactly like any other food item or ingredient that you may ingest (14) in that it is simply hydrolysed in stomach acid resulting in aspartic acid, phenylalanine and methanol. In fact, in cases of HUGE doses of aspartame consumption, absolutely none ever makes it to the blood stream (and therefore the brain, or any other tissue) (15). we’ll go through each metabolite in turn.
- Aspartic acid is probably the most common amino acid in your diet, being present in every single protein you would ever consume
- Methanol is rapidly converted into formaldehyde which IS indeed a poisonous substance which becomes formic acid, the foremost reason that methanol poisoning occurs. This sounds scary until you realise that a litre of diet coke yields less methanol than a glass of tomato juice, and in fact the methanol load from aspartame is entirely trivial in comparison to the methanol load of a typical diet. Methanol poisoning is only really likely to occur in the ingestion of methanol itself as a standalone product. Think of it like this, there is cyanide in apple seeds, but the amount is trivial and therefore not even worth mentioning
- Phenylalanine is the final metabolite and one which is genuinely a concern for an incredibly small amount of people. Those born with the condition phenylketonuria are unable to metabolise this amino acid and should therefore avoid high levels of its consumption. Of course, these people should probably avoid diet drinks entirely but for everyone else it’s a non-issue, milk contains levels of phenylalanine FAR higher than any diet beverage and yet has no negative effects
Aspartame is harmless for just about everyone, though some report a sensitivity to it which causes certain symptoms. This isn’t understood all that well and as such we cannot really comment other than to say, if it makes you feel weird, don’t consume it.
If this isn’t you, fill your boots.
Acesulfame – K
Acesulfame – K is another sweetener popular in diet drinks and other beverages as it balances out the sweet taste of aspartame. Much like aspartame, it was discovered by accident.
Unlike aspartame, however, when you consume it, it passes through your body completely unchanged. It is absorbed and excreted without ever being used for anything.
An extensive review of the research held by the European Comission of Health and Consumer Protection found that Ace K is safe for use within the guidelines (16) which are, believe it or not, 9mg per kg of bodyweight, which is HUGE.
Even if you ate a tub of protein powder you wouldn’t get near to this, so this is another thing which truthfully isn’t worth worrying about.
The final sweetener we will consider is sucralose, which is the sweetener most often found in protein powders, and the sweetest of the bunch, being 1000 times sweeter than table sugar, 3 times sweeter than aspartame and Ace K and about 2 times sweeter than Stevia. It’s stable in heat and under many pH conditions, meaning that it’s useful in baking but also in products which have a long shelf life, like dried goods. This is probably one of the reasons it is used in supplements.
More than this, it is often considered to be more pleasant to taste compared to all other sweeteners.
Sucralose is derived from sugar. It was first discovered by Tate and Lyle when trying to find industrial uses for certain derivatives of the sugar they are most famous for. One researcher was told to test a chlorinated sugar compound, an order he misheard as ‘taste’. When he did, he found it to be very sweet, and a patent wasn’t too far behind.
The actual product is produced by selectively chlorinating sucrose in a multi stage process which sounds a bit scary due to the word ‘chlorine’ but bare in mind that chlorine is also present in all table salt, and you may start to lose the mental image of swimming pools.
In fact, sucralose has been accepted as safe by the FDA, the WHO Expert committee, the EU scientific committee on food and a number of other multinational regulatory bodies. The suggested maximal amount which you can safely consume for an entire lifetime is around 9mg/kg bodyweight per day – bare in mind that a packet of Splenda contains 12mg and you that this is…well, a lot.
This is partly because only 11-27% of sucralose ingested is absorbed and only around 2-8% being actually metabolised (19).
Despite this, controversy still persists. One Rat study linked sucralose to leukemia (20) but this study has since been discredited (21). The only shred of evidence that Sucralose may be an issue comes from a 2014 study which showed a modest alteration in subject gut flora (22) though this has not been replicated and the potential positive or negative impacts are not clear either way.
Ultimately, Sucralose is not ‘natural’ despite early claims by Tate and Lyle, but it IS a non-nutritive sweetener which tastes great, is heat and pH stable and doesn’t seem to harm you when consumed in a manner which is realistic.
Other claims sweeteners are bad
People claim that artificial sweeteners can ‘trick your body’ into thinking that it has consumed sugar. This, they say, causes insulin levels to rise in much the same way as sugar, and therefore increases fat storage.
Our first issue with this is that this is not how insulin ‘works’. That’s a (very long) article in and of itself, but for now we’ll just say that insulin is massively misunderstood in the fitness industry and it’s not going to make you fat by itself.
The second reason that you can throw this one out is very simple – your tongue doesn’t cause insulin spikes. What causes that is your body detecting high levels of blood glucose which need to be regulated by an insulin release. If you could trick your body and thusly alter insulin levels by tasting sweet things, all we would need to do for those who have chronically elevated insulin is feed them lemons.
Finally, there are some who say that artificially sweetened things make them overeat by causing cravings. This one is where we’ll say that your results may vary. For us and the majority of people we’ve worked with over the years, an artificially sweetened protein shake is a fantastic way to curb hunger pangs whilst dieting because of the temporary fullness you get from a thick, milky beverage, and it also serves to satisfy intense cravings for sweet foods which happen when carbs are low. There are those who say the opposite, though, and if this is you we would recommend you remain cautious of artificial sweeteners in general.
So the summary for this section? In real-world situations, artificial sweeteners are all harmless, and they probably won’t cause you to gain fat or binge eat. If they DO cause you to binge, avoid them and go unflavoured but if not, choose a protein powder which is sweetened with something you like the taste of, which will be sucralose for the vast majority of people, hence we have used sucralose here at Awesome Supplements in our whey protein.
You’ve made it to the end, well done, it was a big one! Here are the key points:
- Pick a powder which is 70-80% protein by weight because this is the perfect balance between macronutrient breakdown and price
- Pick a Whey Concentrate if you can tolerate milk, as it carries the most benefit. If you’re lactose intolerant look to egg or vegan blends
- Opt for a powder which doesn’t have free form amino acids added to it, and which doesn’t cost SIGNIFICANTLY more than everything else
- Don’t be alarmed by thickeners, emulsifiers or flavourings, they are harmless and make life taste better
- Pick something which is sweetened to your taste, but bare in mind that Sucralose is probably the safe bet to start with and is the best one for cooking/baking
Thanks for reading, we hope you find this guide useful when choosing your next protein powder. Share with someone else that might find this information useful, and…. Bottoms up!
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- Belpoggi et al (2005) ‘’First Experimental Demonstration of the Multipotential Carcinogenic Effects of Aspartame Administered in the Feed to Sprague-Dawley Rats’’. Environmental Health Perspective
- Cabaniols et al (2011). ‘’ Links between private habits, psychological stress and brain cancer: a case-control pilot study in France’’. Journal of Neuro-Oncology
- Bosetti et al (2009). ‘’ Artificial sweeteners and the risk of gastric, pancreatic, and endometrial cancers in Italy’’. Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention
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- Goyal, S. K.; Samsher; Goyal, R. K. "Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) a bio-sweetener: a review". Int J Food Sci Nutr 61 (1): 1–10. doi:10.3109/09637480903193049. PMID 19961353.
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