Sports, health and diet supplements are one of the biggest growing industries right now. MaxiNutrition (formerly MaxiMuscle, now owned by GSK) had an annual turnover of almost £100m in 2014 and looks to top that this year. In 2009, according to NHS figures, the UK dietary supplement industry was worth almost £700m, although that figure has almost doubled in the last 6 years.
Whilst commercially, this is great news and the competitive nature of business means that companies are striving to make better and better products, there are also products out there that are simply designed to make the manufacturers maximum profit.
So, how do you tell the difference?
Well, unless you have access to laboratory testing facilities and an in-depth knowledge of nutrition, you probably won’t, be able to tell much about the quality of the product from the label. That said, there are a few key things to look for.
One of the main ways in which manufacturers reduce the cost of their product, is the use of inferior or cheaper protein sources. One of the best examples of this is calcium caseinate, which is a chalky milk derived protein powder that was widely used back in the late 80’s. Whilst this is a particularly cheap source of protein, its bioavailability (how easy it is for your body to use) isn’t great and many people suffer from upset stomachs when taking it. The best protein powders will typically use whey in either isolate or concentrate form as the main (if not sole) ingredient. Remember, the order of ingredients is always written from largest first to smallest last.
One of the most common warning signs that you’re likely to pay more than you need to, is a list of spectacular sounding claims or ‘cutting edge’ proprietary ingredients. Whilst many of the ingredients included in these ‘advanced’ formulas (creatine, arginine, digestive enzymes, etc.) may have some benefits, you’re often paying over the odds for their inclusion and those benefits are likely insignificant for most people.
Protein or calories
Many of the protein powders out there are actually weight gain powders. These were incredibly popular back in my youth, as they represented an easy way of chugging down 3000-5000 calories. Unfortunately, the bulk of the calories come from sugars and MCT’s (a type of fat), and the resulting cost per gram of protein makes it a poor choice. These are typically marketed with Gain or a high number in the product name, i.e. Ultra Gainz 4000.
A word on plant based protein supplementation
Vegans and vegetarians can often struggle to get enough protein from their diets. Whilst some may argue that this is the result of missing amino acids, the research suggests otherwise. A plant based diet that is primarily composed of vegetables, pulses, some grains, seeds and nuts, should yield enough protein for most people. Unfortunately, many vegans and vegetarians consume excessive quantities of high calorie, starchy carbohydrates for the bulk of their food. In the event that you want to increase your plant based protein intake and can’t conveniently do it with food, there are two options.
Option 1 is to determine which of the food groups you’re missing, pulse, grain, or seed, and top up with a powder for that particular protein, (pea, rice, hemp).
Option 2 is to simply buy one of the vegan blends available, which create a full amino acid profile by combining each of the three sources.
As an aside, whilst I’m fully in favour of avoiding an overreliance on animal protein, I’ve found that most vegan protein powders taste and smell like feet. So unless you’re a vegan, or have any tolerance issues with milk based proteins, stick with whey.
To go into extensive detail on all the variables that determine the quality of a protein powder, would take longer than this post permits. So, with that in mind, here are some specific manufacturers I’ve found to be good enough for most.
Mainstream – Kinetica & Optimum Nutrition
Budget – Go Nutrition, Bulk Powders, My Protein
Lastly, it’s worth remembering, that in most cases, protein powder should account for no more than around 30% of your total protein intake, the balance coming from real food.