Once an ingredient only bodybuilders ate, protein powder now makes regular appearances in smoothies, oatmeal, and luscious desserts consumed by the masses. A general interest in fitness is probably part of the sudden popularity, but so is the nutrient’s satiating power. Anyone looking to shed a few pounds needs to have a well-balanced diet with plenty of protein to help keep them feeling full throughout the day.
Having so many choices available might seem like a good thing, but it makes finding a good product more confusing. Because everyone will need to experiment a little bit to find the best protein powder for them, we decided to make the search a lot easier by telling you which ones you should automatically cross off your list. Whether they’re brimming with sugar or feature some suspect ingredients, these four protein powders are some of the worst.
1. Nature’s Plus Spiru-tein: Too much sugar
Don’t let the green-sounding name fool you, this protein powder doesn’t really live up to its label. Molly Kimball, R.D. who specializes in sports nutrition, tells WGNO this plant-based powder falls short due to a nutrition label revealing the supplement contains nearly as many grams of carbs as protein. Worse yet, there are 8 grams of sugar per scoop.
If you’re looking for something vegan-friendly, take a close look at the ingredient list. You want to see soy, pea, brown rice, or another type of protein near the top. Some products contain blends, so just make sure you know what you’re actually getting. And aim to keep sugar and carbs to a minimum.
2. Muscle Milk: Hidden contaminants
Though Muscle Milk’s nifty shaker designed to evenly mix the powder into a smooth drink was a smart idea, the actual supplement isn’t a particularly wise choice. According to Muscle Milk’s website, a two-scoop serving of the chocolate flavor contains 25 grams of protein, 9 grams of fat, and 4 grams of sugar. While none of that seems particularly bad, deciphering the label is all but impossible and the fat content is pretty high, especially when you consider one-third of it is saturated.
What’s not on the label might be even more alarming. A 2010 study from Consumer Reports found this particular flavor was contaminated with four different types of harmful contaminants. While the company insists they’ve addressed any issues, it’s something to keep in mind.
3. Nature’s Bounty Complete Protein & Vitamin Shake Mix: Fake fiber
Nature’s Bounty is mostly known for their vitamin supplements, but they also make their own protein powders. According to their website, two scoops of the vanilla version contains 120 calories, 2 grams of fat, and 13 grams of carbohydrates. Like a lot of other offenders on this list, that’s a lot of carbohydrates. A glance at the label also shows fructose, a type of sugar, is one of the primary ingredients.
One feature of this particular product that makes it seem healthier is the fiber content. Much of it comes from inulin, though. While this type of fiber can be great for your diet, most nutritionists recommend you get it from whole foods as opposed to processed eats. You can easily score a similar balance of protein to fiber by eating some yogurt topped with berries.
4. Adaptogen Science Tasty Whey: Sneaky trans fats
Clever name aside, this protein supplement harbors unhealthy trans fats. According to Eat This, Not That!, these processed fats can clog your arteries, leading to health complications. The most confusing part is the nutrition label doesn’t indicate any of these heart-harming fats unless you’re thorough enough to read the ingredients. The word “hydrogenated” is a dead giveaway.
This protein powder is also pretty calorically dense. While a serving contains similar protein, calorie, and sugar tallies to other products, Tasty Whey’s portion is one scoop instead of the standard two.
5. TwinLab 100% Whey Fuel: Possibly unsafe
Despite granting acceptable ratings for nutritional value and product purity, Labdoor rated this product’s ingredient safety at 44%. While it notes safe levels of arsenic and lead in this powder, it also notes the product contains a controversial artificial sweetener, Ace-K. Researchers aren’t certain whether or not this synthetic compound causes harm to most humans, but the FDA continues to label it as safe despite this uncertainty.
Labdoor rates the safety of products’ ingredients based on how much of an active ingredient is present in a product. So even though 100% Whey Fuel contains safe levels of certain chemicals, they’re still present in your protein powder. If that’s unsettling to you, you’re better off staying away from this brand.
6. Nature’s Best Isopure Zero/Low-Carb: Fewer carbs, more of everything else
Isopure Zero/Low-Carb, as its name implies, doesn’t provide a significant amount of carbohydrates. However, what it lacks in sugar and fiber, it more than makes up for in calories, sodium, and synthetic additives.
It’s not new information that something “without” sugar tends to severely lack nutrition in other areas. However, something low in sugar just seems more appealing — especially when it comes to drinks and supplements like protein powders. Everyone would love to be able to consume more protein without having too much sugar. It’s just not worth it in this case, though.
7. MuscleTech Phase 8: Questionable protein blend
MuscleTech advertises this product contains seven different kinds of high-quality protein in its blend. This includes three types of protein isolate, whey protein concentrate, two types of milk proteins, and calcium caseinate. However, this makes it sound like there is more protein in this blend than average. In reality, these different protein sources are all derived from milk and used in small amounts to form one blend. It sounds fancy, but it’s nothing all that unique.
Keep in mind that all these protein isolates and concentrates are processed to separate them from milk products and blend them with other ingredients. If you’re trying to stay away from heavily processed foods and beverages, a protein blend like this probably isn’t what you want to settle for.
8. BSN Syntha-6 Protein: Loaded with artificial sweeteners
This protein powder contains artificial sweeteners and yellow dye 5. The biggest concern among experts is that consuming too many products containing artificial sweeteners will change the way you taste food. Over time, you might become so used to the strong sweetness of these artificial flavorings that naturally sweetened foods won’t be as appealing to you. You’ll be tempted to eat and drink more processed, artificially flavored foods and beverages to satisfy your sweet tooth.
We just don’t have a full understanding of how artificial ingredients affect us in the long term. Ingredients generally recognized as safe by the FDA might not be safe at all, and there’s just not enough evidence to show that yet.
9. Optimum Nutrition Serious Mass: Too many calories
Optimum Nutrition’s Serious Mass powder packs a lot of nutrients into its three-scoop servings — but that’s not necessarily a good thing. According to the nutrition label, you’ll get 50 grams of protein, 21 grams of sugar and 1,250 calories per serving. That’s more than half of the average amount of calories a person tends to consume in a day.
This is an effective product if you need to gain weight quickly, but in terms of long-term benefits, it’s bound to do you more harm than good. Because it has more calories and sugar per serving than the average protein powder brand, it’s probably best to go with something a little lighter.
10. Gaspari Nutrition IsoFusion: Not much there
Obviously, supplement companies are going to push protein content as the lead benefit of their protein powders and related products. Just because it has protein, though, doesn’t mean it’s a healthy choice. According to its nutrition label, IsoFusion contains 25 grams of protein per serving — but zero fat, only 2 grams of carbohydrates, and no fiber.
There are protein powders out there that provide 25 grams of protein or more, plus fiber and healthy fats to round out the health benefits of this kind of product. Don’t fall for a big protein push without considering what else a powder has — or doesn’t have — to offer.
11. Body Fortress Whey Protein: Low-quality ingredients
Labdoor says there may be evidence of amino acid spiking in this product. Amino acid spiking lets supplement companies get away with including less protein in their products than is listed on the nutrition label. Usually when this occurs, companies use cheap, low-quality ingredients to fill the protein quota, and they don’t tell you you’re getting less than what’s advertised.
Supplement companies have faced lawsuits in the past as a result of amino acid spiking, which customers view as misleading. Forbes reports that many products are filled with amino acids that, by themselves, don’t actually provide any protein at all. Many of these are nonessential amino acids, meaning your body produces them on its own. So, there’s really no benefit to consuming them.
12. Swanson GreenFoods Vegan Protein with Probiotics: Not worth the health hype
This powder has more grams of carbohydrates than protein; only a small percentage of those come from fiber. Also, its long list of organic ingredients don’t add much nutritional value to the product: They’re present in extremely small amounts.
Just because these kinds of ingredients exist in a protein powder doesn’t necessarily make it better for you. Yet this is why they can charge you $4 per serving: It’s advertised as a health food, even though there’s really nothing that sets it apart from other protein powders in a beneficial way.
13. Pure Protein Whey Protein Powder: Colored with carcinogens
Like many soft drinks and other highly processed beverages, this product contains caramel coloring. Risk assessment reviews suggest consuming products containing the chemicals in this food additive result in excess cancer risk for those who consume average amounts of these products. Which means your risk only increases if you consume larger amounts of these products on a regular basis.
This protein powder has an average of 25 grams of protein per serving, and only 2 grams of sugar. It’s up to you to decide, however, if drinking something possibly cancerous is worth the potential health benefits. If it isn’t, there are plenty of protein powders that aren’t colored artificially.
Signs a protein powder is worth buying
When searching for a protein powder worth the expense, pay attention to products that contain significantly more protein than sugar. Make sure there’s actual quality protein in there, too — whey protein concentrate or isolate, casein, or even plant proteins should give you enough calories from protein per serving. Also keep in mind that just because it’s cheaper doesn’t mean it’s a good deal. It’s worth paying a little extra for powders that provide real nutritional value.
The kind of protein powder you choose also depends largely on why you want to use it as a supplement. Do you want to build muscle? Lose weight? Are you trying to find alternative sources of protein while on a vegetarian or vegan diet? That will determine the specific brand or product you might choose. Always check nutrition labels to make sure the claims on their packaging match what’s really there — and beware of hidden ingredients you don’t want to expose yourself to in large quantities.