We all walk into the GNC and go straight for the whey powder, and then zero in on the big circle that tells us in really bold font that there’s more than 50 GRAMS OF PROTEIN per serving! QUICK DIGESTING! PUT ON MASS FAST! Right?
Well… not so much.
Protein powder manufacturers have gotten really good at burying things in the label, so even the most discerning customer can’t find them. That powder might be 50g of protein per serving… but it turns out a serving is 3 scoops. And then you’re at something like 600 calories because the powder is chock full of filler junk like cheap maltodextrin to cut the expensive protein. Plus, that maltodextrin might not even show up on the label because it’s listed as “natural flavoring.”
After all that, you probably didn’t even get the full 50g of protein the canister claimed to be giving you. More and more protein companies are getting called out for faking their protein levels with nitrogen spiking.
And whey protein powder is great… for those intra or immediately post-workout shakes. But what about the rest of the day? How many tubs of protein powder do you have lying around the house? How much shelf space can you afford to take up with giant canisters full of empty carbs and half-truths?
Here’s how to hack the system: The things you should look for on the label AREN’T the things most labels call out. These are the 6 things you should focus your attention on:
1. A PROTEIN BLEND
I know, I know, whey is king. But if you’re going to have one tub of protein powder in your cupboard make it a good blend of whey and casein. That way it works anytime of day: before, during, after workouts, as an afternoon snack, and right before bed.
Plus, drinking whey and casein together has an added benefit: casein prolongs the anabolic response initiated by whey, which leads to greater muscle growth. That’s the way to really gain mass.
Going for a blend makes things more complicated. If you’re buying a powder blend, make sure you KNOW what you’re getting. Anything that doesn’t tell you the PERCENTAGES of Whey, Casein, Milk proteins, etc, means it’s a “proprietary blend” which is just another way of saying “cheap BS.”
A good blend should be about half whey, with the rest casein and milk. And a good blend will TELL YOU, up front, what the percentages of those proteins are. They should call out the percentages right there on the label.
3. HIGH P/CAL
Ignore the “grams per scoop” or “grams per serving” and look for high P/Cal. That’s shorthand for the protein-to-calories percentage. If it’s not listed on the packaging, it’s pretty easy to calculate this yourself: multiply the protein grams by 4 (as we all know, there are about 4 calories per gram of protein) then divide this by the total number of calories. That gives you the P/Cal. For a blend, a good P/Cal is in the mid- 80% range. Unflavored ones can get up to mid-90s.
High P/Cal means you’re getting pretty close to pure protein, which is what you want. Then you can use that same powder throughout the day, stacked with other powders to meet your macro requirements depending on when you’re drinking your shake. You can add fat powder like MCT oil powder or coconut oil powder if you’re cutting carbs. Or you can add a carb powder like brown rice powder to feed your muscles and spike that muscle-growing insulin response.
A high P/Cal protein blend puts you in control of your nutrition and lets you adjust your other macros based on your day and your goals.
4. ISOLATES NOT CONCONTRATES
Isolating the protein results in a high protein content without excess fat or lactose. This is especially important for those of us who have trouble digesting large quantities of milk byproduct (read: basically everyone). Wanna get rid of those protein farts? Get rid of your protein concentrates.
If we wanna get really wonky, look for protein powders that are cross-flow microfiltered. That process preserves the delicate glycomacropeptides in whey that boost the human immune system. Not a lot of protein powders do that, but if you find one that does, you know you can trust they’ve done their homework and that’s a high-quality product. You’re building your muscles out of this stuff, so don’t cut corners.
Dig into the ingredients panel and look for lecithin. This helps with dispersion, which makes protein ideal for shakes and helps get rid of those protein clumps. No one wants to choke those down. This one’s purely about the taste experience, but it makes a difference. Trust us.
6. PRONOUNCEABLE INGREDIENTS
It’s like transparency – everything in that ingredients deck serves a purpose. You should see the protein first (and the types of protein in the blend). You should probably see some kind of gum to thicken it up. As mentioned, you should see lecithin for dispersion. Obviously, some kind of sweetener like sucralose or stevia (probably with a little salt). Be suspicious of sweeteners like aspartame or lots of added sugar. Finally: flavoring. If it’s really high brow it’ll have real food for flavoring: dried bananas or strawberries or real cocoa powder.
That should be about it.
Other ingredients are suspect. Why? Because they’re probably being used for protein spiking. The actual protein content of a supplement is determined by testing the nitrogen content. So a lot of companies cut costs by diluting the more expensive protein with cheaper, nitrogen-containing products to inflate the nitrogen readings. They then advertise higher protein contents than their product actually contains. Here’s the kicker: they then try to pass these useless fillers off as beneficial “bonus ingredients” since a lot of them are amino acids or creatines.
Things to look for in the nutrition label that should sound the alarm bells for protein spiking: glycine, glutamine, arginine, and non-protein ingredients like taurine or creatine monohydrate.
Sure, all of those are good for something, but not at the expense of the protein grams you think you’re ingesting. If you want creatine or taurine, add them in separately so you can also be sure you’re getting the dose you want. They don’t belong buried in small quantities in a protein powder, messing with your macro counts.
So now you know how to hack the powder label, but you’ve also hacked away most of the powders on the shelf. So which protein powders are safe?
Quest Nutrition (makers of Quest Bars) recently started making powders, and they check all the right boxes. They just came out with two new flavors that are pretty killer: Salted Caramel and Banana Cream.
Check out that label, go through the checklist, and then get back to work, knowing you’re not wasting your workouts with canisters full of powdery lies.