Previously, I explained the different types of protein supplements: whey, casein, soy, hemp, and brown rice. This month I'm going to go over some of the additives used in protein supplements, focusing on sweeteners or sugars.
First, a little background. There are caloric and non-caloric sweeteners.
As the name describes, caloric sweeteners (CS) contain calories in the form of carbohydrates. These are most commonly table sugar, or sucrose. Most of them provide four calories per gram and can be found on ingredient labels listed under names such as sucrose, glucose, fructose, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, honey, agave nectar, maltodextrin, brown rice syrup, and high fructose corn syrup.
Sugar alcohols are also considered a CS, providing around two calories per gram. They can be found under names ending in –ol (sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, etc.).
Non-caloric sweeteners (NCS) offer little to no calories and tend to be many times sweeter than table sugar, so less is required. There are artificial and natural non-caloric sweeteners.
Common artificial sweeteners include aspartame (those blue sugar packets), sucralose (those yellow sugar packets), saccharin (those pink sugar packets), and acesulfame potassium. We think these are yucky for you, so please avoid them!
A few natural non-caloric sweeteners include luo han guo and stevia. Luo han guo is a fruit extract that's approximately 300 times sweeter than sugar. It has “generally recognized as safe” or GRAS, status from the FDA. Sometimes it's called 'monk fruit' or by it's latin name of Siratia grosvernorli
Stevia is also a plant extract, and is roughly 150 times sweeter than sugar, with no calories. Part of stevia’s popularity is that it doesn’t affect blood glucose levels, making it safe for people with blood sugar maintenance issues.
To identify sugar in your protein powder read the Nutrition Facts label. If the label lists zero grams of sugar, look at the ingredient list for a NCS. The ingredients are listed in descending order of weight, with the ingredient weighing the most first and the ingredient weight the least last. Also, if it tastes sweet, but has zero grams of sugar, then it has a NCS in it.
When choosing a protein powder, I recommend looking for one that is unsweetened or has small amounts of pure cane sugar or something similar. To improve the flavor, sweeten it yourself by blending it with some fresh or frozen fruit, a pitted date, or a small amount (1-2 teaspoons) of honey or maple syrup.
Avoid products with beet sugar and maltodextrin as they are most likely derived from either GMO beets or corn (unless they are organic). If you choose a protein powder with an NCS in it, make sure it is natural and listed as one of the last ingredients.
At The Natural Athlete's Clinic, our vegan protein powders only have natural sweeteners in them - you won't find any synthetic chemical sweeteners.
Whichever protein powder you choose, remember real food should come first. If it is for convenience or if you just can’t take in enough calories to maintain your weight, having a protein drink is better than no food at all or junk food.
Fitch, Cindy, and Kathryn S. Keim. "Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: use of nutritive and nonnutritive sweeteners." Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 112.5 (2012): 739-758.
Lauren Larson is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) with a comprehensive private nutrition practice focused on sports nutrition-related diet and lifestyle modifications for active and athletic people. She is a passionate endurance athlete, avid trail runner, cyclist, and triathlete.