The nutrition label on your whey-protein supplement may be in fine print, but it speaks volumes about what’s inside. If you can read what it’s really telling you about the product, you can determine whether it suits your goals or should remain on the shelf, so to speak. We’ve prepared a step-by-step guide to decoding protein-powder labels with the help of Matt Kadey, R.D., an award-winning food journalist. Tear it out and take it with you to the store.
1) Find the right whey
The term “whey protein” encompasses two main types: whey isolate and whey concentrate. “Isolate is a more pure form of whey,” says Kadey, “so you get more protein and fewer carbs and fat in a serving” because these non-protein components of the milk that whey is made from are filtered out. Therefore, if money is no object, go with whey isolate.
“Concentrate is priced lower and can offer more bang for your buck,” says Kadey, although it’s bound to have a few grams of carbs or fat per serving, so it may not be ideal if you’re on a strict diet. Some products, such as BPI Sports’ Whey-HD, split the difference, offering a more affordable mix of isolate and concentrate. Whey-HD also carries the ChromaDex seal, a guarantee of quality and purity.
2) Calculate the protein content
If all you want is protein, you shouldn’t have to pay for a bunch of fillers and extras that drive up the price of the product. Divide the amount of protein grams per serving by the individual serving size of the product in grams (usually one scoop). You want a powder that’s at least 80% protein by weight,” says Kadey. You’ll have to allow for some agents like sweeteners and emulsifiers that make the protein palatable and shelf stable, but if the powder is only two-thirds protein, ask yourself if you really want to be supplementing with everything else in there. Isopure Zero Carb powder and Optimum Nutrition’s 100% Whey Gold Standard line both offer 80% protein by weight.
3) Beware of sweeteners
You want to supplement with protein, not sugar. Kadey says to look carefully for ingredients such as “cane sugar,” “maltodextrin,” and “corn syrup solids”—they should be used minimally or not at all. Regardless of how the label may try to justify them (with claims such as “natural”), sugar is sugar and offers no nutritional value. If you’re on a diet, the last thing you want your protein powder to do is to help make you fatter.
Furthermore, be aware of any artificial sweeteners your body may not tolerate. Aspartame, for instance, has been linked to headaches in some people. Syntha-6, by BSN, is aspartame-free.