Man preparing protein powder shake

Protein powders & snacks

Protein powders and snacks, once reserved for weightlifters and gym enthusiasts, are now commonplace. While the claims sprinkled on the containers make the products seem like a healthy choice, do you really need the protein boost? We assessed 46 powders and 25 snacks that boast about their protein to find out if they lived up to their claims.

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The problem

According to the marketing hype, protein powders can help you “build and maintain lean muscle mass”, be the “ideal protein source for a healthy good looking body”, or deliver “scientifically supported benefits to help you achieve the body and fitness level you truly desire”.

While all the powders we looked at packed the protein they promised, many also had high levels of unhealthy ingredients.

Nearly half were high in salt. Zealea Egg White Protein Drink Powder had 1980mg per 100g. Nuzest Clean Lean Protein Vanilla (1428mg) and Sunwarrior Classic Plus Chocolate (1240mg) weren’t far behind. In comparison, Amazonia Raw Purple Rice Protein Vanilla Acai powder had just 17mg per 100g.

Nuzest Just Fruit and Vege Fresh Coconut topped the protein powder chart for saturated fats with 8g. Aussie Bodies Protein Fx 100% Whey Chocolate was next, with 5g of saturated fat per 100g.

Most of the protein powders were low in sugar – 25 of the powders had less than 5g per 100g. But some were sweeter than you’d expect. Anchor Protein Plus Smoothie Booster Vanilla and Musashi High Protein Powder Vanilla had close to 4 teaspoons (15.3g) of sugar per 100g. Clean Paleo Protein Powder Light Chocolate had 14.7g of sugar for every 100g.

Many protein powder manufacturers also add vitamins and minerals to increase the product’s appeal, but registered dietitian Lucy Carey said it’s unlikely you’d need these extras.

“You can get all the vitamins and minerals you need from a well-balanced diet. When you consume more than what you need in multivitamins and supplemented products, some are excreted in your urine, so it’s just a waste of money,” she said.

Protein needs

If you’ve got an active lifestyle and hit the gym regularly, you could be thinking, “what’s the harm in downing the odd protein shake?”

While it’s true you need protein for building and repairing tissue and muscles, Ms Carey said you can get all you need from a balanced diet.

Your daily protein requirement can be calculated as roughly 0.8 to 1g per kilo of body weight. So if you’re 70kg, you need between 56 and 70g of protein.

The latest New Zealand Adult Nutrition Survey found 98% of adults got their required daily protein intake, with some getting more than double what they needed.

Research shows that even high-performance athletes with strenuous workout regimes get no added benefit from any more than 2g of protein per kg of body weight.

Finding a quality powder

Protein powders can also be packed with fillers. If you’re tempted to buy one, look for a powder that’s between 80% and 90% protein to avoid products containing fillers, Ms Carey said.

Choosing whey-, egg- or soy-based protein powders is also better because they have good amino acid profiles and are quickly digested.

Protein found in meat, fish, poultry and dairy products has all 20 of the amino acids our bodies need. Two plant foods, soy and quinoa, are also complete proteins. Other foods, such as peas, tofu and oats, also have protein, but not all of the amino acids. So while you’ll still get protein from a pea-based powder, it’s not a complete option.

Only 2 powders in our survey met Ms Carey’s protein criteria: Natava Superfoods Natural Whey Protein Powder Plain and Zealea Egg White Protein Drink Powder Natural, but they're both high in sodium.

Mass gainers & meal replacements

Don’t mistake protein powders for “mass gainers” or “meal replacements”, which are often on the same shelves. Mass gainers are high-carbohydrate drinks, with a little added protein (sometimes only about 15g per 100g) and often a lot of sugar. As the name suggests, they’re intended to bulk you up. Meal replacements are just that, but are also very high in sugar.

MusclePharm Combat XL Mass Gainer Vanilla doesn’t look too bad on sugar – just over 5g per 100g. But if you followed its recommended serving size (332g) and drank 3 serves a day, you get 12 teaspoons of sugar.

Pay close attention to serving size when looking at prices. The serving sizes of the powders we looked at ranged from 21g to 45g, which – based on the price we paid – could be the difference between paying $1.75 a scoop or $3.

Snack claims

Powders aren’t the only players in the protein game.

Snack bars, energy balls, cookies, chips, salami and yoghurt are just some of the products getting on the high-protein bandwagon. We even found dried pancake mix boasting about its protein levels.

But of the 25 protein snacks we assessed, 11 were high in saturated fats.

Verkerks Protein Snack Pack, a “salami snack for strength and stamina”, which features athletic young people on its packaging, was high in both saturated fats (11.3g per 100g) and sodium (1378mg).

Four products we looked at were high in sugar. The sweetest offender was Horleys Protein 33 Choc Fudge Bar. While it delivers 33g of protein per 100g, it’s a whopping 38.5% sugar.

Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain To Go Protein Squeezers were relatively low in sugar, saturated fats and sodium – but also in protein. A 140g serving has just 5.7g of protein – you’d get more than that from a cup of Kellogg’s All Bran Original cereal, and that’s before adding milk.

Products compared

Nutrition information is per 100g. Products are listed in order of protein content.

A red symbol means the product has high levels; green means the food has low amounts; orange fits somewhere in between.

Our criteria are:

Saturated fat (g/100g)

Green ≤1.5 Orange 1.6-5.0 Red >5

Sugar (g/100g)

Green ≤5 Orange 5.1-22.5 Red ≥22.5

Sodium (mg/100g):

Green ≤120 Orange 121-600 Red ≥600

Protein powders

Product Serving size[width=auto] Protein[width=small] Saturated fat[width=auto] Sugar[width=auto] Sodium[width=auto] Protein base[width=auto]
Zealea Egg White Protein Powder Drink Natural (1kg) 30g 81.8g 0g 0.1g 1980mg Egg White
Natava Superfoods Natural Whey Protein Powder Natural (1kg) 30g 81.4g 3.81g 5.6g 663mg Whey
Sunwarrior Classic Protein Natural (500g) 21g 80.9g 0g 0g 119mg Rice
Amazonia Raw Protein Isolate Cacao and Coconut (500g) 30g 80.8g 0.9g 0.5g 863mg Golden Pea, Rice
Amazonia Raw Protein Isolate Vanilla (500g) 30g 80.8g 0.9g 0.5g 863mg Golden Pea
Amazonia Raw Protein Isolate Natural (500g) 30g 80.8g 0.9g 0.5g 863mg Golden Pea and Rice Blend
Red 8 Pea Protein Isolate Unflavoured (500g) 25g 80g 0.6g 0g 600mg Pea
NuZest Clean Lean Protein Vanilla (500g) 25g 80g 0.4g 0g 1428mg Golden Pea
Sunwarrior Classic Plus Natural (500g) 25g 80g 0g 0g 640mg Pea and rice
Balance 100% Whey Protein Creamy Vanilla (750g) 28g 79.4g 3.9g 4.7g 130mg Whey
Amazonia Raw Paleo Fermented Protein Vanilla and Lucuma (500g) 30g 79.2g 1.5g 0.3g 851mg Golden Pea
Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey Double Rich Chocolate (907g) 30.4g 78.9g 1.6g 3.3g 428mg Whey
Bioglan Figure Protein Powder Vanilla (375g) 27g 78.6g <1g <1g 736mg Soy
Zealea Whey Protein Chocolate (1kg) 30g 77.8g 4.1g 4.8g 170mg Whey
Horleys 100% Whey Vanilla (340g) 24g 77.4g 4.9g 5.9g 183mg Whey
Aussie Bodies Protein Fx 100% Whey Vanilla (700g) 30g 77.4g 4.9g 5.9g 137mg Whey
Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey Banana Cream (907g) 31g 77.4g 1.6g 6.4g 419mg Whey
Amazonia Raw Slim and Tone Protein Cacao and Macadamia (500g) 30g 76.2g 1.5g 0.3g 1020mg Golden Pea
Sunwarrior Classic Protein Chocolate (500g) 21g 76.2g 0g 4.8g 214mg Rice
NuZest Clean Lean Protein Chai Tumeric and Maca (500g) 25g 76g 0.8g 4.8g 1300mg Pea
MusclePharm Combat 100% Whey Chocolate Milk (2268g) 33g 76g 1.5g 3g 212mg Whey
Natava Superfoods Natural Whey Protein Powder Chocolate (1kg) 30g 75.9g 4.1g 5.1g 603mg Whey
Zealea Vege'd Protein Vanilla (1kg) 30g 75.9g 0.5g 0.3g 1170mg Pea
Aussie Bodies Protein Fx 100% Whey Chocolate (700g) 30g 75.3g 5g 5.8g 141mg Whey
NZ Muscle Whey Protein Chocolate Cake (2268g) 32g 75g 4.7g 6.3g 156mg Whey Blend
Horleys Sculpt Dietary Supplement Protein Powder Vanilla (500g) 25g 74.6g 2g 5.5g 683mg Whey
BioX Power Whey Complex Chocolate (907g) 35g 74.3g 2.9g 5.7g 400mg Whey Blend
Horleys Sculpt Dietary Supplement Protein Powder Berry (500g) 25g 74.2g 2g 4.9g 685mg Whey
Musashi Lo Carb Protein Powder Vanilla (850g) 30g 72.4g 3.8g 11.8g 200mg Whey Blend
Sunwarrior Classic Plus Vanilla (500g) 25g 72g 0g 0g 560mg Pea and rice blend
Sunwarrior Classic Protein Vanilla (500g) 21g 71.4g 0g 4.8g 262mg Rice
Sunwarrior Classic Plus Chocolate (500g) 25g 68g 0g 0g 1240mg Pea and rice blend
Anchor Protein Plus Smoothie Booster Plain (375g) 26.6g 67.7g 2g 14.6g 127mg Whey Blend
Musashi High Protein Powder Vanilla (900g) 45g 66.7g 1.8g 15.3g 142mg Whey Blend
Anchor Protein Plus Smoothie Booster Vanilla (375g) 26.6g 64.4g 1.9g 15.3g 122mg Whey Blend
Anchor Protein Plus Smoothie Booster Strawberry (375g) 26.6g 64g 1.9g 13.5g 116mg Whey Blend
Musashi Shred and Burn Protein Chocolate (714g) 34g 61.6g 2.1g 10.8g 221mg Whey
Red Seal Fit Protein Vanilla (500g) 30g 60.5g 2.4g 12.4g 332mg Whey
Red Seal Fit Protein Chocolate (500g) 30g 60.2g 2.3g 12.4g 322mg Whey
Amazonia Raw Purple Rice Protein Vanilla Acai (450g) 30g 58.5g 1.5g 1.5g 17mg Rice Blend
Amazonia Raw Purple Rice Protein Cacao Coconut (450g) 30g 57.2g 1.8g 1.6g 29mg Rice Blend
Clean Paleo Protein Powder Vanilla (600g) 30g 56.7g 0.2g 11.9g 875mg Egg White
Clean Paleo Protein Powder Light Chocolate (600g) 30g 56.7g 2.6g 14.7g 780mg Golden Pea
NuZest Just Fruit and Vege Wild Berry (250g) 25g 56.4g 0.8g 10.4g 1008mg Whey, casenite, soy blend
Atkins Low Carb Protein Shake Mix Vanilla (310g) 31g 54.9g 2.6g 4.2g 473mg Egg White
NuZest Just Fruit and Vege Fresh Coconut (250g) 25g 48.8g 8g 12.4g 860mg Golden Pea

Protein snacks

Product Protein[width=small] Saturated fat[width=auto] Sugar[width=auto] Sodium[width=auto] Protein base[width=auto]
Quest Protein Chips Sour Cream & Onion 65.6g 0g 3.1g 500mg Milk and whey
BodyTrim Lo Carb Protein Bar Chocolate Fudge 35.2g 4.5g 2.2g 269mg Soy, whey, casenite
Quest Protein Bar Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough 35g 3g 1g 352mg Milk and whey
Horleys Protein 33 Tropical Crush 33.9g 3.1g 28.7g 158mg Soy, casenite, whey
Musashi Shred and Burn Protein Bar Choc Mint 33.6g 5.5g 0.5g 312mg Casenite, whey, soy
Horleys Protein 33 Protein Bar Choc Fudge 33.3g 2.8g 38.5g 167mg Soy, casenite, whey
Aussie Bodies Lo Carb Protein Bar Whipped English Toffee 32.3g 4.9g 2.3g 274mg Casenite, whey, soy
Horleys Carb Less Protein Bar Chocolate 31.7g 3.6g 9.8g 309mg Soy Protein Nuggets
Atkins Advantage Nutrition Bar Chocolate Decadence 30g 11g 1.3g 200mg Soy
Aussie Bodies Lo Carb Protein Bar Whipped Boysenberry 29.9g 4.8g 0.9g 154mg Casenite, whey, soy
Musashi High Protein Bar Chocolate Brownie 29.8g 4.6g 2g 310mg Casenite, soy, whey
Kelloggs Special K Protein Bliss Bites Salted Caramel 26.3g 7.3g 2g 130mg Casenite, whey blend
Tasti Protein Bar Roasted Peanut 25.6g 6.7g 20.3g 461mg Soy
SunWarrior Organic Sol Good Protein Bar Cinnamon Roll 25.4g 4.5g 9.0g 119mg Rice, pea, quinoa blend
Nice and Natural Protein Nut Bar Salted Caramel Nut 25.2g 6.3g 4g 295mg Soy
Tasti Protein Bar Dark Choc Orange 25.1g 6.3g 21g 222mg Soy
Nature Valley Protein Museli Bar Salted Caramel Nut 25g 7.6g 14.9g 451mg Soy
Verkerks Salami Nibbles Protein Snack 24.8g 11.3g 1.5g 1378mg Pork/beef
Weight Watchers Protein Bar Dark Choc Caramel 24.8g 4.9g 18.4g 202mg Soy
Justines Protein Cookie Chocolate Chip 26.3g 8.8g 1.4g 320mg Casenite, egg, nut blend
Bounce Protein Energy Balls Peanut 29g 2g 24g 296mg Whey
FitMiss Delight Protein Bar 30g 8g 10g 200mg Whey
Ceres Organic Raw Goodness Cacao Protein Food Bar 10.9g 6.4g 37.8g 30mg Rice
Anchor Protein + Yoghurt Pouch Vanilla 7.4g 1.1g 7.8g 86mg Milk
Kelloggs Nutri-Grain To Go Protein Squeezer Choc Malt Slam 4.1g 1.6g 8.7g 40mg Pea/soy/milk

GUIDE TO THE TABLES PRODUCTS were selected based on commonly available products in supermarkets and food stores, and bestsellers on sport supplement websites. PRICE is price we paid. PROTEIN, SATURATED FAT, SUGAR and SODIUM (per 100g) are from the label or website information. MAIN PROTEIN SOURCE is from ingredients list.

By Tessa Johnstone
Investigative Writer