Protein powders & snacks
Is the big push for extra protein really needed?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
≤1.5 1.6-5.0 >5
≤5 5.1-22.5 ≥22.5
≤120 121-600 ≥600