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

ProductServing 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)30g81.8g0g0.1g1980mgEgg White
Natava Superfoods Natural Whey Protein Powder Natural (1kg)30g81.4g3.81g5.6g663mgWhey
Sunwarrior Classic Protein Natural (500g)21g80.9g0g0g119mgRice
Amazonia Raw Protein Isolate Cacao and Coconut (500g)30g80.8g0.9g0.5g863mgGolden Pea, Rice
Amazonia Raw Protein Isolate Vanilla (500g)30g80.8g0.9g0.5g863mgGolden Pea
Amazonia Raw Protein Isolate Natural (500g)30g80.8g0.9g0.5g863mgGolden Pea and Rice Blend
Red 8 Pea Protein Isolate Unflavoured (500g)25g80g0.6g0g600mgPea
NuZest Clean Lean Protein Vanilla (500g)25g80g0.4g0g1428mgGolden Pea
Sunwarrior Classic Plus Natural (500g)25g80g0g0g640mgPea and rice
Balance 100% Whey Protein Creamy Vanilla (750g)28g79.4g3.9g4.7g130mgWhey
Amazonia Raw Paleo Fermented Protein Vanilla and Lucuma (500g)30g79.2g1.5g0.3g851mgGolden Pea
Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey Double Rich Chocolate (907g)30.4g78.9g1.6g3.3g428mgWhey
Bioglan Figure Protein Powder Vanilla (375g)27g78.6g<1g<1g736mgSoy
Zealea Whey Protein Chocolate (1kg)30g77.8g4.1g4.8g170mgWhey
Horleys 100% Whey Vanilla (340g)24g77.4g4.9g5.9g183mgWhey
Aussie Bodies Protein Fx 100% Whey Vanilla (700g)30g77.4g4.9g5.9g137mgWhey
Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey Banana Cream (907g)31g77.4g1.6g6.4g419mgWhey
Amazonia Raw Slim and Tone Protein Cacao and Macadamia (500g)30g76.2g1.5g0.3g1020mgGolden Pea
Sunwarrior Classic Protein Chocolate (500g)21g76.2g0g4.8g214mgRice
NuZest Clean Lean Protein Chai Tumeric and Maca (500g)25g76g0.8g4.8g1300mgPea
MusclePharm Combat 100% Whey Chocolate Milk (2268g)33g76g1.5g3g212mgWhey
Natava Superfoods Natural Whey Protein Powder Chocolate (1kg)30g75.9g4.1g5.1g603mgWhey
Zealea Vege'd Protein Vanilla (1kg)30g75.9g0.5g0.3g1170mgPea
Aussie Bodies Protein Fx 100% Whey Chocolate (700g)30g75.3g5g5.8g141mgWhey
NZ Muscle Whey Protein Chocolate Cake (2268g)32g75g4.7g6.3g156mgWhey Blend
Horleys Sculpt Dietary Supplement Protein Powder Vanilla (500g)25g74.6g2g5.5g683mgWhey
BioX Power Whey Complex Chocolate (907g)35g74.3g2.9g5.7g400mgWhey Blend
Horleys Sculpt Dietary Supplement Protein Powder Berry (500g)25g74.2g2g4.9g685mgWhey
Musashi Lo Carb Protein Powder Vanilla (850g)30g72.4g3.8g11.8g200mgWhey Blend
Sunwarrior Classic Plus Vanilla (500g)25g72g0g0g560mgPea and rice blend
Sunwarrior Classic Protein Vanilla (500g)21g71.4g0g4.8g262mgRice
Sunwarrior Classic Plus Chocolate (500g)25g68g0g0g1240mgPea and rice blend
Anchor Protein Plus Smoothie Booster Plain (375g)26.6g67.7g2g14.6g127mgWhey Blend
Musashi High Protein Powder Vanilla (900g)45g66.7g1.8g15.3g142mgWhey Blend
Anchor Protein Plus Smoothie Booster Vanilla (375g)26.6g64.4g1.9g15.3g122mgWhey Blend
Anchor Protein Plus Smoothie Booster Strawberry (375g)26.6g64g1.9g13.5g116mgWhey Blend
Musashi Shred and Burn Protein Chocolate (714g)34g61.6g2.1g10.8g221mgWhey
Red Seal Fit Protein Vanilla (500g)30g60.5g2.4g12.4g332mgWhey
Red Seal Fit Protein Chocolate (500g)30g60.2g2.3g12.4g322mgWhey
Amazonia Raw Purple Rice Protein Vanilla Acai (450g)30g58.5g1.5g1.5g17mgRice Blend
Amazonia Raw Purple Rice Protein Cacao Coconut (450g)30g57.2g1.8g1.6g29mgRice Blend
Clean Paleo Protein Powder Vanilla (600g)30g56.7g0.2g11.9g875mgEgg White
Clean Paleo Protein Powder Light Chocolate (600g)30g56.7g2.6g14.7g780mgGolden Pea
NuZest Just Fruit and Vege Wild Berry (250g)25g56.4g0.8g10.4g1008mgWhey, casenite, soy blend
Atkins Low Carb Protein Shake Mix Vanilla (310g)31g54.9g2.6g4.2g473mgEgg White
NuZest Just Fruit and Vege Fresh Coconut (250g)25g48.8g8g12.4g860mgGolden Pea

Protein snacks

ProductProtein[width=small]Saturated fat[width=auto]Sugar[width=auto]Sodium[width=auto]Protein base[width=auto]
Quest Protein Chips Sour Cream & Onion65.6g0g3.1g500mgMilk and whey
BodyTrim Lo Carb Protein Bar Chocolate Fudge35.2g4.5g2.2g269mgSoy, whey, casenite
Quest Protein Bar Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough35g3g1g352mgMilk and whey
Horleys Protein 33 Tropical Crush33.9g3.1g28.7g158mgSoy, casenite, whey
Musashi Shred and Burn Protein Bar Choc Mint33.6g5.5g0.5g312mgCasenite, whey, soy
Horleys Protein 33 Protein Bar Choc Fudge33.3g2.8g38.5g167mgSoy, casenite, whey
Aussie Bodies Lo Carb Protein Bar Whipped English Toffee32.3g4.9g2.3g274mgCasenite, whey, soy
Horleys Carb Less Protein Bar Chocolate31.7g3.6g9.8g309mgSoy Protein Nuggets
Atkins Advantage Nutrition Bar Chocolate Decadence30g11g1.3g200mgSoy
Aussie Bodies Lo Carb Protein Bar Whipped Boysenberry29.9g4.8g0.9g154mgCasenite, whey, soy
Musashi High Protein Bar Chocolate Brownie29.8g4.6g2g310mgCasenite, soy, whey
Kelloggs Special K Protein Bliss Bites Salted Caramel26.3g7.3g2g130mgCasenite, whey blend
Tasti Protein Bar Roasted Peanut25.6g6.7g20.3g461mgSoy
SunWarrior Organic Sol Good Protein Bar Cinnamon Roll25.4g4.5g9.0g119mgRice, pea, quinoa blend
Nice and Natural Protein Nut Bar Salted Caramel Nut25.2g6.3g4g295mgSoy
Tasti Protein Bar Dark Choc Orange25.1g6.3g21g222mgSoy
Nature Valley Protein Museli Bar Salted Caramel Nut25g7.6g14.9g451mgSoy
Verkerks Salami Nibbles Protein Snack24.8g11.3g1.5g1378mgPork/beef
Weight Watchers Protein Bar Dark Choc Caramel24.8g4.9g18.4g202mgSoy
Justines Protein Cookie Chocolate Chip26.3g8.8g1.4g320mgCasenite, egg, nut blend
Bounce Protein Energy Balls Peanut29g2g24g296mgWhey
FitMiss Delight Protein Bar 30g8g10g200mgWhey
Ceres Organic Raw Goodness Cacao Protein Food Bar10.9g6.4g37.8g30mgRice
Anchor Protein + Yoghurt Pouch Vanilla7.4g1.1g7.8g86mgMilk
Kelloggs Nutri-Grain To Go Protein Squeezer Choc Malt Slam4.1g1.6g8.7g40mgPea/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