Guide to Protein Powders for Cyclists – How to Read the Ingredient List

By Jiri Kaloc

Do you know what’s the difference between a protein concentrate and isolate? Which sweeteners, emulsifiers, and other additives are good and which to avoid? Let’s take a look at the most important things on the ingredient list you should know about.

Protein powders come in three main forms based on the processing method used – concentrates, isolates, and hydrolysates. Each one is best for a different scenario and they also vary in price quite a bit. Let’s take a look at why so you don’t overpay for what you don’t need and choose the right one for you.

Protein concentrates contain carbs and fats

Protein concentrates are the least processed out of the three. They are extracted using high heat, and acid or enzymes. They typically contain 70-80 % of protein but sometimes even less like in the case of plant sources. The rest is made up of carbs and fats. So, concentrates are not ideal when you don’t want to take in anything else but protein. The advantage is that they contain bioactive microfractions that may improve digestion, mood, and immune function.

Brown hen
For those who can’t or choose not to use milk-based proteins, there are several other types of animal-based protein powders that boast similar quality. Egg-derived protein is a good option for vegetarians. It is considered a complete protein like dairy.

Protein isolates when you need exact macros

Isolates are a little bit more processed. They go through an additional filtration process, which gets rid of more fats and carbs. Isolates usually contain more than 90 % of protein. This makes them more suitable for those who want just protein and to limit calories coming from carbs and fats.

Protein hydrolysates for fastest digestion

Hydrolysates are the most processed. They go through additional treatment with heat, enzymes, or acid that breaks apart the protein chains into shorter peptides. This makes them faster to digest and absorb than the previous two options. Another advantage is that this processing results in a very low lactose content in the case of milk protein, which can be easier on the GI tract for some people. The issue with hydrolysates is that they have a bitter taste so they often have to be heavily sweetened. Also, they don’t contain any bioactive microfractions like concentrates and they are substantially more expensive.

Always check the label for sweeteners

There are three types of sweeteners you should know about if you go for a flavoured protein powder. The first are nutritive or natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, coconut sugar, and so on. These contain sugar so it’s best to choose a powder with less than 5 g of sugar per serving to avoid contributing to excess added sugar.

Bees and Honey
Honey is a great natural sweetener.

Non-nutritive, artificial sweeteners like sucralose, aspartame or saccharin are the second group that is very common. These contain very little or no sugar and are generally safe to consume. But they can increase the glycaemic impact of the powder and some people simply don’t like anything artificial. The third group are sugar alcohols like sorbitol, maltitol, or erythritol. These contain no carbs and no calories because they aren’t digested in the body, similar to fibre. That’s also why some people experience digestive issues when consuming a lot of these.

Understand additives

The ingredient list of protein powders is often a lot longer than just the protein with a sweetener. First, look for anything vague and generic such as “artificial flavours” and avoid powders like that or ask the manufacturer to find out what exactly they put in. Second, if you’re going for whole food powders, get ready to see emulsifiers like carrageenan, lecithin, carboxymethylcellulose, or silicon dioxide. These have been shown to be safe in small amounts. Similarly, thickening agents like psyllium husk, xanthan gum, inulin are also safe in small amounts. On the other hand, vegetable oils are sometimes used to improve texture so avoid any powder that uses hydrogenated oils.