They promise mega nutrients, with a price tag to match, so are protein and ‘superfood’ powders worth buying? Dietitian Jennifer Low looks at the facts
Once used primarily by elite athletes, powdered proteins have become increasingly popular with regular gym-goers. At my local gym café, for example, ordinary people, not body builders, are mixing protein shakes after their workout – and they swear by them.
The other powdered nutrition trend, fuelled by bloggers, is finding health nirvana through ‘superfood’ powders. More versatile, these can be sprinkled on to porridge, added to soups and smoothies or made into hot drinks. Trendy urban cafés are already serving pink lattes made from ‘superfood’ beetroot powder.
What all these powders have in common is that they make big promises. While protein powders are marketed for post-exercise recovery and to boost muscle mass, superfood powders claim other benefits, such as helping you detox with ingredients like cacao, goji berries and spirulina.
But – and you may not want to hear this – however beguiling the idea of a quick fix, when it comes to nutrition there’s no such thing, nor is there any substitute for a healthy, balanced diet. You need to have your wits about you whenever you are faced with the word ‘superfood’, even when it comes to powders. This is because European legislation banned its use on foods and drinks back in 2007, unless accompanied by a specific authorised health claim that’s scientifically proven, and explains to consumers why the product is good for their health.
Although the Advertising Standards Authority is tightening up on its use (a complaint over Leon’s ‘Original Superfood Salad’ was upheld) the term is still misused, as is the case with the majority – if not all – ‘superfood’ powders.
On the positive side
Protein powders can be useful for occasional nutrition on the go if it’s impractical to carry food around, or if you’re following a particularly intense exercise regime. But, although they will stave off hunger for a while and allow for some muscle recovery, they shouldn’t be used in place of ‘real’ food on a regular basis.
As for superfood powders, all contain some antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, and those sold in the UK have had to pass EU regulations. So, if you buy from a reputable UK company, you probably won’t be doing yourself any harm, except for perhaps ending up with a slightly less-than-healthy bank account!
Explore the alternatives
Athletes and those who exercise regularly will need 20–25g protein after exercising, for maximum muscle protein synthesis and recovery. Ingesting more won’t increase the gains for most people, and while protein powders can help muscles to recover, they are by no means the only way to do this.
The amino acid leucine is a key trigger for muscle protein synthesis and recovery. Leucine is naturally present in a glass of milk. This means a post-exercise latte made with 400ml semi-skimmed milk will give you 14g protein. Add alongside it a 30g handful of nuts, which provides 6g protein, and you have a quick and convenient way to hit the 20g mark, without the need for protein powders.
Things to look out for…
Count the added calories – most protein powders taste better when mixed with milk rather than water, but every 100ml semi-skimmed milk adds around 48kcal.
Check the salt content as some powders have high levels. Look for 0.3g or under per 100g.
Don’t replace meals with powders on a regular basis. Any such regime should be followed under guidance of a registered dietitian or registered nutritionist.
Watch your wallet and consider that nutrients provided by powders can be obtained easily and more cheaply from a balanced diet. Let’s not forget, too, that eating food is an important part of our cultural and social lives.
The HFG verdict
Supplements in any form can never match the nutrition found in a balanced diet. The potentially health-benefiting plant compounds such as polyphenols in apples, onions and citrus fruits, and antioxidants in so many foods, from berries and bananas to kale, work together in a way those isolated in tablet or powdered form do not. However, if you need a quick fix or feel you want to supplement your diet, these powders will do no harm; see our recommendations below.
If you still fancy a boost, these are the best six we’ve tried
Aduna Baobab Powder
10g of this powder, from the fruit of the baobab tree, provides two-thirds of our daily vitamin C need.
£7.99/80g, Holland & Barrett
Per 10g: 25kcal
Nutriseed Organic beetroot Powder
Beetroot is naturally high in nitrates, needed to support liver function and carry oxygen around the body. Make a beetroot latte by mixing a few tsp with a little water to make a paste, then top up with hot low-fat milk.
Per 10g: 32kcal
Naturya Blends Organic Greens
A blend of barleygrass, spirulina, chlorella and hemp protein powder. 10g provides 100% of your daily vitamin B12 intake, which is needed for a healthy nervous system.
£19.99/250g, Holland & Barrett
Per 10g: 37kcal
A nutrient-rich, whey-based protein powder available in chocolate, berry, vanilla and naked flavours. £34/1kg, neat-nutrition.com
Per 30g: 118kcal, 23.4g protein
Innermost The Strong One
A range of whey-based protein powders available in handy single-serve pouches. In vanilla or chocolate.
Per 40g pouch147kcal, 34g protein
Pulsin Pea Protein
This vegan- friendly pea powder can be added to dishes such as soups, porridge and pancakes.
£8.99/250g, Holland & Barrett
Per 10g: 35kcal, 8.2g protein