How to Identify Clean Protein Supplements That Are Truly Good for You identify clean protein powder supplement
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How to Identify Clean Protein Supplements That Are Truly Good for You

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The world of protein supplements is full of options but unfortunately, a vast majority of products are not all that good for you. Undigestible additives, artificial sweeteners, and alarmingly high amounts of heavy metals are found in some of the most seemingly healthy products. 

While many products may be marketed as non-GMO verified or certified gluten-free, these stamps represent very specific attributes about certain supplements and don’t tell the complete story behind what they contain. Even protein supplements that are USDA-certified organic aren’t immune to sketchy ingredients that may be harmful to your health.

Organizations like Clean Label Project are a haven for product transparency and consumer safety. But efforts like these have been slow to go mainstream. Identifying clean protein supplements–like protein powder, meal replacements, and amino acids–hinges on you as the consumer to know what to look for and what to avoid.

To help you become professionally savvy at reading labels and doing your research, here are some of the most important factors to consider when identifying clean protein supplements.

Know Which Artificial Sweeteners to Avoid

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Artificial sweeteners are synthetic substitutes designed to mimic the sweetness of sugar without its caloric content. They’re very common in protein powder for weight loss but can have the opposite effect by elevating blood glucose and stimulating your appetite for sweets. While they seem useful in managing calorie intake and lowering sugar content while still providing a sweet taste, concerns have been raised about their safety and health impact over time. 

Research has indicated potential links between regular consumption of certain artificial sweeteners and an array of undesirable outcomes such as metabolic syndrome, gut microbiota disruption, and even cravings for sweeter foods leading to weight gain.

When navigating through your options for cleaner protein supplements, pay close attention to these common artificial sweeteners:

  • Sucralose: Marketed under brand names like Splenda®, sucralose is created by chlorinating sucrose. Although deemed safe by some regulatory bodies at low levels of consumption, studies suggest possible negative impacts on insulin sensitivity and gut bacteria.
  • Acesulfame Potassium (Ace-K): Often found alongside other sweeteners to mask its bitter aftertaste; Ace-K has been criticized due mostly to limited long-term human research regarding its safety profile.
  • Aspartame: Known commercially as Equal® or NutraSweet®, aspartame’s controversy stems from early studies linking it with cancer risk in lab animals. However subsequent research largely refutes these claims within reasonable daily intakes – still skepticism persists among consumers.
  • Saccharin: Once thought carcinogenic due to both animal tests showing bladder cancer correlation. Later reviews lifted these concerns but left lingering doubts among some health-conscious individuals.

Understanding which artificial sweeteners carry potential risks empowers you to not only avoid them but also seek out healthier alternatives. Next to artificial sweeteners are sugar alcohols, which initially seemed healthier on the surface, but have come back to haunt the fitness community.

Be Mindful of Sugar Alcohol

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Despite being a seemingly safer zero-calorie sweetener, it’s crucial to approach sugar alcohols with a measure of caution. While they’re generally recognized as safe by regulatory bodies like the FDA and do indeed provide lower calorie alternatives to traditional sugars, not all sugar alcohols are created equal when it comes to health implications or digestive comfort.

When considering cleaner protein supplements or any food product aiming for healthfulness, keep an eye out for these common sugar alcohols:

  • Erythritol: One of the more popular choices due to its minimal calorie content and negligible impact on blood glucose levels; however recent studies suggest potential links between high erythritol consumption and increased risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease.
  • Xylitol: Often used in chewing gum and dental care products because of its tooth-friendly properties and ability to stimulate saliva production; xylitol can lead to digestive upset in some individuals if consumed in large amounts due to its laxative effect.
  • Sorbitol & Mannitol: These sugar alcohols are often found in sugar-free products and have similar applications to xylitol. While they can be beneficial for those managing blood sugar levels, both sorbitol and mannitol may lead to digestive discomfort such as gas and bloating, particularly when consumed in large quantities.

While many individuals tolerate moderate amounts of these substances without issue, others might find themselves facing digestive disturbances or even allergic reactions in certain cases. 

Tread Lightly on Thickeners and Emulsifiers

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The primary function of thickeners and emulsifiers in protein powders is to improve texture and stability—ensuring that your protein shake doesn’t separate into layers or turn gritty over time. Yet, this convenience might come at a cost; some of these additives can disrupt gut health or trigger sensitivities in certain individuals.

Here’s a closer look at some common culprits found lurking within ingredient lists:

  • Carrageenan: Derived from red seaweed, carrageenan has been used for centuries as a thickening agent but has come under scrutiny due to potential inflammatory properties that could aggravate intestinal discomfort.
  • Soybean Oil: Often included as an emulsifier, soybean oil is high in omega-6 fatty acids—a balance skewed too far towards omega-6s can lead to inflammation within the body.
  • Xanthan Gum: A bacteria-derived substance frequently added for its thickening capabilities, xanthan gum is generally considered safe but may cause gastrointestinal issues such as bloating or gas for those with sensitive stomachs.

Given these considerations, it becomes clear why choosing protein supplements with minimalistic formulas featuring natural thickeners and emulsifiers becomes paramount. 

Opting for products utilizing simpler alternatives—such as guar gum derived from legumes or lecithin extracted from sunflower seeds—not only helps you avoid potential health risks associated with more controversial additives but also aligns better with principles of clean eating by minimizing processed ingredients in your diet.

Prioritize Third-Party Tested Products

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Heavy metals, such as lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury, can find their way into supplements due to contaminated soil or water sources used during ingredient cultivation or manufacturing processes. 

The presence of these elements at even low levels poses significant health risks over time; prolonged exposure has been linked with various adverse effects ranging from gastrointestinal disturbances to more severe neurological damage. Thus arises the crucial need for meticulous screening:

By opting for protein powders explicitly marked as having passed stringent quality checks conducted by reputable third parties — think USP, NSF International, or Informed Choice — you substantially mitigate these risks. These certifications aren’t just stamps on packaging—they’re costly investments that clean brands make to assure their customers that what they’re consuming meets the highest standards for purity and safety.

The thing is, depending on where a product is sold, a brand doesn’t always have to disclose heavy metals or contaminants found in its products. California is an exception based on its Prop 65 warning, which requires brands to label any chemicals that can cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.

For the vast majority of other states, it’s up to you to research whether a brand invests in third-party testing of its products. Usually, if a brand has invested in third-party purity testing, it’s very transparent about this on its website. Some of the most transparent brands will even include the test results and reports, such as Truvani, Wholier, and Sunwarrior, three brands that make some of the cleanest protein powder products.

Bottom Line

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Navigating the vast world of protein supplements can be complex, but armed with knowledge about what to look out for—from artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols to thickeners, emulsifiers, and the importance of third-party testing—you’re now equipped to make informed choices. 

Opting for products that prioritize purity, minimal processing, and comprehensive safety checks not only supports your fitness goals but also safeguards your health in the long run. Remember, clean supplementation is a crucial step toward achieving a balanced and healthy lifestyle.

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Author Bio

Tyler Tafelsky is an avid vegan nutrition blogger and elite amateur cyclist who competes on the professional level. As the founder and head of content for blogs like and, Tyler shares in-depth knowledge on topics related to plant-powered recovery, athletic performance, and the science of endurance sports.

Hi, I’m Valerie!

I'm an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT-200), offering guidance to high achievers in aligning their lifestyle with well-being through daily wellness and self-care routines, promoting balance and harmony. Join me at Wellness Bum for tips on living well, and consider subscribing to my newsletter or booking a coaching session.