How to recognise the quality and purity of a protein supplement
Nowadays it is increasingly difficult to make informed choices regarding protein supplements. We often end up confused due to the technical language used on labels. In other cases we are attracted by attractive packaging which, however, often conceals a mediocre product, which does not keep its promises.
In this article we will discuss the main characteristics to be found in a high-quality protein supplement and give some tips for avoiding products of dubious value.
Recognising the protein content of a protein by analysing its ingredients and colour.
In the jungle of supplements, we often come across protein products with the most varied colours and with formulas and logos that suggest the quality of a product. Each manufacturer boasts the quality of its products on different bases such as flaunting high-sounding logos of raw materials, solubility or taste. But is it really like this?
It is important to read carefully the ingredients shown in the nutritional table because often it is possible to know if the product is really made up only of proteins or of other unwanted elements. Let us assume that those who buy a protein supplement require a product that meets certain requirements and standards of quality. Analysis of the biological value (BV) and the chemical score (IPC) of a protein are just two of the parameters that can tell us whether the protein we purchased meets certain standards or not.
The order is important ...
In reading the ingredients, the first active ingredient is the element most present within the product. If the term whey protein concentrate (WPC) is present, we are faced with a protein containing up to 70-80% of proteins with reduced amounts of lactose and fats. Many people have the impression that a WPC is inherently less than one isolate. This is simply FALSE. Although WPCs contain less protein than an isolate, a high-quality WPC contains all kinds of interesting compounds that are not found in isolates.
Growth factors and the pros/cons of WPCs
Good concentrates contain much higher levels of growth factors, such as IGF-1, TGF-1 and TGF-2. They contain much higher levels of various phospholipids and various bioactive lipids, such as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and often contain higher levels of immunoglobulins and lactoferrin.
The disadvantages of WPCs are that they have a slightly lower protein content than an isolate and contain higher levels of fat (although these fats can have beneficial effects) and higher levels of lactose.
People should not feel that a well-made WPC is inherently inferior to a whey protein isolate (WPI) and may indeed be a superior choice, depending on the person's goals.
Whey protein isolates
If we read whey protein isolate (WPI) we are faced with a protein that generally contains up to 90% protein. WPIs contain 90% protein content with a minimum of lactose and practically 0 fats. The advantage of a good WPI is that it contains more protein and less fat, lactose and ash compared with WPCs. However, it should be clear to the reader that whey is much more complicated than simple protein content, and the protein content itself is far from being the most important factor in deciding which whey to use.
For example, ion exchange has the highest protein levels of any isolate. Does this make it the best choice for an isolate? No, but many companies still push it like the Holy Grail of whey.
Ion exchange takes place by taking a concentrate and passing it through what is called an "ion exchange" column to obtain an "ion exchange whey isolate". It looks nice, but there are serious drawbacks to this method.
As mentioned earlier, whey protein is a complex protein consisting of many sub-fraction peptides that have their unique effects on health, immunity, etc. Some of these subfractions are found only in very small quantities. In actual fact, the subfractions are really what ultimately makes whey the unique protein that it is.
Due to the nature of the ion exchange process, the most precious and beneficial components for health are selectively exhausted. Although protein content has increased, many of the most important subfractions are lost or significantly reduced.
This is what makes ion exchange isolates a bad choice for a true third-generation whey protein supplement, although many companies still use it as an isolate source because of the higher protein content.
A bit of terminology
This accompanies us nicely in looking at micro-filtered whey isolates. With the range of the most recent processing techniques used to realize WPIs - or extract various subfractions - such as filtration using ultra-filtrant (UF), cross-filtration (CFM), micro-filtration (MF), reverse osmosis (RO), dynamic membrane filtration (DMF), ion exchange cromatography (IEC), electro-ultrafiltration (EU), radial flow cromatography (RFC) and nano-filtration (NF), manufacturers can now produce the highest quality and unique whey proteins. Perhaps the micro-filter isolate most familiar to readers is CFM.
CFM is the processing method that uses low temperature micro-filtration techniques that allow the production of very high protein content (90%), the preservation of important subfractions and extremely low fat and lactose content, with practically no non-denatured proteins.
CFM is a natural, non-chemical process that uses high-tech ceramic filters, unlike ion exchange, which involves the use of chemical regimes such as hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide.
The CFM whey isolate of milk also contains high amounts of calcium and low amounts of sodium.
Hydrolysed whey protein
If we read "hydrolysed" (WPH), this basically means that the protein has been partially "decomposed" into peptides of different lengths.
Because the protein is already partially "decomposed", it is absorbed more rapidly, which can have positive effects under certain circumstances and certain metabolic conditions.
It is important to know how to interpret whether the hydrolysed protein is from concentrate or isolate. In the first case, if we read "hydrolysed whey protein concentrate" among the ingredients, we will be facing a protein that has a protein content not higher than 80%, while in the second case, if we read "hydrolysed whey protein isolate", we will be facing a protein with a protein content close to 90% and with a carbohydrate and fat content of almost 0.
What alters the protein content
The protein content can be altered if, when reading among the ingredients, we find indications of some amino acids in free form such as: glycine, alanine, lysine, glutamic acid, leucine, isoleucine and valine.
Although at first glance it may be an advantage to have free-form amino acids within a protein product, it is important to consider that these amino acids have no function within a purely protein product with a plastic function.
On the contrary, they alter the biological value (BV) and chemical score (IPC) of the protein itself.
If the intention is to buy a protein of pure quality, it is important that there are no free amino acids of any kind among the ingredients.
Amino acids in free form can be purchased in products designed for other purposes.
The importance of colour in a protein powder
Another element for assessing the protein content of a product is analysis of the colour of the flavoured protein powder. A tasty protein, good and soluble protein is often confused with quality. Please bear in mind that even sugar is soluble. And often the addition of maltodextrins among the ingredients is an example.
At the same time, a strongly flavoured protein will drastically lower the protein content of the product.
Those who buy a protein supplement should expect and demand a pure product, not altered by amino acids in free form and not strongly flavoured. These elements will do nothing more than alter the quality of the product itself.
Possible side effects of flavourings
Has it ever happened to you that at certain times of the day, often after the protein shaker, you notice a sensation of "abdominal swelling"? The causes are in most cases due to high consumption of flavourings that the body does not tolerate.
It is therefore appropriate to rely on products that are not too flavoured; by eliminating in part the "incriminating" substance, we can see a rapid regression of the symptoms.
Therefore the intestinal or digestive problems that may occur are not exclusively attributable to the lactose content.
Water retention is that accumulation of fluids that occurs in the circulatory system and in tissues. Foods rich in sugar, especially artificial sweeteners and flavourings, cause rapid blood sugar spikes and insulin levels that will cause cells to retain more sodium, increasing reabsorption in the kidneys and thus water retention.
Therefore there are various and obvious reasons for choosing a protein with low flavouring content or, even better, are 100% natural.
Other unwanted elements
In a market like that of supplements now targeted at a much wider clientele and not only that of sportsmen/women, the addition of elements such as palm oil, maltodextrin, xanthan gum or carrageenan or milk proteins will make the protein tastier, but will completely lose that functionality of dietary or sports supplement.
Therefore, if you read palm oil, maltodextrin, xanthan gum or carrageenan or milk proteins (not to be confused with whey) among the ingredients, we are dealing with a product that can give you strong pleasures on the palate, but not from a physical, performance and dietary point of view.