Do probiotics work? If you’ve been reading the headlines lately, the media clearly thinks they don’t:
Probiotics Are Mostly Useless and Can Actually Hurt You
Do You Buy Probiotics? New Study Says They May Not Work For You And May Even Be Harmful
Unexpected Findings Cause Scientists to Rethink Probiotics
Probiotics Found To Be Ineffective For Easing Symptoms Of Kids’ Stomach Bugs
In light of all these news stories, I’ve received many emails asking if you should avoid probiotics altogether.
That’s why in this article, I’m going to explain what these studies really mean (based on the latest and greatest research) and clear up some confusion around probiotics in general. After reading this, I’m confident you’ll feel a little more confident about your knowledge of probiotics.
Probiotics: What They Are and How They Work
Probiotics are microorganisms that may provide certain health benefits when ingested.
How probiotics work inside your body is still a bit of a mystery to scientists. Evidence suggest that probiotics communicate with your body through “toll-like” pattern recognition receptors … but more research is needed to understand their specific mechanism of action in humans.
Why Should You Care About Probiotics?
You have around 40 trillion bacterial cells in your body at any given moment (compared to around 30 trillion human cells).
Providing protection from pathogenic organisms that enter the body
Controlling and/or producing neurotransmitters like serotonin (your body’s chemical messengers that contribute to feelings of well-being and happiness)
The exciting part is, we’re in the very early stages of research about the microbiome and its potential impact on your health. The evidence as a whole is promising but of course there are exceptions …
Which Probiotics May Not Work, According to Research Studies
It goes without saying, but you should avoid probiotics that have not been approved by the FDA. The majority of these don’t have any efficacy and safety data to support them. Unfortunately, this applies to most commercially available probiotic supplement products on the market.
With that in mind, let’s look at some published studies that show which probiotics don’t appear to work for specific conditions:
A commercially available formulation containing 11 strains.*
Many people can’t successfully colonize standard probiotics in their gut. The probiotic strains tested may not be helpful and actually may harm the gut microbiome following a course of antibiotics.
Lactobacillus strains, in particular, appeared to inhibit the “normal” commensal microbiota. However, several studies suggest that using certain strains of probiotics during antibiotic treatment does confer some benefit.
The use of probiotics could lead to a build-up of bacteria in the gut causing brain fogginess.
“Brain fogginess is very subjective, and different criteria are used to assess this. I don’t believe that SIBO has any relationship to what they are calling brain fogginess.” –Dr. Emeran Mayer, a professor of medicine at UCLA.
There was no meaningful difference in how long parents said their kids’ vomiting and diarrhea lasted.
This was a well-designed study that seems to show the probiotic strain Lactobacillus rhammosus (commercially sold as Culturelle) does not help with acute gastroenteritis (specifically, symptoms of stomach flu) in children.
My Interpretation of These Study Results
What you see above is just a small sampling of studies done recently. “Probiotics” are mentioned nearly 20,000 times on PubMed. There’s been a lot of research done showing the benefits (or lack thereof) of many probiotic strains.
If you’re considering a probiotic supplement, it’s up to you to do your own research and talk to your doctor about the effectiveness and safety of the strain you’re considering for your condition.
While probiotics are largely unregulated and definitely controversial, there are now hundreds of peer-reviewed, randomized, placebo-controlled trials that have demonstrated the safety and efficacy of a variety of probiotic strains.
No. I personally love fermented foods. I use sauerkraut, drink kombucha, and make my own pickles. And those foods are definitely good for you. But they’re not the same as probiotics. Here’s how the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics explains it:
More Strains Is Not Always Better
What’s more important is the type of strains, and making sure you’re choosing products with the correct amount of probiotic strains. Unfortunately, “50 billion CFUs” doesn’t mean anything if the strains haven’t been studied for safety and efficacy at that dose (most supplements have not).
This 2017 study found that the amount of probiotic bacteria contained in foods is often much lower than the effective dose shown in studies.
Probiotics Can Be Dangerous
Probiotics are mostly unregulated, which is a problem. Certain studies have reported probiotic-related deaths and others have shown adverse events may be underreported in clinical trials.
That’s why’s it’s so important to choose make sure the strain(s) you’re taking has been studied for safety and efficacy in peer-reviewed, placebo-controlled clinical trials.
There is likely a huge difference between the probiotic strains tested and validated in human clinical trials and the ones found on the average grocery store shelf.
At some point, if you use a plant protein powder supplement, you’ll probably hear that it’s “contaminated” with heavy metals and other potential toxins.
You may have seen headlines like this:
“Clean Label Project Finds Hidden Toxins in Protein Powders”
“Your Protein Powder Might Be Contaminated with Toxins, Says Consumer’s Reports”
“Study Finds Some Protein Powders Are Toxic To Your Health”
I can tell you with conviction that after poring over dozens of research studies, speaking to actual nutrition scientists, and reading all the hoopla about this topic online, there’s a lot of misinformation out there right now!
That’s why in this article, I want to separate the facts from myths regarding heavy metals in your plant protein powder and other foods.
This analysis is based on scientific data from peer-reviewed, placebo-controlled research studies (the gold standard of scientific research). All claims you see have a source, and you will see a list of all these sources at the end of the piece.
My objective when compiling research for this article was simple:
Find out what levels of heavy metals in foods/drinks are considered toxic / safe, according to the latest research.
Below you’ll find a summary of topics we’ll cover. This is a beast of an article at 3,000+ words, so click/tap on the topic you’re interested in if you want to to skip around.
Heavy metals are naturally occurring elements that have a high atomic weight and a density at least 5 times greater than water.
Some heavy metals (zinc, copper, and iron, for example) are considered trace minerals that are essential for biological function in animals. But absorbing high amounts of certain metals in your bloodstream may cause serious health issues (you’ll learn what those are in a minute).
Why Are Heavy Metals in Plant Protein Powders?
Heavy metals are naturally present in water and soil, which means there are trace amounts in most fruits, vegetables, and tap water. They are not added to protein powders and other foods; rather, they’re absorbed from the soil by the plant.
Crops grown in heavily polluted soils in industrial areas (China is an infamous example) contain higher levels of metals.
What Is the Clean Label Project?
The Clean Label Project, according to its website, is “a nonprofit focused on health and transparency in consumer product labeling.”
It’s ironic that they market themselves as such, for several reasons:
They won’t disclose who they’re funded by.
The methodology of their star rating system has come under heavy scrutiny for its subjectivity (more on this in a second).
They conveniently just started offering certification services along with an online marketplace:
In its recent analysis of plant-based protein powders, the Clean Label Project assigned each product a score based on four criteria: heavy metals, pesticides, contaminants like BPA, and nutrition. Then it calculated an overall score.
The heavy metal levels accounted for 60 percent of the overall score. Why, exactly? There’s no scientific rationale.
The five products that received the poorest overall scores were:
Garden of Life Organic Shake & Meal Replacement Chocolate Raw Organic Meal
Nature’s Best Isopure Creamy Vanilla Zero Carb
Quest Chocolate Milkshake Protein Powder
360Cut Performance Supplements 360PRO Whey Chocolate Silk Premium Whey Protein
Vega Sport Plant-Based Vanilla Performance Protein
Do I think there’s value in knowing if BPA, pesticides, and unsafe levels of heavy metals are in your protein powder?
But here’s the bottom line: the Clean Label Project stands to make a handsome profit by convincing you that heavy metals are more dangerous than chemical pesticides and BPA (and added sugar, for that matter).
The Clean Label Project “study” is a brilliant piece of marketing, no doubt … it just doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny …
As a scientist, I’m deeply troubled by the methods the Clean Label Project used in its study and report. I trust that the organization and its leaders have good intentions, but their eagerness to warn consumers about contaminants may have caused them to overlook some basic scientific principles.
Lori Bestervelt, Ph.D.
What Is Prop 65?
“Prop 65”, or Proposition 65, is a law specific to the State of California that requires products sold in California to carry warnings about potential exposure to a list of 900 substances “known to the state” to cause a potential threat to health.
Whether the soil is certified organic or conventional, and regardless of whether the plant is organic or genetically modified, lead is naturally found in a single serving of many fruits and vegetables at levels that commonly exceed the Prop 65 limit of 0.5 mcg.
For example, a serving of turnips, apples, artichokes, carrots, cucumbers, green beans, spinach, brown rice, almonds and other nuts contain measurable amounts considerably higher than the artificial limits established in Prop 65.
Yet these food products don’t have to carry the warning label because they’re not classified as supplements.
Doesn’t matter where the proteins were grown either …
When the State of California conducted a soil-lead-uptake analysis of its own soil, from 70 different locations, they found that most vegetables averaged four times the Prop 65 lead limits. 
In the last 10 years, the issue of Proposition 65 warnings with respect to foods has become an increasingly hot topic of debate and litigation.
Legal proceedings to enforce Prop 65 against manufacturers are instituted by the State of California, private attorneys, or private citizen “bounty hunters”, who collect tens of millions of dollars every year. It’s spawned an industry of opportunists hoping to make a quick buck.
Toxicity levels of heavy metals depend on several factors, including:
Route of exposure and chemical species
Age, gender, genetics, and nutritional status of exposed individuals
The heavy metals arsenic, cadmium, chromium, and nickel are classified as Group 1 human carcinogens (known or probable) according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. 
However, in this article we will focus on the four heavy metals most commonly found in protein powders: arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury.
Let’s break down the important facts, starting with arsenic:
Arsenic is found in small doses in many foods and in drinking water and plays a role in some biological processes in humans.
The WHO recommended maximum intake of arsenic per day from drinking water is 10 ug.
The highest total arsenic levels have been measured in the following foods: fish and seafood, products or supplements based on algae, and cereal and cereal products, with particularly high concentrations in rice grains and rice-based products and bran and germ.
Contaminated water used for drinking, food preparation and irrigation of food crops poses the greatest threat to public health from arsenic.
What Is Arsenic?
Arsenic is found in small doses in many foods and in drinking water. Arsenic has a role in the metabolism of the amino acid methionine and in gene silencing, which means it’s a mineral your body actually needs.
But nonetheless, elevated levels of this mineral are highly toxic and very dangerous, particularly in its “inorganic” form (more on this in a minute).
How Arsenic Can Impact Your Health
Long-term exposure to arsenic from drinking-water and food can cause cancer and skin lesions. It has also been associated with cardiovascular disease and diabetes. In utero and early childhood exposure has been linked to negative impacts on cognitive development and increased deaths in young adults. 
Contaminated water used for drinking, food preparation and irrigation of food crops poses the greatest threat to human health from arsenic, according to the World Health Organization. 
The WHO also says that preventing further exposure to arsenic by avoiding water with high levels of arsenic is the most important action affected communities can take. 
Inorganic Vs Organic Arsenic
Inorganic arsenic compounds (such as those found in water) are highly toxic while organic arsenic compounds (such as those found in seafood) are less harmful to health. That’s because ingested organic arsenic compounds are much less extensively metabolized and more rapidly eliminated in urine than inorganic arsenic in both laboratory animals and humans. 
Arsenic Food and Drink Daily Limits
Current World Health Organization daily limits of arsenic in drinking water are 10 μg/L.  Arsenic can cause a number of human health effects at levels higher than this. [5, 6]
A 2010 research review published by the European Food Safety Authority found that the dose of inorganic arsenic consumed from food or drinks that would produce a 1% increased risk of developing cancers of the skin, urinary bladder and lung, ranged from 0.3 to 8 μg/kg of bodyweight.  That’s 20 – 544 ug/day for a 150-pound person.
Based on its testing, in 2016 the FDA proposed an action level, or limit, of 100 parts per billion (ppb) for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal. This level, which is based on the FDA’s assessment of a large body of scientific information, seeks to reduce infant exposure to inorganic arsenic. 
The proposed limit stems from extensive testing of rice and non-rice products, a 2016 FDA risk assessment that analyzed scientific studies showing an association between adverse pregnancy outcomes and neurological effects in early life with inorganic arsenic exposure, and an evaluation of the feasibility of reducing inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal. 
Cadmium (Cd) is an element found in the environment from natural occurrence and contamination.
Cadmium is also present in trace amounts in certain foods such as leafy vegetables, potatoes, cereals, grains and seeds, liver, and crustaceans and mollusks.
A small amount of the cadmium in food and water (about 1-10%) will enter your body through the digestive tract. If you do not have enough iron or other nutrients in your diet, you are likely to take up more cadmium from your food than usual.
Cadmium contamination can cause kidney failure and bone demineralization.
Safe daily levels of Cd should be kept below 24-30 ug per person per day.
Smokers have the highest exposure to cadmium with food being the highest source of cadmium for the non-smoking population.
What Is Cadmium?
Cadmium (Cd) is a soft, silver-white metal found commonly in the environment from natural bioaccumulation and contamination.  Cadmium is also present in trace amounts in certain foods such as leafy vegetables, potatoes, cereals, grains and seeds, liver, and crustaceans and mollusks 
A small amount of the cadmium in food and water (about 1-10%) will enter your body through the digestive tract.  If you do not have enough iron or other nutrients in your diet, you are likely to take up more cadmium from your food than usual. 
How Cadmium Can Impact Your Health
Cadmium contamination is of concern because it can cause kidney failure and bone demineralization.  It can also cause respiratory and cardiovascular effects, skeletal lesions, and developmental issues in pregnant women, according to animal studies. 
Cadmium Food and Drink Daily Limits
Safe daily levels of Cd intake should be kept below 30 ug per person per day, according to a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition.  The European Food Safety Authority’s Panel says that a tolerable weekly intake for cadmium should be 2.5 micrograms per kilogram of body weight or less, or 24 ug/day for a 150-lb person. 
Individual variations in Cd absorption and sensitivity to toxicity predicts that a dietary Cd intake of 30 mcg/d may result in a slight renal dysfunction in about 1% of the adult population. 
Smokers have the highest exposure to cadmium with food being the highest source of cadmium for the non-smoking population. 
Due to their high consumption of cereals, nuts, oilseeds and pulses, vegetarians can have a higher dietary exposure. 
Lead is a cumulative toxin that affects multiple body systems and may be particularly harmful to young children.
Lead in the body is distributed to the brain, liver, kidney and bones. It is stored in the teeth and bones, where it accumulates over time. Human exposure is usually assessed through the measurement of lead in blood.
People can become exposed to lead through occupational and environmental sources.
Experts currently use a reference level of 5 micrograms per deciliter to identify children with blood lead levels that are much higher than most children’s levels.
Lead absorption for adults is normally in the range of 5-10% of dietary lead. Children absorb 4-5 times more than adults.
If you eat foods high in calcium, iron, and Vitamin C, your body will absorb less lead from food and drinks
What Is Lead?
Lead is a naturally occurring metal found in the Earth’s crust. Its widespread use has resulted in extensive environmental contamination, human exposure and significant public health problems in many parts of the world, particularly in developing countries and cities that still use lead pipes to transport drinking water.
How Lead Can Impact Your Health
At high doses, lead has been shown to hinder neuronal development, particularly in infants.
Today, the largest source of lead poisoning in children comes from dust and chips from deteriorating lead paint on interior surfaces.
Lead Food and Drink Daily Limits
Here’s what we know about lead, based on the latest research:
The National Toxicology Program says that there is sufficient evidence for adverse health effects in children and adults at BLL <5 μg/dL. At doses higher than this, lead has been shown to hinder neuronal development, particularly in infants. .
The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) says that 5 micrograms per deciliter (5 μg/dL) is a blood lead level higher than 97.5% of children and no safe level has been established for children … so parents would be wise to avoid dietary exposure to lead in their young children whenever possible .
Keep in mind these are blood lead levels. Just because you eat a serving of Brussel’s sprouts (or sweet potatoes, spinach or protein powder), doesn’t mean your body will absorb the entire 7.9 mcg in one serving …
Lead absorption for adults is normally in the range of 5-10% of dietary lead. Children absorb more than adults …exactly how much more is unknown. 
Here are some examples of common foods that contain high amounts of lead:
If your dinner this week contains just one of the foods above, you’re ingesting more lead than you would in a serving of plant protein powder.
If you eat foods high in calcium, iron, and Vitamin C, your body will absorb less lead from food and drinks. 
It should go without saying, but if you have concerns about your (or your child’s) blood levels, ask your doctor for a blood test.
Mercury poses risks to the development children in utero and in early life. 
Mercury is not detected in the overwhelming majority of protein powders, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it.
The highest observed reading in the Clean Label Project analysis was 26.6 μg/kg, or approx. 0.8 μg per serving.
A tolerable amount has been set by the World Health Organization of 1.6 μg/kg bodyweight, per week, or around 17 μg per day for an average weight woman.  The amount per serving in the highest detectable level of mercury is around 4% of this tolerable daily amount.
Most people have mercury levels in their bodies below the level associated with possible health effects. Mercury settles into bodies of water like lakes and streams, or onto land, where it can be washed into water. That’s why fish and shellfish are most commonly associated with high mercury levels. If your mercury levels are high, eat less large fish like tuna, swordfish, and grouper. 
So What Doses of Heavy Metals Are Safe / Toxic for Most Adults?
World Health Organization (WHO)
Arsenic: 10 ppm
Lead: 4.1 ppm
Cadmium: 10 ppm
Mercury: 2 ppb
National Science Foundation (NSF)
Arsenic: 10 ppm
Lead: 6 ppm
Cadmium: 20 ppm
Mercury: 20.3 ppb
Environmental Protection Agency
Arsenic: 20 ppm
Lead: 10 ppm
Cadmium: 10-30 ppm
Mercury: 4 ppb
The Bottom Line on Heavy Metals in Protein Powders
The presence of a heavy metal does not equate to toxicity in the body or harm resulting from it. Like any vitamin or mineral, thefrequency, dose, and exposure defines the poison–remember that most vitamins and vitamins are toxic in excessive amounts.
In the words of –Cliff Harvey, Ph.D., nutritionist, author, and research scientist:
Don’t freak out….the heavy metal levels in proteins tested were low and similar to what you’d get from foods in your normal, daily diet.
With that said, overexposure to heavy metal contaminants is a major public health concern, particularly in the developing world. While we need to be vigilant to ensure that our food and the supplements we use are not exposing us to risk, the heavy metal hysteria and the way it has been interpreted and reported in the mainstream media appears to be mostly fear-mongering.
Pure Food, like all plant-based protein powders, contains trace amounts of heavy metals. The amount you’ll find in our protein powder is much less than you’d get eating a serving of spinach, a handful of nuts, or a glass of wine.
Our products have all been 3rd party tested to monitor heavy metal levels, pesticides, and BPA (we don’t have detectable levels of the latter two). Our ingredients far surpass standard levels set by organizations including the World Health Organization (WHO), US FDA, EPA, National Science Foundation, European Union, and Canadian Natural Health Products Directorate. Those test results are all published on our FAQ page, by the way.
I still recommend choosing proteins that are sourced in the U.S. and Canada because the soil in places like China tends to be more heavily polluted.
As a parent of two young children, one of whom my wife is still breastfeeding, I do think it’s important to limit dietary exposure to lead and other heavy metals … the evidence suggests that moms who are pregnant or nursing should not be guzzling protein shakes and eating tuna every day.
Like anything else, moderation is key.
If heavy metals concern you, go get your (or your kids’) blood tested by your doctor. This will tell you if you have elevated levels. Side note: I got mine tested because I use 1-2 servings per day of Pure Food … mine were completely normal.
If you have questions or comments, feel free to leave it below.
If you’re a clean eater, you know how hard it is to find a good healthy protein bar these days. Most contain some type of junk your body just doesn’t need: dairy, gluten, soy, sugar (in many cases, unfortunately, it’s all of the above).
My criteria for a “healthy” protein bar are quite simple. It should have:
1.) Only organic, real food ingredients, and
2.) No added sweeteners. Sugar should come from only real fruit sources like dried fruit … I don’t touch anything with over 10 grams.
If you want to make your own healthy protein bar, here’s one of my favorite recipes.
So with that said, I can tell you with conviction that I have spent countless hours reading labels, poring over nutrition research studies and articles, and dropping half my paychecks at Whole Foods in search of the healthiest “clean” products on the market that meet my dietary restrictions (I’m allergic to dairy and corn and avoid most products with gluten and soy too).
In this post, I will share my findings with you. You’ll discover:
1) What clean eating actually means.
2) How to spot and avoid brands posing as “clean.”
3) My 10 favorite clean eating packaged foods.
Plus as a bonus, I’ll share my clean eating grocery checklist with you.
I’ll be the first to admit that the term clean eating is ambiguous … enough to elicit some scathing reactions.
Like this response from one of the top writers on Quora:
It’s a vague term for faddish eating, mostly with an orthorexic bent. It has no scientific basis and, like pretty much all food fads, is rooted in a fear of modernity.
And this one from a registered dietitian published in the British Medical Journal:
The command to eat cleanly implies that everyone else is filthy, being careless with their bodies and lives. It comes with promises of energy boosts, glowing skin, spirituality, purity, and possibly immortality. But this nonsense is all based on a loose interpretation of facts and a desire to make the pursuit of wellbeing an obsessive, full time occupation.
I disagree with both and I’ll tell you why in a minute.
First, here’s my definition of clean eating:
A whole food, plant-focused diet that’s low in sugar and refined carbohydrates.
The body of evidence that supports the health benefits of eating this way is enormous. So maybe eating “clean” is just another label … but it’s one that I believe can be of real, tangible benefit to people who don’t know how to eat healthy (or who do but aspire to eat better).
What’s the harm in that?
To me, there are bigger fish to fry anyway …
The real problem with clean eating
One of the underlying reasons for much of the aforementioned ambiguity and debate is Big Food coming in and slapping clean eating claims on all types of unhealthy packaged foods.
For example, some of my competitors in the protein powder industry sell sugar sweetened beverages to children that are marketed as clean and “all-natural”.
In addition to added sugar or artificial sugar, many so-called “clean” products on the market contain mystery ingredients and fillers like gums and “natural flavors,” which are now the fourth most common ingredient on food labels.
It should come as no surprise that those clever food product marketers have found ways to exploit the “all-natural” and “clean” claims, since the FDA doesn’t regulate use of these terms.
So how do you know what’s clean and what’s not?
Well, clearly “clean” is open to interpretation. But here’s what I look for:
Organic ingredients I recognize as whole, real foods.
No added sugar.
No refined white flour.
No mystery ingredients like gums, “flavors”, and other additives that you know nothing about.
If you stick with products that meet those criteria, it’s hard to go wrong.
When in doubt, the ingredients and nutrition facts label are the two objective sources of truth on any packaged food product.
If you don’t know what something is, don’t buy it until you research the safety of the ingredients. Check out credible sources that back their claims with peer-reviewed science (like the EWG, CSPI and Pubmed).
10 Best Clean Eating Packaged Food Brands for 2018
I’m not saying you need to be a vegetarian or vegan to eat clean. But the focus on my clean eating approach is plants … because 99.9% of us can benefit from eating more of them.
The clean eating food list I’m going to show you below contains foods with no:
Allergens like soy, dairy, gluten, and corn
Highly processed ingredients posing as “natural” (e.g., flavors, gums, and other additives)
Eden Organic: I love their organic canned beans and tomatoes. They have some solid clean eating recipes on their website too. Eden was one of the first companies to use BPA-free cans too! Many of their products are now available on Amazon.
Malk: Their unsweetened almond and cashew milk are the only ones I have found without gums, fillers, and additives. Here are the ingredients in the almond milk: organic almonds, Himalayan salt, filtered water. Use their Store Finder to see if it’s available near you.
Simply Organic: Seasonings and spices without fillers and other junk. Their recipes page has some tasty-looking ideas.
Bragg Organic: Bragg apple cider vinegar, “liquid aminos” (non-GMO, lower sodium soy sauce), coconut aminos (soy free), and nutritional yeast are staples in my clean eating recipes.
Bob’s Red Mill: They sell a variety of whole grain flours and baking products. I love their organic rolled oats. You can get most of their products on Amazon.
Trader Joe’s: TJ’s is a great place to stock up on nuts, seeds, healthy oils, fresh and frozen produce, and organic, gluten-free, non-GMO grains and pasta. Try the Organic Brown Rice and Quinoa Fusilli Pasta.
Banza: Love their chickpea pasta, which is gluten free, high in protein, and delicious. Available on Amazon too.
Alter Eco: Ok, this one has a little added sugar … but if you’re driving yourself insane trying to eat clean 24/7, this is a guilt-free indulgence to help satisfy those sweet cravings in a responsible manner. 😉 Alter Eco’s dark blackout chocolate is dairy-free, has 4 simple, organic ingredients, and contains 85% cacao for a healthy dose of antioxidants. It has just 6 grams of sugar per serving (a Snickers bar has 20 grams of sugar, for comparison’s sake). They also sell other chocolates, coconut truffles, quinoa, and rice.
Hopefully this provides some inspiration and ideas to help you find cleaner products. It hasn’t been easy in the past but now you’re starting to see a lot of brands jumping on the clean eating bandwagon … and I think that’s a good thing.
Minimally processed foods with ingredients you can pronounce are generally (but not always) healthier.
If you have questions or want to share your favorite clean eating foods and/or packaged products, leave a comment below.
And don’t forget to hit those share buttons on the left if you found this post helpful. 🙂
Even mentioning the words protein powder can stir up heated debates among doctors, nutritionists, athletes, vegan/vegetarians, and everyone in between.
Protein powder, some say, is a magic bullet that can help you look like this if you’re a man …
Or this if you’re a woman:
In this article, I’ll dispel the myths and misconceptions … and break down the latest and greatest science of protein powder. I’ll answer your most common questions I get on the topic, such as:
What exactly is protein powder
How is it made?
How much protein do you need?
Do you really need a protein powder supplement to lose weight and/or gain muscle?
How/when should you consume protein powders for optimal health?
What are the benefits and risks of various types of protein powder sources?
How do you choose the best one for you?
Without further ado, let us begin …
What Is Protein and Protein Powder?
Proteins are organic molecules made up of amino acids (the building blocks of life). Protein helps build, maintain, and replace the tissues in your body. Your muscles, organs, and immune system are made up mostly of protein.
Protein powder is a powdered form of protein (duh).
What Happens When You Eat Protein
When you eat protein, your stomach uses its acid and enzymes to break it down into those “building blocks” we talked about (amino acids).
The most important of the amino acids for building lean muscle and losing fat are called BCAAs, or Branched Chain Amino Acids.
Together, the three BCAAs (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) account for as much as 33% of muscle tissue. Here’s a brief overview of each:
Isoleucine is a BCAA that can help your body regulate blood sugar levels and ensure your muscle cells are metabolizing sugar (instead of fat cells).
Valine is the least important BCAA for body composition (it’s also the least-studied).
Protein powders can come from plant or animal sources, each having a different make-up of amino acids.
Different Types of Protein Powders (and Their Benefits and Risks)
There’s some intriguing science about the most common types of protein powder sources that we’ll explore a bit further …
As mentioned, whey protein has been studied more than any other protein powder. A quick search of “whey protein powder” on PubMed brings up close to 400 studies to date.
While you can certainly find studies like this one that showed no link between whey protein and body composition, the overall body of evidence seems to suggest that whey works for building muscle.
A meta analysis (a review of a group of studies) published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition looked at 14 clinical studies including a total of 626 adults and concluded that whey protein powder has favorable effects on body composition (and is even more effective when combined with resistance training).
However, there are some side effects associated with whey protein, particularly for those with sensitivities and allergies to dairy.
And one study found that high protein diets from animal-based sources may lead to kidney disease. The researchers cautioned against eating too much protein from animal sources like whey.
However, one study showed that casein did not have any noticeable differences on body composition, strength, and power and agility compared to whey.
Casein has a few major flaws as a protein source too. This study found that it promotes the growth of prostate cancer cells. And since it’s milk-based, it’s probably not a good choice if you’re sensitive to dairy.
Brown Rice Protein
Rice protein is a plant-based protein powder used by vegans, vegetarians, and people who can’t tolerate dairy products like whey and casein. In one study published in the journal Nutrition, researchers found that rice protein had similar effects on body composition as whey.
In other words, there was no difference between the group of subjects that took rice protein and the one that took whey protein; both experienced positive body composition changes.
One of the main complaints you’ll hear about rice protein is it’s high in potentially toxic heavy metals like arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury.
While it’s true consuming high amounts of some of these metals can lead to negative health effects, heavy metals are in all plants that grow in soil. Here’s a quote from Jon Barron’s well researched article on the topic:
In summary, don’t have a knee jerk reaction to the label “heavy metals.” (Both calcium and iron are technically heavy metals.) Yes, obviously, when it comes to “toxic” heavy metals, less is better than more. But the issue is far more nuanced than a simple label–or even numbers on a chart for that matter. You have to factor in whether or not the element actually has any “proven” toxicity (tungsten has no demonstrated toxicity), whether it’s organic or inorganic (organic arsenic is virtually ignored by the body), and whether it’s bound or unbound (bound cadmium has only 2-6% absorbability).
Yes, many plant-based protein powders have tested high for heavy metals.
That’s why it’s up to you as the consumer to ask the manufacturer of your protein powder what their heavy metal contents are, especially if they use rice protein (if they won’t share those numbers, it’s a big red flag).
And choose a rice protein from organic brown rice to avoid ingesting potential chemical pesticides and herbicides.
Pea protein is another popular plant-based source of protein. It’s becoming increasingly prevalent in vegetarian / vegan / dairy free powders for several reasons:
It’s generally lower in heavy metals than rice protein.
Pea protein powder is among the most hypoallergenic of all protein powders, as it contains no gluten or dairy.
It’s easy on the gut and doesn’t cause bloating, a common side effect of many other protein powders from animal sources.
It has been shown in small studies to have similar effects to whey protein on body composition.
Pea protein has a PDCAA (digestible indispensable amino acid score) of .89 (whey is 1). When combined with rice, hemp, and/or soy in certain combinations, you can get this number on par with whey!
While pea protein hasn’t been studied as much as whey or soy, it is a promising protein source for those looking for alternatives to dairy proteins. Again, organic pea protein is always a safer choice because you’re ingesting less pesticides.
Soy protein is another popular plant-based protein powder. Most men should avoid it because it contains isoflavones and phytoestrogens that share similarities with estrogen.
However, according to several studies, soy protein may have body composition benefits for older women.
One study showed that a daily supplement of soy protein prevented increases in subcutaneous and total abdominal fat in older women. Another showed soy protein had a mild effect on body composition in elderly women.
One caveat: whey has been shown to be more effective than soy for improving lean body mass when combined with resistance training. So if lean body mass is your goal, you may want to consider other protein sources than soy if you’re using a protein powder.
How Is Protein Powder Made?
Protein powder processing methods depends on the type of protein and the company making it.
Whey Protein Processing
Most commercial whey protein powders are made using a high-heat, acid-flushed, “ion exchange” process to separate the whey from the cow’s milk. This can strip away vital nutrients, creating an imbalanced, acidic “whey isolate” that’s then contaminated with synthetic additives, flavors, and chemicals to make it taste like something resembling food.
So why do companies use it?
Because processing protein with acids is cheaper, of course.
If you decide a whey protein supplement is best for you, I recommend choosing one that’s organic, from grass-fed cows, and raw or cold processed.
Ask the manufacturer how it’s made before you buy it and spend a few bucks more on an acid-free, organic product … it’s worth it.
What if you can’t tolerate milk-based products or prefer plant-based proteins though? How are those processed?
Plant Protein Processing
Many of the supposedly-healthy plant proteins used in supplements and packaged foods today are processed using hexane, a petroleum-basedneurotoxin. Using hexane is an efficient and highly profitable way for food manufacturers to remove oil from plants and separate the protein.
If you decide a plant protein powder is a better option for you, look for plant-based protein powders that are cold processed and “enzymatically sprouted,” which means all-natural enzymes are used rather than chemicals to separate the protein from the plant.
Also, sprouting grains used in plant-based powders (e.g., rice, pea, amaranth) increases many of the plants’ key nutrients, including B vitamins, vitamin C, folate, ﬁber, and essential amino acids often lacking in grains, such as lysine. Sprouted grains may also be less allergenic to those with grain sensitivities.
Who Should Take Protein Powder?
Protein powder is most commonly associated with athletes and people who are active … but it may be beneficial to everyday Joes and Janes too if you’re not getting enough protein (more on that in a minute). Here are a few reasons why:
How much muscle you currently have. The more muscular you are, the more amino acids your body needs to maintain your current body composition. If you don’t know your body composition and want to make real, measurable improvements to your health, go see a personal trainer who offers body composition analysis so you can get a “baseline” of where you’re currently at.
Your hormones. If your body has high levels of growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), it will use protein more efficiently than someone with low levels. These hormones decrease as you age, which is one of the reasons why older adults need more protein.
So back to the original question: how much protein do you need?
The current recommendation for protein intake is 0.8 grams per kilogram (or around 0.36 grams per pound) of body mass in generally healthy adults.
However, this protein intake recommendation is only to prevent protein deficiency and maintain nitrogen balance in the body (a negative nitrogen balance indicates that muscle is being broken down and used for energy).
It’s not necessarily optimal.
Studies show that athletes, active people, and older individuals may require even more protein (1.4 – 2.0 g/kg of body weight).
Athletes need at least 1.8 g/kg of bodyweight [For a 150-pound person, that’s 122 grams of protein per day].
Older adults and non-athletes need at least 0.8 g/kg of bodyweight [For a 150-pound person, that’s 54 grams of protein per day].
When Should I Take Protein–Before or After a Workout?
If your goal is to lose body fat and increase lean body mass (muscle), then the answer is both.
In a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, researchers concluded the following:
High-quality protein dosed at 0.4–0.5 g/kg of LBM at both pre- and post-exercise is a simple, relatively fail-safe general guideline that reflects the current evidence showing a maximal acute anabolic effect of 20–40 g
That’s 27-34 grams of protein both before and after a workout for a 150-pound adult.
Couple other interesting things the study authors noted:
Despite claims that you need to take protein immediately (within 1 hour) after a workout to maximize gains, evidence-based support for such an “anabolic window of opportunity” is far from definitive.
Even minimal-to-moderate pre-exercise high-quality protein taken immediately before resistance training is capable of sustaining amino acid delivery into the post-exercise period. In other words, eating protein before your workout may have more impact.
Long story short, eat a little protein before and after a workout if building muscle and/or losing body fat is your goal.
What is the Best Protein Powder?
“Best” is an ambiguous term. The best protein supplement for you depends on your age, your health goals, and a number of other factors.
Here are a few common things to consider:
What protein powders get absorbed by your body best?
We’ll begin by looking at several types of protein that are marketed to women.
You may have heard that whey protein is the best type of protein powder for women.
Here’s why …
Whey is derived from dairy (it was a waste product of cheese-making before supplement companies realized they could process it and sell it).
According to the National Institutes of Health, 65 percent of adults have a reduced ability to digest dairy (this is called lactose intolerance).
Lactose intolerance can cause any number of the following:
Bloating and gas
Imbalance of gut bacteria (which promotes dysbiosis of the gut)
Weakness and fatigue
Aside from these inflammatory responses lactose intolerance leads to, whey is also hyper-insulinogenic. This means your body secretes a lot of insulin when you eat it. Hyperinsulinemia is associated with hypertension, obesity, dyslipidemia, and glucose intolerance (collectively known as metabolic syndrome).
Can whey protein help if you’re a woman looking to gain lean body mass (or “muscle mass”)? It appears so.
A report published by the DHHS Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Effects of Soy on Health Outcomes, concluded that there was “little evidence to support a beneficial role of soy and soy isoflavones in bone health, cancer, reproductive health, neurocognitive function, and other health parameters.”
Also, most non-organic soy protein is derived from GMO crops.
Whey protein is commonly thought of as a superior protein source for women looking to improve body composition (lose fat, increase muscle) compared to plant-based protein powders.
However, when one group of researchers studied whey vs. rice protein head to head, they found that both whey and rice offered similar post-exercise body composition benefits … there were no statistically significant differences between the two groups.
Another study found that leucine, the key amino acid to activate muscle building, was absorbed faster from rice protein than leucine from whey protein. The study also found that amino acids in brown rice protein are highly bioavailable and are non-statistically different from whey protein in trained athletes, despite claims from whey proponents claiming superior digestibility and “bioavailability.”
And hemp protein provides the essential fatty acids Omega-3 and Omega-6 in a well balanced 3:1 ratio.
Consuming hemp is safe, healthy and legal (no, it won’t get you high). On top of that, hemp protein powder may help improve heart health, decrease osteoporosis risk, reduce sugar cravings and boost your immune system.
When combined with other plant proteins it offers a powerful plant-based complement.
Other Plant Proteins
There are plenty of other plant-based protein sources on the market (pumpkin seed, sacha inchi, flax, chia, barley, and algae, to name a few).
Not many of them have been studied in humans yet though.
This doesn’t make them bad options. Just stick with ones that are a) organic and b) processed using low heat methods (otherwise, vital nutrients can get destroyed).
What’s the Best Protein Powder for Weight Loss?
Any protein powder can help you lose weight as long as you create a calorie deficit.
Unfortunately, many of the protein products out there are marketed as weight loss supplements with “all-natural ingredients.” I’ll talk about the latter point in a minute, but the truth is, there’s no such thing as a “weight loss protein powder”.
There’s evidence that eating a high protein, plant-based diet is one of the best ways to lose weight. Supplement companies use this data to their advantage.
Check out this report from the National Institutes of Health for more info about common ingredients touted for their weight loss benefits (spoiler alert: most don’t have a strong body of evidence to support their supposed efficacy).
There are actually certain ingredients protein powder manufacturers put in their products that may do more harm than good for some women … even though they’re marketed as all natural and clean.
Here are a few, in particular, to think twice about …
Protein Powder Ingredients Women Should Avoid
Red Flag Ingredient #1: Sugar
I’ve reviewed many protein powders that contain 10 grams or more of added sugar per serving.
That’s roughly half a day’s worth if you’re a woman and a third of a day’s worth if you’re a man.
Sugar is one of the biggest causes of weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.
Doesn’t matter if it comes from all-natural honey or highly-processed high fructose corn syrup … they produce the same metabolic responses in your body.
And artificial sweeteners like sucralose and sugar alcohols like xylitol may be worse.
Red Flag Ingredient #2: Flavors
The FDA allows food companies to use the term “natural flavors” to describe any food additive that originated in nature. They’re now the 4th most common ingredient on food labels.
In a fascinating 2011 interview that aired on 60 Minutes, scientists from Givaudan, one of the largest companies in the $24 billion flavor market, admitted their number one goal when creating flavors was to make them addictive!
One of my biggest beefs with these “flavors” is protein powder manufacturers don’t have to tell you what’s in them.
David Andrews, Senior Scientist at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), has this to say about so-called “natural” flavors:
The truth is that when you see the word “flavor” on a food label, you have almost no clue what chemicals may have been added to the food under the umbrella of this vague term. For people who have uncommon food allergies or are on restricted diets, this can be a serious concern. [Natural flavors] will often have some solvent and preservatives—and that makes up 80 to 90 percent of the volume. In the end product, it’s a small amount, but it still has artificial ingredients.
Here’s my final red flag …
Red Flag Ingredient #3: Fillers, Gums, Emulsifiers
We talked about potential allergens and additives in flavors. But there some other common ingredients to be wary of when you see them on the ingredients list of protein powders. Food manufacturers love these fillers because they have unique properties that add desirable texture and/or shelf life to processed foods.
But they may come at a price: many have been shown to cause digestive distress and gut imbalances and/or raise your glycemic load, which can lead to a whole other set of issues.
Summary: What’s the Best All Natural Protein Powder for Women?
Let’s not sugarcoat it: most women humans buy nutritional supplements like protein powders because they want to look better and/or feel better.
But what if looking and feeling better comes with a price?
Many protein powders have ingredients that cause inflammation, change your gut flora, raise your blood sugar, or worse.
Even most of the ones marketed as “all natural” have some type of highly-processed pseudo-food like gums, fillers, and other additives.
Most of them are deemed safe for consumption by the FDA … but “natural” has quickly become an ambiguous and over-marketed term in the protein powder business.
At the end of the day, all-natural comes down to the ingredients: are they real food as close to their natural state as possible or are they pseudo-foods that contains fillers, additives, and other junk?
In most cases it’s the latter, unfortunately.
The best protein powder for you depends largely on your health and fitness goals. Are you trying to lose body fat? Gain muscle mass? Eat cleaner, more natural foods?
In my opinion, the potential price you’ll pay down the road is not worth the risk when it comes to protein powders that contain these types of ingredients.
“Amino acids” is one of those buzz terms you probably hear quite often if you’re interested in health and wellness. After reading this article, you’ll understand:
What they are
Why you need them
The difference between essential, non-essential, and branched chain amino acids (BCAAs)
I’ll also show you an amino acid chart for both Pure Food Protein flavors, since it’s a common question I get from customers.
Let’s jump right in …
What Are Amino Acids?
If proteins are the “building blocks of muscle,” amino acids are the building blocks of protein.
Your body uses amino acids to make proteins that help you break down food, grow/repair muscle and other body tissue, and perform many other functions.
There are around 500 amino acids scientists have discovered. Since only 20 appear in human genetic code, we refer to these as the “standard 20“. Here they are, in all their chemical compound glory:
Types of Amino Acids
There are three main types of amino acids:
1. Non-Essential Amino Acids
Your body makes 11 out of the 20 standard amino acids. This means it’s not “essential” to eat foods that contain them, since your body creates enough.
The 11 non-essential AAs include: alanine, arginine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine.
2. Essential Amino Acids
Unlike non-essential AAs, your body can’t make essential amino acids, which means you must get them from the foods you eat. The 9 essential amino acids are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
3. Conditional amino acids
Arginine has a star next to it in the image above because it’s also considered a “semi-essential”, or conditional amino acid. Your body only needs these types of AA’s in certain situations (when you’re stressed or sick, for example).
Conditional amino acids include arginine, cysteine, glutamine, tyrosine, glycine, ornithine, proline, and serine.
So what happens when you don’t get enough essential amino acids in your diet?
First, a lack of essential amino acids from foods in your diet affects your body’s ability to use protein.
Protein deficiency impacts pretty much all of the body’s organs and systems.
Protein deficiency is one of the biggest public health problems in the world, accounting for about 30-40% of hospital admissions in developing countries.
However, most of you reading this don’t live in developing countries … so should protein deficiency really concern you?
Let’s find out the answer to one of the most common questions I get …
How do I determine how much protein I need?
The short answer: it depends.
The current recommendation for protein intake is 0.8 grams per kilogram (or around 0.36 grams per pound) of body mass in generally healthy adults.
However, this protein intake recommendation is only to prevent protein deficiency and maintain nitrogen balance in the body (a negative nitrogen balance indicates that muscle is being broken down and used for energy).
It’s not necessarily optimal.
Studies show that athletes, active people, and older individuals may require even more protein (1.4 – 2.0 g/kg of body weight).
Eating more protein can help increase levels of the hormone glucagon, which helps control body fat. It can also help strengthen bones as you age. And if you’re concerned about negative health effects of protein on kidney function, nearly all of these studies looked at animal sources of protein, not plant-based protein.
One of key indicators of the “quality” of a protein source is not whether or not it comes from a plant or animal … it’s the amount of BCAAs …
What Are Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) and Why Do You Need Them?
Of the essential amino acids, three account for as much as 33% of muscle tissue – leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These are called Branched Chain Amino Acids, or BCAAs.
Here’s a breakdown of each:
Leucine is arguably the most important BCAA because there’s clinical evidence that shows it helps your body synthesize protein. Aim for 2-3 grams of leucine per day for optimal protein synthesis. (Side Note: 1 serving of both Pure Food Protein flavors have 2 grams of leucine … more on this below)
Isoleucine is another BCAA. It can help your body regulate blood sugar levels and ensure your muscle cells are metabolizing sugar (instead of fat cells).
Researchers have yet to determine an “optimal” isoleucine level.
Valine is the third branched chain amino acid. Based on current research, it’s the least important BCAA for body composition. It’s also the least-studied, so I’ll report back when more clinical data becomes available.
Do You Need a BCAA Supplement?
Get your BCAAs from real food instead.
You may have seen BCAA supplement peddlers state that BCAAs may lead to anabolic effects before, during, and after exercise. However, there are zero double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials that show BCAA supplementation is any more effective than getting your BCAAs from food.
If you eat the right amount of protein for your body type, composition, age, and health goals (see above), then there’s no reason to take a BCAA supplement.
Getting the right amount of essential amino acids, and particularly BCAAs, does a body good.
However, contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to choke down whey protein shakes and eat bloody steaks every day to get your BCAAs.
Protein that comes from meat is not “superior” to protein that comes from plants. Research shows that both protein from plant sources and animal sources seem to work equally well in increasing muscle protein synthesis.
You don’t need a supplement either to get your BCAAs each day. Eat plenty of whole, plant-based foods and if you need a little extra protein (remember, athletes, active people, and older individuals do), consider a clean vegan protein powder like Pure Food, which has 4 grams of BCAAs.
Most Shakeology reviews have one thing in common: a vested interest in selling Beachbody products.
That’s because they’re all written by Beachbody “Coaches.” [side note: I was a Coach for a short stint several years ago, so I’m very familiar with their marketing methods.]
While I do sell a plant protein powder of my own, my analysis/review of Shakeology’s products is unbiased because I use three objective criteria when evaluating their protein powders: 1.) Ingredients, 2.) Nutrition, and 3.) Cost.
Here’s the thing …
Shakeology actually has a lot of good stuff in it.
Unfortunately, there are some ingredients they use that concern me though, as you’re about to see.
Scroll below to see the summary and full versions of my Shakeology review …
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In this section I’ll provide an analysis of Shakeology’s products as a whole and tell you the 4 things that concern me most about it. Below we’ll look at the complete nutrition facts and ingredients for each product separately.
Here we go …
Shakeology Nutrition Summary: All Products
Grams of Protein
Regular Shakeology: Whey protein isolate, pea protein, sacha inchi, flax, chia, quinoa
Shakeology has “natural” flavors. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has an awesome web resource that evaluates the safety of the most common food additives. In its “Safety Ratings,” CSPI says natural flavors “may trigger an acute, allergic reaction, intolerance, or other problems.”
Next we’ll break down the nutrition facts and ingredients for each of Shakeology’s products/flavors separately.
Shakeology Ingredients / Nutritionals Review
Alrighty, let’s start with the good. I actually like a lot of the ingredients in Shakelogy:
Seeds: chia, flax, and quinoa
Greens: moringa, chlorella, kale, spinach, and spirulina
“Adaptogenic blend”: ashwagandha, maca, etc.
However, like I said above, there are 5 major issues I have with Shakeology’s products:
They’re not organic. Any “superfood” that’s not organic may be sprayed with cancer-causing pesticides and/or high is in heavy metals. In fact, Shakeology found itself in hot water a couple years ago when Dr. Oz. issued a warning about the lead levels in their products. Beachbody, Shakeology’s parent company, has since reformulated their products to address these concerns.
Sugar content. 6-8 grams of added sugar is too much for a 160-170-calorie protein shake for non-athletes. If your body isn’t using that sugar during exercise, it will get converted into fat.
Price. At $.10/gram, Shakeology is one of the most expensive protein powders on the market. It retails at $130 for 30 servings.
Whey protein. For people sensitive to dairy, whey is not a good protein choice. Read my article Whey Vs Plant Protein. Shakeology does make several vegan proteins, as you’ll see below … but they all have 6-8 grams of added sugar, depending on the flavor.
“Natural” flavors. Natural flavors can contain hundreds of different substances–many of them chemicals–and still be called “natural.” Here’s what the EWG has to say about them:
Consumers may be surprised to learn that so-called “natural flavors” can actually contain synthetic chemicals such as the solvent propylene glycol or the preservative BHA. Flavor extracts derived from genetically engineered crops may also be labeled “natural,” because the FDA has not fully defined what that term means.
Shakeology has 8 different products/flavors: chocolate, vanilla, cafe latte, strawberry, greenberry, chocolate (vegan), vanilla (vegan), cafee latte (vegan), and tropical strawberry (vegan).
Let’s have a look at the nutrition facts and ingredients for each, starting with the vegan ones, which I recommend over the whey protein based shakes.
I highlighted areas of concern in red below …
Beachbody Shakeology Nutrition Facts Labels
Vanilla Vegan Protein
Cafe Latte Vegan Protein
Chocolate Vegan Chocolate Protein Powder
Vegan Tropical Strawberry Protein Powder
Chocolate Protein Powder
Vanilla Protein Powder
Greenberry Protein Powder
Strawberry Protein Powder
Cafe Latte Protein Powder
Bottom Line: Is Shakeology Good for You?
Even though I have strong opinions about protein powders, I tried to remain as unbiased as possible in my Shakeology reviews.
From a nutrition standpoint, there are some really nice ingredients in Shakeology: quality protein sources in their plant-based ones along with with a nice mix of adaptogenic herbs, mushroom powders, and other superfoods.
However, the problems I have with Beachbody’s Shakeology shakes is they a) are not organic; b) have 6-8 grams of added sugar per serving, c) contain flavors, and d) are not cheap.
There are definitely worse protein powders you can buy, and the Chocolate Vegan flavor is the “cleanest” of the bunch when it comes to ingredients, based on my analysis.
4 out of every 5 probiotic supplements contain dairy-based derivatives.
This isn’t just bad news for vegans.
Up to 65 percent of adults are lactose intolerant, which means milk-based probiotics can make things worse for those with dairy sensitivities.
Dairy-based probiotics are often only shelf stable for a few days. After this, the bacteria start to die. So, you have to take more of them to feel any effect.
Vegan probiotics must be better for you then, right?
Most vegan probiotic manufacturers use corn-, soy-, and wheat-based fillers and additives that may make your gut issues worse.
And many just flat out don’t work.
In this guide, I’ll help you navigate the fascinating yet complex world of probiotics. We’ll talk about the best vegan food sources of probiotics. Then I’ll show you what to look for if you decide to take a vegan probiotic supplement.
Away we go …
What Are Probiotics and Why Are They So Popular Right Now?
There are 40 trillion bacterial cells in your body at any given moment (compared to around 30 trillion human cells).
Many of these bacterial organisms live in your gut, part of a stunningly complex network of neurons known as your “microbiome”.
The densest part of your microbiome is in your gut, where about 1,000 species of bacteria feast on complex carbohydrates and fibers you eat.
The microbiome plays an important role in your body …
Scientists have discovered that 70-80 percent of your immune system is controlled by your microbiome and 95 percent of your body’s serotonin—the neurotransmitter that’s the main contributor to your well-being and happiness—is made in your gut, not your brain.
The gut microbiome is largely shaped by what we eat and drink. And the Western diet, with its heavy use of heavily processed foods like refined flour and sugar, actually starves your microbiota, leading to a plethora of health conditions.
That’s why probiotics, these “good”, “friendly” or “healthy” bacteria you can take in supplement form, are so popular now.
The Best Sources of Probiotics for Vegans and Vegetarians
1. Fermented vegetables
Sauerkraut, pickles, and kimchi are among the most popular natural sources of vegan probiotics. But most of the store brands contain vinegar and preservatives, which kill the beneficial bacteria.
So look for pickled vegetables that are naturally fermented using salt.
Or just make your own.
Personal note: I was inspired to start fermenting vegetables after reading Michael Pollan’s fantastic book, Cooked. All you need is vegetables/fruit, salt, and a fermentation vessel. This is the crock I use if you get serious but when you’re first starting out, any large container will work).
Also, the cellular structure of certain foods makes them act as “superfoods” for good microbes to feed on. These include onions, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, dandelion greens, jicama, and peas.
2. Fermented tea
Kombucha is black tea that’s fermented with sugar. Some store-bought brands also add sugar, which can strengthen harmful microbes like E. coli.
Soy has gotten a bad rap because it’s used so much in processed foods and is one of the top 8 allergens. However, fermented soy products like organic miso, tofu, and soy sauce may actually have some health benefits.
Simple sugars cause conflict between our microbes and cells, but eating a variety of vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains encourages cooperation between them. Gregory Plotnifkoff, MD, coauthor of Trust Your Gut recommends adhering to the old Japanese adage of eating at least 30 different whole foods per day!
Eating 30 different foods can be a challenge for time-strapped folks though. That’s where probiotic supplements may help …
How to Find the Best Probiotic for Your Health Needs
Not all probiotics strains are the same. Different strains offer different benefits and some probiotic strains survive manufacturing processes, shelf life and digestive transit better than others. When choosing a probiotic consider the following questions:
Is it derived from dairy? As mentioned, even if you’re not a vegan, dairy can be problematic for the 65 percent of people who can’t digest lactose properly. Choose vegan probiotics instead.
Does your probiotic survive stomach acid and/or manufacturing? As mentioned, most don’t. Certain strains fare better than others. Always ask the manufacturer of your probiotic if they have any clinical research to support their product. Just because they sell a popular strain, doesn’t mean their probiotic are live and active.
Is your probiotic safe and FDA-approved? The FDA doesn’t require probiotic companies to test their bacteria strains. So naturally, most don’t do it. Probiotic contamination is a big deal though. If your probiotic manufacturer doesn’t have strict quality control measures in place, your probiotic may be doing more harm than good. Make sure the company you buy from tests its probiotics for safety and efficacy and can provide documentation to prove it.
Is your probiotic backed by peer-reviewed clinical studies? Don’t trust marketing claims on product labels and websites. Even most clinical data probiotic companies cite is funded by the companies themselves. Your probiotic should be backed by randomized, double-blind, peer-reviewed clinical studies (the gold standard in scientific research) if the company makes any claims about its benefits.
Does your probiotic contain fillers, preservatives, allergens, and artificial ingredients? The answer is usually yes, but manufacturers are very good at hiding this information. The only way to know is to ask them what “excipients” are in it.
What health challenges are you facing? Different strains of probiotics offer different types of benefits. Don’t just buy a probiotic without understanding the type or types of strains it contains—otherwise you’re very likely wasting your money. For example, I suffer from GI issues, so I make sure I take strains that help me with those.
The Best Time to Take Probiotics
Research shows you can take probiotics before, during, or after meals. However, you may experience additional benefits if you take your probiotics with some form of healthy fats (avocado, olive oil, etc.).
Benefits of Various Probiotic Strains
Let’s look at some of the strain-specific benefits of probiotics …
We spend almost a third of our lives asleep. Researchers are discovering that the duration and quality of our sleep affect everything from our cognitive performance, mood, and memory to the health of our immune and endocrine systems.
It’s widely known that quality sleep can improve your memory, reduce inflammation (the pre-cursor to most disease), sharpen your mental focus, help you control your weight, and lower your stress levels.
Probiotics (beneficial bacteria) produce and regulate a number of neurotransmitters and hormones that impact our sleep:
Tryptophan and Melatonin: Probiotics can increase blood levels of tryptophan, an amino acid that converts into serotonin and then into melatonin, the hormone that regulates how sleepy you feel.
Serotonin: Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood and plays a significant role in sleep quality. Researchers found that serotonin deficiency in rats led to disrupted sleep-wake cycles. Most serotonin is made in the gut.
Cortisol: If temporary stress and anxiety are the cause of your sleepless nights, rest assured that probiotics may even lower levels of cortisol, a hormone that becomes elevated during times of stress.
So what probiotic strains have been shown to be effective for sleep? Not many, just yet.
A small study showed that the probiotic Streptococcus can help improve sleep outcomes.
Mental Health Benefits
The relationship between the microbiota and anxiety/depression has been studied mainly in animals … but preliminary research is promising.
Your gut microbiota plays a major role in the communication between the gut and the brain.
Regulation of the gut microbiota using diet, probiotics and FMT (fecal microbiota transplantation) may have important benefits for preventing and treating depression.
Weight Loss Benefits
In a metaanalysis of over 800 studies, researchers found that:
Administration of probiotics resulted in a significantly larger reduction in body weight and fat percentage compared with placebo; however, the effect sizes were small.
Research is still emerging in this area but it appears probiotics may be able to help you keep your immune system functioning at a higher level.
New research has shown that certain strains can activate health immune cells and decrease inflammation.
Gut Health Benefits
Several probiotic strains have been shown to help those suffering from GI issues like diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), irritable bowl disease (IBD), and food allergies.
Safety and Side Effects of Probiotics
According to the National Institutes of Health, the safety of probiotics depends on the state of your health and the strain you’re using.
In people who are generally healthy, probiotics have a solid safety record. Side effects, if they occur at all, usually consist only of mild digestive symptoms such as gas.
On the other hand, there have been reports linking some probiotics to severe side effects, such as dangerous infections, in people with serious underlying medical problems. The people who are most at risk of severe side effects include critically ill patients, those who have had surgery, very sick infants, and people with weakened immune systems.
Do your homework and ask your doctor about any certain strains so she/he can tell you whether it’s safe for you.
Why GanedenBC30 (Bacillus coagulans) is the One of the Best Vegan Probiotic Supplements
Ok, I’ll admit I’m a little biased here because GanedenBC30 is the probiotic we use in Pure Food Protein.
But here’s why I think it’s one of the best vegan probiotics on the market …
Bacillus coagulans is:
Proven to be safe for people of all ages (it’s one of the few strains with FDA “Generally Recognized As Safe” affirmation)
Calorie and gluten-free
Kosher and halal
A sustainable, naturally occurring, non-GMO ingredient (non-GMO verified)
Studied and supported in over 25 peer reviewed, published clinical trials.
Research on GanedenBC30 demonstrates the probiotic helps keep your digestive system functioning at full speed.
Several studies found that GanedenBC30 reduced bloating and gas and even abdominal pain.
In addition to helping people digest food better, GanedenBC30 increased utilization of minerals and proteins and
GanedenBC30 can even support immune function, according to several studies.
One of the few EXTREMELY stable probiotics due to the cell’s ability to form a protective spore. Just like plant seeds wait to grow until spring when the temperature and moisture levels are optimal, GanedenBC30 spores wait to germinate and grow until they reach the intestines where the conditions are just right. This protective shell also gives GanedenBC30 is one of the few vegan probiotics on the market that can survive harsh manufacturing processes, product shelf life, andthe journey through the digestive system.
Bottom Line About Vegan Probiotics
From the day you were born, your digestive tract has been exposed to a steady stream of bacteria–some helpful, some harmful. One key to gastrointestinal (GI) health is maintaining a balance of these “good” and “bad” bacteria.
Over time, diet, aging, antibiotic use, travel, medications, illness, stress, and hormonal changes can disrupt your intestinal balance.
Keeping a healthy level of these “good” bacteria is key to maintaining your digestive and immune health.
To help level the playing field of good and bad bacteria, many people find it helpful to add a daily supplement or eat more probiotic fortified foods and beverages.
Like most industries, the market for probiotics is ripe with crappy products. The only way to know if your probiotic is legit is to answer the 6 questions above. If a manufacturer is hesitant to provide any information you ask for, that’s a big red flag for an inferior product that could do more harm than good.
10 minutes of research makes a world of difference when it comes to choosing the right probiotic supplement for you.
1. 100% organic, plant-based, real food ingredients.
2. No added sugar.
3. A balanced macronutrient profile (carbs, fat, protein).
4. 400-500 calorie range.
Quite the challenge to pull off, right?
Here’s how I did it … and how my DIY recipes compare to Soylent.
For carbs, I used oat flour, maca, real fruits and fruit powders, and other high fiber, real food sources.
Soylent uses maltodextrin, a GMO corn-based thickener and other processed starches you can barely pronounce. Just look at their ingredients label, you guys: Soylent is a science experiment gone horribly wrong … not real food.
I used higher quality, healthier sources of fat like olive, coconut, and avocado oils in my recipes. Soylent uses sunflower, canola, and algal oil powder. These oils are high in Omega-6 fatty acids (the kind that promote inflammation).
But use whatever protein powder you want, especially if cost is your biggest concern (more on this below). The type of protein powder type doesn’t make or break the recipe … just watch out for the ones that use chemicals and cheap additives though.
At $1.54/serving, Soylent is cheap. Like, so cheap I have no idea how they make money. So if you’re looking for a cheap meal replacement and don’t care about ingredients/nutrition, Soylent is a great deal at least!
These healthy Soylent alternative recipes are much more expensive at $3-6/meal. Couple things to note about that though:
1. I used all organic ingredients, so you can probably save a couple bucks if you don’t buy organic if cost is a concern.
2. To knock the price down even more, buy whole fruits and seeds instead of the powders I mention below (for example, in DIY Soylent recipe #1 I wanted to create a full powdered version so I used banana powder but in recipe #4 I used a whole banana, which was much cheaper).
I recommend a high-powered blender like a BlendTec or Vitamix if you go that route. This is the Vitamix I have. It’s a couple years old but saves you a few hundred dollars compared to the new models.
Although I’ve included links to ingredients that are the best deals I found on Amazon, Costco is another great place to get deals on many of this stuff (except Pure Food … we’re only available on Amazon and here on our website … for 20% cheaper if you Subscribe & Save, I might add, which decreases the cost/serving substantially).
So long story short, if you don’t have time to cook a full meal, scoop up the awesome ingredients below and try my homemade Soylent recipes.
Ice (start with a small handful and add more depending on how thick you like it)
Dark chocolate shavings (optional)
Fat: 20 grams
Carbs: 60 grams (10 grams of fiber, 14 grams of sugar)
Protein: 26 grams
$3.13/meal (506 calories)
I think Soylent is a brilliant idea. I love the concept of a meal replacement drink that meets all your nutritional requirements. But Soylent’s ingredients and nutrition facts are garbage. Their last batch of powder actually got recalled because a bunch of people experienced vomiting and diarrhea (yikes!).
I’ll be updating this post in the coming weeks with more DIY Soylent recipes as I work on my new real food meal replacement product … join my email list if you’re interested in getting new recipe updates or getting a free sample of the new product when it’s ready. I’m experimenting with many of the ingredients you see in this post!