The Truth About Protein Supplements
Have you considered taking a protein supplement? If so, for what reason? Protein supplements come with a lot of claims, including facilitating muscle growth or aiding weight loss by promoting fullness. The truth is, the proteins in our food can do the same things. While it may seem advantageous to consume protein supplements instead of planning and preparing high protein meals and snacks, there are various factors that should be taken into consideration. In certain situations protein supplements may be appropriate, but for most healthy individuals this may not be the case.
Are protein supplements safe?
There are a variety of protein supplements on the market ranging from plant-based to animal-based supplements, but who regulates them? The truth is that neither the FDA nor any administration regulates them, and yet they have become a multi-billion-dollar industry that continues to grow. The safety and efficacy of supplements are unknown before they are introduced in the market. Low to moderate levels of lead, mercury and other metals have even been found in several protein supplements. When a specific supplement has proven to be unsafe the FDA then intervenes and investigates; otherwise, it remains on the market without proper regulation. This, of course, presents a problem, especially in athletes, as the “blends” or ingredients in many of these supplements are unknown and unlabeled, leaving the consumer uninformed. Luckily, the NSF has developed testing standards and product certification programs for supplements.
What is the NSF?
The NSF, or the National Sanitation Foundation, is an organization that ensures supplements contain only the ingredients on the label; it also tests for unsafe levels of contaminants. Even though the NSF does not regulate supplements, being aware of unknown ingredients in supplements is crucial for our health. For a collegiate athlete, being unaware of prohibited substances in supplements can and has led to sport disqualification. If you decide to include a protein supplement as part of your daily intake, look for the NSF label to ensure the supplement is safe for consumption.
The true cost of protein supplements
In comparison to high-protein foods, protein supplements can be expensive. On average, most Americans already meet and exceed daily protein needs, and in that regard, protein supplements become an unnecessary expense. Take for example an egg which provides 6 grams of protein. Priced at 20 cents per egg, this equates to about 3 cents per gram of protein. A scoop of protein powder on the other hand, provides 24 grams of protein priced at $1.50, or 6 cents per gram of protein. In terms of grams of protein, you will notice that supplements may cost double and sometimes triple the price of whole foods.
Can protein supplements be part of a healthy diet?
Protein supplements can be part of a healthy diet, but they should never replace food entirely. Food should always be the primary source of nutrients to ensure more balanced nourishment and avoid nutrient deficiencies or malnutrition. Think of the term “supplement” as meaning it is intended to be “in addition to” nutrients from food. If meeting protein requirements from food alone is difficult due to food allergies, food/lifestyle preferences, athletic performance or health related concerns, a protein supplement may be beneficial to help meet an individual’s specific needs.
Calculating your protein needs will help you determine how easily your needs can be met by food before adding a supplement. If you decide to add a supplement, remember to look for the NSF label. Every individual is different and consulting a registered dietitian can help determine if a protein supplement is appropriate for you.
Written by: Manuel Alonso, Wellness Workdays Dietetic Intern