How to Choose A Powder Supplement (from an MD)
Powdered supplements are convenient and readily available, but how do you choose one that’s safe and effective? Danielle Kelvas, MD, offers guidance on picking the right powder supplement for your body.
In 2021, Americans spent almost $112 billion on nutritional supplements. Powdered supplements can offer a lot of benefits, like:
- Filling nutritional gaps in your diet
- Boosting protein intake
- Improving hydration
- Supporting sleep and relaxation
But, how do you choose which ones to add to your diet and how do you know how often you should be incorporating them? During my medical training, powdered drinks were a godsend when I had no time to eat.
How Popular Are Powder Supplements?
Who doesn’t love convenience? Vitamin, protein, and nutrient powders can easily be scooped out of a tub and mixed into drinks on-the-go, steeped as tea, or packed into capsule or pill form for easy consumption.
The popularity of these products continues to grow due to greater availability of brands, online commerce, and consumer awareness.
According to the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), the following natural products are the 10 most commonly used by adults in the United States<sup>1</sup>:
- Fish oil (7.8%)
- Glucosamine or chondroitin (2.6%)
- Probiotics or prebiotics (1.%)
- Melatonin (1.3%)
- Coenzyme Q-10 (1.3%)
- Echinacea (0.9%)
- Cranberry (0.8%)
- Garlic (0.8%)
- Ginseng (0.7%)
- Ginkgo biloba (0.7%).
- All of the above, in addition to popular protein, green vegetable, and hydration formulations, are available in powdered form.
Aside from consumer demand, another reason for the increase in use was congressional passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) in 1994<sup>2</sup>. DSHEA allowed manufacturers to market their herbal products without prior demonstration of safety or efficacy<sup>3</sup>. Although this change made more products available to consumers, adverse consequences occurred due to the lack of research or product purity testing to verify a company’s claims. Which brings us to our next question: are they safe?
Are Powder Supplements Safe?
Being an informed consumer is critical, as not all vitamins, herbs, and supplements are safe. Some perfectly benign-appearing workout supplements have caused unsuspecting consumers sedation and drowsiness<sup>4</sup> while driving—severe enough to warrant police intervention.
In other documented cases, herbs adulterated with medications caused consumers to fail an employment drug test<sup>5</sup>. The California Department of Health Services, Food and Drug Branch initiated a study to screen certain imported medicines for undeclared pharmaceuticals and heavy-metal contamination. Of 260 imported patent medicines obtained from California retail herbal stores, 17 (or 7%) contained unlisted pharmaceuticals. The most common undeclared ingredients were ephedrine, chlorpheniramine, methyltestosterone, and phenacetin. While these unsettling scenarios are not the norm, they have occurred and consumers should be careful to check ingredient lists.
An impressive variety of nutritional supplements can be purchased in powdered form; green powder and protein are common examples.
Green Powder supplements offer a convenient option to boost your intake of healthy green vegetables including:
- spinach, broccoli, kale, and collards
- herbs like parsley, milk thistle, and astragalus
- marine plants like kelp and dulse
- grasses such as oat, barley, wheatgrass and alfalfa
- antioxidants such as green tea.
Plants can be processed into powdered form using a variety of methods: dried then ground, juiced and dehydrated, or even sprouted and fermented.
According to the 2020 American Cancer Society guideline on cancer prevention, a healthy diet is defined as having a variety of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. One large analysis showed that a healthy diet rich in vegetables reduces the risk of colon and breast cancer, especially in older women<sup>6</sup>.
If you are looking to boost your veggie intake and cancer-fighting potential, look for high quality powders, preferably where the manufacturer maintains a close relationship with source farms. Avoid adulterants like sugars and fillers (discussed in greater detail later). Many high quality powders have a deep green hue and even taste grassy. Some high quality brands include AGI, Organifi, and Amazing Grass Greens.
Popular Green Powder Brands
AG1 (aka Athletic Greens) is known for using trusted source farms and an ingredient list free of gluten, eggs, added sugar, nuts, or dairy. To offer transparency to consumers, AG1 offers a full list of ingredients online.
Another green powder company that uses rigorous testing is Organifi. Their powders are produced in an FDA-approved facility. Organifi offers powdered plant supplements in several vibrant colors like red, gold, and (of course) green for a broad spectrum of minerals and important phytonutrients. Every batch is tested for microorganisms & pathogens, heavy metals, chemical pesticides/fertilizers, synthetic herbicides/fungicides, GMO’s, glyphosate, gluten, and other contaminants. They utilize independent 3rd party testing to ensure consistent purity and quality using the commercial labs Europhins, ABC Testing, and micro Quality Labs.
Amazing Grass Greens
Amazing Grass Greens Company partners closely with global farmers and sources hearty, high-nutrient grasses. Each product is certified-organic and Non-GMO, and also tastes good!
Protein powder is a convenient way to boost nutritional intake for those who need a little extra, including athletes, pregnant women, or just busy individuals.
<p class="pro-tip">PSA: If you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or planning to become pregnant, please talk to your medical provider before starting any supplement.</p>
Protein Powder Brands
In 2022, a Forbes magazine panel of four nutritional experts recommended several brands of protein powder including<sup>7</sup>:
- Garden of Life Grass Fed Whey protein
- Norcal Organic Pea Protein
- Bio Pro Gold Whey Plus Milk Protein Powder Isolate
- ZonePerfect Carb Wise Powder by Abbott Nutrition
- Orgain Organic Plant-based Protein Plus Super Food Powder
- NOW Whey Protein Powder
- Trader Joe's Organic Hemp Protein Powder.
What to Look for in Protein Powder
Look for a high-quality protein powder product that fits your overall health conditions, diet, and lifestyle. Read labels carefully to check for added ingredients you might want to add, like vitamins and minerals, and screen for ingredients you don’t want like sugar or other food sensitivities.
Various brands contain whey, egg, or vegan sources, allowing a variety of choice depending on your dietary restrictions. Of the above options, NOW Whey Protein Powder, Orgain organic protein powder and ZonePerfect Carb Wise Powder by Abbott Nutrition, came in as the least expensive. You may prefer different brands depending on your dietary requirements, food values, and where you like to shop.
Be sure to explore your options and read labels! Things to look for when reading labels include the specific ingredients, sugar content, and where/how the ingredients are processed.
<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong><a href="/blog/smoothies-for-weight-loss">making smoothies that help with weight loss</a></p>
How is Protein Powder Made?
Protein concentrates are produced using heat or enzymes and yield a 60-80% ratio of proteins with the remaining byproduct being fats<sup>8</sup>. Protein isolates undergo an additional filtration process to remove the fat and carbs, creating a higher concentration of proteins. Protein hydrolysates further break down amino acid bonds so the powder can be absorbed more quickly in the gut.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
Protein should make up 10 to 35% of total caloric intake as recommended by the United States Dietary Guidelines<sup>9</sup>.
Healthy, Protein-Rich Foods
Strive to eat a variety of healthy protein-rich foods, including fish, lean meat, poultry, eggs, beans, peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds. Limit red meat, as this does have a small association with increased mortality when in comparison to white meats.
<p><strong></strong><p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong><a href="/blog/protein-for-weight-loss">why protein is good for weight loss</a></p></p>
Vegetarian & Vegan Options
Many debates currently surround which type of protein powder is voted the “healthiest,” but these guidelines truly depend on where you would like your ingredients sourced from and if you have any food sensitivities. Vegans, for example, can look for pea, hemp, and brown rice protein, but many people note increased rates of bloating and flatulence (gas), and prefer whey.
Whey and casein protein are derived from milk, which may not be ideal for those with lactose intolerance. Whey protein isolates can raise insulin levels and may promote more muscle growth, which is better for professional weight lifters. For people who prefer grass-fed meats on the dinner table, you can try grass-fed (as opposed to grain-fed) whey powder. Egg powder is high in protein and lactose-free.
Red Flags: Protein Powder
- Casein powder is high in lactose and may cause bloating and gas.
- Additives like dextrins and maltodextrin are often processed with GMO corn, which can be an insidious source of gut inflammation.
- Artificial sweeteners like sucralose, aspartame, and saccharin can cause headaches and gastric distress.
- Some soy proteins come from genetically-modified sources with high levels of pesticides.
- Thickeners like xanthan gum come from soy, which in general is a highly processed food.
- Look out for powders that contain added sweeteners and fillers.
Sleep & Relaxation Powders
During our waking hours, we are inundated with sources of stimulation and anxiety. Many people are looking for quicker ways to facilitate sleep and relaxation. The ancient physician Hippocrates wrote about using St. John's Wort for a variety of mood-related ailments, and it is still used for this purpose today<sup>10</sup>. Kava Kava, Valerian, and Melatonin are also powders taken for sleep and relaxation. Medications such as Benadryl and Unisom can be obtained over the counter, but are beyond the scope of this article (be sure to ask your pharmacist for potential drug interactions if you take other prescription medications).
What to Look For
Things to watch out for, as discussed above with protein powder, are product quality, potency, and third party testing. Read labels and be aware if a product has the potential to make you drowsy, especially while driving.
Valerian is an herb that is believed to subtly increase levels of the neurotransmitter GABA, which has beneficial properties for sleep. That being said, keep an eye out for product quality, as one study from consumerlabs.com showed that several Valerian products tested had no detectable levels of the necessary valerenic acid compounds, while others had significantly less than the expected amount<sup>11</sup>.
Kava Kava, sold under brand names Kalm, Botany, and Kavafied, is a powdered relaxation aid derived from a Polynesian root, believed to originate from New Guinea or Vanuatu. High quality studies show that Kava extract is more effective at reducing anxiety compared to placebo<sup>12</sup>.
Melatonin, marketed under brand names like Dream Powder, is the powdered form of a hormone secreted by the pineal gland at night to decrease body temperature and enhance natural sleep. Studies have failed to demonstrate that Melatonin is either habit-forming or harmful, particularly when used short term. Melatonin is generally well-tolerated in most people<sup>13</sup>.
Red Flags: Sleep & Relaxation Supplements
Red flags for sleep and relaxation powders are claims that sound too good to be true, or dubious sources that cannot demonstrate a clear chain of product purity and sourcing. One case study of a female athlete taking “Miracle Herb” was adulterated with the prescription medication diazepam, a potentially dangerous sedative<sup>14</sup>.
Many people utilize reconstituted electrolyte solutions for hydration during times of illness, sports recovery, or to have more energy with routine daily activities. According to the Cleveland clinic, the primary vitamins needed for rehydration are sodium, potassium, and magnesium<sup>15</sup>. They also advise that for workouts of an hour or less, plain water should be fine, but for exertion greater than 75 minutes, consider a powder-derived electrolyte drink.
How do you know if you’re electrolyte depleted?
Dizziness, headaches, and irritability could be a sign of low sodium. Muscle cramps, nausea, fatigue, and low blood pressure are linked to low potassium. Muscle weakness, spasms, and anxiety can be signs of low magnesium<sup>16</sup>.
Hydration Powder Brands
Pedialyte and Enfalyte are over the counter hydration drinks that are safe for kids and contain sodium, potassium and chloride. LMNT offers clean powder hydration packets for adults that contain sodium, potassium and magnesium, without any shady additives or sugars.
Red Flags: Hydration Powders
Red flags in hydration powders include excess sugar. Although sugar is an energy molecule, it leeches sodium and water from cells, worsening dehydration. Sugar is not an electrolyte.
Avoid tablets that dissolve in water. They may seem convenient, but these tablets are formed under high pressure with added chemicals to create a fizz and keep the powder compacted. It leaves a residue inside the water bottle - this same residue can cause GI distress. In contrast, healthier companies like LMNT provide their powders in a little baggy.
Powdered supplements can be an excellent way to fortify your diet. So long as you read the labels, know your ingredients, and purchase from trustworthy companies, you can safely avoid harmful ingredients. Enjoy!
Powdered Supplement FAQs
How can you tell if you would benefit from supplements?
If you routinely feel symptoms of fatigue, irritability, decreased energy, problems getting to sleep, constipation, gas, slow digestion, feeling thirsty, or depleted after workouts, you may benefit from a supplement.
Can you tell if the supplement is working?
The most accurate way is to have a doctor monitor your symptoms. Many vitamin levels can be measured by lab testing to determine if you are supplementing with appropriate amounts.
What should you talk to your doctor about?
Discuss your symptoms with your doctor. They may consider ordering labs such as a basic metabolic panel, which is a covered/routine test with many insurance companies. This panel includes sodium, potassium, chloride, and calcium levels. Add on vitamin/electrolyte tests include magnesium, vitamin B12, and vitamin D. Remember that lab results of electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and magnesium can fluctuate based on nutrition, hydration, and kidney function status.
- Nationwide study reports shifts in Americans’ use of natural products. (2015, October 15). National Institutes of Health (NIH). Retrieved March 22, 2022, from https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nationwide-study-reports-shifts-americans-use-natural-products
- Office of Dietary Supplements - Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. (n.d.). National Institutes of Health - Office of Dietary Supplements. Retrieved March 22, 2022, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/About/DSHEA_Wording.aspx
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (2019, July 22). Questions and Answers on Dietary Supplements. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved March 22, 2022, from https://www.fda.gov/food/information-consumers-using-dietary-supplements/questions-and-answers-dietary-supplements
- Zvosec, D. L., Smith, S. W., McCutcheon, J. R., Spillane, J., Hall, B. J., & Peacock, E. A. (2001). Adverse Events, Including Death, Associated with the Use of 1,4-Butanediol. New England Journal of Medicine, 344(2), 87–94. https://doi.org/10.1056/nejm200101113440202
- Fedoruk, M. J., & Lee, L. (1991). Positive preemployment urine drug screen caused by foreign-manufactured vitamin formulation. The Western journal of medicine, 155(6), 663.
- Grosso, G., Bella, F., Godos, J., Sciacca, S., del Rio, D., Ray, S., Galvano, F., & Giovannucci, E. L. (2017). Possible role of diet in cancer: systematic review and multiple meta-analyses of dietary patterns, lifestyle factors, and cancer risk. Nutrition Reviews, 75(6), 405–419. https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nux012
- Acosta, K. (2022, March 21). Best Protein Powders Of 2022, According To Experts. Forbes Health. Retrieved March 22, 2022, from https://www.forbes.com/health/body/best-protein-powders/
- Koopman, R., Crombach, N., Gijsen, A. P., Walrand, S., Fauquant, J., Kies, A. K., Lemosquet, S., Saris, W. H., Boirie, Y., & van Loon, L. J. (2009). Ingestion of a protein hydrolysate is accompanied by an accelerated in vivo digestion and absorption rate when compared with its intact protein. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 90(1), 106–115. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2009.27474
- 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines | health.gov. (n.d.). Health.Gov. Retrieved March 22, 2022, from https://health.gov/our-work/nutrition-physical-activity/dietary-guidelines/previous-dietary-guidelines/2015
- Bilia, A. R., Gallori, S., & Vincieri, F. F. (2002). St. John’s wort and depression. Life Sciences, 70(26), 3077–3096. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0024-3205(02)01566-7
- ConsumerLab.com. (2018, May 25). Valerian Supplements Review & Top Picks. https://www.consumerlab.com/reviews/valerian-supplements-review/valerian/
- Pittler, M. H., & Ernst, E. (2003). Kava extract for treating anxiety. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews, (1), CD003383. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD003383
- Andersen, L.P.H., Gögenur, I., Rosenberg, J. et al. The Safety of Melatonin in Humans. Clin Drug Investig 36, 169–175 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40261-015-0368-5
- Eachus P. L. (1996). Positive drug screen for benzodiazepine due to a chinese herbal product. Journal of athletic training, 31(2), 165–166.
- H. (2021, December 17). Electrolyte Drinks: Beneficial or Not? Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved March 22, 2022, from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/electrolyte-drinks-beneficial-or-not/
- Bergeron, M. F. (2008). Muscle Cramps during Exercise-Is It Fatigue or Electrolyte Deficit? Current Sports Medicine Reports, 7(Suppl. 1), S50–S55. https://doi.org/10.1249/jsr.0b013e31817f476a