The Best Unflavored Whey Protein Powder
In this day and age, deciding between a flavored and unflavored whey protein powder can be a difficult choice with many trade-offs. Unflavored whey protein provides maximum versatility while allowing you to gauge the quality of the whey itself (and to do so accurately).
What the industry doesn't want to disclose to you is that the most common branding strategy in the protein supplement space is to take a low-quality whey protein and couple it with a high-quality flavor system. By doing this, a brand stands to improve its bottom-line significantly on the protein (principle expense) while preserving a highly ranked consumer review status. In the world of protein powders, 99% of all consumer reviews for whey protein supplements focus on the taste and the taste alone.
The Best Whey Protein Isolate Without Artificial Sweeteners
To be clear, you've landed on this article because you are not that type of consumer and are interested in procuring the dress-up ingredients yourself. At AGN Roots, we don't believe in it is best to steer clear of products that contain ingredients like "natural flavors," sugar, or high-intensity artificial sweeteners. By choosing an unflavored whey protein, such as AGN Root Grass-Fed Whey Isolate, you control the type of sweetener and the quantity added to your recovery recipes.
Whey Protein Powder Without Sucralose or Stevia
In this article, we will explore various sweeteners, including both natural and artificial sweeteners, many of which are great options when looking to avoid sucralose or stevia. AGN Roots Grass-Fed Whey represents the best-of-the-best unflavored & unsweetened whey protein powders. With AGN Roots, you have a blank canvas to explore and create your favorite smoothie or shake recipes while maintaining full control of your nutritional macros!
Whenever harsh flavor systems are applied to a product, especially whey protein powder, the quality of the whey protein (the principal component you are paying top dollar for) is completely hidden and unable to be adequately assessed. The analogy we like to use; "If you look good naked, the clothes don't matter." Controlling the quality of your whey is the challenging part, whereas building a flavor around a high-quality grass-fed whey protein is fun and easy.
Natural Sugar vs. Artificial Sweetener In Whey Protein Powder
What Are Natural Sugars -
Sugars that are found naturally in foods such as lactose (milk sugar) or fructose (fruit sugar) define the bounds of "natural sugars." Natural sugar is considered healthy in moderation and, when compared to other alternatives, are digested over a longer time, thus work to sustain your appetite (feeling of being full) while keeping your metabolism stable. Over the last several years, natural sugars have all but lost their distinction in the sugar conversation from what the war-on-sugar is genuinely about, which is refined sugars. While brands are well aware of the differences, consumers will most likely never see the words "refined" preceding the adjective "natural" when describing the sweeteners used to make a product. It's critical to point out that the ONLY path to having a protein shake with pure "natural sugar" is to procure the unflavored & unsweetened protein on its own, then to make your smoothies at home using whole fruits & vegetables. What you just stumbled on is the reason why unflavored grass-fed whey protein is the best option if you are serious about your health.
What Are Refined Sugars -
Different from the natural sugar within fruits and vegetables, refined sugars undergo intensive processing to the point of losing all surrounding minerals and fiber that would otherwise accompany a natural sugar through your digestive tract, aiding the process. Where natural sugars are made welcome by the body, refined sugars cause a lot of confusion and throw the body out of balance. Shortly after consuming refined sugar, blood sugar levels peak, creating a cascading effect spiking insulin levels. Your appetite will soon return as the "sugar rush" (sugar high) abates. When a protein brand markets its whey with statements such as "contains no artificial sweeteners" but rather "natural sugar," this means refined natural sugar that is terrible for you in any quantity.
What Are Artificial Sweeteners -
Sweetening agents or compounds that are fabricated synthetically and used as food additives or sugar substitutes are known as "artificial sweeteners." Often these compounds are derived from naturally occurring substances, by subtle manipulations in chemistry. Artificial sweeteners can be attractive alternatives to sugar because in most cases are non-caloric and are made to be high-intensity sweeteners up to several thousand times sweeter than table sugar gram for gram.
Whey Protein Without Artificial Sweeteners - How to Know
Unfortunately for whey protein, Indulgent flavor systems are the most popular sellers. Classic whey protein flavors consist of chocolate, vanilla, salted caramel, peanut butter brownie, etc. As you can imagine, a chocolate brownie contains a ton of refined sugar (sucrose). To recreate a brownie flavor in a protein powder, chances are, the protein is made with various artificial sweeteners to optimize taste while keeping the added-sugar declaration on the packaging to a minimum.
Checking the nutrition facts panel is a quick way to determine the type of sweetener utilized. Per FDA regulations, it is a requirement to declare any sugar substitutes (i.e., artificial or super sweeteners) within the ingredient list located directly below the nutrition facts and above the allergen statement. Reference Nutrition Facts Panel.
Why Are Artificial Sweeteners NOT Captured Within The Nutrition Facts Panel?
There are two reasons why the artificial sweeteners are not accounted for in the macronutrient summations within a Nutrition Facts Panel.
- High-intensity sweeteners are often described by their sweetness multiplier when compared to sucrose; how many times sweeter they are than sugar, gram for gram. The FDA mandates that all nutrition fact panels are populated to display the macronutrients of a product for a single serving of that product. In general, the highest resolution for any particular macro (Fat, Protein, Carbohydrate) is a single gram. The amount of sweetener per single serving of a food has to be at least one full gram for the Nutrition Facts Panel to declare it. For example, a one gram declaration of aspartame is equivalent to the sweetness of 200 times that of sugar (sucrose). Due to the Aspartame quantities typically used (per serving) in a food, the single gram threshold for the ingredient to impact the nutrition facts is not likely to ever be reached.
- Non-caloric sweeteners, in general, are those compounds that are not recognized by the body as a source of nutrients (energy), thus are not metabolized. The digestive tract may breakdown the sweetener and then metabolize the components; however, because the sweetener as a whole is not digested or converted to energy, it is still considered non-caloric. As it relates to a disclosed quantity of these non-caloric, high-intensity sugar substitutes, because they contain no calories, the only representation of their existence is within the ingredient list. On a typical Nutrition Facts Panel, 1 gram of protein or carbohydrates equates to 4 calories, where 1 gram of fat corresponds to a disclosure of 9 calories. A typical Aspartame packet for a cup of coffee will round up to disclosing one carbohydrate, and therefore, four calories.
Does Whey Protein Contain Artificial Sweeteners?
Most popular whey protein brands contain high-intensity sweeteners in conjunction with real sugar. The most popular sweeteners within whey protein are sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, and stevia extract. Sucralose can be up to six hundred times sweeter than table sugar. To put in perspective, it would take 600 grams (over 1 1/2 lbs.) of sucrose added to a product to create the desired sweetness level of 1 single gram of sucralose.
There are trade-offs to using high-intensity sweeteners like sucralose to reduce the amount of sugar in the product. With some pallets being more sensitive than others to synthetic profile notes, finding a perfect pre-made flavor for whey protein is exceptionally challenging—especially when these products undergo sensory testing for the masses.
In general, the selection of high-intensity sweeteners is dependent on the flavor pairing. Each sweetener brings with it a different portion of the sugar (sucrose) sweetness profile and thus needs other elements to mask the holes. The holes we are referring to manifest themselves as "odd in taste," "lingering after-taste," or even "chemical notes."
Whey Protein Without Added Sugar vs. Without Total Sugar
"Total Sugar" Defined -
Typically displayed in "grams," total sugar encompasses both the naturally occurring sugars and also any "added sugar" of a food product. When it comes to dairy products and whey protein in particular, if you were to look at the total sugar number and back out the Added Sugar declaration, you would be left with how much naturally occurring sugar is within the whey protein. For whey, the natural sugar is the lactose (simple-sugar, a.k.a. milk sugar). According to the FDA, "Total Sugars" represent the sum of fructose, glucose, fructose, sucrose, and lactose. It's important to note the "zero sugar" claim only means each serving contains less than 1/2 a gram of sugar. 1/2 a gram is the current FDA threshold where the declaration of "contains no sugar" is tolerated.
"Added Sugar" Defined -
This number, also represented in grams, will ONLY include the additional sugar applied to the product during the manufacturing process. For all-natural whey protein that is flavored, this number can be as high as 16 grams. Nowadays, since the advent of the super sweeteners, it's more common to have several super sweeteners as part of a broader flavor system in place of a lot of natural sugar or sucrose (table sugar). Natural sugars that contribute to a high "added-Sugar" declaration include sucrose, dextrose, cane sugar, syrups, honey, and natural sugars from concentrates like fruit juices. Unlike the "total sugar" value, there is a recommended DV (Daily Value) of 50 grams per day based on a 2,000 calorie daily diet for "Added-Sugar."
FDA regulations and food labeling requirements can make it challenging for a consumer to have a full grasp of what ingredients your protein powder contains. When looking at food labeling, especially with post-market regulated dietary supplements, it's a bit of a gamble assuming a brand is compliant in their ingredient & quantity disclosures. A best practice is to avoid supplement products entirely if you notice there are more than 3-4 listed ingredients (flavored products included) and or if the product is lacking verification from 3rd party accreditation. To be clear, a brand marketing "3rd party tested" is not a verification of integrity.
For example, a fully flavored ingredient list may look like this - Grass-fed Whey Isolate, Organic Cane Sugar, Organic Cacao, Sunflower Lecithin.
A professional tip for verifying a "grass-fed" whey claim is to ask for the farm certifications. In the United States today, there are only a few hundred grassfed dairy farms, yet over 25,000 whey protein brands making claims around sourcing from grass-fed milk. Of these 300 + grass-fed farms, 100% of them have certifications willing to be passed through to downstream products from that farm.
Not only is AGN Roots Grass-Fed Whey protein "unflavored," but it is also deliciously "flavorless," meaning it's excellent with only water, which speaks to its raw quality. Our community loves to cook & create, so next; we'll explore some of the alternatives when it comes to dressing up your whey creations.
Natural vs. Artificial Sweeteners in Whey Protein
Sugar substitutes are chemical or plant-based substances used to sweeten or enhance the flavor of food or drinks. With the maximum versatility of unflavored grass-fed whey, there are several options for sweetening or flavoring your daily protein shake. Start with AGN Roots Grass-Fed Whey, which contains zero calories or sugar, and then choose from the variety of sweeteners, both natural and artificial, that we've highlighted below!
Whey Protein Powder With Natural Sugar
Natural sweeteners are sugars that occur organically in many plant foods and have a caloric value when added to foods and drinks. Unlike most artificial super sweeteners that contain no calories, sugar is pure energy and can run up the calories of any treat rapidly.
When thinking about all the buzz recently around Sugar-Sweetened Beverages or "SSBs," consider the fact the majority of pure and natural sugar consumed on the planet comes from beverages.
The most famous natural sugars used to sweeten and too often than not super-saturate standard drinks like sweet-tea or sodas include - sucrose, molasses, brown & raw sugars, dextrose, corn & malt syrups (including high-fructose corn syrup), glucose, fructose, honey, and lactose (milk sugar).
Despite the added calories, many opt for a natural sweetener over an artificial substitute and for two significant reasons.
The first reason is simply the short-comings associated with artificial sweeteners; they fail miserably at pretending to replicate the sweetness profile of natural sugar—the main reason why protein powders rarely contain just a single artificial sweetener. Flavored protein powders will typically contain high-intensity sweeteners in pairs or triplets to optimize their strengths while masking their weaknesses (that odd after taste you can't quite put your finger on).
While the second reason is gaining more traction with the health and wellness boom helping elevate the general knowledge around nutrition. To many, the lack of understanding and comprehensive long terms studies on the synthetic sweeteners are enough to stay clear.
If your fitness goals include weight loss, healthy calories are not the enemy, but rather serve a crucial role in supporting your efforts!
What Are The Best Natural Sweeteners For Whey Protein
The most popular sugar-based alternatives include raw honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, and fresh or frozen fruit. Below we outline the attributes of the most popular natural sweeteners.
Sugar (Sucrose) -
Also known as your standard "table" sugar or granulated sugar, refined sugar is sucrose, which is extracted from sugarcane and processed to remove residual molasses resulting in refined white sugar. Sucrose is considered disaccharide made up of glucose and fructose. Sucrose is similar to honey, brown sugar, and maple syrup in that it is composed of glucose and fructose in varying amounts. Sucrose provides approximately 4 Calories per gram in terms of energy value; however, it does contain significant amounts of vitamins or minerals. The empty calories associated with sucrose have led many to consider other natural sweetener options with more to offer in terms of nutritional value.
Raw Honey -
Honey is a more nutritious alternative to sugar in that it contains antioxidants, antimicrobial, and antibacterial properties along with various vitamins and minerals. Honey contains more fructose than glucose. With fructose being the sweeter of the two, you can use less honey and achieve the same sweetness as sugar. Raw honey is the best choice if you have a trusted source. Mainstream honey suppliers that process their products using ultra-filtration methods unintentionally sacrifice beneficial nutrients like pollen, enzymes, and antioxidants for an aesthetically pleasing finished product with fewer air bubbles.
Maple Syrup –
Pure maple syrup is an antioxidant, rich in zinc, manganese, and other minerals. It is derived from liquid sap and then boiled to remove undesired moisture (water). Like most natural sweeteners, maple syrup is primarily sucrose but ranks lower on the glycemic index than sugar. However, similar to honey, there are versions of maple syrup highly dependent on the processing techniques employed. Choosing a pure maple syrup vs. a highly processed, high-fructose corn syrup alternative will serve you and your loved ones well.
Agave Nectar –
Agave syrup has increased in popularity as consumers look to expand their natural sugar alternatives. Derived from the agave plant, and similar to honey in that agave nectar is primarily fructose, making it approximately 1.5x sweeter than sugar (sucrose). For this reason, it also ranks much lower on the glycemic index than both honey and sugar but lacks the other nutritional benefits of unfiltered honey.
Fresh or Frozen Fruit –
Fruit may be one of the best ways to sweeten your whey protein creation naturally. Like other natural sweeteners, fruits contain natural sugars, including fructose and glucose, but they also comprise of several other nutrients. These nutrients include a wide range of antioxidants and essential vitamins and minerals such as fiber, potassium, vitamin C, and folic acid. The added nutritional value of using fruit to sweeten your protein shake sets it apart from the other natural sweetener options. Remember to blend the fruit (especially if frozen and using a high-speed device) separately from the whey protein powder to avoid the common mistake of mechanical denaturation.
The bottom line for natural sweeteners is that they all contain sucrose and varying levels of glucose and fructose. They all serve as great alternatives to processed, artificial sweeteners, but despite which sweetener you choose, they all contain sugar; therefore, moderation is key. Keep your intake to a minimum and opt for fresh or frozen fruit as a healthier, more nutritious alternative.
Stevia and Grass-Fed Whey Protein
The outlier among the "natural" category is stevia. Stevia is a plant-based sweetener widely marketed as "natural" with no caloric value and stems from the Stevia Rebaudiana plant native to South America. The term stevia refers to the entire plant; however, the sweet part of the plant is extracted from the leaf and known as "steviol glycosides."
Although stevia in it's crude, unprocessed-form is marketable as "all-natural," it resides under the FDA as a dietary-supplement (DHESA). To date, crude stevia extract has NOT been recognized by the FDA as a safe food additive.
The form of stevia most are accustomed to seeing at your local coffee shop is high purity steviol glycosides (an extract of the stevia plant). In this form, stevia is considered "Generally Recognized as Safe" (GRAS) by the FDA. The GRAS version, however, requires harsh chemical processing, which has led many to debate, to what extent a natural ingredient can undergo chemical processing before being stripped of its "all-natural" claim.
The benefits of stevia-based sweeteners such as Truvia are that it's roughly 300x sweeter than sugar (; thus, a minimal amount is needed to sweeten anything. The negative reviews of stevia are very consistent and focused on its very distinct taste and bitter after-taste.
Artificial Sweeteners for Grass Fed Whey Protein
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes and often come in the form of tabletop sweeteners. They are an attractive alternative to sugar or sucrose as they contain virtually no calories and only require a fraction of the amount to sweeten food or beverages, including your unflavored whey protein powder.
Why Do Artificial Sweeteners Contain No Calories?
Unlike the natural sweeteners described above, artificial sweeteners non-nutritional, meaning they have no added nutritional value. Another commonly known term for non-nutritional is non-caloric. For the sake of this article, these definitions are the same.
The explanation is fairly straight forward; Calories represent a metric that quantifies the amount of energy made available for your body to use, as a result of your body, both digesting (breakdown) and metabolizing (converting to energy) nutrients. If the body does not recognize the consumption of food as containing nutrients, the body will not metabolize it, and thus result in no energy being made available.
There are a handful of artificial sweeteners that are popular with flavored whey protein and can be added in moderation to unflavored whey to create a sweet, low-calorie shake recipe.
Sucralose – As a zero-calorie artificial sweetener, sucralose is 600 times sweeter than sugar. The powerful multiplier that sucralose possesses makes it one of the most impactful sweeteners with the tiniest footprint. When it comes to protein powders, it's likely for sucralose to be one of the sweeteners used as part of a more significant flavor system.
Acesulfame Potassium – Often referred to as "Ace-K," acesulfame potassium is often used in combination with other artificial sweeteners to improve the overall taste. One of the more popular combinations is sucralose and Ace-K. It is 200 times sweeter than sugar and contains no calories.
Aspartame – As a more controversial artificial sweetener, aspartame is one of the most researched sugar substitutes in the U.S. and considered safe by the FDA. It is roughly 200 times sweeter than sugar, and when ingested, it breaks down into two amino acids: aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Unlike its counterparts, aspartame is metabolized in the body and considered low calorie (vs. no calorie).
Though many may prefer a natural sugar substitute, artificial sweeteners provide multiple alternative solutions for those managing blood sugar carefully or pursuing no-sugar diets (i.e., Keto). If an artificial sweetener is your preference, remember that a little goes a long way when flavoring your grass-fed whey protein shake.