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Protein powders – do they work?

We weigh up the pros and cons of boosting your protein intake with supplements.

Last updated: 13 July 2020

No longer just for bodybuilders, commercial protein supplement powders and bars fill shelves in supermarkets, pharmacies and health food stores. But do you really need a special supplement, or should a healthy diet suffice?

There are four main groups targeted by protein supplement marketing. We weigh up the usefulness of supplements for each of these groups so you can decide whether they might be helpful, or just a waste of money:

  • Athletes who want to build more muscle and recover quickly from exercise.
  • People on weight-loss diets looking at protein to help keep hunger at bay, and also make sure they don't lose muscle as well as fat.
  • Older people who may not eat enough protein to prevent losing muscle, and may therefore struggle with day to day activities and ultimately independent living.
  • Vegans looking for easy protein.

We've also looked at a range of widely available brands for tips on better buys.

Protein for athletes

People who exercise heavily tend to have a greater appetite, and they usually get enough protein from normal food without the need for a special high-protein diet or supplements.

Protein for weight loss

Most Australians get plenty of protein in their diet and don't need protein supplements to achieve weight loss.

Protein for middle-aged and older people

For some people – especially frail elderly people who have little interest in eating – supplements could be the best option. Your doctor can give you a referral to a dietitian, and you may be eligible for a Medicare rebate.

Do vegans need a protein supplement?

It's perfectly possible to get enough protein from a well-planned plant-based diet, but some vegans find protein supplements an easy and convenient way to get essential amino acids.

What to buy

We looked at products readily available in supermarkets and pharmacies and came up with product suggestions based on the cost per gram of protein. They range in cost from around 4 cents to 20 cents per gram, which works out at 80 cents to $4 for a 20 gram serve (actual recommended serving sizes vary according to product, but 20 grams is the minimum amount recommended to be effective).

Buying products online may better suit those with niche requirements or a need for larger quantities than a typical user. And, of course, you may need to taste a few different ones to see what you like best.

Low-carb plus artificial sweetener

Many of the widely available protein supplements contain artificial sweeteners, in particular stevia (which is claimed to be natural) and sucralose. This means you can get lots of sweet, flavoured protein for very little energy.

You can get lots of sweet, flavoured protein for very little energy

An example is Vital Strength 100% Premium Whey (4.5–7 cents per gram of protein). It's sweetened with sucralose, comes in chocolate, vanilla and banana flavour, and can be found at supermarkets and pharmacies.

Unflavoured and unsweetened – a versatile option

You can also buy plain whey or vegan protein, with no flavours or sweeteners. This is a very versatile option, as you can add it to sweet and savoury foods and drinks: smoothies, shakes, soups and baked products. It also means you can choose the type and amount of sweeteners you prefer, whether sugar, honey, fruit or artificial sweeteners.

An economical example is Coles Unflavoured Whey Protein Concentrate (4.9 cents per gram of protein).

Older adults

While older adults could use any of the products above, there are supplements that may be better suited to some people because they contain added nutrients, more energy and don't need special blending or shaking equipment – simply add milk or water and stir with a spoon. But be sure to discuss your options with your doctor or dietitian to find the most appropriate product – if any – for your needs.

One example is Sustagen Hospital Formula Active, which is available from supermarkets and pharmacies (in larger 840g containers, costing between $26–32).

Correction 28/3/19: An earlier version of this story had incorrect pricing information for Sustagen Hospital Formula Active and Vital Strength 100% Premium Whey which we've now updated.

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact checking at CHOICE.

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.