The protein paradox

A variety of protein powders are available today, from whey to soy and pea protein.
36 different brands of protein powders in India found that nearly 70 per cent had inaccurately labelled protein contents
36 different brands of protein powders in India found that nearly 70 per cent had inaccurately labelled protein contentsPhoto | Express

KOCHI: The pandemic and post-pandemic world have accelerated the growth of the health-conscious and wellness market. People are seeking an extra boost of immunity amidst their fast-paced lives. At the heart of this billion-dollar industry is the burgeoning popularity of protein powders. “I believe that we now live in an age where supplementation has become a pantry essential; it’s no longer a luxury because all health-conscious consumers are using protein for convenience, to improve their health, etc,” says Gauravi Vinay, a clinical nutritionist in the city and a regular user of protein powders.

A variety of protein powders are available today, from whey to soy and pea protein. However, a recent study conducted by researchers from Rajagiri Hospital (Kerala) and a US-based technology entrepreneur, examining 36 different brands of protein powders in India found that nearly 70 per cent had inaccurately labelled protein contents, while around 14 per cent contained harmful fungal aflatoxins. “We must be self-aware consumers because ultimately, it’s crucial to know what’s going into our mouths. In the study, some powders did not contain the amount of protein the companies claimed, which is problematic because you’re not getting the value you paid for. But the real issue begins when toxins and fungi are involved,” Vinay explains, adding that looking for third-party testing certification is the first step one should take.

Vinay also cautions about the heavy-metal content in plant proteins. “Choose protein powders that are third-party tested for heavy metals, which are more prevalent in plant proteins, as heavy metals naturally occur in crops – arsenic in rice, and lead, mercury, and cadmium in soil,” she explains. Rishabh Singh, another weight-loss coach, advocates a ‘food- first’ approach. “While protein is crucial for muscle growth and repair, merely consuming excess amounts doesn’t automatically result in increased muscle mass. A combination of adequate protein intake, consistent strength training, and sufficient rest are essential to maximise muscle growth,” says Singh.

Monali Gorai
Monali Gorai

Monali Gorai, a weight-loss coach, believes protein powders are unnecessary for most people, promoting natural protein sources as the foundation of a healthy diet. “I never recommend protein powders because most of my clients come for weight-loss and only when they peak, I suggest they start taking protein powder,” says Gorai, who turned to protein powders after adopting a vegan lifestyle. She emphasises the importance of taking responsibility and thoroughly researching the brand and their ethos, and consulting a nutritionist. “I had to explore sources on how to consume protein when I couldn’t even eat paneer. But that is the responsibility you have to take for your body if you choose a different lifestyle.”

For those wary of protein supplements, especially vegetarians, Vinay advises, “If you consume meat, your protein requirements are decently met. As a vegetarian, you can increase your protein intake by including items like mushrooms, green leafy vegetables, and grains higher in protein, like brown rice or quinoa. Thus, you can maintain a more wholesome diet and be mindful of the sources.”

In disguise: One widely accepted practice in India is to check the manufacturing and expiry dates when picking up items from a grocery store. However, most consumers are not trained to check the rest of the information on the back. Recently, a viral post on social media revealed that many packages labelled as ‘ORS’ (Oral Rehydration Formula) might not actually be the WHO-approved ORS that many rely on for ailments like diarrhoea and dehydration. Dr Deepti Kulkarni Rao, a consultant paediatrician, points out that ORS is a medicine, and the ORS-like drinks available over the counter should be considered health drinks at best. “Most pre-filled drinks contain sodium, glucose, and other electrolytes, but not in the quantities we need. A higher level of glucose can worsen dehydration. If sodium is not in the correct amount, it can impact the organs and even the brain,” Dr Rao says, adding, “It is always recommended to talk to your doctor and only take the sachet that says WHO approved or certified.”

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