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Are protein and other nutritional powders healthy or hype?

Cacao, protein, matcha … the list of new ‘super’ nutritional powders goes on and on. Do they deserve their health halos —or are they expensive hype? HFG investigates.

Faster weight loss, increased energy levels and glowing skin are just a few of the benefits that have been attributed to the new nutritional powders that line our health-food aisles and pharmacy shelves. So, what are some of the most common of these powders — and how do they rate in the nutrition stakes. Let’s go into the powder room …

Protein powder

What is it?
Protein powder is exactly that — a concentrated powder chock-full of muscle-building protein. There are many different kinds of protein powders. Most are the powdered form of protein from soy, peas, or dairy byproducts or components like whey or casein. Others are protein paired with carbohydrates, while some have ingredients and nutrients added to enhance performance. It’s a crowded market!

How is it used?
You might have noticed avid gym-goers mixing their protein powder with water to make a shake or smoothie. Protein powders can also be added to foods, which has resulted in a range of protein bars and snacks hitting our supermarket shelves.

The verdict
Yes, protein is important, but chances are you’re already eating far more of it than you actually need or use. There are some people who might find protein powders useful, such as high-level athletes, the elderly or those who are unwell.

For most of us, however, these pricey protein powders are largely unnecessary and can even be dangerous, because too much protein can harm your kidneys. We say just stick to real food!

Matcha mania

What is it?
Matcha’s vibrant green powder is made by grinding up green tea leaves. Making traditional green tea involves infusing the tea leaves in hot water, and then the discarding the leaves. With matcha, you’re instead drinking the leaves themselves, after they’ve been finely powdered.

How is it used?
Matcha’s recent strong surge in popularity has seen the powder pop up in all kinds of places, from daily hot drinks through to baked sweet treats, and even as a spice to add to savoury meals.

The verdict
Green tea has been acclaimed as ‘the healthiest beverage on the planet’, with multiple health benefits. In particular, green tea is bursting with antioxidants known as catechines, which are thought to contain important anti-cancer properties.

Matcha certainly seems like a healthy addition to your diet, but more research is needed to prove it has any benefit. Until then, don’t let matcha treats trick you, because ice cream is still ice cream, no matter what its colour!

Cacao craze

What is it?
The only difference between trendy raw cacao powder and old-fashioned cocoa powder is that raw cacao is fresh and minimally processed, whereas cocoa has been heated. Both come from the same ingredient that forms the basis of chocolate: the good old cocoa bean.

How is it used?
Cacao powder can be used in a similar fashion to cocoa powder. You can turn cacao into a creamy hot chocolate, blend it into your morning smoothie, or use it for baking snacks and desserts.

The verdict
Raw cacao retains high levels of antioxidants called flavonoids, which have been shown to help reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol and boost heart health.

However, if you’re baking with cacao, the heat will reduce the flavonoid content. Keep in mind that snacks and desserts using cacao can still be high in added kilojoules, sugar and fat.

Amazonian acai

What is it?
Acai is a dark purple-coloured fruit that resembles a berry. Grown in South America, ithas to be freeze-dried within 24 hours to keep its nutritional value. It is then blitzed into a powder, or pureed and frozen.

How is it used?
One of acai’s most popular applications is the acai bowl, which you may have seen at your local brunch spot. Acai bowls are a purple smoothie, served in a bowl and topped with muesli, fruit and honey.

The verdict
Recent studies suggest that acai pulp has a very high antioxidant capacity — more powerful than cranberries, strawberries or even blueberries. Acai is also a good source of the prebiotic fibre that we need in order to feed healthy gut bacteria.

However, claims it can halt ageing or help prevent cancer are premature, with more studies needed. The berry is naturally low in sugar, but if you’re trying to lose weight, or watching your blood sugar levels, save cafe acai bowls and smoothies for a special treat, as they can be a concentrated source of kilojoules and natural sugars.

Green goodness

What is it?
Green ‘superfood’ powders combine a variety of extracts from a wide range of ingredients. Anything from kale and broccoli through to spirulina and licorice powder seems to fit the bill!

How is it used?
Green powders are intended to be added by the teaspoon to water, smoothies, desserts and chia puddings.

The verdict
Clever marketing can lead people to believe they can get all of the nutrients they need from just a sprinkling of green powder. But it is important to understand that the powders are processed forms of fresh produce, so you miss out on the valuable fibre that helps keep you feeling full.

Additionally, a strong body of evidence supports the benefits of consuming real vegetables and fruit — so a balanced and varied diet is all you need.

Green powders are overhyped, overpriced, and are certainly no substitute for enjoying your five vegetable serves a day.

Superfood or hype?

We’ve compared the price of popular powders with real food

Acai powder, $36.90 per 100g vs fresh strawberries, $0.72 per 100g

Spirulina powder, $15 per 100g vs baby spinach, $1.70 per 100g

Matcha powder, $26 per 100g vs green tea, $6.50 per 100g

Cacao powder, $7.20 per 100g vs cocoa powder, $3.33 per 100g

Protein powder, $5.60 per 100g vs reduced-fat milk, $0.20 per 100m

Article sources and references

Date modified: 7 December 2020
First published: Dec 2020


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