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When you start taking protein powder to help with your fitness and nutrition goals, you’re likely also paying more attention to your sugar intake and wondering whether protein powder has sugar.
Whey protein powder generally contains a small amount (1-3g) of naturally occurring milk sugar (lactose), but most flavored protein powders use alternative sweeteners instead of sugar. However, some protein powders specifically do include sugar for mass gain, recovery, or to improve digestibility.
Depending on your goals, it might be good to have some sugar in your whey protein powder. Still, you’ll want to know how to read the labels to know whether sugar is included or not.
- The most common form of sugar added to whey protein powder is corn sugar (dextrose or maltodextrin). But added sugar can have many different names.
- Most of the time, the added sugar in whey protein is well within the recommended guidelines for the total daily intake of added sugars.
- It’s important to know how FDA labeling guidelines work since some brands with 0g of sugar on the label will still have a small amount of sugar in the ingredients.
What Kind of Sugar Is in Whey Protein?
The most common type of sugar in whey protein is lactose, the naturally occurring sugar in milk.
Small amounts of lactose can be left over after the process to turn milk into protein powder. Added sugars in whey protein are often in the form of corn sugar (dextrose or maltodextrin), glucose, fructose, or syrups.
Sugar comes in many forms, with dozens of different names. Ingredients that end in “ose” are usually forms of sugar (e.g., dextrose, maltose, or mannose).
Sugar might also be added to whey protein by way of a sugar-containing food like honey, maple syrup, molasses, or a “nectar,” juice, or syrup.
Reasons for Adding Sugar to Protein Powders
The number one reason to add sugar to protein powder is to improve the taste.
Beyond that, sugars are added for weight gain goals. They are also added as a “natural” alternative for people who do not want or cannot have artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols for health reasons.
I’ll talk about the reasons for adding sugar in more detail below.
Whey protein powder on its own doesn’t have a particularly great taste. Sweetening it with sugar or other sweeteners makes it more palatable so that you are more likely to enjoy it and take it consistently. As a result, this will help you hit your protein targets and achieve your goals.
It’s very rare for someone to mix unflavored, unsweetened protein powder with water and drink it plain. That would not be an enjoyable experience, and it wouldn’t be easy to stick to for long.
- Related Article: Why Is Protein Powder So Sweet? How To Make It Less Sweet
Mass Gain Goals
Adding sugar can be a quick and easy way to add surplus calories for someone looking to gain weight. Sugar easily dissolves in liquid and is quickly absorbed. Each gram of sugar provides 4 calories; that means about 15 calories for every teaspoon.
Essentially, sugar is very calorically dense and easy to consume, so it helps people achieve a high-calorie intake for their day.
Sugar helps you recover after a workout because it stops the release of cortisol, the stress hormone that comes when you train hard. Cortisol breaks down muscle tissue, so “turning it off” as fast as possible is important. Sugar also promotes the release of insulin, which helps get nutrients into your cells.
These are all reasons why sports recovery drinks like Gatorade or Powerade contain sugar. Supplement companies now also add sugar to protein powder for “all in one” post-workout shakes.
Some people have a hard time digesting alternative sweeteners like sugar alcohols (erythritol, sorbitol, and xylitol are common examples), leading to gassiness, cramps, bloating, and digestive discomfort.
Sugar is a more gut-friendly option for sensitive individuals.
Is It Bad That Whey Protein Has Sugar?
No, it’s not bad that whey protein powder has sugar. Sugar is very important as a fuel source before training and to help promote recovery after training. It can be a strategic part of your pre- or post-workout protein shake.
Also, it’s important to keep in mind that the amount of sugar in whey protein, if it contains sugar at all, is generally quite small, averaging around 1-3g per 30g scoop.
However, as mentioned above, protein powders marketed as “mass gainers” or “recovery drinks” have added sugar on purpose. These types of drinks can have 15-35g of sugar or more per serving.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting added sugars to no more than 6 tsp (25g) per day for women and 9 tsp (36g) for men. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests a limit of no more than 5-10% of total daily energy intake coming from added sugars.
So, depending on your goals, even a high-sugar mass gainer drink can fit within the guidelines as long as the rest of your sugar intake throughout the day is low. Regular whey protein powder with only 1-3g of sugar per scoop is well within the AHA recommendation.
How To Read the Sugar Label on Whey Protein Powder
When reading the sugar label on whey protein powder, it is important to know the difference between naturally-occurring sugars in the whey protein powder itself (e.g., from lactose, the natural sugar in milk) compared to added sugars. Even if a label lists 1-2g of sugar, it does not mean that the protein has added sugar.
This is because whey protein powder can still have a small amount of lactose left over after the process that turns milk into whey protein powder. Whey protein isolate is less likely to contain lactose or fat, but whey protein concentrate can still have 1-3g of sugar per 30g serving.
This is because the process of making whey protein isolate removes virtually all of the fat and lactose in milk to leave only protein.
On the other hand, whey protein concentrate is less pure. By weight, it might only have 80% protein, and the rest is fat and lactose.
To know if a product has added sugar, it is important to read the list of ingredients in detail. Forms of sugar can be listed in the ingredients even if the nutrition facts panel says 0g of sugar.
Labeling rules allow manufacturers to round down to zero if the amount of sugar per serving is less than half a gram. The product below could have 0.1 – 0.4g of sugar per serving, but since that rounds down to zero, the label can show 0g of sugar per serving.
A label like this that has only one line for sugars will include the naturally occurring amount of lactose (if any) left in the whey protein after processing as part of this line.
Recently, the FDA also added the requirement to show added sugars as a subset of total sugars for any sugars added during processing and beyond the naturally occurring sugars.
Keep in mind, however, that since whey protein powder is a dietary supplement and not a food, manufacturers do not have to follow this FDA requirement. Still, many choose to do so.
Here is an example of a label with an extra line for added sugars:
Can We Trust the Sugar Claims on Whey Protein Powders?
Even if you read the nutrition facts and ingredients for protein powder, you can’t be sure the sugar content is accurate.
Labeling requirements are less stringent for dietary supplements than for foods. Your protein powder could contain ingredients beyond the ones listed or in amounts other than what is stated on the nutrition facts label.
Sugar Recommendations: What To Look For When Buying Whey Protein Powder
I have four key steps to follow when assessing the sugar in a whey protein powder:
1. Check the Nutrition Facts Panel
My first place to start is the nutrition facts panel which, as I stated above, will show the total sugar content per serving. Look for brands that have less than 3g of total sugars per serving, including the naturally occurring amount of lactose.
2. Read the Ingredients List Carefully
Even if the nutrition facts panel states 0g of sugar or 0g of added sugar, read the ingredients list to check for forms of sugar such as the ones below:
- Agave nectar
- Brown rice syrup / brown rice syrup solids
- Coconut nectar
- Concentrated white grape juice
- Corn syrup / HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup)
- Evaporated cane juice
- Tapioca syrup
Even if the total amount of sugar is so small that it rounds to zero, you can make an informed choice about whether you want to consume the product.
Personally, I don’t mind if my protein powder has 1-2g of sugar since it’s such a small amount over the course of a day. I counsel my clients the same way. I’d rather have them find a protein powder that they like and will take consistently than worry about a negligible amount of sugar.
Also, many sweeteners in the list above are marketed as “natural” because they are whole-foods-based options or sources that come from a plant vs. being made in a lab.
But, the plant source might have to undergo significant processing to reach the end product.
And just because it comes from a plant does not mean it is good for you. These ingredients are still forms of sugar, and they are not necessarily better or worse for you than regular sugar.
- Related Article: What Is The Glycemic Index of Whey Protein Powder?
3. Determine What Alternative Sweeteners Are Used
Whether the protein powder contains sugar or not, it’s a good idea to see what other sweetener(s) are in use to ensure they will work for you.
I’ll talk about the most common alternative sweeteners in protein powder in the next section.
4. Choose Third-Party Certified Products
Finally, to give me confidence that I can trust what is on the nutrition facts panel and in the ingredients list, I look for proof that the product is third-party certified.
Third-party certification means that the product has been independently tested and verified to contain only the ingredients stated in the amounts stated.
It’s important to support brands that take pride in creating transparency with their labeling. They will have a reputation for honest and accurate information that goes above and beyond the current FDA requirements.
Look for these logos:
Other Ways Protein Powders Are Sweetened
With the exception of unflavored protein powders, all protein powders are sweetened in some way. If they are not sweetened with sugar, they are commonly sweetened with other natural sweeteners like honey, high-intensity sweeteners like sucralose, or sugar alcohols like erythritol.
Many protein powders use different types of sweeteners in combination, so it’s not uncommon to see sweeteners from each of these categories in the same product.
It’s important to realize that there is no official definition of what “natural” means on a food or supplement label. “Naturally sweetened” is not a regulated term.
As I described above, some protein powders use natural sweeteners instead of sugar. But remember that these are not necessarily any better for you than refined white sugar.
Sweeteners with minimal processing would include raw honey or pure maple syrup compared to sweeteners like evaporated cane juice.
By definition, high-intensity sweeteners are many times sweeter than sugar but provide few to no calories. The FDA recognizes six high-intensity sweeteners as food additives: saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), sucralose, neotame, and advantame. Ace-K and sucralose are the most common in protein powders.
Stevia leaf extract and monk fruit (also called Luo Han Guo) are two other high-intensity sweeteners that are common in protein powder. But they are often marketed as “natural” sweeteners because they are plant-based.
However, these sweeteners are NOT currently approved food additives. The FDA considers them “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS), but they have not yet been formally approved as food additives.
Unlike high-intensity sweeteners, sugar alcohols are usually less sweet than an equivalent amount of sugar but only provide a fraction of the calories. They are usually paired with a high-intensity sweetener to reach the overall desired level of sweetness but with a better flavor.
Some people find that a product sweetened only with high-intensity sweeteners tastes “weird” or has an unpleasant aftertaste. To tone down the high-intensity sweetener while still keeping the calories low, manufacturers add sugar alcohols as well.
- Related Article: What Is Amino Acid Spiking and Should You Be Worried About It?
How to Buy Zero Sugar & Unsweetened Whey Protein
The best way to get zero sugar in your whey protein is to look for a pure whey isolate, which will have little to no lactose. To avoid sweeteners entirely, buy unflavored whey protein. In both cases, look for reputable manufacturers so that you know you can trust their ingredient lists and nutrition labels.
- Related Article: Bulk Supplements Whey Protein Review: What I REALLY Think
For a flavored zero-sugar whey protein isolate, I trust Transparent Labs 100% Grass-Fed Whey Protein Isolate, which is sweetened only with stevia extract.
I like that the ingredients list describes exactly how much of each ingredient is in a serving (180mg of stevia extract). Transparent Labs sticks by its brand name by letting you know exactly what and how much is in its products.
Along with its great taste, this is the reason Transparent Labs is currently the #1 ranked protein powder we’ve reviewed here at FeastGood.
How To Make Unsweetened Protein Powder Taste Good
If you’re not a fan of the taste of unsweetened protein powders (I’m not), you can mix it with other ingredients that add flavor and sweetness, like orange juice. I also like to blend unsweetened protein powder in a smoothie with fresh fruit. I get the sugar and flavor from the fruit rather than from added sugar in the protein powder.
If I want to stick to a sugar-free option, I blend unflavored protein powder with sugar-free sweeteners like stevia. I’m a big fan of the Now Foods Better Stevia drops, and my favorite flavors are French Vanilla and English Toffee.
Sugar in Whey Protein – Broken Down by Popular Brands
You’ll see that most protein powders are very low in sugar, except for products specifically for mass gain and/or recovery. Many contain no added sugar at all and are flavored using alternative non-caloric sweeteners.
Even though I mention a specific flavor in the table below, all of the flavors are within the range of 1-3g of sugar. All of these products rely on high-intensity sweeteners for their flavor.
|Brand||Sugar per Serving*||Protein per Serving||Type of Sugar||Other Sweeteners?||Third-party Certified?|
|Ascent Native Fuel Whey Protein Isolate, Chocolate||1g (0g added sugars)||25g||None||Stevia Leaf Extract||Yes - Informed Sport|
|Alani Nu Whey Protein Powder Peanut Butter Brownie||1g (0g added sugars)||23g||None||Sucralose & Acesulfame Potassium||No|
|Biosteel Recovery Protein Plus Vanilla||17g (added sugars not specified)||24g||Organic Brown Rice Syrup Solids, Maltodextrin (Corn Sugar) & Organic Cane Sugar||Stevia Leaf Extract||Yes - NSF|
|Bulk Supplements Unflavored Whey Isolate||0g (0g added sugars)||26g||None||None||No|
|Ghost Protein Coffee Ice Cream||1g (0g added sugars)||25g||None||Sucralose||No|
|Legion Whey+ Whey Protein Powder, Dutch Chocolate||0g (0g added sugars)||23g||None||Stevia Leaf Extract & Monk Fruit Extract||Yes - Labdoor|
|MuscleTech Whey Protein Isolate & Peptides, Milk Chocolate||2g (0g added sugars)||30g||None||Sucralose & Acesulfame Potassium||No|
|Naked Whey Clear 100% Protein Isolate||0g (0g added sugars)||15g||Fermented Cane Sugar||None||Certified gluten-free|
|Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey Protein Powder, French Vanilla Creme||2g (added sugars not specified)||24g||None||Acesulfame Potassium & Sucralose||No|
|PEScience Select Protein Gourmet Vanilla||1.5g (added sugars not specified)||24g||None||Sucralose & Acesulfame Potassium||No|
|Premier Protein 100% Whey Protein Powder, Chocolate||1g (0g added sugars)||30g||None||Acesulfame Potassium & Sucralose||No|
|Quest Nutrition Vanilla Milkshake Protein Powder||1g (0g added sugars)||24g||None||Sucralose & Steviol Glycosides (Stevia)||No|
|Six Star 100% Whey Isolate||Less than 1g (0g added sugars)||26g||None||Sucralose & Acesulfame Potassium||No|
|Transparent Labs 100% Grass-Fed Whey Protein Isolate||1g (0g added sugars)||28g||None||Stevia Extract||Yes - Elite Manufacturing & Packaging|
*While serving sizes vary by brand, on average each serving is ~30g.
What Else Does Whey Protein Contain?
- Is Cholesterol In Whey Protein Bad?
- Does Whey Protein Have Iron?
- Does Whey Protein Have Calcium?
- Does Whey Protein Have Lactose?
About The Author
Lauren Graham is a Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified nutrition coach. She focuses on helping busy professionals balance healthy eating and purposeful movement. Lauren has a background in competitive swimming and is currently competing as a CrossFit athlete. She has a passion for training, teaching, and writing.