Protein Powder and Digestion

Are you overwhelmed by the wide variety of protein powders in the sports nutrition aisle and aren’t sure which will best meet your individual needs? This article is part of a series, written by Harmons Dietitian Hannah Langley, to take an extensive look at protein powders and help you make the most informed choice when shopping for your health. 

Lactose in Milk Proteins

Lactose is a type of sugar found in milk and dairy products. People that are lactose intolerance lack enough of the enzyme lactase, which is responsible for breaking down lactose small enough for our body to absorb it. Consuming too much lactose and not having enough lactase to break it down can result in nausea, bloating, cramping, and diarrhea.  

The remaining amount of lactose after the filtration of milk proteins, like whey and casein, is so small that these protein powders are typically well-tolerated by individuals with lactose intolerance. Whey protein isolates and hydrolysates may be ideal for individuals who experience the undesirable side effects of lactose intolerance when using a whey concentrate. This is because isolates and hydrolysates go through additional processing which reduces their lactose content to even smaller than that of concentrates. Plant-based proteins do not naturally contain lactose and can also be a suitable option. 

Naturally Gluten Free vs Certified Gluten Free

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley products that does not need to be limited in your diet unless you Celiac or gluten intolerance. Many protein powders do not incorporate these grains in their ingredients list, resulting in a naturally gluten-free product which can be stated on the label. Those with Celiac, however, should consider choosing a protein powder that has been certified as gluten-free to avoid cross contamination with any gluten-containing ingredients during manufacturing and to ensure the product has been tested for gluten prior to being sold. A few reputable certifying bodies include The Gluten Free Certification Organization and NSF Certified Gluten Free. 

Fiber Blends

Fiber and fiber blends are becoming more and more common in protein powders. Chicory root fiber, inulin, and allulose provide a sweet taste and are currently classified as prebiotic fibers, meaning they are not fully digested in the small intestine and feed the good gut bacteria in the large intestine and colon. This can be beneficial for those looking to increase satiety and their dietary fiber intake, but there are a few things to keep in mind. First, fiber blends may decrease the rate of utilization of your protein powder, which is undesirable if you’re using the powder for post-exercise recovery. Consuming a lot of fiber too quickly, especially if you’re not used to higher amounts of fiber, can cause nausea, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. The amount of fiber added to protein powders is typically low enough to have minimal side effects, though these fibers may not be suitable for individuals on a low FODMAP diet. 

MCT Powder

Medium chain triglycerides (MCT) are a type of rapidly digested saturated fat. Some protein powder blends on the market include added MCT powder, which may increase satiety, provide an energy source for those on a very low-carb diet, and create a richer-textured product. Two of the common claims regarding MCTs in sports nutrition are their ability to reduce lactate post-exercise and to aid in fat loss; research regarding MCTs effect on lactate has been largely inconclusive and it’s effect of fat loss is often taken out of context. The research that has shown any significant changes in fat loss occurs when MCTs are used to replace long chain triglycerides, meaning MCTs are not helpful for fat loss in and of themself. Keep in mind that MCT powder contributes to daily saturated fat intake, which is a nutrient associated with chronic disease risk as most Americans typically overconsume it.

So why are MCTs important to consider for digestion? Because they are more rapidly digested than other types of fats, they can cause a laxative effect when consumed on an empty stomach or in excess. MCT powder is typically better tolerated than MCT oil because it has a slightly lower concentration of MCTs for the same volume. 

Digestive Enzymes

Some companies include digestive enzymes in their protein powder blends to aid digestion and potentially increase the rate of utilization of the product. The inclusion of these enzymes isn’t necessary but may be beneficial in certain circumstances. First, it may help athletes and individuals that require a high calorie, high protein diet better absorb and utilize very large doses of protein. It may also be beneficial for those that experience GI discomfort when using their preferred protein powder, though the plant-based enzymes that are typically used tend to be less efficient than the enzymes naturally occurring in your GI tract. If you experience GI discomfort while using a protein powder, please discuss it with your Harmons Dietitian. 

Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols are a cross between sugar and alcohol molecules, called polyols. There are currently 8 sugar alcohols generally recognized as safe by the FDA, the most commonly used being xylitol, erythritol, mannitol, isomalt, and sorbitol. They are low-calorie sweeteners and can contain between 1.5-3 calories per gram. They are partially digested in the small intestine and then fermented in the large intestine. Sugar alcohols are generally well tolerated in small amounts, up to 10-15 grams per day, but excess can have a laxative effect. Sugar alcohols may also cause additional gastrointestinal upset like bloating and flatulence, and are not suitable for those following a low-FODMAP diet.  

Key Takeaways

  • Whey isolates and hydrolysates, along with plant proteins, are best for individuals with lactose intolerance. 
  • Those with Celiac should choose a protein powder that has been certified gluten free. 
  • Added fiber is good for satiety and gut bacteria, but is undesirable for post-exercise recovery and those on a low FODMAP diet. 
  • MCTs can increase satiety, provide energy for those on a low-carb diet, and create a richer product, but can have laxative effects and contribute to saturated fat intake.
  • Added digestive enzymes are not significantly beneficial, but they may help people on a high protein diet better absorb and utilize large doses of protein.
  • Sugar alcohols may cause gastrointestinal distress when consumed in excess and are not suitable for a low FODMAP diet. 

Your Harmons Dietitian can help if you have questions, would like personalized product recommendations, or are curious about your individual protein needs. Reach out to 

Chile Roast Time!

Every year, thousands of people come to participate in the Harmons Chile Roast, to get their hands on our delicious fire-roasted chiles! At Harmons, we received inspiration and guidance for our unique roasting technique from the world-famous Chile Pepper Institute  at New Mexico State University. This roasting process enhances the chile’s flavor profile by intensifying each pepper’s overall taste, texture, and spice.

Large chile roasters will be stationed outside of each Harmons location starting at the end of August. Like a large, grated 50-gallon drum, these roasters rotate to evenly roast each chile pepper to perfection. Harmons is selling these delicious fire-roasted chiles by the bushel. So don’t miss out! Be sure to attend this year’s Chile Roast Event, which will be held: 

  • Every Friday and Saturday between August 16 and September 5 
  • Labor Day: Monday, September 5, 2022 

How to store, package, and freeze your chiles ​

Once you have your beloved chiles, follow these steps to properly store, package, and freeze them. Freshly roasted chiles can be stored for up to 6 days in the fridge. They can also be stored in the freezer for many months to extend shelf life!  

The best practice for freezing your chiles is to start with clean processing surfaces, equipment, and packaging containers. Next, use a freezer safe storage bag for packaging the chiles. Be sure to remove the air content and seal tightly. Immediately after packing the chiles, freeze, and store at or below 0°F. Chiles must be fully frozen within 4 hours for proper food safety. One way to accomplish this is to packagthe chiles in multiple individual servings and leave space between each package to allow for cool air to circulate more freely. To ensure this quick freeze, package chiles in multiple individual servings. 

Packing and freezing in individual serving sizes is incredibly useful in the future when you are ready to use the chiles. You can thaw the peppers in a reasonable quantity for each dish. Also, removal of the outer skin of the chile becomes easier after freezing. So, feel free to freeze your chiles whole if you would like to try this technique for peeling skins off during the thawing period.

For more information on freezing and storing roasted chiles, please visit Harmons Chile Roasting 101 blog post. 

Nutritional Content of Chile Peppers ​

Just one serving of chiles (about 1/2 cup chopped) contains multiple vitamins and minerals including important nutrients such as magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and vitamins A, C, and K. The chiles also contain several disease-fighting phytochemicals such as beta carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin. Phytonutrients are important for vision and eye health, immune system support, and they work to scavenge free radicals that contribute to aging and the progression of certain chronic diseases. 

Roasted Chile Recipes

Add these flavorful roasted chiles to your own recipes by experimenting with different dishes like; breakfast scrambles, enchiladas, Spanish rice, bean soup, guacamole, or even cilantro lime and chile vinaigrette. The possibilities are endless! 

Harmons also offers some delicious, in-store chile options. Our produce department will be making  fire roasted chile hummus and fire roasted chile pineapple salsa- both Dietitians Choice! Our specialty cheese department is bringing in Beehive red butte hatch chile cheese, and our bakery department is featuring a hatch chile cheese bread all month long. Our kitchens are making delicious chile verde, or try our new corn and veggie tamale for a flavorful plant-based option.

Harmons has developed several savory recipes that incorporate roasted chiles. Check out some of the following–they won’t disappoint!  

Sweet Potato and Bean Stuffed Poblano Chiles​

Chilaquiles Verdes

Chile Rellenos​

Pork Chile Verde​