Find a protein shake that meets USDA standards in both letter and spirit.
by Lisa James
Organic food continues to gain in popularity. According to the Nutrition Business Journal, sales grew by approximately $16 billion between 2004 and 2012. Much of that growth was accounted for by the fresh produce that has long been a staple of the organic pantry.
Other foods have undergone organic makeovers, though, including the protein shakes many people rely on for fast nutrition. And as with other organic foods, the USDA Organic seal on a shake container remains the gold standard among producers and consumers alike. But despite the agency’s detailed requirements for a seal to be issued, it is possible for products to obtain that coveted status through means that don’t quite embody the true organic spirit.
Consumers value organic food for many reasons. For one thing, the Organic Consumer Association (OCA) calls organic foods “nutritionally dense,” stating, “Studies show that organic foods contain more vitamins, cancer-fighting antioxidants and important trace minerals.” In one such study, organically grown crops had 6% more vitamin C than those grown conventionally (Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences 1-2/11). What’s more, the same phytonutrients that give organic plants their superior nutrition also help foster a deeper, richer flavor.
Among the most obvious reasons to go organic is a desire to avoid the herbicides and pesticides used in standard agriculture. In addition to concerns about consuming chemical residues on produce, many people are troubled by the effects these substances have on the environment, including contamination of waterways from farm runoff.
Many also want to avoid genetically modified organisms (GMOs), crops that have their genetic material altered to, say, allow them to resist the effects of herbicides. The OCA says, “Consumers worry about untested and unlabeled genetically modified food ingredients in common supermarket items.” The group adds that GMOs are found in “75% of all non-organic US processed foods, even in many products labeled or advertised as “natural.”
Therein lies the rub. Some shakes get their nutrients from engineered yeast that technically qualifies as “organic.” These yeast-based nutrients provide little, if any, antioxidant value.
Creative Protein Blends
It is possible to make a genuinely organic (and vegan) protein shake if high-quality plant proteins are used. For example, quinoa is a high-protein seed from South America that also provides healthful fats, fiber, folate and minerals such as manganese and copper. Scientists have found a number of anti-inflammatory components in quinoa and animals fed with it on a daily basis have shown a decreased risk of inflammation-related disorders.
Quinoa works well with proteins taken from other plant sources. Brown rice contains significant amounts of protein in the layers removed to create white rice; that protein is freed up when the rice is sprouted. Flax seeds provide protein plus alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fat, along with fiber-related substances called lignans that promote better hormone balance in women. Two types of microscopic creatures, spirulina and chlorella, supply not only protein but also vitamins and minerals.
Mushrooms, which have been used medicinally for centuries, help boost a shake’s health value while providing protein of their own. For example, the oyster mushroom has a natural ability to lower cholesterol, while its king oyster cousin supplies antioxidants.
Looking for a good organic shake? Make sure the word “organic” means what you think it means.