Rice cakes & protein powder

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARice cakes are basically cakes of pressed puffed rice.  The plain ones have a rather bland flavor and a major health halo.  Brown rice.  Healthy.  Are they?

On an ounce for ounce calorie basis, plain rice cakes have less fat and calories than Triscuits, for example.  But most people don’t eat by the ounce; they eat by the piece.  3 plain Quaker rice cakes weigh about 1 ounce and have about 105 calories, 15 fewer calories than one ounce (6 crackers) of Triscuits.  But 3 plain Lundberg Organic Brown Rice cakes have 180 calories.  Why so many?  The Lundberg rice cakes weigh more than twice what the Quaker rice cakes weigh.  Less air, more rice.  The rice equivalent would be about 5 TB of cooked brown rice.

Plain rice cakes aren’t so much about nutrients as about calories.  They’re full of air, and bigger than typical crackers, so you may end up eating fewer of them.  And they’re great for spreading stuff on: nut butter, hummus, fruit preserves, tuna salad.  Or you can use them as a (sort of) bagel substitute: spread with plain Greek yogurt and top with smoked salmon.

The problem comes with flavored sugar-sweetened rice cakes.  Some of the sweetened Quaker varieties have almost twice the calories of the plain ones, while the calories in Lundberg flavored rice cakes are very similar to the plain ones.  Another problem with the sweetened varieties: you might have a harder time controlling how many you eat, if you have a weakness for sweet tastes.  Yes you can over-indulge on rice cakes.

Protein Powder is hot.  Everyone seems to think they need more protein, and protein powder manufacturers push their products with a sporty, athletic, weight loss image.  Use our powder and you too will have instant 6-pack abs.  Right.

Here’s another reason protein powders are so heavily marketed: it’s a great way for food processors to use up by products of other manufacturing processes.  Whey is a by product of cheese manufacture.  We’re eating a lot of cheese these days.  What to do with all that whey left over?  Turn is into super-healthy-sounding protein powder.  Soy is another source.  Fish powder has even been proposed recently.  Mmmmm, fish smoothies.

The main problem with protein powders is that they’re silly.  Western diets are already heavy on protein.  Protein deficiency is rare, mostly limited to the elderly or people with serious debilitating illness.  Excess protein doesn’t build muscle or improve weight or fitness.  If you eat more than you need, the excess protein is turned to glucose.  From there it’s either burned for energy or turned into fat for storage.  A terrible waste of an environmentally expensive resource.

Now it turns out some protein powders aren’t even what they say they are.  ConsumerLab (subscription required) recently tested a number of protein powder products for quality and found several of them contained significantly less protein than claimed and more sugar.  Which brings up another problem with protein powders: the plain protein itself tastes pretty disagreeable, so it has to be doctored up with sweeteners and flavorings.

If you want more protein, there are plenty of high quality high protein foods available: milk, cheese, yogurt, meat, poultry, eggs, fish, nuts, soy products, legumes.  And in most cases, you’ll be paying less per gram of protein when you eat real food.

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