If you're counting macros or simply trying to up your protein intake to build muscle, you know the importance of eating the right amount of protein every day. A food trend hitting shelves at health stores that might help you do that is high-protein spreads, aka glorified nut butter/frosting hybrids that taste like heaven on a spoon.
Compared to most nut butters, which average 6 to 8 grams of protein per serving, protein spreads may have up to 14 grams or so per serving, thanks to added ingredients such as whey protein. They're high in fat, too—mostly the heart-healthy kind (and if you're following keto, the more fat, the better).
Enticing flavors and an irresistible drippy texture practically made for Instagram add to the appeal of protein spreads. The brand Nuts 'n More has mouthwatering flavors such as apple crisp, banana nut, cookie dough, and spiced pumpkin pie, while a company called Buff Bake sells lip-smacking varieties like snickerdoodle, cinnamon roll, and rocky road. Grenade Carb Killa's Hazel Nutter spread is a dead ringer for that oh-so-addicting chocolate spread by another name.
Protein spreads are enough to have you craving dessert at any time of day—smearing them on pancakes, fruit, oatmeal, toast, or anything else you can think of—but are these high-protein spreads really part of a healthy diet? The answer: It depends on the ingredient list.
"It's important to realize that not all high-protein spreads are created equally," says Jessica Tosto, M.S., R.D., a clinical coordinator in the MS Nutrition and Dietetics Program at Pace University. Tosto points out that some spreads promoted as low-calorie may have lots of artificial sweeteners and fillers, while other spreads may be higher in calories and have more added sugar.
Consider comparing a protein spread's label to that of a standard nut butter, like almond butter, which often contains just one ingredient: almonds. "The protein content is not as high, and you may get more calories from almond butter than some of the lower-calorie, high-protein spreads, but you are also getting additional benefits of consuming these healthful nuts, with none of the extra sugars or artificial additives in more processed spreads," says Tosto. (Related: 5 High-Protein Nut and Seed Butter Packs You Can Fit In Your Pocket)
A general rule of thumb for spreads (or any packaged food, for that matter) is the fewer ingredients, the better. Another thing to keep in mind is if a spread has an added protein source, as most of them do, the type of protein matters. Staci Gulbin, M.S., R.D., a Denver-based registered dietitian, recommends looking for a high-protein spread that uses a whey protein isolate versus a whey protein concentrate.
"The whey protein isolate is lower in lactose, and, in turn, easier to digest for most people—especially those with lactose intolerance or irritable bowel syndrome," says Gulbin.
You also want to watch out for the sugar content, which can easily counteract any benefits you might reap from the higher protein. Gulbin advises avoiding sugar alcohols, too, which are known to cause uncomfortable digestive symptoms in some people.
Don't forget about portion size, either. Just like with nut butters, calorie counts can easily get out of control with a few unmeasured dips into the jar. If you're making a reasonable snack of two rice cakes topped with protein spread and berries, for example, use a food scale to ensure you're staying within a 1- or 2-tablespoon serving.
If you're careful with ingredients, sugar, and portion size, spreads can be part of a healthy diet for the average active person, says Sarah Ryan, M.S., R.D.N., director of Texas Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics–Southeast Region. Protein spreads often contain heart-healthy fats and fiber, which are great for when you need a snack that isn't going to leave you hungry an hour later, she adds.
But here's the thing: As tasty and functional as these protein spreads may be, they shouldn't be a replacement for protein-rich whole foods. (Related: 10 Whole Foods That Are Better for Workout Recovery Than Supplements)
"If a food has 'cookie dough,' 'frosting,' or 'brownie' in the name or on the label, it's not a health food, even if you buy it at a health-food store," says Kristin Koskinen, R.D.N., a registered dietitian in Kennewick, WA.
Most Americans already get enough protein in their diet, says Koskinen, so supplementing with more protein isn't always better, as it can lead to weight gain or even kidney problems. A better option for a DIY protein spread, she says, is mashing a pasture-raised cooked egg with a bit of ripe avocado. (Yes! Another excuse to eat avocado toast for every meal.)
That said, if you're already eating healthfully, and you want to satisfy your sweet tooth with a few extra benefits, here are three delicious (and decently nutritious) protein spreads to try:
Nuts 'n More High Protein Peanut Spread In Salted Caramel (nuts-n-more.com; $13)
188 calories, 12g fat, 5g net carbs, 12g protein, 1g sugar (2-tablespoon serving)
P28 High Protein Spread In Apple Crisp (amazon.com; $14)
200 calories, 16g fat, 6g net carbs, 14g protein, 3g sugar (2-tablespoon serving)
Wild Friends Collagen Nut Butter (wildfriendsfoods.com; $31)
170 calories, 14g fat, 4g net carbs, 9g protein, 2g sugar (2-tablespoon serving)