Not all protein powder is created equal. Learn how to find what’s right for you.
Walk into any supplement shop or grocery aisle and you’ll find dozens and dozens of protein powder options in any flavor you can imagine. So how do you choose? What is the best protein powder? It’s a common question, but like most aspects of nutrition, the answer is complicated. Read on to learn more about some popular protein powder sources and what to look for on the label when you’re buying protein powder.
The Benefits of Protein Powder
It’s best to get most of your macronutrients from a variety of whole foods such as legumes, lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts, vegetables, and whole grains. If you’re strength training consistently or very active, though, you may want to supplement what you eat with some additional protein. Research suggests you should aim for around 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, and that can be difficult to get from food alone—particularly when life gets busy.
“Athletes need more protein than people living a sedentary lifestyle in order to repair damaged muscle tissue after strenuous exercise,” says registered dietitian and certified strength coach Ryan Maciel. A protein shake or simply adding a scoop of powder to your usual oatmeal, yogurt, or stew are quick, easy ways to help your body recover.
How to Choose the Right Type of Protein Powder for You
There are a range of factors to consider when choosing a protein supplement, from activity level and frequency to age and food sensitivities. It’s also important to choose a protein powder that you enjoy so you’ll actually consume it, advises Ryan D. Andrews, a registered dietitian, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and principal nutritionist at Precision Nutrition.
Protein is derived from a variety of sources, including both animal- and plant-based options such as cow and goat milk, peas, hemp seeds, rice, soybeans, and so forth, says Andrews.
Animal-based protein sources provide complete protein (meaning they supply all nine of the essential amino acids your body needs to get from food). Many individual plant sources may not supply complete protein or have a low quantity of some essential amino acids. That’s why you’ll often see a blend of plant-based protein sources, such as pea protein and rice protein, in order to deliver a complementary amino acid profile.
Types of Protein Powder
With so many protein sources, it can be difficult to decipher ingredients and know what’s right for you. Here’s a quick cheat sheet to walk you through some of the pros and cons of a few common protein sources.
Whey: Whey is the liquid part of milk and is a protein-rich byproduct of cheesemaking. It’s a complete protein that is quickly digested, which makes it a great pre- or post- workout option so your body can use it to build and repair muscle right away. Typically, you’ll find the following types of whey in your protein powder: whey concentrate, whey isolate, and whey hydrolysate. Whey isolate and whey hydrolysate are the easiest to digest and contain less lactose, so they may still work for people with lactose intolerance. Goat whey may be another alternative, as goat milk contains less lactose than cow’s milk and may be easier to digest. For some, any form of dairy causes gas, bloating or inflammation, so they’ll need to choose alternate options.
Casein: Casein, like whey, is also derived from milk and is the byproduct of cheesemaking. It’s the curd that’s left when the liquid whey is removed, and what gives milk its white color. Casein is also a complete protein, but it digests slowly, which means it will help you stay fuller, longer. It’s a good option to have alongside breakfast or dinner, or if you’re turning your protein shake into a meal, and it’s also great to have before bedtime, helping your muscles repair while you sleep.
Egg white: Egg white protein powder comes from dehydrated and ground egg whites. Egg whites are a complete protein, and high in leucine, the amino acid that’s critical for muscle repair. Unless you have an allergy, they are easily digested. There are several brands that offer egg white protein powder with few or no additives. Because there is no fat, this protein powder can leave you feeling unsatiated if taken on its own; it’s great for recovery, but may not be filling as a snack.
Soy: Soy protein isolate comes from soybeans that are dried and defatted. While populations around the world have enjoyed soy as part of their regular diet, it’s become a somewhat controversial food due to inconclusive studies on its impact on hormone levels. In terms of protein, it is a source of complete protein, but compared to whey, it contains a lower quantity of essential amino acids per gram—which means you may need to consume more soy protein than whey protein to have the same effect. One recent study concluded that soy helped beginning strength trainers increase lean body mass and strength at the same rate as whey protein when the soy protein dosage was slightly increased.
Pea: Pea protein is made from dried, ground yellow peas. Peas are a complete protein, though they are low in methionine, one of the nine essential amino acids. If you’re consuming a variety of protein sources in your diet, though, or using a blend with other protein types, this shouldn’t be an issue. One study found that there was no significant difference between how pea protein and whey protein impacted participants’ strength, body composition, and muscle thickness, and another study found that pea protein greatly impacted muscle thickness among strength trainers. It’s a great option for people who may be allergic to dairy or soy, or practice a plant-based lifestyle.
As for other animal-based protein powders such as collagen, bone broth, and beef, Maciel says they “may be beneficial, but they haven’t been well-studied for use as a protein supplement. In addition, they tend to be expensive and are incomplete protein sources.”
What to look for on the protein powder label
In addition to the protein source, there are a few other things to look for on the label to determine whether the protein powder you’re looking to buy is high quality or not. Here’s what to consider:
Verify the quality
Because protein powders are a supplement, they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Be wary of wild claims and look for brands that are third-party tested.
Use a brand that has a USP, Informed Choice, or NSF stamp of approval—all signs of quality control. “You also want to make sure the brand has records of testing for contaminants, as some protein powders contain heavy metals and/or pesticide residues,” Andrews says.
You can also look up a brand you are considering on third-party testing sites such as Consumer Lab and LabDoor, not only for potentially harmful additives, but for actual protein content when every gram counts. You may be surprised how many brands underdeliver.
“Third-party testing helps ensure that what’s on the ingredient label matches what’s in the supplement,” Maciel explains.
Make sure the first ingredient listed is a protein source, since ingredients are listed from most abundant to least.
Keep it simple
Both Andrews and Maciel advocate for simplicity when it comes to selecting protein powders. If the ingredient list is as long as a drugstore receipt, back away. Try to avoid protein powders that contain a lot of additives and artificial flavors. Also, keep a lookout for stimulants like caffeine, taurine, and guarana, which you may want to avoid if you’re going to consume it later in the day.
Many protein powders include additional supplements like creatine and probiotics, but Maciel suggests taking those separately, so you can find the best quality for those supplements and customize the dosage to your needs.
“We don’t know how well they will work when formulated along with protein powder,” he says.
Go low on sugar
If you’re drinking protein shakes to support your gains, you don’t want to overdo it on added sugar. Make sure to check out how many grams of sugar are in each serving, and look for options under five grams. Consider an unflavored or lightly flavored option that you can sweeten to taste by blending with fruit.
While there isn’t a simple answer to “what’s the best protein powder for you,” know that all protein powder is not created equal. Read labels carefully, think about your protein intake holistically, and be open to trying a few options to find what works best for you.
Some manufacturers offer samples or single-serving packets you can pick up at your local supplement shop. Try some out with different protein sources to see how your body reacts before investing in a large tub of protein powder.
Vidya Rao contributed to this story.