Whether you’re a frequent gym-goer or just trying to improve your diet, a great protein powder can leave you looking good and feeling better with minimal effort involved. Protein is a necessary part of the human diet and most commonly found in fish or meat dishes, though it’s also a primary part of some nuts and legumes. Protein helps us gain healthy muscle, can bolster our metabolism, and strengthen the immune system. While one should get protein naturally through specific dietary decisions, many people have turned to powders and supplements to get a little extra protein when their diet isn’t cutting it. These proteins are especially suitable for established athletes or people who work out frequently, but many can benefit. Maybe you’ve just decided to start a new training program; you’re working up to a marathon or increasing the amount of strength training or cardio. If so, a protein powder can help you stay on track and feel good while doing so. If you have recently decided to go vegan, but you’re having a little bit of trouble getting enough protein in your diet, several powders might be right for you. Recovering from an injury can also be a great time to try getting a little extra protein into your diet to speed up muscle recovery.
So whether you’re looking for a boost when bulking or just a way to stay a little healthier, the best protein powder can be a great place to start. There are many options out there, so we’ve put together a short guide to help you find the best protein powder for your lifestyle.
- Best protein powder for beginners: Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Whey Protein Powder
- Best casein protein powder: Kaged Muscle Kasein Protein Powder
- Best vegan protein powder: Garden of Life Raw Organic Protein
- Best hydrolyzed protein powder: Dymatize ISO100 Hydrolyzed Whey Protein Powder
- Best flavored protein powder: KOS Chocolate Peanut Butter Plant-Based Protein Powder
- Best budget protein powder: Muscle Milk
Things to consider when shopping for the best protein powder
There are a few things to keep in mind before trying out a new protein powder. First things first, what are your goals when it comes to supplementary protein? Do you know how much protein you need in a day? Next, think about what kind of protein your body needs (especially if you’re vegan, since many protein powders contain animal or dairy products); the type of processing method used to create your selected protein; and finally, what flavor profile you’re after. There are many different proteins available, so we have created a guide to help you choose the one that’s right for you.
What are your overall goals with a protein supplement?
There are so many reasons you might be considering a protein supplement, and those specific goals will help determine what kind of protein you’ll want to try. If you’re looking for something to help with weight loss alongside a healthy diet and exercise, pay close attention to the ratio of protein to calories. You want something higher in protein and lower in calories, carbs, and fats because your diet should already provide those nutrients. Think about a powder that you can mix with water or include with your regular meals instead of filling single shakes. If you’re an athlete and need some extra protein to assist with recovery, look for a powder with a 2:1 or 3:1 carb-to-protein ratio. If you are hoping to gain weight, or you have a youngster who needs help gaining weight, look for a powder that is high in carbs and fat, especially if you aren’t getting a ton of nutrients from whole foods and typical meals. Take a look at available protein shakes, or make your own by including vegetables and healthy fats. Think about including unsweetened milk, nuts, and leafy greens like spinach or kale. You can also add in some fruit, like half a banana, but keep in mind that fruits can also be high in sugars. If you are using protein shakes as a meal supplement, many doctors recommend looking for one with at least 20 grams of protein. Most importantly, keep in mind that, no matter your goal, protein powders are meant to be supplementary and not your body’s primary source of protein. Think carefully about how you will incorporate a powder into your daily meals.
Which protein source is best for you?
One of the most important things to consider when it comes to protein powder is the protein source, or where the protein comes from. One of the most popular sources is whey. Whey is the watery part of milk that separates during the cheese-making process. The liquidy residue at the top of your yogurt cup is an excellent example of whey. It typically includes an array of amino acids called branch-chained amino acids (BCAAs) and other nutrients. Whey proteins are super well-researched and found in many post-workout shakes and powders. They are a good protein for muscle building and workout recovery. It should be noted that whey doesn’t taste very good on its own, so flavoring is often added to increase its palatability. Whey can be derived using various processing methods, which we will discuss later in this guide.
Another popular protein type is casein. Casein also comes from milk and is created during the cheese-making process. When enzymes are added to heated milk, they cause existing caseins to coagulate and separate from the liquid substance or whey. Remember Little Miss Muffet, who sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey? Those curds are casein in solid form. These solids can be washed and dried to create casein protein powders. Casein digests significantly slower than whey protein, making it suitable to take before sleep or other fasting incidents. Casein is an excellent way to get extra protein and boost your immune system; it’s also a good way to inspire growth and speed up your metabolism.
Then there are blends of casein and whey, usually listed as “milk protein concentrate.” These blends deliver a fast and slow-digesting protein. They can be cost-effective and are useful for those who want to increase their protein intake without getting too specific when it comes to digestion rate. Finally, for those who are lactose intolerant or merely avoiding milk, you might also consider other animal product alternatives like egg white protein or bone broth powder. There is also collagen powder derived from fish or cowhide, which can increase skin, joint, bone, and gut health. Oh, and don’t worry—we’ve got vegan alternatives coming up soon.
What about vegan protein powder?
There are many vegan options out there for those of you who want to stay away from animal products or byproducts. Soy protein is super popular. It is a “complete” protein, which means it contains all nine essential amino acids. It’s very similar to whey in terms of its compound makeup and overall effectiveness. A soy protein powder will be good for building muscle and lean body mass. However, soy has been the topic of much debate when it comes to hormonal side effects (though these claims seem to have been refuted with recent studies). That being said, we encourage you to do a little of your own research and make an informed decision about if soy is right for you.
Many other vegan protein powders are incomplete, meaning they lack one or more of the nine amino acids found in complete proteins. Incomplete proteins don’t need to be avoided, however, especially if you maintain a robust, healthy diet. Remember, these powders are meant to supplement, not replace all the protein in your meals. Pea protein powders are hypoallergenic and easily digestible. They are rich in glutamine, lysine, and arginine, though low in EAA methionine. You might also consider a rice protein or hemp protein-based powder. Though incomplete, hemp is high in fiber and an excellent way to get healthy omega-3s into your system. Perhaps the most common types of vegan protein powders are blends. Similar to the labeling of casein and whey blends, these are often simply listed as “plant protein.” A blend can create a more enhanced amino acid profile, but make sure you check the grams of protein per scoop. Some blends may be lower in protein than other plant-based options.
How is your protein processed?
Protein powders are created using a variety of different methods that yield different makeups. The processing method of a powder can sometimes be veiled when it comes to online product descriptions, but we want you to know the wording to look for and what it all means. There are three primary forms protein powders can come in: concentrates, isolates, and hydrolysates. Concentrates are extracted from plants or animal products using enzymes and high heat. They are the least processed form of protein, which means they can have a very high pure protein percentage (35 to 80 percent protein by weight).However, less processing does mean more fat and carbohydrates.
Isolates go through an additional filtration step after being extracted. This creates roughly 90 percent of protein by weight, meaning fewer carbs and fats. They are typically quick to digest and can improve fat loss, recovery, and muscle growth. Isolates are generally more expensive than concentrates.
Hydrolyzed proteins are often labeled as hydrolyzed protein isolates, which just means the isolates have gone through those extra steps. Hydrolysates are highly processed and involve further efforts to break apart the proteins into smaller peptide chains removing fats, carbohydrates, and other protein non-essentials. This means they are theoretically easier to digest and absorb, making them great for recovery and sensitive stomachs. This processing level can even remove lactose in the protein, which means they can be the right solution for lactose-sensitive protein seekers who aren’t as interested in vegan or dairy-free options. Hydrolysates can also reach up to 90% protein by weight and are considered very useful for building lean muscle. However, hydrolysates have a particularly bitter taste that requires more sugars or flavor to mask, which can, in turn, tamper the health benefits. We recommend trying a sample first to make sure you can handle the taste without adding too much. One final fact to keep in mind: the more a protein powder has been processed, the more expensive the protein powder will be.
Think about the flavor of your nutritional supplements
We have to be honest with you—plain protein powder, though healthy, does not taste very good. Even nutritional supplements that profess to be tasteless can still be an uncomfortable experience for your taste buds. This is why many powders come flavored. Luckily, there are many options for healthy flavoring, including strawberry, snickerdoodle, cookies and cream, caramel, birthday cake, and more. Flavored protein powders are incredibly convenient because you don’t have to do very much to mask the taste. Simply combine a flavored powder with water or milk, and you might be good to go. The options are practically endless; however, before you reach for the chocolatiest of protein powders, think about your overall goals. Make sure the flavored powder you’re looking at isn’t adding a ton of extra artificial flavoring or calories just to make it taste like vanilla. It isn’t worth losing the added benefits of protein powder to synthetic ingredients. If you have a little more time and energy, plan out some delicious, healthy smoothie or shake recipes to mask that powdery taste and deliver maximum nutrition. You’ll still need to think carefully about what you are adding to maintain the protein powder’s effects and see results when it comes to your goals. A smoothie composed entirely of fruit isn’t going to pair well with the amino acids in your powder if weight loss is the goal. Though the additional protein will still be delivered to your system, so will a ton of extra calories and sugars. We suggest hitting up the internet to find some smoothie options that will work for you and your protein powder. In the meantime, check out our favorite flavored protein powder for those early mornings or late nights when smoothie making just isn’t an option.
Best protein powder for beginners: Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Whey Protein Powder
Perhaps the most common reason people start incorporating protein powder into their routines is to gain muscle or recover after a workout. This whey protein powder from Optimum Nutrition is made from a combination of whey isolates, concentrates, and peptides to deliver the best of the best when it comes to building lean muscles. There are 24 grams of protein, 3-4 carbs, and 5.5 grams of BCAAs in each serving. Simply mix the powder with cold water or milk, shake for about 30 seconds, and drink up before or after a workout.
Best casein protein powder: Kaged Muscle Kasein Protein Powder
We listed one of our favorite whey proteins above, so we’ll take this opportunity to recommend our favorite casein powder. Kaged Muscle’s “Kasein” is made from 100% micellar casein isolate with 25 grams of protein and 4.75 grams of BCAAs per serving. It’s manufactured using a state-of-the-art microfiltration process designed to preserve the protein’s structural integrity and is designed to protect and build muscle as you sleep for enhanced recovery. It’s best to consume this powder in a shake before hitting the sack, but you can also use this protein in your baking or mixed with a drop or two of milk to create more of a pudding-like “dessert.”
Best vegan protein powder: Garden of Life Raw Organic Protein
This vegan protein powder from Garden of Life is an excellent option for those who are avoiding animal byproducts in their diet. A combination of pea and brown rice proteins, plus grains like buckwheat and quinoa, this powder has 22 grams of protein, 4 grams of BCAAs, and 2 grams of carbohydrates per serving. There are zero added sugars and only 110 calories per serving. This is a great powder for muscle recovery and overall nutrition. Garden of Life makes various vegan protein options, so we encourage you to check them to find the right supplement for your needs.
Best hydrolyzed protein powder: Dymatize ISO100 Hydrolyzed Whey Protein Powder
The ISO100 protein powder from Dymatize is made from 100% hydrolyzed whey protein isolates. It contains 25 grams of protein, 5.5 grams of BCAAs, 2.7 grams of Leucine, and less than 1 gram of fat and sugar per serving. Easily digestible and fast-absorbing, this powder is particularly well suited for weight loss or athletes with sensitive stomachs. It comes in various flavors and sizes, plus you can consume it at any time of day.
Best flavored protein powder: KOS Chocolate Peanut Butter Plant-Based Protein Powder
KOS has some of the best tasting organic, plant-based protein powders out there. Flavors include classics like vanilla, chocolate, and chocolate chip mint or chocolate peanut butter (our favorite). This complete protein powder is made from pea, flaxseed, quinoa, pumpkin seed, and chia seed proteins and flavored with ingredients like cacao, coconut milk, and monk fruit. Each serving has 20 grams of protein with the inclusion of a helpful digestive enzyme. You can use this powder in shakes or consider it a substitute for flour the next time you want to bake a sweet treat, like cookies. KOS has various other dietary supplements and enhancements in ridiculously fun flavors, so check those out too.
Best protein powder brands to know
There are tons of companies out there who produce great protein powders, but we would encourage you to get to know a few of our favorites. These brands are dedicated to making healthy protein supplements with your overall health in mind.
Optimum Nutrition is an Irish owned company with Illinois roots that focuses on whey-based protein supplements to support sports nutrition. The company requires a certificate of analysis for every ingredient that enters their manufacturing facilities, and each product goes through rigorous testing and quality control assessment. In addition to protein, Optimum Nutrition also produces vitamins, energy powders, and weight gain shakes.
Garden of Life
Garden of Life was founded in 2000 and created to encourage the inclusion of healthy, clean foods into the world of supplements, vitamins, protein powders, and more. Its products are certified USDA organic, non-GMO project verified, NSF certified for sport, and the organization is a certified B-corp. The company is also dedicated to the exclusion of synthetic chemicals.
KOS is relatively new to the scene. It launched in 2018 with a mission to offer boutique plant-based energy products that advance nutrition and “feed the world.” While the company isn’t saying everyone needs to go vegan right this minute, it aims to create plant-based products like protein powders or daily nutritional and specialty supplements to improve individuals’ health across the globe.
Best budget protein powder: What you get for under $30
Thankfully, there are a ton of budget-friendly protein powders to choose from today. While most of them are concentrates, be on the look-out for specials, deals, and sales to get an isolate or hydrolyzed protein for under $30. Similarly, it can be challenging to find bone broth or collagen options at this price point. While these powders may not include any unique ingredients or add-ons, they’ll do the trick when it comes to supplementary proteins. Check out the powders from Muscle Milk, Orgain, and Quest to get you started. Once you know what works for you, consider saving up and trying something new or higher end.
The final say on the best protein powders
You should now feel equipped to start your protein powder journey. Always keep your goals in mind and make sure you find the protein source that best fits your dietary needs. Feel free to experiment with everything else. Make sure you remember that these powders are additional, and they will only be effective when paired with whole foods and a healthy diet. So get on your way to muscle gains and more with a combo of the best protein powder products!