Choosing the best protein powder for your specific needs can be confusing, no matter whether you’re a first time user or a shake-chugging veteran. With new products coming on the market all the time, each making grand claims, it can be tricky to know which product is right for you. In this article we help you see past the puff and find the best protein powder for you.
What the experts say
“Most people are able to meet their protein needs through whole foods,” Julie Stefanski told Live Science. “Athletes who have high calorie needs appreciate the ability to get additional protein in a small amount of food. After an injury or an illness dietitians often recommend protein powders for people with poor appetites or high protein needs for healing.”
The average adult needs 0.75g of protein per kg of body weight, rising to 1 to 1.2g for the over 65s and 1.2-2g in the very physically active.
Julie Stefanski RDN, CSSD, registered dietitian and certified sports dietitian, told Live Science that although you should be able to meet all your protein needs without supplements, some people may find that from time to time it’s useful to boost their protein intake with protein powder.
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Most protein powders pack a hefty 20g or more of protein, so a good protein powder can help you over the line. However, which is the best protein powder for you? Are some better than others and is it simply a case of ‘you get what you pay for’?
Best protein powder
MyProtein Impact Whey Protein
If it’s just a solid, reliable, no-frills product you’re after, this could be the best protein powder for you.
WHAT USERS SAY
This protein powder scores 4.2 stars out of 5 on Amazon, with enthusiasts praising it for its value, range of flavors and ease of mixing, and many feeling reassured by its ranking in independent tests, “I like this brand because you know what you’re getting, based off independent lab testing”. The main criticisms revolve around taste, particularly in the more unusual flavors which some find too sweet.
MyProtein prides itself on providing an all-round, value-for-money product. It is ranked Grade A by independent tester Labdoor for both quality and value.
The protein comes from whey concentrate, which some people find causes bloating. There are few ingredients, although some of the flavor options include artificial flavors. It comes in more than 40 flavors and a range of sizes. If you’re bewildered by the choice, consider buying the sample pack which contains up to eight flavors to try before you commit to a larger size.
Bulk Natural Pure Whey Isolate
Made with just whey isolate, with no whey concentrate, and sweetened only with stevia, which is a natural substance made from the leaves of the stevia plant, this is the best protein powder for anyone who suffers from a sensitive stomach.
WHAT USERS SAY
It scores 4.5 stars on Amazon, with reviewers commenting favorably on the natural ingredients and the fact that it doesn’t leave them bloated. The negative reviews mostly relate to the flavor. “The stevia is so strong it leaves a nasty tangy aftertaste”, complains one. If you don’t mind the taste of stevia, you may love it, though.
A reassuringly modest list of ingredients means you can be sure what’s in the powder. It’s low in carbs and pretty modest on calories, too, for the amount of protein per serving.
The downside is that stevia can be rather overpowering, and this powder scores less well than some of the best protein powders for flavor. The taste is somewhat thin and it’s very sweet. There are only two available flavors – strawberry and chocolate.
Gold Standard Whey Protein
Many protein powders come complete with a range of flavors – some more palatable than others.
WHAT USERS SAY
The main objection to this product among reviewers (and there aren’t many who give it a low rating – it scores a solid 4.6 on 5 on Amazon) relates to price, and especially to recent price rises in the product. “I think it’s a quality product overpriced”, says one. Unless you have a great recycling service, you may find that you can’t recycle the black tub, either.
However, if you want the flexibility to add your own flavors, or you dislike the sweeteners found in flavored whey products, this is a great choice. It’s not entirely flavor-free, but the taste is neutral enough (a mild, milky taste) that it won’t come strongly through your own flavors.
In common with most protein powders, it has added soy lecithin as an emulsifier, which is the only added ingredient beyond the whey products (which are a mixture of whey isolate, hydrolyzed whey isolate and whey concentrate). It mixes well, without too many lumps.
BSN True Mass 1200
If gains are your goal, this will most definitely be the best protein powder for you.
WHAT USERS SAY
Although in Amazon reviews it scores a healthy 4.5 on 5, there are some complaints of sore stomachs and bloating, and a few gripes about the flavor (although we found it pretty palatable). The main complaint is that it doesn’t mix easily – most reviewers recommend using a blender to mix it. The majority of reviewers are just delighted by their weight gains. “It gives me a noticeable boost in strength and size”.
With a whopping 1,271 calories and 53g of protein per serving, not to mention 216g of carbohydrate (partly coming from ground oats), this is a protein powder for anyone who is serious about gaining mass. Dieters beware! Unlike BSN’s other mass gainer, it doesn’t contain creatine, so you can control whether or not you want that in your diet plan.
It is true that part of the reason for the huge number of calories and mighty helping of protein is down to the serving size, which is large (two big scoops). Even allowing for this, though, it still makes for good value for money.
Orgain Organic Protein
Some protein powders can contain processed ingredients that you might not recognize.
WHAT USERS SAY
This protein powder scores an overall rating of 4.6 stars. Enthusiasts praise it for its taste and texture and find it easy to digest. “I have tried a LOT of different plant-based protein powders and this one wins, hands-down”, reports one happy customer. Not everyone likes the flavors and the distinctive sweetness and aftertaste of stevia divide opinion. There are a handful of reports of stomach pains and even, alarmingly, of bugs found in the tub, though these are a tiny minority of reviews.
However, if you’re keen on finding a protein powder filled with natural ingredients, the Orgain Organic Protein Powder might just be the one for you.
Founded by a cancer survivor and integrative specialist who wanted to create a product with natural, food-based ingredients, Orgain makes products with ingredients that, whilst perhaps not exactly familiar, are at least recognizable foodstuffs, and the powder is certified organic and non-GMO.
Be aware that the calorie count is 150 per serving which is a little higher than most non-mass-gainer powders and the carbohydrate count is 15g, so it’s not low carb. It contains sea salt so if you’re trying to keep your sodium levels down this may not be for you.
Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides
Beloved of celebs such as Jennifer Aniston, this is principally a food supplement aimed at boosting collagen.
WHAT USERS SAY
Fans of the product (78% of Amazon reviewers give it five stars) rave about its positive effect on their hair, nails and skin. “Vital Proteins has been a night and day difference”, says one. There are a few less satisfied customers who claim to have suffered adverse effects such as skin break-outs and low moods, but these are very much in the minority.
It has the added bonus of providing a decent 18g of protein without any carbohydrates, though, so with only 70 calories per serving, it’s a useful way of adding some easy protein into your diet without acting as a meal in itself. Many users stir it into coffee or other drinks or smoothies.
Unusually for a protein powder, it’s a bovine collagen product, made from cow hides from grass-fed cattle, so obviously isn’t suitable for vegetarians. It is unflavored and really does taste of very little indeed. It doesn’t mix very easily into cold liquids (it stirs easily into hot liquid), so you’ll need a whisk if you’re taking it cold.
A super-refined protein product, this is the best protein powder for anyone serious about building lean muscle.
WHAT USERS SAY
With an impressive 4.7 of 5 rating on Amazon, it’s clear that customers rate it highly. Many praise it for not causing digestive discomfort and for the quality of its ingredients. “Dymatize ISO100 Hydrolyzed protein powder means you get a super fast digesting and absorbing whey protein isolate that’s had the sugars, carbs and lactose removed from whey concentrate for nothing but pure muscle building protein.”
With the protein all coming from whey protein isolate, it’s great for anyone who struggles with whey concentrate, and it’s low in carbohydrates and calories. The inclusion of hydrolyzed whey protein isolate means you absorb the protein even more quickly.
The flavor is good without the temple-aching sweetness you get in some protein powders, and it mixes pretty easily. There’s a large variety of flavors to choose from, though it’s a pity you can’t buy it in sample sizes to try before committing to a large tub – the tub sizes are 900g or 2200g.
Anyone who competes in athletic events will know how important it is not to take any banned substances, either deliberately or inadvertently.
WHAT USERS SAY
Reviews are mostly positive, with no one star reviews on Amazon at all and a very respectable 4.7 star rating. The flavors are not to everyone’s taste and there are a few niggles over the price, but most people rate it as a reliable, straightforward choice. “I would recommend this shake to people who are looking for something simple for recovery purposes.”
With this protein powder you can be confident that you’ll not breach any doping regulations. All SiS products are tested under the Informed Choice Certification program against the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) list.
Beyond that, it’s a fairly unremarkable product, with a reasonably standard amount of protein per serving and a low carbohydrate content. The flavors are reliable favorites – chocolate, strawberry and vanilla – though we found the taste and texture of the vanilla one somewhat cloying.
Huel Protein Powder
Huel has come a long way from its early days of the rather grainy and flavorless complete food that it started with.
WHAT USERS SAY
Reviewers are impressed with the taste – “by far the best tasting protein drink I’ve tried,” says one reviewer who normally uses a whey protein powder. The main objection in the reviews is the price, especially when compared to non-plant-based protein powders. At the same time they mostly acknowledge that the nutritional profile and ingredients are of a quality that justifies the price.
Although it still produces the same meal replacement powders (although with an improved texture), it has branched out into flavored products and nutritionally balanced snacks, including this impressive protein powder.
It’s not intended as a meal replacement or for your sole source of nutrition, as it has a lower calorie and carbohydrate profile than would be recommended for a complete meal, but nevertheless it is nutritionally complete high protein snack, containing all 26 recommended vitamins and minerals and meeting the UK and EU recommendations for macro- and micronutrients. If that weren’t impressive enough, it manages to achieve this with purely plant-based ingredients and without compromising on flavor or texture.
Unusually, there’s a minimum order of two tubs, which will be off-putting to some, especially if you’re ordering for the first time and haven’t tasted the protein powder before, and the protein powder doesn’t come in sample sizes.
Form Performance Protein
There’s much to love about this protein powder.
WHAT USERS SAY
It’s not surprising it’s won awards. Reviewers are enthusiastic about the protein to calorie ratio and the flavors. It’s not to everybody’s taste – there are grumbles from some about the flavor, powdery texture and excessive sweetness – but most of the reviews can be summed up in the words of this reviewer: “The taste is great, it is a quality product with added extras like probiotics, it has responsible eco packaging and whilst it is pricier than others on the market, all of the before mentioned make this worth it.”
Packing a powerful protein punch from high quality, plant-based proteins, you might expect the flavor and texture to be disappointing, but you’d be in for a pleasant surprise. The texture is smooth, it’s easy to mix and the flavors are fun (though some plain ones might be nice for more traditional types, and it’s too sweet for some tastes). The addition of curcumin to combat inflammation is a nice touch.
It’s not cheap, but most flavors are available in smaller sample sizes, and you are getting a product that is kind to the environment in every way (the omission of the plastic scoop in favor of amounts suggested in tablespoonfuls – after all, we all have a spoon! – is particularly welcome, and the packaging is compostable).
How to choose the best protein powder for you
How do you know which is the best protein powder for you? First of all, your training goals will be an important factor. Are you looking to gain mass, lose weight or fuel a long workout? No matter whether you’ve recently picked up a rowing machine deal or an exercise bike deal, fueling your workouts correctly is crucial.
Some protein powders are specifically designed to support muscle gain, whereas others are low-carb and low-calorie – a serving can range from a meager 70kcal to more than 1,000kcal, so be sure to read the label. As Julie Stefanski says, “The macronutrient content [the amount of protein, carbohydrates and fats] depends on why you’re using the product, such as for a meal or post-workout, and your individual protein and energy needs.”
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You’ll find a range of different protein sources in the various protein powders on the market. Many are based on whey (a by-product of cheese or yogurt production), although there are plenty of vegan alternatives, including soy, pea, rice and hemp.
Stefanski explains: “Protein sources are ranked by how well they are absorbed by the intestine and utilized by the body. This ranking is known as protein digestibility. Whey protein and other cow’s milk sources rank highest. Animal protein sources such as egg, beef rank higher than plant protein sources such as soy, pea, oat, and rice. While collagen has grown in popularity, it lacks some of the amino acids you’d find in the same amount of whey protein.”
Whey protein powders may take the form of whey concentrate or whey isolate. Whey isolate is processed more than whey concentrate, which reduces the carbohydrate and fat content. According to Julie Stefanski, “They have very similar amino acid content with slightly different amounts of carbohydrate and fat.” As there is less lactose in whey isolate than in whey concentrate, some find whey isolate more digestible, and whey isolate products are often more expensive.
“If you’re looking for the best quality protein you can see if the protein powder offers a digestibility score called PDCAAS,” adds Stefanski. “The higher the value the better the amino acids will be absorbed and used by your body.”
Purity is another factor. “In recent years there has been high levels of heavy metals found in certain protein powders,” warns Stefanski, “so it’s important to research the company’s testing for these contaminants.”
If you’re going to be competing, be sure to choose a protein powder that doesn’t contain any banned substances. Check your product against the approved list on Informed Sports.
Beyond that, it’s really a matter of taste. The range of flavors in protein powders can be overwhelming and some can be somewhat sickly, so it’s worth getting sample sizes of more unusual flavors before you commit to a giant tub.
The benefits of using the best protein powder
Protein supplementation can, as Stefanski explains, be useful if you’re an athlete looking for extra protein in a small amount of food, or if you’re not active but are recovering from an injury or an illness.
There’s a lot of debate about the best time to consume protein in relation to a workout. “Despite increased debate about the exact ideal timing of protein post workout,” says Stefanski, ” research still supports the goal of high quality protein within the hour after exercise.”
It’s equally important to balance your protein intake with other nutrients. “For maximal muscle repair and growth, protein should be accompanied by carbohydrates within one to two hours,” says Stefanski. “The amount of protein and carbohydrates is dependent on overall energy needs as a person. If total calories aren’t met, amino acids will be used as an energy source rather than a building block of structures in the body.”
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