The Best and Worst Protein Powders
By Olivia Tarantino and The Editors of Eat This, Not That!
With the number of protein powders that litter the shelves of drug stores, supermarkets, and health food stores, it seems like choosing the right supplement requires just as much skill as a wine connoisseur.
Whether you're an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, a vegan or a plant-based foodie, everyone is getting in on the protein trend. And with good reason. Thanks to the high protein content of powder supplements, adding a scoop or two to your smoothies, baked goods, or shakes can aid in rapid weight loss efforts by boosting calorie burn, increasing satiety, and preserving lean muscle mass.
While feeding your muscles on the fly has never been easier, not all powders are created equal. And choosing which product is best can be a bit of a struggle. On one hand, there are animal-based supplements like eggs, whey, and casein, and the other hand is a garden of plant-based forms from pea, hemp, rice and soy. And even after you pick the source of the protein, there's still another hurdle to jump: additives. Many protein powders on the market are loaded with enough scary chemicals and artificial sweeteners to earn them a spot among the unhealthiest foods on the planet. Just because your protein is a powder doesn't mean you have to settle for one with a label that reads like a science experiment.
Because which supplement you pick will ultimately depend on your personal body goals—whether you're looking to lose weight, gain muscle, or stop late-night snacking—we created this list of examples of the best and worst protein powders to help you understand what to look out for when examining the labels. We've narrowed the expansive list of protein supplements down to some of the best animal-based and plant-based proteins on the market—as well as some of the worst. Pick your powder below (you can easily order it from the links we've included!) and then add it to any of these 56 Best Smoothie Recipes!
BEST ANIMAL-BASED PROTEIN POWDERS
First, know this: Plant protein is more slimming than milk-derived proteins. Because whey is a dairy derivative—and many commercial preparations tend to contain all manner of funky chemicals—protein powders that use this source as a base can lead to bloat and skin conditions. However, if you find you're not terribly lactose intolerant, milk proteins are some of the best sources of amino acids out there. Milk proteins such as whey and casein have the ability to preserve lean muscle mass and improve metabolic health during weight loss, according to research published in the journal Nutrition & Metabolism.
Eat This, Not That! Tip: When you're looking for the proper animal-based protein powder, look out for words like cold processed, concentrate (isolate only if you're sensitive to lactose), hormone-free, grass-fed, tested low for heavy metals, and does not contain sucralose or any artificial color, flavor or sweetener.
Protein source: Grass-fed whey protein concentrate
Protein payoff: 25 g per serving
If you want a "fast acting" protein that will stimulate protein synthesis after a workout, go with whey. While a whey protein concentrate has a lower percentage of protein than whey isolate, it contains more bioactive compounds found in the milk fat that positively influence metabolism and immunity—just make sure it's low-temperature-processed (raw or cold-processed). This method allows the protein powder to retain many of its fragile immune factors and nutrients leaving it loaded with the ideal blend of easily-absorbed amino acids, anti-inflammatory compounds, essential fats, energy-replenishing carbs, metabolism-boosting peptides, potent antioxidants, and alkaline minerals.
You'll get even more of these nutrients when your powder is made from pasture-fed cows, which have a higher concentration of inflammation-reducing omega-3 fatty acids and two to five times more CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) than their corn and grain fed counterparts. CLA provides a variety of health benefits like burning fat and maintaining lean body mass. Besides toning your body, these two sources of dietary fat will also improve absorption of key vitamins and carotenoids. Not to mention, grass fed cows are less likely to be treated with antibiotics than grain fed cows, meaning you'll have a lower risk of building up antibiotic resistance or gaining unnecessary weight.
Protein source: Micellar Casein from U.S. dairy farms
Protein payoff: 26 g per serving
If you're looking to repair and regrow muscle, take some Naked Casein Powder before bed. Casein, as opposed to whey, digests more slowly (it's the same principle as low-glycemic-index "slow carbs") and stays in the system longer to nourish muscles. This makes it a good option if you need a nighttime snack on workout days: It'll help kick-start recovery and build fat-burning muscle. This option has 26 grams of protein and zero grams of fat per serving. (If you do want to drink whey, you can do it in the PM as well: A study published in 2014 in the British Journal of Nutrition found that active men who consumed whey at night increased their next-morning metabolism.)
Protein source: Grass-fed whey protein concentrate
Protein payoff: 20 g per serving
This product is designed to boost both your fitness levels as well as your overall health. It contains a unique blend of high-quality whey protein, muscle-fueling coconut triglycerides, pre-biotic resistant starch, endurance-boosting and blood-sugar-stabilizing chia seeds, and probiotics. Not only can probiotics keep your gut healthy, but when they're combined with high-quality whey protein, they can enhance muscle development: Probiotics help your body synthesize leucine, a particular branched chain amino acid (BCAA), which you need for muscle building.
Protein source: GMO-free egg whites
Protein payoff: 25.2 g per serving
Whey tends to be the first word when it comes to protein supplementation. But as we've mentioned before, it can cause belly bloat. For a better option that'll help you bulk up only in desirable areas, try egg-white protein, which is naturally low-carb and no-fat. Just like whey, egg white protein such has a complete essential amino acid profile, which promotes optimal recovery from challenging workouts. Want to boost the flavor without artificial additives? Paleo Pure provides a blank slate (it's only egg whites and sunflower lecithin) to add a tablespoon of raw cacao powder to boost your intake of brain-boosting flavanoids while curbing your chocolate cravings.
5Mt. Capra Products
Goat Milk Protein
Goat Milk Protein
Protein source: Grass-fed goat milk protein
Protein payoff: 20 g per serving
This powerful protein combines the best of both worlds in protein supplementation through a natural blend of casein and whey proteins. Using a combination powder allows whey to trigger muscle building stimulation while casein inhibits factors that lead to muscle breakdown. Mt. Capra is a small, family-run farm in the Pacific Northwest who uses milk from their own pasture-grazed goat herd in their protein powders. If your body doesn't agree with cow milk, goat milk is a great alternative. Even though goat milk still has lactose, the goat milk proteins are smaller and are thus absorbed by the human digestive system in a far superior way to that of cow protein.
BEST PLANT-BASED PROTEIN POWDERS
Plant protein powders won't lead to bloat like whey powders will, and they're also less likely to include nasty artificial sweeteners. (Although recent science indicates they're not carcinogenic, as feared, artificial sweeteners have been shown to actually increase your appetite.) Those looking to build muscle shouldn't shrink in fear: In a 2013 study published in Nutrition Journal, University of Tampa researchers found that rice protein was just as effective as whey in building muscle and strength among men who worked out frequently.
Eat This, Not That! Tip: Look for pea, hemp, soy or rice powders, ideally in blends. Because many single plant-based varieties aren't complete proteins, consuming a blended plant-protein powder (like one that contains both pea and rice, along with a variety of sprouts) will ensure you're getting more amino acids and thus the most bang for your supplement buck.
Warrior Blend Raw Protein Powder
Warrior Blend Raw Protein Powder
Protein source: Pea, hemp, cranberry protein, brown rice and more
Protein payoff: 19 grams per serving
A great raw protein option, this GMO-free powder derived its muscle-building power from raw organic pea, cranberry and hemp seed protein—it's even tasty enough to take on its own! What's more, there are no sugars, gluten or artificial sweeteners to cause a metabolism-confusing midday crash. If you down some pre-workout, the branched-chain amino acids can give your gym session a boost by helping to target energy directly to your muscles.
All-In-One Nutritional Shake
All-In-One Nutritional Shake
Protein source: Pea protein and hemp protein
Protein payoff: 20 grams per serving
Loaded with six servings of greens, probiotics, antioxidants and 50% of your daily intake of food-based vitamins and minerals, this super clean protein powder is difficult to turn down. With tasty flavors like vanilla chai and berry, water alone is enough to create a tasty shake you'll actually like sipping. If you have more time, combine a scoop—which doles out 20 grams of protein—with unsweetened milk alternatives and a frozen banana for an irresistible milkshake-like creation. Created by a former Ironman triathlete, this balanced protein also tastes great in homemade protein muffins as a post-triathlon—or post-regular run—treat.
3Garden of Life
Protein source: Organic sprouted protein blend (brown rice, amaranth, quinoa, millet and more)
Protein payoff: 34 grams per serving
This complete protein showcases 13 raw and organic sprouts, with 17 grams of protein per serving, all the essential amino acids your body needs, plus tea and cinnamon extract. Just make sure you whip up a smoothie using a healthy fat like nut butter or avocado. Makers of this powder load it with fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, which can only be fully absorbed by your body when paired with a healthy fat. Their original unflavored powder works in any post-workout shake, but we're suckers for slimming, satisfying chocolate versions.
When you're looking for a protein powder with rice, make sure the brand uses sprouted brown rice (like Garden of Life does), not just "rice protein." Sprouting the rice reduces the amount of carbs and heightens the amount of protein, which lowers the glycemic effect (minimizing blood sugar spikes) and increases the nutritional profile. Plus, when rice protein is sprouted, it changes in genetic makeup to make its nutrients more bioavailable to the body, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.
Protein source: Hemp
Protein payoff: 15 g per serving
We love the post-workout high—no, not that kind of hemp high—we get with this hemp-based, organic protein powder. Hemp protein is derived from the less-fun parts of the hemp plant, offering a substantial amount of fiber (here, 8 grams) that's easy to digest, making it a great pre-workout powder to keep you from cramping up at the gym. On top of 15 grams of complete protein per serving, hemp also boasts heart-healthy doses of anti-inflammatory omega-3s. This option is an ideal mix-in for oatmeal or smoothies (or brownies if that's your thing); the fiber will make you feel fuller longer, and it contains eight essential amino acids to build muscle.
Protein source: Hemp, pumpkin seeds and peas
Protein payoff: 18 grams per serving
Milk the benefits of this tasty, plant-based protein powder by slipping it into one of your quick weight loss smoothies or protein shakes. The organic, vegan protein powder is made with hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, and peas for an impressive punch of 18 grams of protein per serving—with no chemicals or artificial fillers. And while it may be gluten-free, soy-free and dairy-free, it's certainly rich in flavor. When you try this in a shake recipe that is originally dairy-based, you'd swear it was the real thing from its rich texture and flavor. Try their wild harvested vanilla or fair trade organic cacao powder swirled into a quick shake with half a frozen banana for an ice cream-like texture and a tablespoon of nut butter for satiating healthy fats and some extra protein.
THE WORST PROTEIN POWDERS
As we mentioned earlier, many protein powder labels read like the stock list of a chemistry lab. But don't let that science mumbo jumbo confuse you. Below we've found some standout examples of what you should avoid when picking out a powder. But keep in mind that there are many more out there that we weren't able to include.
Eat This, Not That! Tip: You should typically stay away from really cheap powders, undisclosed sources of protein, a lot of sugar, artificial sweeteners, and hydrogenated oils.
Why you should avoid it: It's full of artificial sweeteners.
BSN Syntha-6 Protein might be the second highest selling whey protein on Amazon only because people can't stop raving about the taste. While we get that protein powders can taste chalky and less than pleasant, that doesn't mean you should grab one that's loaded with artificial sweeteners like corn syrup solids, sucralose, and acesulfame potassium. (That's what protein smoothies which use whole, fiber-rich fruits are for.) Companies use artificial sweeteners because they are addictive and send a signal to the brain to keep drinking or eating without an off switch—even if they, themselves, don't contain any calories. Julieanna Hever, MS, RD, CPT, explains that "refined and processed sweeteners are unrelenting in their ability to entice you to overeat and yet, don't provide satiation, satiety, or nourishment." Studies have shown that the deceptively sweet artificial sweeteners trick your metabolism into thinking sugar is on its way, spiking your insulin levels, and shifting the body from a fat-burning to a fat-storing state.
Why you should avoid it: It's full of toxic contaminants, chemical additives, and sugar.
Besides the fact that Muscle Milk also adds a slew of sweeteners (maltodextrin, fructose, and sucralose), that might not even be the worst thing about it. According to a list from Consumer Reports, Muscle Milk was number one on a list of protein powders which had toxic heavy metal contamination from all their chemical additives. They found levels of cadmium, arsenic, mercury and lead that nearly reached or surpassed the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) daily intake limits. Cadmium raises special concern because it accumulates in and can damage the kidneys, the same organs that can be damaged by excessive protein consumption. There's even more concern in this case since these toxic heavy metals are found in a product that is marketed for daily use. We'd recommend you put down the Metal Milk.
3Adaptogen Science Tasty Whey
Why you should avoid it: It contains hydrogenated oils (trans fat).
If big-time food giants like McDonald's and Chick-fil-A were able to hold up their end of the deal when it came time to getting rid of artery-clogging trans fats, we'd expect a health supplement to do the same. In this case, Adaptogen Science uses partially hydrogenated coconut oil in the form of coconut powder, which also contains corn syrup solids, sugar, soy, and carrageenan. Whether it's partially hydrogenated coconut oil or "hydrogenated whey protein," this ingredient has been heated and hydrogenated at high temperatures to extend its shelf stability. When it's in your body, it creates a rancid oil whose artery-clogging effects cause reduced blood flow, which can impact everything from heart, brain, and sexual function.
4Body Fortress Whey Protein
Why you should avoid it: It's cheap.
We know, we know. Protein powders are expensive—but they are for a reason. The high price tag comes with a high-quality raw protein product. So when manufacturers are able to provide you with an inexpensive product, like these powders from Body Fortress, they most likely have to cut costs by using questionable protein suppliers. They pay less for the raw protein, which is typically a low-quality, inferior ingredient that likely contains far less protein and far more carbs and fat than what they claim on the label. What's even more frightening, these lesser-quality protein powders may also contain impurities and contaminants.
Why you should avoid it: It has a health halo.
Even plant-based protein powders are not all good. Swanson combines two strains of bacteria with hemp, rice, and pea protein to create their tub of scoopable nutrition. In theory, this all sounds like a good thing—a terrific two-for-one option for smoothie and protein shake lovers alike—but unfortunately, the makers behind this blend also packed in tons of brown rice syrup solids, which ups the sugar count to a whopping 20 grams in a standard three-scoop serving. Skip it.
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