Protein is one of the many building blocks of life — you need it to bulk up, lose weight and maintain weight. It’s what keeps you fuller for longer and helps prime your body for repair. You’ve probably heard of protein powders before, too — those large tubs that adorn the walls of any reputable supplement shop. Contrary to belief, however, these nutritional powerhouses aren’t solely for gym rats and meatheads. There’s plenty to be had and gained by adding protein powders to your daily regimen, regardless of your activity levels. From the sleek and slim yoga enthusiast to the muscle-bound bodybuilder, everyone can reap the benefits of protein powder, provided they’re supplementing with a premium product.
Before we get the scoop on the best protein powders on the market, however, it helps to get a little understanding behind the benefits of protein supplementation, as well as a brief understanding on what to look for in a protein powder, which to choose and how to consume these nutrient-dense concoctions.
The Benefits of Protein Powders
Protein is one of the main macronutrients you need in a well-balanced diet, and with that comes a number of health benefits. From giving your muscles that added boost for improved strength gain to managing your appetite for better weight loss, muscle recovery enhancement, bone health and more, there’s a lot that can come from this amino acid complex.
It goes without saying, then, that proper protein consumption is vital for a healthy body, for those with an active lifestyle, you need a little more than more sedentary individuals. A good ballpark for daily consumption is about 1.1–1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight. So, a 180-pound athlete should look to consume roughly 90–123 grams of protein. While this might seem like a small amount, remember that protein sourced from whole foods can fill you up quicker, leaving you unable to consume your required intake. Protein powders and protein supplements can help you reach these marks at an easier clip, thanks to their portable, easy-to-consume nature — and more enjoyable tastes over extended periods, if we’re being honest. “Everyone can’t necessarily sit down to that kind of meal, or even have the appetite for that,” says registered dietician and fellow of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, Dr. Sue Kleiner, “So that’s where using a protein supplement as a snack [comes in].”
Be mindful, though, of that word “snack.” Getting your daily macronutrients from whole foods is still ideal due to the abundance of micronutrients found in each tasty meal. Think of protein powders as the mortar and whole meals as the bricks — when used in tandem, they can make one strong household, i.e., your physique.
What to Look for When Choosing a Protein Powder
When choosing your ideal protein powder to add to your countertop or cabinet, there are a few key things to look for when reading the back nutritional facts. All of these can impact your experience with the supplement, so it’s important to read these labels carefully before making a decision — you don’t want to end up stuck with a tub of underperforming powder.
It takes one search of the term “protein powder” to realize there are plenty of options available to the average athlete, each with its own perks and potential benefits. Whey protein is one of the more common options, in part because it contains a high-quality amino acid profile and quick digestion rate. Whey is derived from cow’s milk and also contains a high amount of leucine, one of the main amino acids to better promote muscle protein synthesis. If you want a good starting point for protein supplementation, look for whey-based products.
Also derived from cow’s milk, casein protein is a slower digesting derivative. Because of the slower pace, casein can be a great source of protein before going to bed or in post-workout situations. We grow and lose muscle on a daily basis, so by having this slow-burning supplement in our system during more sedentary points in our day, we can help inhibit muscle protein breakdown better.
Naturally, however, not everyone follows a dairy-enriched diet, but thankfully soy protein is another option for supplementing your intake without sacrificing your morals — or gut. Soy protein may be more favorable for female athletes, though, because it contains phytoestrogens, which in large quantities may decrease testosterone and increase estrogen. In moderation, however, it can be plenty beneficial, especially for those with more restrictive diets.
There are other plant-based protein powders available, including pea protein and vegan protein, but it should be noted that these options aren’t as protein-rich as others. “The quality of [plant] protein is lower than animal protein in supporting health, so you need 10 percent more,” says Dr. Kleiner. While this shouldn’t dissuade you from these protein supplements, it should be kept in the back of your mind when you go to mix your first shake.
Grams per Serving
The beauty and downfall of protein supplementation is that there’s no cookie-cutter dosage that can work for everyone. Since every athlete has different dietary needs, there’s a lot of gray area when it comes to how much protein you need to consume via supplemental shakes. A good benchmark, though, when trying to decide if a protein powder is worth your hard-earned cash, however, is by looking at the grams per serving. To help sustain your body’s output during hard workouts and continued training, try and search for a supplement that delivers between 25–35 grams of protein per serving. This can be a nice indication that you’re consuming a worthwhile snack without leaving anything on the table. Then, depending on your diet or fitness goals, you can tailor your drinking schedule to fit your needs.
It wouldn’t be a piece on supplements without pointing out the notion that these products don’t always carry the most trustworthy backstories. Because nutritional supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, manufacturers have the ability to hide their true dosages and ingredients behind snake oil terms like “proprietary blend.” Thankfully, however, most brands want to give you the best product possible and have their protein powders tested and certified by third-party organizations. When looking for a trustworthy supplement to add to your normal intake, look for powders certified by either NSF Certified for Sport, BSCG, Informed Sport or other institutions. This can leave you less worried about what’s in your shake and more focused on the training demands ahead.
How We Tested
I’ve been a faithful follower of protein powders across my multiple years in fitness and athletics, having tried and tested a number of supplements included in this roundup. I’ve made note of each offering’s flavor profile, as well as their grams per serving, mixability and price. While I’ve been more versed in whey and casein varieties, I have been able to test a number of alternatives as well to better understand what these plant-based powders can bring to my diet.
Now, with your shaker bottles ready, let’s toast and get into this weighted roundup of the best protein powders available today.
Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Whey Protein
While there’s plenty of supplements out there with catchy names, this is one that really tells the truth. I’ve faithfully supplemented with Optimum Nutrition’s Gold Standard over the years and always appreciated the hearty protein totals per serving, as well as the plethora of available flavors. Plus, the high quality isn’t reflected in the price, which is definitely a bonus when trying to budget out your meals and supplements accordingly.
Isopure Zero Carb Whey Protein Isolate
For those wanting some serious juice behind their muscle-building dreams, I recommend Isopure’s Zero Carb Whey Protein Isolate. Packed with a whopping 50 grams of protein per serving, as well as a slew of helpful vitamins and micronutrients, this could be the premium key you need to reach those gargantuan PRs. I would recommend, however, mixing this with some flavor additive, or opting for the unflavored version, as some of the tastes across the palette can be underwhelming when compared to more delectable options in this roundup.
MyProtein Impact Whey Protein
Reordering protein powders can be a hassle, especially if you’re locked into a particular flavor. Thankfully, this effective supplement from MyProtein offers a number of their tasty palettes in 200-serving bags, keeping your stock of muscle-boosting powders in the black for extended periods of time. Plus, I really enjoyed Impact Whey Protein for post-workout replenishment thanks to the included 4.5 grams of BCAAs. I would recommend altering the scoops, though, if you want more protein per shake. According to the label, you only get 19 grams of protein per scoop.
Huge Supplements Huge Whey
Protein powders can be great for satisfying those sweet cravings we all have throughout the day, and across the board, I can’t find a supplement more mouth-watering than Huge Whey from Huge Supplements. The Cookies and Cream flavor I tested was spot on, and the decently-sized protein per scoop aided in curbing any snacking throughout the day, too. I only wish Huge Supplements would sell this product in larger quantities, as ordering multiple 2-pound tubs at once can easily consume a countertop.
MyProtein Extreme Gainer Blend
In any hard-nosed, muscle-building fitness journey, you need to fuel your body to make the gains. MyProtein’s Extreme Gainer Blend brings 460 calories to each serving, of which 40 grams are protein and 5 are creatine — vital building blocks to any flex-worthy physique. When I’m looking to increase my caloric intake, I’ve found this to be an exceptional option that doesn’t require adding a plate (or three) to my normal routine. Be cautious, though, if you’ve never taken a mass gainer supplement. These products can lead to uncomfortable indigestion and bloating if your body isn’t used to the calorie uptick.
Bare Performance Nutrition Whey Protein
Get the fast-digesting benefits of whey protein and the slow-burning perks of casein in one fell swoop with this delicious offering from Bare Performance Nutrition. I’m partial to the Birthday Cake flavor — a new release in honor of the brand’s 10th anniversary — and really like how this shake offers the best of both worlds approach to supplementation. Plus, if you ever have a question about the ingredients in your powder, BPN is extremely transparent with where they’re sourced from, which certificates they hold and much more.
Kaged Kasein Casein Protein
As stated above, casein protein is the slower-digesting derivative from dairy, and as such can be a great addition to your supplement regimen to fuel your gains throughout the night. I’ve used Kasein from Kaged Supplements in the past and always appreciated the tasty, not overwhelming, flavor notes. Plus, the 100% Micellar Casein Isolate profile means this powder is quicker to absorb in your system while still retaining that slow digestion rate. Don’t think you’ll have the option to keep a hefty tub at the ready, though. This protein powder is only available in 2-pound containers, about 25 servings worth.
Huel Complete Protein
You probably shouldn’t think a majority of your nutritional benefits are coming from your snack habits, but the Complete Protein from Huel makes it damn hard not to at least entertain that notion. With 20 grams of protein and 26 essential vitamins and minerals per serving, this is a well-rounded shake that’s sure to boost your intake. Plus, Huel’s Complete Protein is 100% vegan, making it an ideal go-to for any athletes following more restrictive diets. All this performance does come at a cost, however, as this is one of the more expensive protein powders available.
MyProtein Whey Forward
Bring some sustainability to your supplementation with this innovative product from MyProtein. Using Perfect Day’s microflora, which are given the same DNA sequence as cow-based whey, Whey Forward includes 20 grams of protein and 4.7 grams of BCAAs per scientific serving. The price is also reasonable when you take into consideration the breakthroughs behind the powder, and in my testing I’ve found no bad eggs across the flavor offerings. For those looking to re-introduce whey into their diet without the carbon footprint, look no further.
Vega Sport Premium Plant Based Protein
Some plant-based and vegan protein powders rely on rice proteins or other grain-heavy ingredients to deliver suitable grams per serving. Not Vega. Combining the powers of sunflower seed, pea, alfalfa and pumpkin seed proteins, this can be an exceptional grain-free option for those wanting to supplement without the gut-wrenching side effects. Plus Vega Sport also features tart cherry extract, which has the potential to boost recovery sessions. While I found some of the flavors to be chalkier than others, if you need a very strict protein to add to your diet, consider this plant-based option from one of the industry’s best.
Kaged Plantein Vegan Protein
For vegan athletes, it’s hard to beat Plantein from Kaged. Packing 25 grams of plant-based protein in each serving, along with 4.5 grams of BCAAs with just 1 gram of sugar, the nutritional label speaks for itself. I really enjoyed supplementing my diet with this, but I did notice a slightly earthy flavor during my first few shakes with the powder. Plus, the price is reasonable, but for roughly $30, I’d like to see a few more supplements packed into a tub.
Bulk Supplements Soy Protein Isolate
For soy enthusiasts, this is the product for you. No flashy labels. No extravagant ingredients. Just a highly-effective helping of soy protein isolate featuring 27 grams of protein ready to fuel your training progress. The unflavored makeup of this impressive soy protein powder can be easily mixed into your morning smoothies, but I can see where some athletes might prefer a sweeter offering here and there. Also, you may need to head into your baking drawer to achieve the proper serving. According to the label, it’s suggested you use a scale or tablespoon measuring cup to achieve the recommended serving size.
Now Sports Pea Protein
I’ll be honest, I was very much blown away by this protein, given my extended experience with cow-based powders over my fitness career. The Pea Protein from Now Sports mixes exceptionally well in any shaker bottle or blender, and I also appreciated how versatile the unflavored offering turned out to be — I recommend mixing it with oat milk for a tasty post-workout snack. While I’m perfectly happy with this product from Now Sports, it should be noted that the brand does make dairy-based whey proteins as well, which may be concerning to those more invested in the vegan lifestyle.
Ancient Nutrition Bone Broth Protein
Sometimes, you just need a break from the sweet-tasting protein powders out there, but still, you want to reach those macronutrient goals each day. Thankfully, Ancient Nutrition’s Bone Broth Protein is available, offering up the perfect lunchtime snack that delivers some protein. Simply mix this soup-inspired powder with hot water and sip away your mid-day while taking in 15 grams of protein. I enjoyed how this protein powder flies in the face of other available options, but I wouldn’t rely on it as my sole protein source for a day. There’s simply not enough grams in a serving — or servings in a container, for that matter — to create a well-rounded regimen.