Nutrition Articles

How to Choose the Best Protein Powder

Find the Right Supplement for You

8SHARES

Protein supplements are popular among casual exercisers, serious bodybuilders, dieters and even non-exercisers for many reasons. Most people know that protein is an essential nutrient for overall health that helps promote fullness and also plays a role in muscle recovery and repair. The nutrient protein carries with it a connotation of being healthy, so many assume that drinking protein shakes or using protein supplements is a good step toward better health and fitness. But is this perception of health a fact or a fallacy?

It's true that protein supplements make eating this important nutrient easy and convenient. Protein-rich foods (think dairy products, meats, beans and eggs) often require cooking, need to be refrigerated for safety and don't always transport well as snacks or mini meals on the go. (Just imagine carrying and then chomping into a chunk of chicken breast between the gym and work, or eating from a can of beans while driving to your next appointment.) In contrast, supplements make it easy! They're shelf-stable, easy to transport, great tasting (if you can find one you like), and often need nothing more than water to mix up. And as drinks, they're easy to consume no matter where you are.

However, protein supplements are far from required eating for people, no matter what your fitness, health or nutrition goals might be. When thinking about choosing a protein supplement, it's worth noting that:

  • There are many foods packed with protein that you can creatively fit into your meals and snacks to meet your needs without having to rely on a supplement.
     
  • Real, whole foods—as opposed to protein powders, which are highly processed—are more natural to include in the human diet, so many people aiming for a diet that is closer to nature might not find supplements as appealing.
     
  • Unprocessed protein-rich foods also contain other vital nutrients needed by the body in their natural states, such as iron, zinc, calcium and B-vitamins.
     
  • The protein-rich foods you can buy at the store (meat, milk, eggs, soy products and more) are cheaper than almost any protein supplement.
     
  • And foods—as opposed to supplements and protein drinks—are regulated for safety. Recent independent lab tests (see Sources below) found that many of the most popular protein supplements were contaminated with heavy metals like lead, mercury and more—a byproduct of processing. That, coupled with the fact that supplements are truly the Wild West, when it comes to products (no regulation, no guarantee of potency as listed, not a lot of rules at all) means that you are putting a lot of trust into the company making the product you're ingesting. 

Despite all of these things, we can't deny that whether you truly need additional protein outside of the food you consume, people simply enjoy protein shakes—and that's an OK reason to choose them, too! They often taste great. They add extra nutrients and filling power to many dishes (like fruit smoothies) and they can be used in creative ways to boost the protein of other foods beyond shakes. (Check out these creative ways to use protein powder.) While consuming protein supplements is seldom necessary (read our previous article about determining your protein needs), when used wisely, they can give a nice little protein boost to your meal or snack. But remember: If you're already eating enough protein consuming extra is just an additional source of calories--extra calories that could be packing on pounds. So plan wisely!  
 
With so many different types of protein powders out there, how do you pick one that's right for you? In this article, we'll provide the background on the different protein sources you can find in protein powders (from dairy to soy to peas) along with other considerations so you can make the best choice.

Animal-Based Protein Supplements

Dairy-Based Protein Supplements
These use cow’s milk as the protein source, but you won't typically see milk specifically listed as the main ingredient. Rather, specific protein-rich components of milk (like whey or casein or sometimes a combination of both) are extracted from cow's milk during processing and used as the main ingredients. Both whey and casein are considered high-quality protein sources; their amino acid profile meets the needs of humans, is generally easy to digest (if you have no lactose allergy or sensitivity) and easily utilized by the body. And like milk, these protein supplements contain all the essential amino acids needed by the human body and are considered a complete protein. There are two types of dairy (milk) based protein supplements:

1. Whey protein is the most common protein powder and the most researched as well. It is manufactured by drying pasteurized whey—the liquid by-product of cheese making. It has been shown to be easily digested and absorbed and is effective in building and maintaining muscle mass. You can get whey protein in an isolate form or a concentrate form, and the label should list which form is used. There is a difference between the two, both in protein quantity (and usually in price).

Whey protein isolate (WPI) contains a higher concentration of protein: 90% protein or 24 grams per ounce. This form is more easily absorbed than the concentrate form. It also tends to cost more.

Whey protein concentrate (WPC) will vary in its protein content, containing as little as 20% protein up to 89% protein. You'll have to read the nutrition facts label to see how much protein a particular supplement like this really contains per ounce. If possible, select "WPC 80%," which is more highly concentrated.

2. Casein protein is manufactured by heating milk. The milk forms clumps (curds) and the liquid whey is removed. The water is then removed from the remaining clumps, which are processed into the appropriate particle size as needed. Casein protein typically comes in isolate form, which, like whey protein isolate, is a high concentration of protein: about 22 grams per ounce. Although easily utilized by the body, it does take longer to digest than whey protein does, resulting in a more sustained amino acid release.  

A blend of whey and casein protein is also available in supplement form. Some people purchase both supplements separately and blend them together because of the theory that they'll achieve better long-term muscle recovery by getting both fast-acting whey and slower-acting casein in a single supplement.  While a professional or collegiate athlete might benefit from such a tactic, the average adult probably wouldn't see a major benefit.

People with milk or lactose allergies or sensitivities should avoid whey and casein protein supplements, although some low- and no-lactose options are available. 

Egg-Based Protein Supplements
Egg protein powder is made from egg whites (albumin) and therefore contains no fat or cholesterol.  While this supplement is nutritionally the same as pasteurized powdered egg whites, the particle size might be altered and additives used for a better shake consistency when the powder is mixed with water. It contains about 21 grams of protein per ounce and is easily absorbed (eggs rank equal with soy, whey and casein as the highest quality protein sources) and is also a complete protein source that contains all essential amino acids.

Egg-based protein supplements would not be appropriate for people with egg allergies or those who choose to avoid egg (such as vegans).

Plant-Based Protein Supplements

Soy-Based Protein Supplements
To many people's surprise, the body can absorb and utilize soy protein powder at about an equal rate to that of whey or casein. That's why, as an alternative to dairy, soy protein can be a great choice for many people. The protein in these soy-based powders is derived from soy flour, which is made of finely ground soybeans. Rather than seeing soy flour on the label, however, you'll see soy protein isolate or soy protein concentrate, as one of the main ingredients. (Only the protein-rich portion of soy flour is extracted and used to make the supplement.)  Like whey supplements, soy powders are also available in isolate and concentrate form; isolate is a higher concentration of protein—with most of the soy fat and carbohydrates removed. It has about 15 grams of protein per ounce and is more expensive than soy concentrate. The concentrate form can vary greatly in its protein content per ounce (and is therefore cheaper). Read the label closely to determine the protein content. 

Compared to whey, soy protein is a bit lower in protein, but it is a high-quality complete protein source. It can be an affordable option as well. This supplement would not be appropriate for someone with a soy allergy or anyone who chooses to avoid soy for personal or medical reasons.

Other Plant-Based Protein Sources
More and more plant-based protein powders are coming to market these days, fulfilling the needs of people who have to (or choose to) avoid dairy, eggs or soy. Because they are plant-based, they do not include all of the essential amino acids and are considered lower quality and incomplete proteins. Many brands add synthetic (non-animal derived) forms of the missing amino acids to make their protein powders complete, but not every brand meets that criteria (you'll have to read labels to find out). Compared with the supplements discussed above, powders made from rice (or brown rice) protein, pea protein or hemp protein tend to be the most expensive.

The most common plant-based powders you might find include:

  • Rice protein, made from the protein component in brown rice. It contains 18 grams of protein per ounce.
     
  • Pea protein, which isolates the protein found in the legume and contains about 20 grams of protein per ounce.
     
  • Hemp protein, which is made from hemp flour (ground hemp seeds). It contains 12 grams per ounce and is often touted as also being a source of healthy fats and fiber. (Learn more about hemp foods here.)

For individuals who already eat a varied diet that includes other protein-rich foods, these incomplete protein powders could be used safely. For those following a strict vegan diet, remember to include a greater variety of other plant-based protein foods to assure that you're getting all essential amino acids.

Quick Comparison of Protein Contents
This is a general chart. Always read a product's Nutrition Facts label to determine the exact amount of protein contained in a single serving.

Type of Protein

Protein Content per Ounce

Whey Protein Isolate (WPI)

24 g

Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC)

Can vary greatly, so read the label—look for a product with 80% WPC

Casein Protein Isolate

22 g

Egg Protein

21 g

Pea Protein

20 g

Rice Protein

18 g

Soy Protein Isolate

15 g

Soy Protein Concentrate (SPC)

Can vary greatly, so read the label—look for a product with 70% SPC

Hemp Protein

12 g

 

 
What All Protein Powders Have in Common
Once you choose the type of protein you want to use, there are a few more things to consider. Only in rare cases will you find totally pure protein powders with no other ingredients added. More often than not, you'll see a variety of added supplements, sweeteners, flavorings and additives listed in the ingredients. So beyond choosing the base (dairy, soy, egg or plant), you'll have to read and compare labels to find out what else you are ingesting when choosing a particular supplement. Here are some things to look for.  

  • Sweeteners. Most protein powders are bland, plain or naturally have a sour taste unless combined with sweeteners. You'll often see a variety of sweeteners used in these supplements. Some might use real (caloric) sweeteners, such as sugar or fructose. But most often you'll encounter artificial sweeteners, stevia or sugar alcohols which are considered non-caloric sweeteners. To learn about how to recognize these sweeteners by name (and how they might affect your health), read the respective links above. No sugar added or sugar free claims on the labels usually mean that the powder was sweetened using artificial sweeteners.
     
  • Flavorings. These days, you can find just about any flavor of protein powder, from cake batter to red velvet to blueberry muffin—as well as the traditional unflavored, vanilla and chocolate. Check the ingredients listed to determine where this flavor comes from. The more interesting the flavor, the more likely it is that you'll find artificial ingredients and food colorings added. When you do choose a plain, unsweetened variety, however, you will have a lot more options (beyond shakes) for using those protein powders (more on that below).
     
  • Additives. For that rich, creamy shake consistency, additives are a must. Soy lecithin is used to help prevent lumping and clumping when water is added to the protein powder. Ingredients such as xanthan gum, cellulose gum, sodium alginate and carrageenan (also gums) can be added to assure that the shake is creamy, smooth, thick and viscous. These also give more volume to the shake.  
     
  • Additional Vitamins, Minerals or Supplemental Ingredients. Many protein powders come with other additives, such as vitamins, minerals, herbs, creatine, growth peptides and glutamine.  While it might seem like you are getting more bang for your buck out of these enhanced protein supplements, be wary. It is easy to overdose on certain nutrients when taking supplements. Additionally, many additives are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and have in no way been tested for safety or effectiveness. Additionally, do not believe protein powder labels that claim to produce rapid weight loss, increased muscle mass or other miraculous results. Although it is true that protein aids in satiety and muscle-building, it is not the end-all answer to weight loss or muscle recovery. You can only build muscle by exercising properly and eating properly (and that goes way beyond protein intake alone), and no single food (or shake) will result in weight loss. 

Concerns & Tips for Using Protein Powders
In an ideal world, we'd get all of our nutrients from wholesome, natural, unadulterated foods—the way nature intended. But in the modern world, that can be difficult and in some people's eyes, boring. Protein powders can fill a need and satisfy a craving—but watch out that they don't make up the bulk of your diet or that you're not relying on them too often. As much as possible, try to meet your protein needs with food. And remember: All things in moderation. Aim for a diet that's rich in variety for optimum health—the more unprocessed, the better!
 
Here are some additional tips and concerns relevant to using protein powders.

  • Safety & Effectiveness: In the United States, protein supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. They are not tested for safety and effectiveness. Be wary of any claims made by a supplement and look for third-party verification (research studies, independent testing groups or seals, etc.) that the supplement contains the nutrients and ingredients as listed (and in the amounts indicated).
     
  • Purity: In 2010, Consumer Reports found several protein supplements to be contaminated with heavy metals—arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury. Any processed food could have hidden contaminants, but because supplements are not regulated or tested for purity, the risk is on the consumer. These were attributed to the manufacturing process, but were present in alarming amounts for some brands. To see the test results from Consumer Reports, click here.
     
  • Excess Consumption: Consumption of too much protein powder can bring about nausea, thirst, bloating, cramps, headache and dehydration. (Any nutrient eaten in excess can have negative health effects.) However, when used in moderation to supplement the protein you already consume from a diet of real, whole foods, the occasional serving of protein powder is perfectly fine.
     
  • Creative Ideas: While a plain protein powder can be used to make a sweet-tasting shake or smoothie, it can also be added to savory dishes such as dips, soups, casseroles, meatloaf, pudding, yogurt, oatmeal, mashed potatoes, muffins and quick breads. You will find countless protein powder recipes online (here are some from our members), so don't be afraid to dabble in these creative ways to boost the protein content of your usual recipes and foods.
     
  • Be Skeptical: You might have heard personal trainers or other fitness professionals say that consuming more protein will produce better results, both in fitness levels and aesthetic appearance. However, well-meaning personal trainers often overestimate protein needs by using calculations established for professional athletes instead of using calculations for average exercisers. (Discover your protein needs based on your activity level here.)

 
Additionally, it's worth noting that some seemingly credible trainers and nutrition professionals earn additional income by selling protein supplements. It is often in their financial interest to tell you that you need more protein—or a specific supplement that they happen to sell. This is an unethical practice and a conflict of interest. Do your own research to determine if you really need more protein, or contact a Registered Dietitian to help you determine your protein needs. And make supplement choices based scientific evidence and research—not necessarily what is endorsed by someone else.     

This article was written using scientific guidelines for the overweight, yet medically healthy adult. Please contact your doctor or registered dietitian for determining protein needs and type of protein supplement to use for any medical condition, such as kidney (renal) disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, the healing of burns, pressure ulcers, wounds, sepsis and infections, AIDS, trauma and surgical wounds.
 
Sources
American Dietetic Association; Dietitians of Canada; American College of Sports Medicine, Rodriguez NR, Di Marco NM, Langley S. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. "Nutrition and athletic performance." Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 Mar;41(3):709-31.
 
Baer DJ. "Whey protein but not soy protein supplementation alters body weight and composition in free-living overweight and obese adults."  J Nutr. 2011 Aug;141(8):1489-94. doi: 10.3945/jn.111.139840. Epub 2011 Jun 15.

Pennings B. "Whey protein stimulates postprandial muscle protein accretion more effectively than do casein and casein hydrolysate in older men." Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 May;93(5):997-1005. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.110.008102. Epub 2011 Mar 2.

St-Onge MP. "Supplementation with soy-protein-rich foods does not enhance weight loss." J Am Diet Assoc. 2007 Mar;107(3):500-5.

Weinheimer, EM. "Whey protein supplementation does not affect exercise training-induced changes in body composition and indices of metabolic syndrome in middle-aged overweight and obese adults." J Nutr. 2012 Aug;142(8):1532-9. doi: 10.3945/jn.111.153619. Epub 2012 Jun 20.


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Member Comments

  • Wow! Lots if good info!
  • Very informative article
  • lots of great information here on the many different types of protein powders that are available. Thanks
  • On my past remark 4/2016 I meant low cARB - not crab!!
  • Just remember to distribute protein thoughout the day to help your body use it more efficiently!
    http://mermeena
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    /lighten-up/s
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  • Okay, can anyone explain to me why this article refers to "lactose allergies" which don't exist but links to an article that accurately describes the difference between lactose intolerance (an inability to digest lactose which results in it being digested by gut bacteria instead with miserable results for the human) and milk allergies (an immune response to milk proteins)?

    Also, for complete vegan protein without soy, combine a legume, e.g. pea protein, with a grain, e.g. rice protein. Peanut butter sandwiches are pretty traditional in the US.
  • EMMANDMPET
    I can't read everything that I get in emails, but some things just catch my eye. I was beginning to look at taking additional protein at the beginning of my day that is supposed to enhance weight loss. I'm on a Paleo diet and have pretty much beat sugars out of my system. It is a rare occasion that I will, say, drink a milkshake or eat a few more carbs than what I'm supposed to. I've lost over a 5 year period 48 pounds.It's not a fast loss, but when I steadfastly adhere to it and let my body burn healthy fats rather than sugar, it works great. Sugars and sugars hiding in carbs have been the hardest to deal with. So, I was interested in what you had to say about the protein powder. I'd first like to direct you to the lifelong research of Kaayla Daniels on soy research. Dr. Mercola did an interview with her several years ago. At that time, she stated the soy plant takes out of the soil the heavy metals and we then ingest them when we eat or drink them. She states it is responsible for many problems, brain problems in infants taking soy based formula to adults eating and drinking soy and getting cancers. She states that people in Japan and other countries ferment the soy at a very slow pace and use it as an occasional condiment, not a side dish, beverage or meal. Our soy is quickly fermented and isn't healthy. The fact that approximately 85% of the soy grown here is GMO is another thing. Now, since many soy protein powders retain the heavy metals, it would be a wise decision to see if the product you buy is certified free of heavy metals, otherwise, you could be getting a whole lot more that you bargained for.. Just a thought...
  • thanks, Becky, for the 7 pages of great information!!!! I learned lots! chris
  • My husband's low crab recipes often suggest a protein powder supplement. When we researched what to buy we felt they were quite expensive and were not sure of what was the best way to go. Not trying to supplement his diet as such, but use recommended recipes -- of which we see quite a few on SPARK as well. Granted, high protein, is good for the low carbing approach, as well. I will keep this article to read and reread and try to get6 a better handle on what is available, etc.
    Thanks.
  • Great article! I use protein shakes to help me meet my daily requirements as I often do not have the ability to have frequent meals due to work. I love using carnivor mass protein
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  • Great article! I use protein shakes to help me meet my daily requirements as I often do not have the ability to have frequent meals due to work. I love using carnivor mass protein
  • Thanks again Becky!! I never knew !!!
  • Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey Protein. It's the best.
  • 7 pages is just too long
  • Found a shake called Orgain - It says it is all organic made by a DR. that was dealing with the bad tastes of shakes and cancer. He is a survivor! Just saying :}

About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.

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