The Healthiest Protein Powders To Take
In an ideal world, you would get all the important nutrients your body needs, including protein, vitamins from whole foods.
But there are always situations where it is useful to have protein powder. It’s convenient and easy to get
There’s just one little problem, choosing a protein powder can be complicated, you go to the store only to discover dozens of different varieties: whey, soy, casein, pea, rice, hemp…the list goes on.
Complicating matters, there are two-powder blends, those made with sugar and without, ones sourced from grass-fed dairy or non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) soy
But choosing a powder doesn’t have to be akin to buying a new car. Am here to tell you that while all powders claim to be awesome, they’re not all equal
Finding the right one for you depends on your health goals and dietary restrictions, and should also be based on a protein’s bioavailability, or how easily it’s absorbed by your body.
“One of the more recent, accepted ways to assess the protein quality and bioavailability is the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score,” says Jennifer McDaniel, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
According to McDaniel’s, the best and most popular protein powders and ranked them by both quality and bioavailability, as well as their other perks (and pitfalls) are listed below, so you know which one is best for you.
Whey Protein powder
Whey, derived from cow’s milk, leads the herd as the best protein source. It’s called a “complete” protein, meaning it contains all 9 essential amino acids—the ones your body can’t make on its own.
Whey enters your blood stream faster than any other protein and boasts the highest level of the amino acid leucine, good for providing muscles with the necessary fuel to power through a workout and build muscle.
In fact, whey is the most effective powder at building muscle; so if that’s a goal, aim to consume it within an hour after exercise.
Reason for choosing whey protein powder
You should take whey,if you simply want the best powder to increase your protein intake or you are looking to build or maintain muscle.
What you should look for
You have a couple choices: If maximum protein is what you’re after, choose a whey protein isolate or whey hydrolysate—these are higher protein (90%) and contain a bit less fat, carbs, and lactose.
Opt for a concentrate (80%)—these are readily available in organic, grass-fed varieties which contain no trace hormones, pesticides, or grain feed byproducts.
Casein Protein powder
Casein, the main protein in milk, is absorbed more slowly than whey, so it’s not quite as efficient at building muscle.
But it can leave you feeling fuller longer, which makes it a great addition to meal-replacement smoothies or your morning oatmeal.
Casein has also been found to enhance muscle building when blended with whey in a post-workout shake.
Reason for choosing casein protein powder
You can use casein protein powder as a meal replacement or before bed, or if you want to combine it with whey for optimal muscle-building effects.
What you should look for
Opt for the slowest-digesting casein, choose casein made with organic, grass-fed dairy if possible; or free of growth hormones.
Egg White Protein Powder
Egg white protein is just what it sounds like: Dried whites that have been turned into a powder. This protein digests slower than whey but faster than casein.
Although not quite as good as whey or casein in terms of muscle protein synthesis, it’s still a good option in a post-workout or meal-replacement smoothie.
Reason for choosing egg white protein powder
You take egg white protein powder if you’re allergic to or don’t eat dairy (e.g. Paleo dieters), but still want a high-quality complete protein.
What you should look for
Your only option is “egg white powder,” sometimes called “egg white albumen.” If you eat organic or cage-free eggs as part of your diet, you should look for the same in a powder.
This may be hard to find, however, so consider opting for organic pasteurized liquid egg whites as an alternative.
Soy Protein Powder
Soy protein is made from ground soybeans that have been dehulled and defatted.
It digests at a moderate rate, like egg white protein, and contains greater amounts of the amino acids glutamine and arginine, which may help support immune function, digestive health, and brain function.
It’s a complete protein and considered the most effective plant-derived source for building or maintaining muscle, but the verdict is still out on its potential health risks for women with a history of estrogen-related cancers and men with lower testosterone levels.
If you fall into either camp, you may want to steer clear, or at least vary your protein sources.
Reason for choosing soy protein powder
If you’re a vegan and you want the best plant-based complete protein to help build muscle, stay full, or simply reach your daily protein quota.
What you should look for
Soy isolate contains more protein than concentrate, but also more isoflavones—the controversial compounds capable of exerting estrogen-like effects on the body.
Pea Protein Powder
Pea protein, derived from the yellow pea, is the most highly digestible of the plant proteins, making it a good alternative for anyone with a sensitive stomach who doesn’t want to do dairy or soy.
But it’s not a complete protein—it’s low in 2 amino acids—so pairs it with another plant-based protein such as hemp or rice to round out its amino acid profile and make it “complete.”
Reason for choosing pea protein powder
If you are avoiding animal-derived products and you don’t want to eat soy, or you have digestive issues, pea protein is good for you.
What you should look for
If you want higher protein content, choose a “pea protein isolate.” The slightly lower-protein “pea protein powder” is also a good choice, and readily available in organic varieties
Hemp Protein Powder
Hemp protein is made from nutrient-packed hemp seeds
While it’s not the best for boosting muscle is because of its lower protein content (most contain just 10 to 15 grams per scoop, depending on the brand, compared to about 25 grams in whey and 22 grams in soy) and protein digestibility corrected amino acid score PDCAA
It provides a good dose of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, Pair it with rice or pea protein to round out its amino-acid profile and make it complete.
Reason for choosing hemp protein powder
If you want to ramp up your overall nutrient intake and don’t have strong protein needs, hemp is okay.
What you should look for
Most brands will feature “hemp protein,” which retains hemp’s healthy fiber and fats; but some newer options feature “hemp protein concentrate,” which will be higher in protein, but stripped of those other nutrients.
Brown Rice Protein Powder
While a big bowl of rice just won’t cut it after a long weight session, a rice protein shake might. Surprisingly enough, this 100 percent plant-based protein stacks up well against the competition.
In an eight-week study comparing the benefits of whey and rice protein supplementation, researchers concluded that both offered nearly the same benefit.
Rice protein is also gluten-free, making it a safe (and economical) choice for those with gluten allergies.
One downside to rice protein is that it tends to be low in certain amino acids — namely, lysine. This means that relying on rice protein powder as your sole source of protein likely isn’t a good idea.
Pairing rice protein with other sources of animal or plant-based proteins is the best way to incorporate this supplement in your diet without experiencing the downsides of missing out on essential amino acids.
Vegan Protein Powder Blends
The quest to find a quality plant-based protein doesn’t mean you have to stick with just one source.
Vegan protein powder blends have become an increasingly popular choice, harnessing the power of hemp, peas, rice, quinoa and more — all in the same bottle.
The result is a gluten-free, dairy-free and soy-free supplement that can nutritionally stand up against animal-based products, without users having to worry about amino acid deficiencies (or an upset stomach).
While some plant-based blends can be a bit more expensive than your average whey product, they can be a great choice for vegetarians, vegans (or anyone who wants a reprieve from animal-based products), while still getting enough protein in their diet.
And because these varieties can suit most dietary needs or restrictions, vegan protein powders are a smart choice for households, gyms and dorms where there’s more than one person fueling up.
Here’s what you don’t want in a protein powder
Some ingredients or additives are added to protein powder which makes series of protein powder brands to be selective by users. Below is the list of ingredients or additives you don’t want;
- Casein + Whey Protein Concentrate
These are also known as whey protein concentrate and caseinate. WPC’s and casein protein sources are high in lactose, which can often cause bloating, flatulence, and gastrointestinal distress in some people.
Food sensitivities to gluten can elevate inflammation in some people and cause a range of health problems including hormonal imbalances, skin conditions, fatigue, mood swings, and headaches.
These ingredients can raise glycemic load, which may contribute to fat storage.
Most are processed with genetically modified organics corn and they can also cause gastrointestinal distress in some people.
They are mostly added to protein powders as fillers to bulk it out or make the protein mix easier.
- Artificial sweeteners
Common artificial sweeteners used are sucralose, splenda, aspartame, saccharin and xylitol.
Several negative side effects can come from ingesting these ingredients, including headaches, migraines, gastric distress such as bloating, acid reflux and weight gain.
- Skim milk powders/milk solids
Skim milk powders and milk solids are often used as a cheap bulking agent in less quality powders.
They are high in lactose sugars, which can cause bloating, gastrointestinal distress, constipation, and loose stools. The protein is poorly absorbed into the body, making it harder for you to reap all of its benefits.
- Vegetable oils and fats
These ingredients are often added to many weight loss and protein powders to increase richness and make them taste creamy.
However, these fats are often derived from hydrogenated sources that contain trans-fats, which are thought to be more harmful than saturated fats. Trans-fats raise levels of bad cholesterol and lower levels of good cholesterol.
- Thickeners and gums
Thickeners and gums, including xanthan gum, are manufactured from soy or corn and can cause bloating, constipation and gas.
Fillers are often added to bulk up the protein and save money for the manufacturer. Some fillers include ingredients such as coconut flour or psyllium, which can cause gastric distress such as bloating, constipation and reflux in people who are susceptible to digestive issues
Protein Powder Problems
Source matters and any protein powder should definitely be from an organic (and grass-fed if dairy based) source, but there are additional concerns as well.
A Consumer Reports investigation found low to moderate levels of lead, arsenic, and mercury in many well-known protein powders.
Many other protein powders contain processed soy, artificial sweeteners, sugars, artificial flavors and colors, and synthetic nutrients that are not easily absorbed by the body.
In a sense, protein powders can be thought of like a supplement. High quality ones can be beneficial in some cases, but they are never a replacement for a well-balanced, whole food diet.
Tips on how to pick the healthiest Protein Powder
When you’ve settled on the best protein for you, there are still countless brands competing for your business. Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you scan the labels:
- If your protein is marketed as a specific type of protein (e.g. whey isolate), make sure that’s the first ingredient in the ingredient list.
- Scan for artificial sweeteners. To keep the carb count low, companies sometimes use these instead of real sugar.
- Make sure the ingredient list is short. You’re buying a protein powder for the protein, after all, not the additives.
- Pick a neutral flavor to get the most bangs for your buck. The most versatile protein powders are the unflavored and vanilla-flavored options.
- If you buy organic or non-GMO foods, you should look for the same in a powder.
Powders come from nearly any source imaginable with a wide range of price tags to match.
In the end, the type of protein powder you choose will be reflective of your dietary needs and food preferences.
And, of course, if you’re downing a protein shake or smoothie each day, it’ll have to pass the taste test! Consider sampling single-serving packets first, so you’re not stuck with five-pound tub of powder you can’t quite stomach.
If you’re still stumped on which variety to choose, consult with your trainer or a certified nutritionist to review your current diet, training goals and intended use in order to make the best possible decision for you!