What is the best protein powder? It's a question I am often asked, and it's an answer that always starts with 'It depends'...
Do you want a protein powder to help you bulk up? Or to trim down? Are you OK with dairy or looking for a vegan friendly milk free protein powder?
Are you price conscious or simply looking for the best money can buy?
I decided to answer this question once and for all.
Below I have shared what I believe to be the best protein powder for every purpose - including the best protein powder for performance, the best protein powder for fat loss, the best protein powder for vegans and much much more.
Before we begin, what are the benefits of using a protein powder?
There are a few non-scientific reasons one might use a protein powder, and these include:
All that is good and well, but what about the real benefits of protein powder - why use protein powder in the first place?
Let's take a look at the scientific benefits of protein use:
Chances are you are reading this article because you are overwhelmed and confused when it comes to protein powders...
There are so many brands, types, companies and flavours on the market.
Do you go with a whey protein or plant based? If whey, do you go for cows milk or goats? And then do you go with whey concentrate or isolate? What about hydrolyzed whey?
And then what brand is the best?!
It can be extremely overwhelming, and below I'm going to help you find the right product for your goal.
When it comes to finding the best protein powder, there are a few things you have to consider:
Do you want to go with an animal based protein powder, such as a whey powder or a collagen based powder? Or do you want to go animal free and find a plant based protein?
Typically whey (derived from animals milk) is the best type of protein (for performance, and absorption), but some plant based proteins have improved to the point of similar performance of whey protein.
If you are happy going with animal based protein powders, your options include whey, bone broth/collagen, egg proteins and even protein powders derived from blood.
If you want to go down the plant route, then the main options are rice protein, hemp protein, soy protein or pea protein. Though most manufacturers wisely make a blend of these plants to create a complete protein source.
In a nutshell, if you're not a vegan, go with an animal based protein. I explain why animal based proteins are superior to plant proteins in my article In Search For The Highest Quality Protein (And The Issues It Causes For Diet Guidelines)
You've chosen your source of protein powder, now you have to decide what type of powder you want.
If you decide to go with an animal milk protein then you can choose between a whey protein or a casein protein.
Whey proteins are faster absorbing (and typically better tasting) whereas casein proteins are slower absorbing so great as a meal replacement shake.
Now comes the quality component. Not all whey proteins are equal. Likewise with plant based proteins.
For example, if you are going with a soy based plant protein, you should know that most soy on the market is GMO and laced with glyphosate. I talk about the dangers of soy in my article 13 Reasons Why Soy Is The Worst Food In The World.
Knowing this, you will want to ensure you source an organically produced soy protein.
When it comes to animal proteins, the main thing to look for is whether the animals that provided the milk ate a natural pasture based diet. If not, milk quality will be very different. So look for 'pasture raised' or 'grass fed' on the label.
Failing that, if the whey is from cows in New Zealand or Ireland, there is a good chance the animals ate a natural pasture based diet.
Protein powders are a commodity product, so manufacturers will add various ingredients to their mix so they stand out from the crowd.
Maybe the powder has been blended with creatine, or sugars, or vitamins or some other ingredient.
For some, this can be a good thing. If you are looking at putting on fat, those extra carbs could be a great addition. However, if you're health conscious and just looking for a pure 100% protein powder, then added carbs and ingredients (with questionable quality) is a big turn off.
Likewise, you have to look at for added fillers, additives and flavour enhancers. Some protein manufacturers help with taste by added artificial sweetness such as Splenda. Sure this means there are less sugars in the mix, but you are ingesting a chemical instead.
It's important to look beyond the front label, and check the ingredients list. That protein powder you are buying may only be 60% protein...
If that list wasn't long enough, you still need to factor in:
But don't despair, I have done all the hard work for you and - taking in to consideration all these factors - I have found the best protein powder for your goal!
Everyone has different goals and objectives, so find the goal for you and read my protein powder recommendation.
Note - some of the links are affiliate links, but I assure you every product is the best I could find for each goal. If you are buying from iHerb.com use discount code BHS654 to save on your order.
For muscle gain, you want quick acting, well absorbed, full spectrum protein. You may also want a powder with a few added carbs or creatine to help with that muscle synthesis.
Health should always be a factor, no matter what the goal, so you want quality ingredients without any toxic fillers.
Based on this, I would go with a grassfed whey protein concentrate (WPC)
I like the concentrate over the purer isolate as 1) it's generally cheaper, 2) it has better flavour, 3) the few grams of carbs in the WPC are not of any concern if your goal is muscle gain and 4) the WPC also has a teeny tiny amount of fat - which is chock full of natural vitamins and minerals.
It a nutshell I would be looking for a grass-fed WPC with minimal added ingredients.
Something like ReserveAge Nutrition, Grass-Fed Whey Protein would be a go-to choice here.
It's grass fed New Zealand whey concentrate & the only added ingredients are natural flavours. Another similar product is Jarrow Formulas, Grass Fed Whey Protein. And if you're worried about the lecithin in the above product, then go with Vital Proteins Organic WPC
If you go through a lot of protein powder, then you may want to consider the Bulk Supplements Grassfed Whey product. Note, this is WPI, not WPC though.
Also - if muscle gain is your goal, be sure to read my article Five Foods You Need To Eat To Grow Muscle Naturally
If you want a protein powder to help you lean down, then you want something that has full spectrum amino acids, without any carbs and minimal fats. You want pure protein for muscle synthesis and appetite suppressing properties - and that's it.
There are two options here (well 3 actually). The first is a clean Whey Protein Isolate such as Now Foods Natural Organic Whey.
It's important to go with an organic powder, as we know toxins can make you fat.
The second choice is to get a protein powder that has some fat burning agents in it. Personally, I don't like this idea, as these products often contain potentially harmful stimulants. Also, I couldn't find a quality powder that had such additives in it.
If you want to go down this route, instead I would recommend the Now powder above, and use a product such as Kion Lean in conjunction with the powder. Also, be sure to read my article How To Lose Weight In A Natural, Healthy Way.
The third option applies if you are looking at dropping to ultra low levels of body fat (i.e. for a bodybuilding show) you may even consider skipping the protein powder altogether and taking an essential amino acid blend such as the Thorne EAA Amino Complex product.
When I was dieting for my bodybuilding shows, I would take a scoop of this prior to a training session and again during training and then fast for an hour or so post training to maximise the fat burning effects from growth hormone.
To be honest, even if I was an Olympic athlete the ReserveAge Nutrition, Grass-Fed Whey Protein powder I mentioned above would do me fine.
However, if you are seeking something that is super fast absorbing, you could look at Hydrolyzed Whey Protein Isolates. These are absorbed into the body slightly faster than a standard WPI.
Most hydrolysed whey proteins are aimed at bodybuilders not worried about health - so these protein powders have a bunch of fillers, flavours and various other ingredients.
Personally, I wouldn't use or recommend these.
The only additive free Hydrolyzed WPI I could find was the Bulk Supplements Hydrolyzed Whey Protein Isolate Powder.
Though to be perfectly honest with you, if performance and rapid recovery is your goal, a standard WPI or even WPC would suffice. Actually, I would use a high quality WPC (like the ReserveAge product I mentioned above) alongside the Thorne EAA Amino mix - take the Aminos pre and during training for optimal rapid absorption, and then have the WPC hit after training.
Casein protein powders are slower absorbing but still provide similar benefits of a whey protein powder.
Unfortunately, like the hydrolyzed whey above, there aren't many health conscious casein protein powders on the market. Most of the casein products are filled with junk fillers.
There is however the Bulk Supplements Pure Casein Protein Powder.
It doesn't come from grass fed or organic cattle, so that is a bit of a turnoff, but it's the best I could find (if you know of an organic grassfed casein, please let me know in the comments below and I will update this).
For this, I like Dr. Mercola's Miracle Whey.
This is a WPC protein (from New Zealand grass fed cows) mixed with an NZ colostrum powder (high in immune factor IgG) with a small amount of organic ancient grains blended in.
The only downside is that it's not organic whey. Fortunately, NZ cows are free of artificial growth hormones such as rBGH, and this is Dr. Mercola's product (who is a health nut!) so for those reasons the Miracle Whey gets my recommendation here.
Simple - drink chocolate milk instead.
If you're looking at using protein powders to help with your gym recovery- and can't afford another supplement in your stack - then you may be interested in a 2012 paper titled 'Chocolate milk: a post-exercise recovery beverage for endurance sports.'
This study found that chocolate flavoured low fat milk consumed by endurance athletes aided in recovery by replenishing glycogen stores and helping with muscular damage.
It's important to note that this study was looking at endurance athletes, and the chocolate milk was high in sugars. No comparison was done between milk and high quality protein.
So if you're on a tight budget, grab some chocolate flavoured milk after your next workout session!
The problem with this approach is around milk quality. Chances are the milk isn't organic, raw, grass-fed and flavoured with organic cocoa right?!
In which case, a low cost, well priced whey concentrate is probably your best bet.
If you are looking for a higher quality, yet still low cost option, then I would suggest you go with the Grass Fed version of this NOW product. It is $23.74 for 1.2lb, but use code BHS654 and it will come down to $18.
You have two choices here, you can go with a plant based protein powder, or you could go with a powder that is low in lactose and absorbed better by the gut.
If you want to go with a plant based powder, read on to find my recommendation for that.
If you want to stick with higher quality animal proteins, then you could do one of two things.
If your intolerance isn't severe, you could try a Whey Protein Isolate (WPI) or a Hyrdolysed Whey Protein. WPI has virtually no lactose in it, and most people that can't drink milk are fine with WPI.
My WPI recommendation is Whey Protein Isolate such as Now Foods Natural Organic Whey.
A step above this is hydrolysed whey protein, as this has been partially digested protein isolate and is very gentle on the stomach. If you want to try this I would recommend Bulk Supplements Hydrolyzed Whey Protein Isolate Powder. But note that it's not grass-fed, so there is a health quality trade off here.
The other option is goat protein powder. Goats milk (and hence the whey) is better absorbed by the human gut. A lot of people who can't drink cows milk are fine drinking goats milk for instance.
Here I would recommend Mt. Capra's Goat Whey Protein.
This is non-GMO, antibiotic and hormone free goat protein. Mt Capra also does a pre-digested version called Caprotein, Premium Goat-Milk Protein, so you may want to consider that option as well.
If you're just looking for clean whey without any fillers or other ingredients then I would recommend Vital Proteins, Unflavoured Organic Whey Protein Concentrate.
This is simply pure Organic WPC. Nothing else. Not even a flavour!
If you are looking at saving on the price (and ordering larger sizes) then have a look at Bulk Supplements Organic WPC.
Perhaps you are sick of having tubs of protein in your pantry, or maybe you just hate downing shakes after your workout.
If this is the case, then I suggest you look at my response to 'protein powders for those on a budget' and also my 'performance and recovery' recommendation.
In a nutshell, drink quality milk and take an essential amino acid mix.
The same as the best protein for men! Gender doesn't make a difference when it comes to choosing the best protein powder.
See through the marketing hype, and use the above or below recommendations based on your goal.
This is a tricky one. If you are just looking for a protein powder to add to your smoothie, then I'd go with something like ReserveAge Nutrition, Grass-Fed Whey Protein.
But if you are looking for an 'all in one' powder that can replace a meal on its own then there are a few options.
You could look at a product such as Ambronite - which is a 'drinkable supermeal' made out of high quality, nutrient dense raw ingredients.
Or the Garden of Life 'Raw Organic Meal' powder is chock full of organic products.
Meal replacements powders are an industry in their own right, so there are so many options it is crazy. Personal preference will play a big part in determining whether you like an MRP or not, so you may have to experiment to find what you like best.
Otherwise, be sure to check out my go-to smoothie recipe that you can whip up in a minute!
If you are wanting to avoid animal based protein powders, then you will want to go with a plant based protein powder.
There are many disadvantages to plant based proteins, I'm not going to cover it here as I have done so in the following three articles:
But if you still insist that plant based protein powders are the path you want to take, then my recommendation for a plant based protein powder would be Genuine Health Corporation, Fermented Vegan Protein +.
I like this as it uses a range of plant protein sources (pea, brown rice, hemp, quinoa, alfalfa, spirulina and mung bean sprouts) - ensuring full amino acid counts.
But best of all, these plant sources are fermented - ensuring optimal absorption by the human gut.
I will admit though, the plant protein powder space is extremely crowded, and I'm sure there are many more great products on the market. I simply don't have the time (or desire) to review all these products.
So if you have a plant based protein powder that you think is the best, feel free to leave it in the comments box below (and make sure you explain why it's the best!)
If I could only have one protein powder, I would go with the ReserveAge Nutrition, Grass-Fed Whey Protein.
It's from grass fed cows, it's a concentrate so it still has some of the good fats and sugars, it's free from junk additives and it's a good price.
For most people out there, this will tick all the boxes - price, taste, performance and health benefits.
The only people that won't like this will be those who can't tolerate lactose.
But overall, this would be my top pick!
I hope this article has helped you find the best product for your needs.
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This blog post was written by Alex Fergus. Alex is a ISSN Sports Nutrition Specialist, Fitness Professional and certified Superhuman Coach who continues to expand his knowledge base and help people across the world with their health and wellness. Alex is recognized as the National Record Holder in Powerlifting and Indoor Rowing and has earned the title of the Australian National Natural Bodybuilding Champion. Having worked as a health coach and personal trainer for over a decade, Alex now researches all things health and wellness and shares his findings on this blog. Learn more about Alex's Credentials HERE.
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