How to Buy Protein Powder

Fuel your workout needs with the right formula for your fitness goals

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Protein powders are packed with the nutrients that our bodies require to build strong muscles and tissues, and they also are great for suppressing hunger pangs. You might be looking for a quick pre-workout or post-workout snack or a full meal replacement on busy Monday mornings. The convenience of easily adding protein to shakes or smoothies has made this powder a staple in pantries of weight-builders, busy moms, working professionals, and dieters alike.

These supplements are the end result of various manufacturing processes that isolate protein from its whole-food source, allowing it to be refined into a shelf-stable product that is ready for use. Often vitamins, minerals, fiber, fat, and flavoring are added. The result is an easy way to boost protein intake and it can be added to beverages or used in cooking or baking.

When shopping for protein powders, you’ll be looking at factors like the protein source, whether or not it has added flavoring, and if its compatible with your fitness goals or diet. While whey dominates the protein powder market, egg, soy, and other plant-based proteins are other readily available options.

What to Look for When Buying Protein Powder?

Protein Source

One of the biggest ways to separate protein powders is to consider what food the protein is being extracted from. Milk, eggs, soy, and rice are some of the most common, but there are a lot of possibilities.

Look for a protein powder that matches your nutritional needs while avoiding any allergy triggers or food intolerances. If you are lactose-intolerant, protein from a dairy source like milk may not be ideal. This may rule out whey and casein, two of the most popular protein powders on the market. If you are looking for a lower carb option, rice protein may not be your best option. On the other hand, if you are following a plant-based diet, protein powders from peas, hemp, or artichokes are available. 

Purpose

Determining your primary purpose for using a protein powder can help you to identify which powder may be the best choice for you. Some of the most common reasons people reach for protein powders are to support muscle gain, lose weight, or for other wellness reasons.

For building muscle mass, many people turn to whey protein since it contains a high concentration of branched chain amino acids (BCAA) and is quickly digested by the body. This means that the building blocks needed for lean muscle will be quickly absorbed by the body and put to work as your cells rebuild fatigued muscles post-workout.

On the other end of the spectrum, you may be looking to lose weight by drinking protein shakes or smoothies as meal replacements. This can be a quick, convenient way to get enough protein while skipping excess fat and carbohydrates—and resisting the draw of a fast-food drive-through on your daily commute. You’ll still see plenty of whey protein powders for weight loss, but some add other superfood ingredients to boost your nutritional intake.

Plant-based protein powders are also very popular in this segment since they generally offer a great ratio of protein to calories and have virtually no fat or cholesterol. Just watch out for added sugars, which can hinder your efforts to shed a few pounds. Unflavored or naturally-flavored protein powders are the best bet if you’re looking to lose weight but stay satisfied with a smoothie or shake.

Diet

If you’re lactose intolerant, don’t despair. While whey does hold sway for building muscle, studies have shown that muscle growth is boosted just by increasing protein intake post-workout—regardless of the source. So beef, egg, soy, or plant-based protein powders can still be beneficial for muscle-building.

For those looking to add protein powder to the mix in order to support a general wellness routine or specific diets, such as Keto or Paleo diets. It can sometimes be tough to come up with healthy, good-for-you breakfasts or snacks, and a smoothie with protein powder can hit the spot.

This is especially true if you’re on a diet that excludes one or more major food groups. People that follow a paleo or keto eating plan often find that a protein shake or smoothie is an easy way to boost protein intake while nixing hunger pangs. Many plant-based protein powders have been of benefit to paleo dieters as well as vegetarians, including options like pea or hemp protein powders. Egg and bone broth protein powders have also attracted fans. Keto-adherents especially appreciate the convenience of finding a protein powder with added MCT oil, a staple of the Keto way of eating.

Protein Form

Protein is processed to take one of several forms: concentrate, isolate, or hydrolysate. This is a more technical point to consider, but the form of protein can impact how quickly it’s digested and what percentage of the powder actually contains protein versus fats, carbs, and other nutrients.

Protein concentrate results when the other nutrients in the food are eliminated. This yields a protein powder with anywhere from 70–85 percent protein. What is making up the other 25–30 percent? It’s usually a combination of other nutrients, like carbohydrates and fat. The protein level is concentrated by volume, compared to the protein if you ate the food whole.

Concentrates are formed by using high heat to dehydrate the protein source and acid extraction to eliminate non-protein components. Some people feel that the high heat may have a damaging effect on the nutritional value of the protein. But protein concentrates are typically the most affordable type of protein powder available.

Protein isolate is a purer form of protein powder, with about 90–95 percent of the finished product being pure protein. Ionization is the most sophisticated form of manufacturing protein isolate, but a water or alcohol wash is also commonly used. Once the isolate has been created from the protein source, it is filtered to remove additional trace components. The result is a very pure protein source.

Hydrolyzed protein isn’t as common and is a more expensive means of manufacturing protein powder. But with this method, you get the most easily digestible protein. To create a hydrolyzed protein powder calls for adding water to the protein source. Through a series of chemical reactions, the hydrogen breaks the protein polymers into smaller groups known as peptides. These peptides are two to five amino acids linked together that your body can easily absorb and use for building muscles and tissues.

Flavor

Some protein powders are unflavored, while many have added flavors like chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry. There are even decadent-sounding dessert flavors, like molten chocolate or peanut butter cookie.

Of course, these tasty sounding flavorings require the addition of other ingredients—sometimes including chemical additives or artificial sweeteners. So if you opt for a flavored protein powder, be sure to read the product label and choose one that fits your nutrition plan without sneaking in unwanted ingredients.

Unflavored protein powders, however, are generally much more pure with only a few ingredients. This is great if you’re concerned about clean eating or limiting additives, but it may not have the same rich or sweet taste of flavored protein powders.

While the taste of unflavored protein powder varies depending on what the source of the protein, they’re generally rather bland. Some people don’t mind mixing unflavored protein powder with water or milk for a quick shake, but others find that it’s necessary to add more flavor by blending the protein powder with fruits, peanut butter, or other ingredients.

The advantage to unflavored protein powder is that you can use it for a wide variety of purposes. Make a fruit smoothie with it today and a rich dessert shake tomorrow. Or use it to boost the protein of your favorite soup or cookie recipe. With so much versatility, many people find a lot of surprising uses for unflavored protein powder.

What Is the Best Type of Protein Powder for Me?

Whey

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Whey protein powder is one of the most widely available protein powders on the market. It also is one of the most affordable options, and a larger multi-serving tub costs anywhere from $15 to $60. Made from the liquid by-product of cheese production, this dairy-derived protein powder is the most popular type of protein powder. You’ll commonly see it in concentrated form, but isolate and hydrolysate varieties are also widely available. Isolate is generally considered to be a better choice for a whey protein powder since it contains almost no fats and carbs and significantly less lactose, but it is often more expensive than the concentrated form and isn’t considered to be as tasty.

The flavor variety available in whey protein is almost unbelievable—whip up a protein-packed shake that tastes like cake batter, peaches and cream, or even a mocha cappuccino. But the real reason to go this whey isn’t for the fancy flavors—it’s the protein power of whey that sets it apart. Whey contains all nine essential amino acids, making it a complete protein source. In addition, the protein contained in whey is quickly and rapidly digested by the body, which means it will be absorbed and utilized faster by the cells that need it most. This is why whey protein is so popular with bodybuilders.

However, this rapid digestion also means that it won’t keep blood sugar as steady as some other protein powders that digest more slowly. For this reason, whey may not make the best meal replacement protein powder. It also tends to be highly processed and contain many additives compared to other protein powders. And if you have a milk protein allergy or are lactose-intolerant, whey may not be a good fit.

The creamy texture and wide availability of whey protein powder have made it a shelf staple for people with just about any lifestyle or fitness goals. Since whey proteins have been used for decades and have been widely studied, much is known about the benefits of this protein powder. While it’s best suited for people looking to gain muscle mass, it makes a solid choice for anyone looking to add an affordable protein powder to their routine.

Soy

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Soy is a high-quality plant protein that has made a name for itself by containing all nine essential amino acids. No other single-source plant-based protein powder can make this claim.

However, soy has had its controversies. There are conflicting theories on the impact that soy has on hormones and thyroid function, though the latest research seems to point toward soy being less detrimental to hormone levels than previously believed. Still, concerns swirl over soy because it’s often a GMO-product.

The good news for soy protein powder is that it’s free of dairy and animal-based protein sources, which is good news for vegans and others seeking a purely plant-based protein powder that contains all of the essential amino acids. It also tends to be less expensive than some other types of protein powders. A multi-serving tub (usually around 2 pounds) is anywhere from $15 to $30.

While soy protein is available in concentrated form, a soy protein isolate may be a better choice since it minimizes the presence of lectins and digestive enzyme inhibitors naturally found in soy. 

Rice

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If you want to avoid dairy-derived protein powders or soy-based products, rice protein powders are another option. Made from brown, white, or whole-grain rice, these protein powders are considered to be hypoallergenic and easily digested. This makes it a good choice for people with food allergies or trouble with digestion of other protein sources, like dairy or meat. Rice protein powder is generally considered to be tasteless, which makes it an excellent addition to your favorite recipes that need an extra punch of protein.

One drawback to rice protein powder is the fact that it lacks lysine, one of the essential amino acids. This means that rice is not a complete protein source and you’ll need to supplement your diet if you’re relying on rice protein powder for your nutritional needs. To solve this problem, some manufacturers of rice protein powder have blended it with other plant-based proteins to create a powder that contains all nine essential amino acids.

This protein powder is often sold in smaller 1-pound containers and costs between $15 and $20. 

Other Plant-Based Proteins



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 Courtesy of Amazon

There is a growing list of other plant-based protein powders, including pea protein, hemp protein, and artichoke protein. The price for these protein powders varies depending on protein source and any other nutrient additions but can range anywhere from less than $10 a pound to $20 or more per pound.

Pea protein is quickly becoming a favorite vegan protein powder since it omits soy, dairy, egg, and meat ingredients. It does lack an essential amino acid—cysteine. However, it’s naturally fat-free, cholesterol-free, and gluten-free.

Hemp protein is another rising plant-based protein powder. It has gained fame with its natural source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which can boost cognitive function, reduce inflammation and give you more energy. However, the higher fat content translates into a higher calorie count compared to other protein powders. Additionally, hemp is not a crop that can legally be grown in the United States, so it must be imported which can up the price of this protein powder.

Leading Brands

There is an abundance of companies manufacturing protein powders to suit a wide range of fitness goals, nutritional needs, and budget. Some large retailers like GNC and Walmart market their own private-label protein powders, while many other companies have popped up that are solely dedicated to producing protein powders, such as Vega. There are also brands like Garden of Life that have earned loyalty over the years for making top-notch health supplements and have expanded into protein powders.

Optimum Nutrition: One of the leading manufacturers of whey protein, Optimum Nutrition is consistently on top of best-selling protein powder lists. While the company offers a line-up of other protein powders, including casein, egg, and plant-based proteins, they’re most well-known for their products that focus on the use of high-quality whey protein isolate.

Naked: This brand of protein powders has made a name for itself as one of the cleanest protein powders on the market. The list of ingredients for their whey, casein, pea, and even goat whey protein powders is super short—as in, one ingredient short. That’s hard to beat if you’re looking for a pure, simple source of protein. You can also get less naked and go with one of the company’s naturally flavored protein powders.

Garden of Life: A popular name in the supplements world, Garden of Life offers six different types of protein powders including varieties targeted for sports, weight loss, or meal replacement. The big claim to fame here is that all of these protein powders are made with USDA organic and non-GMO ingredients.

Muscle Milk: Easily found in the aisle of your local grocery store, Muscle Milk is an easily-recognized brand of protein powder and ready-to-drink protein shakes. While the brand has gained traction with people looking for convenience and too-good-to-be-true taste, these things come at a cost‚ the ingredient list includes additives and artificial sugars that might make you think twice about choosing this protein supplement.

Ready to Make a Purchase? Here Are Some of Our Favorite Protein Powders:

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