An RD's guide to choosing the best protein powder
Updated: May 28, 2020
Though I generally advise eating mostly whole food in a more natural form, I do think there may be a role for protein powder in your diet. Here’s what you need to know about protein powder along with info about the types of protein powder, how to shop for it, and how to use it.
What is protein powder?
Protein powder is essentially a supplemental form of protein. The protein in different types of protein powders is extracted by various methods from a whole food source, such as whey protein from milk or pea protein from peas. The most popular protein powders include whey, casein, pea, soy, rice, hemp, mixed plant sources, and egg white. Although collagen powder is technically a form of protein, it’s not a good form for building muscle tissue and may not be the best for fighting hunger so I’m not including it here. If you want to read more about collagen, see my blog post about the benefits of collagen.
Do you need a protein powder?
Assuming you’re eating protein-rich meals (all three of ‘em!), you don’t need a protein powder supplement. But I find that many people struggle to get adequate protein at certain meals—particularly breakfast when it’s common to have carb-rich and protein-poor foods, like oatmeal or a bagel. Most adults should be aiming for 20 to 30 grams of protein at meals, which helps you stay fuller, longer, and can potentially help offset weight gain that happens as you get older. Eating a satisfying, and a complete breakfast has also been shown to help reduce snacking later on. A protein powder makes that easier to achieve in one scoop.
That said, there are whole foods that can get you to that mark pretty easily. I’ve compiled many of them in this blog post on high protein breakfast foods, so if you don’t want to mess with any type of protein powder, check out the post to discover alternative, whole food options.
What type of protein powder should you buy?
The first step to determining what type of protein powder you should buy is to decide if you want a plant-based option or if you’d prefer a milk-based option. There’s no wrong answer here! It’s a personal choice. For some people the choice is based on environmental concerns or lifestyle preferences; others may base it on digestibility and health. For instance, though milk-based options are often lactose-free, I’ve heard from some people with sensitive systems that these protein powders trigger discomfort so if you have a severe lactose intolerance, you might want to opt for a vegan protein powder.
You also want to think about how you’re using protein powder since some versions are vanilla or chocolate flavored, which might work well in a smoothie or oatmeal, but won’t match the flavor profile of other dishes.
The main factor in selecting a good protein powder is to look at labels for the simplest ingredients possible. Though you may find added vitamins and minerals, protein powders with few ingredients and additives get my vote. It’s also nice when you see a third party certification, like NSF; this means the product has been independently tested, which is a good reassurance that it has it states it has, is free of contaminants (such as arsenic or lead), and is manufactured at a facility that has quality and safety standards (and is audited to ensure it meets them).
What ingredients should I avoid?
I’m not a fan of soy protein concentrate or soy protein isolate because there are still questions about the safety of this heavily processed form of soy. (Whole soy foods, like tofu, edamame, and soy milk are safe as long as you don’t have an allergy or insensitivity to soy.) I’d also suggest avoiding the potentially pro-inflammatory filler, carrageenan, as well as corn syrup solids, and artificial flavors and sweeteners (such as sucralose or the branded name, Splenda, aspartame or Equal, and acesulfame K). You’ll have to read the full ingredient list to detect these types of additives.
Types of Protein Powders
Whey protein: One reason whey protein gets a lot of attention is because it’s rich in the amino acid, leucine, which is a key player in stimulating muscle growth and recover after strength training2. However, assuming you’re not a pro athlete and that you eat a variety of protein sources throughout the day, I don’t think you need to be overly concerned about this. And as you can see below, studies also link other sources of protein with equal gains in strength and muscle mass.
Pea protein: Pea protein is also a complete protein and research indicates that it’s a worthwhile plant-based alternative.3 The research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that after training and supplementing with either pea, whey, or a placebo (fake) protein powder, there was no difference in muscle thickness or strength among the pea and whey eaters. Pea protein rarely triggers allergies or sensitivities so it can be a good choice if you suffer from these concerns. The main drawback from this type of protein powder is that pea protein isn’t tops in taste. You’ll get used to it in smoothies, but don’t expect to love it out of the gate (or jar).
Rice Protein. This form of protein powder is typically made from brown rice or sprouted brown rice, which is very gentle on your GI system, and it can be a good choice for people who have allergies or insensitivities to wheat, soy, and/or dairy foods. However, on its own, brown rice is lower in protein than many other plant-based options with about 12 grams per serving.
Hemp Protein. Hemp is a plant-based protein that has all the essential acids, making it a complete protein. That said, it doesn’t have all of them in desirable amounts, which is fine if you’re eating other protein sources throughout the day. Also, hemp protein powders typically contain less protein per serving (I’ve noticed between 13 grams and 15 grams on labels) than other forms. The advantage of hemp protein is that, unlike other types of protein powders, it’s also a source of healthy, anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats. Hemp and brown rice protein are often combined along with other plant-based protein sources in mixed plant-based protein powders.
Almond Protein Powder. This type of plant-based protein powder provides 20 grams of protein, but like other plant-based options, it doesn’t have the full array of amino acids you need. Still, that doesn’t concern me if you’re eating a varied diet. What does interest me is that this type of protein powder is really dissolvable and tasteless, which makes it a good option for adding to oatmeal, baked goods (like lower sugar muffins), and even stirred into ready-to-eat soups (on days when you need more protein for an extra-filling meal). It’s also naturally a good source of calcium and other minerals.
Peanut Protein Powder. If you’re fond of peanut butter, you’ll like this protein powder, which has a very distinct PB flavor. A typical serving size has just 6 to 8 grams of protein—far less than other sources. I wouldn’t rely on peanut protein powder for the sole source of protein at breakfast or another meal, but it can be a good way to amp up the protein in baked goods, oatmeal, and smoothies—provided you like the flavor! (I do!)
Mixed plant proteins.These vegan protein powders contain a variety of plant protein sources, which may include pea protein, as well as potentially protein extracted from flax, hemp, pumpkin and sesame seeds, and even possibly from beans and grains (such as millet and quinoa). Though plant proteins are typically lacking in one or more amino acid, combining them is a good way to ensure you’re getting the complete profile4. I’ve already covered off on this above, but what’s good to know about the mixed options is that they might be better tasting than a straight up pea protein powder. I’ll let you guys be the judge of that! (I'm totally fine with pea protein powder at this point!)
Some top protein powder picks:
Naked Whey: This is my top choice for a whey protein powder because it contains just one ingredient: grass-fed whey protein. That’s it. The company also tests its batches to make sure there are no contaminants.
Less Naked Whey: For those who like their protein powder a tad sweet, this clean and simple ingredient list delivers, with just three ingredients (grass-fed whey protein, vanilla, and organic coconut sugar) and a just over a teaspoon of added sugar.
Tera’s Whey Simply Pure Whey Protein, Bourbon Vanilla: If you want a flavored protein powder with less added sugar, I like this organic option, which is sweetened with organic stevia leaf extract, a natural-based zero calorie sweetener.
Naked Pea: Another winner from the Naked lineup and a great option if you’d like to try a plant-based protein powder. Just like the whey, they also make a lightly sweetened Less Naked Pea. As with all of the Naked products, they test for contaminants, which may be more of a concern with plant-based protein powders compared to dairy-based ones.
Noosh Almond Powder: This is a top choice for a versatile almond powder, and it comes in both single serving sizes (for boosting your protein intake on the go) as well as a resealable package. I’ve only seen in online, but if you prefer to shop the grocery store, Barney’s Butter makes an alternative.
PBFIT: I’ve tasted a lot of different types of peanut butter protein powders and I like this one a lot. If you’re wondering what you can do with it, scroll through the delicious-looking recipes on their website for inspo!
If you want to geek out on the science, references are below!
And if you feel overwhelmed or frustrated by healthy eating, or you’re ready to get off the dieting roller coaster and find a sustainable place on the scale, please get in touch! I teach you practical ways to eat and live more healthfully and help you develop strategies that fit within real life, including traveling and dining out. Let’s get to know each other; schedule your call today!