How To Pick The Perfect Protein Powder!
Ranking the best protein powders of 2023
Protein powder is a highly concentrated and powderized supplement that’s derived from protein-rich foods like milk, peas, soybeans, and bone broth.
It’s widely used by athletes for better strength gain and muscle recovery following tough training sessions, but it’s also incredibly useful if you are trying to lose weight or maintain a lean physique.
Protein powder has a number of special biological properties that make it ideal for dropping fat and maintaining muscle mass.
Our researchers have ranked the ten best protein powders for staying fit and healthy, whether that means adding muscle at the gym or fighting body fat.
Why You Should Trust Us Our advisory panel and our research team rank the best health products and supplements based on performance, label accuracy, and the efficacy of the ingredients in the products.
Last updated: November 1, 2022
Protein powders considered: 31
Hours of research: 58
Experts reviewed: 8
Scientific papers referenced: 23
1. Ladder Whey Protein Powder
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Ladder offers two types of protein: whey and plant-based. Their whey protein contains a mix of whey isolates and casein protein to consistently fuel your muscles with amino acids, ensuring maximum protein synthesis.
Ladder whey only uses natural sweeteners, without the use of fillers, additives, or coloring. With its NSF-certified badge, you can be confident that every serving of Ladder whey is compliant with even the strictest Olympic standards. If you are going to buy any protein powder, this is BodyNutrition’s top choice.
2. Ladder Plant Protein Powder
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Ladder’s plant protein provides a complete essential amino acid profile (something almost all other plant-based protein powders don’t have), ensuring maximum bioavailability and nutrition for those who follow a vegan and vegetarian lifestyle.
The blend-ability is amazing, and the taste is completely smooth, without the use of artificial flavors and colors. If you are going to get a plant-based protein powder, this is the ultimate choice.
3. Natural Force Organic Whey Protein
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If clean, natural, and pure ingredients are important to you, Natural Force should be near the top of your list.
Their organic protein powder comes from grass-fed organic cows and is flavored only with vanilla extracts and stevia leaf extract.
The organic certification means it’s less likely to have contaminants, and healthier cows from a grass-fed diet means healthier protein in your protein powder.
4. Transparent Labs Organic Vegan Rice and Pea Protein
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Transparent Labs makes purity and simplicity a priority, which really pays off in their plant-based vegan protein powder.
By using a combination of rice and pea protein, it delivers a complete amino acid profile without relying on animal products. On top of that, it uses organic cocoa powder and stevia for all-natural, non-caloric flavoring.
5. Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey
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When it comes to straight whey protein, Optimum Nutrition is the best pick. It’s got a mixture of whey protein isolate, whey protein concentrate, and whey protein peptides, and is flavored with natural and artificial flavors that don’t add any sugars to the ingredients.
It comes in a huge five-pound tub and is well-suited for fitness enthusiasts who go through a lot of protein on a regular basis.
6. Myprotein Impact Whey Protein Isolate
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Myprotein makes an athlete-focused protein powder that uses only whey protein isolate (the purest form of whey protein), flavored with cocoa powder, artificial flavoring, and sucralose.
It blends up in a shaker bottle easily thanks to the soy lecithin included as an emulsifier, so if you don’t mind the artificial flavoring, it’s a top pick for athletes.
7. Left Coast Performance Bone Broth Protein Powder
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With a protein source that’s even more concentrated than whey protein, the usual standard-bearer, Left Coast Performance makes a great protein powder that’s paleo, low carb, and keto diet friendly.
It’s got less than one gram of sugar per serving, and the protein content is north of 90% by weight.
Vegans need not apply—this complete amino acid profile is derived from grass-fed beef bones, which makes it great for both athletic performance and for weight loss.
8. Less Naked Whey
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Want a clean and simple protein powder but hate the taste of unflavored whey? Less Naked Whey has got you covered. Using just whey protein concentrate, coconut sugar, and cocoa powder for flavoring, Less Naked Whey is a great tasting and simple protein powder without any unnatural ingredients.
The only downsides are that whey protein concentrate is not quite as pure as whey protein isolate, and the coconut sugar does push the sugar content up a bit, to 5 grams of sugar for every 25 grams of protein.
Not a deal-breakers for most people, but it does likely rule this protein powder out for strict low-carb dieters and people on a ketogenic diet.
9. Garden of Life Raw Organic Protein
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As far as plant-based protein protein powders go, Garden of Life is the very best. WIth a complete amino acid profile thanks to the variety of vegetable sources of protein, it can compete with the best animal-based protein sources.
The addition of sprouts, superfoods, and enzymes for digestion make it well-tolerated and exceptionally healthy.
10. Manitoba Harvest Hemp Yeah! Organic Max Fiber Protein Powder
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Hemp protein is one of the best sources of protein if you are using it for weight loss purposes, thanks to the extremely high fiber content in a good hemp protein powder.
Manitoba Harvest makes the best hemp protein on the market, due to its organic certification and cold-milling process. While this protein powder is only 50% protein by weight, there’s an astounding 13 grams of fiber for every 11 grams of protein.
If you want a protein powder that really feels like a full meal, Manitoba Harvest is what you want. As with most single-source plant-based proteins, the amino acid profile isn’t as robust as an animal protein, but that’s not a problem if the rest of your diet has some additional sources of protein.
Best protein powder overall: Ladder Whey Protein
Ladder’s flagship protein blends whey protein isolate for rapid muscle repair with casein protein for sustained amino acid availability. This combo, plus the NSF-certified purity, makes it an excellent choice for just about any purpose and garners our top overall spot.
Best keto protein powder: Ladder Whey Protein
Ladder is our recommendation for keto dieters because it delivers high-quality protein without relying on sugary sweeteners for flavor. This prevents the kind of insulin spikes you can get with other protein powders.
Best protein powder for weight loss: Left Coast Performance Bone Broth Protein
Left Coast is super low in non-protein calories and delivers a super high quality animal-based protein, which makes it particularly effective at stimulating thermogenesis. Both of these properties make it a great choice for weight loss.
Best organic protein powder: Natural Force Organic Whey
Natural Force provides a potent and 100% organic whey protein that’s sourced from grass-fed cows’ milk. With this level of commitment to quality it’s impossible to beat when it comes to
Best vegan protein powder: Transparent Labs Organic Vegan Rice and Pea Protein
Transparent Labs has a firm commitment to purity and quality in its ingredients. Add to that the dual-ingredient strategy to ensure this protein powder has a complete amino acid profile and you’ve got a winner when it comes to vegan protein.
Best lactose-free protein powder: Ladder Plant Protein Powder
Ladder’s focus on high-quality ingredients and great taste extends to its plant-based protein as well. Instead of dairy, this protein relies on pea protein and pumpkin protein to deliver a complete amino acid profile, making it perfect for people who are lactose-intolerant.
Who should buy protein powder?
Protein powder is an incredibly versatile supplement, whether your goals are gaining muscle mass or losing weight. It’s particularly well-suited for people who fall into the following categories:
Athletes looking to improve their strength and gain muscle mass. Protein powder is the most important supplement for serious athletes, thanks to its ability to enhance strength gains, repair muscle damage, and solidify increases in lean body mass.
People looking to lose weight. Protein powder is surprisingly useful for shedding fat as well as gaining muscle. That’s because protein shakes induce a satiety effect, making you less hungry. On top of that, the amino acids in protein powder (especially animal-based proteins like whey and bone broth) induce a thermogenic effect that cranks up fat oxidation.
Older adults looking to maintain strength as they age. Declines in muscle mass and muscular strength are a leading cause of frailty in older adults, and research shows that taking protein on a regular basis can stave off these declines in muscle mass (especially when combined with exercise).
How we ranked
Protein powders can come from a variety of sources, and some are better than others. Given the popularity of protein powder, there are dozens upon dozens of protein supplements on the market. We used an evidence-based approach to rank these products and find the top ten.
Broad range of amino acids. According to research, animal protein powders like whey and casein are a lot more beneficial to the body than plant-based sources since they provide a complete protein source. As such, we ranked animal protein products like Optimum Nutrition and Ladder Whey higher than plant-based proteins that used a single plant protein source.
Clean sourcing of raw ingredients. We took a close look at how each of the sources of protein were processed, rewarding products with clean sourcing.
For example, with whey protein products, we preferred whey isolate protein powder that was from grass-fed cows. This ensured no dangerous hormones or antibiotics found its way into the protein.
Products that used independent lab testing, like the NSF-certified Ladder products, garnered more points, again thanks to their clean sourcing.
Great taste with no artificial additives. While we did prefer delicious flavors, it was more important to us that products used natural sweeteners, as the long term research on article sweeteners is unclear.
We also opted for products that contained minimal fillers, carbs, and fat. Purity was king for us, and protein powders that weren’t pure were severely penalized.
Easy to incorporate into protein shakes and meal replacement shakes. Blend-ability was another crucial element, as no one wants a chunky protein shake. We opted for protein powders that blend up easily in water, milk, or milk substitutes, without leaving chunks.
Q: When is the best time of day to consume protein powder?
A: Protein powder can be consumed either before or after a workout to equally beneficial effects.
One study demonstrated that the myth of the “optimal window” for post-workout nutrient intake is actually much wider than previously thought (1), with the optimal time to take your protein being within a few hours of your workout.
Q: Is protein powder suitable for vegetarians and vegans?
A: The most common sources of protein, like whey and casein protein, are vegetarian but not vegan. Fortunately, there are plenty of great vegan protein powders on the market too.
These vegan proteins achieve a full range of amino acids by incorporating multiple different plant sources of protein in their formulation.
Q: What are the common sources of protein for protein powder?
A: The most popular protein powder sources include whey, casein, colostrum, soy, pea, rice protein, and carob germ powder protein.
Q: What are the advantages of whey protein powder?
A: Whey is the most commonly used protein powder.
This is because it contains all nine essential amino acids and is also water-soluble, which means that it helps to support lean muscle mass and strength development.
These factors make it an easy go-to for protein powder production.
Q: What are complete proteins, and why are they important for protein powder?
A: Complete proteins are proteins that contain all essential amino acids, which are the building blocks for cellular growth.
Both whey and casein are considered complete proteins found in dairy products, which is why they’re often used in protein powders.
Plant-based proteins can only be complete if they include multiple sources of protein: for example, pea protein is often paired with rice protein to achieve a complete amino acid profile.
Q: Should I add protein powder to my diet?
A: Protein powder is useful for anyone to incorporate into their diet.
It’s particularly useful for busy athletes who want to make sure their bodies are getting all the essential amino acids and complete proteins they need in a day.
Having a dependable protein powder supplement can help you maximize your performance when you don’t have time to plan a meal, but you still want to stay on track with your fitness goals.
Q: Is protein powder compatible with a paleo diet?
A: Dairy- and plant-based proteins are compatible with a paleo diet.
While protein powders are inherently processed, they are sourced from natural ingredients and can help you keep your protein intake at a healthy level.
Q: Why do athletes take protein powder?
A: Protein powder is a useful supplement when it comes to gaining muscular strength and mass, losing weight, and maintaining weight loss.
In addition to its widely-known ability to increase muscle repair and augment strength gains, protein powder also increases feelings of fullness and upregulates your body’s baseline metabolic rate, meaning it helps you burn more calories throughout the day.
Protein powder also appears to prioritize burning fat above burning muscle, meaning that your weight loss is more effective—you’ll drop more fat and maintain more muscle mass.
Protein powder is an incredibly popular supplement with a wide range of uses, from boosting muscle mass gain in athletes to fighting frailty in older adults to maintaining lean body mass while dropping fat mass.
Many of these benefits are linked to protein powder’s ability to heal muscles, increase satiety, and turn up your body’s metabolism.
When taken at the right dose, protein powder is one of the best ways to gain strength, drop fat, and improve or maintain your physique.
For BodyNutrition’s #1 recommended protein powder, click here.
How to Decode Protein Powder Labels
The right jug has nutrients to build muscle. The wrong one has a lot of BS. Let us decode the label to help you make the best choice.
Follow these tips next time you pick up a tub of protein so you'll be at your muscle-building best. These options are also a great place to start.
Spot-Check the Protein Source
Your best bet is to go with whey-protein isolate. “It’s typically less expensive, it’s a complete protein, and it’s more easily absorbed,” says Jim White, R.D.N., owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios. By comparison, casein-based powder is digested more slowly, making it slightly less effective for muscle synthesis. And collagen protein? Well, not many studies prove its effectiveness.
More From Men's Health
Target the BCAA Ratio
It’s short for “branched-chain amino acids,” three protein building blocks essential for maintenance and growth. Most labels list BCAAs as a ratio of leucine, isoleucine, and valine, in that order. Look for two parts leucine to one part isoleucine to one part valine. This ratio is ideal for muscle building, fat loss, and fatigue, says White. If these amino acids are not listed, go with another powder.
Cap Those Carbs
Find a protein powder that has up to 3 percent of your daily value of carbs per serving. Carbs increase insulin, which promotes amino-acid absorption, stimulating muscle growth, says NancyRodriguez, Ph.D., R.D.N., a nutritional-sciences professor at the University ofConnecticut, Storrs. Plain protein powder with eight ounces of low-fat milk will give you the post workout carbs you need.
Go Easy on the Sweets
Companies often use artificial sugars or natural zero-calorie ones like stevia in order to keep calories and carbs low. That’s a noble pursuit, but here’s the thing: Animal studies report that artificial sweeteners may harm beneficial gut bacteria. While stevia doesn’t seem to cause problems, it tastes weird, so it’s often mixed with xylitol and sorbitol, sugar alcohols that may cause gas and bloating. Go unsweetened.
jorgegonzalez // Getty Images
These helpful bacteria may be good for you, but “the amount and type of probiotics needed to provide beneficial outcomes depends on the person and their current gut microbiota,” White says. Better to talk to a registered dietitian, who can recommend probiotic foods
or a supplement.
Trust the Third-Party Seal
The NSF International (National Sanitation Foundation) “Certified for Sport” seal means a product contains what the label says it does, has been tested for contaminants and substances banned by major athletic organizations, and is made at a facility audited annually for quality and safety. Not many powders have the seal; it’s worth it to find one that does.
The Bottom Line
Choose a protein powder that’s ideally unsweetened with as few ingredients as possible, protein as the first listed ingredient, and the NSF seal. If you can tolerate dairy, opt for whey-protein isolate. A ratio of about 150 calories per 25 grams of protein is good for muscle building and fat loss.
How To Pick The Perfect Protein Powder!
I like to think we're living in the golden age of protein. Protein has never been as popular as it is today, and I'm glad people everywhere are finally embracing the power of this mighty macronutrient. Protein is a critical building block that aids in the growth, maintenance, and repair of muscle, and there's no denying its impact on strength, performance, and body composition.
As a nutritionist, I find it interesting that so many myths about protein have come and gone, including the claim that the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) was perfect for all adults, regardless of how much they trained, and that if you ate more protein than the RDA your kidneys and bones could be in danger. Obviously a lot has changed. In recent years it has become clear that people who exercise regularly need more protein than the RDA, and that higher intakes are quite safe.
However, with so many protein supplements on the market, one of the most common questions I get asked is which one to buy. Below are some guidelines to help you pick the right protein type and product for your personal fitness goals!
Protein: The King Of Performance Nutrients
Protein makes up roughly 80 percent of muscle mass (once the water is removed), and is responsible for muscles' structure and action. In addition to high-protein foods, many athletes rely on protein supplements to help optimize muscle size, strength, and performance. But when it comes to protein supplements, the bottom line is that not all proteins are created equal. Before we get into the different types of protein, let's quickly go over how proteins are classified:
Concentrates: The concentration and processing of protein in powder form can yield different compositions, based on the degree of removal of "non-protein" parts. For example, protein concentrates contain about 70-80 percent protein, with the remaining percent from carbohydrates, minerals, moisture (water) and fats.
The concentration and processing of protein in powder form can yield different compositions, based on the degree of removal of "non-protein" parts. For example, protein concentrates contain about 70-80 percent protein, with the remaining percent from carbohydrates, minerals, moisture (water) and fats. Isolates: Protein isolates, on the other hand, have had more of the non-protein parts removed and contain up to 90 percent protein with a lesser degree of the non-protein nutrients. For instance whey protein isolate is about 86 percent protein (90 percent dry weight).
Protein isolates, on the other hand, have had more of the non-protein parts removed and contain up to 90 percent protein with a lesser degree of the non-protein nutrients. For instance whey protein isolate is about 86 percent protein (90 percent dry weight). Hydrolysates: The term hydrolyzed protein, or hydrolysates, refers to the presence of partially digested proteins including polypeptides and peptides. "Partially digested" may sound undesirable, but it may actually be beneficial! In addition to providing amino acid building blocks, peptides might have additional actions in the body.
Your Protein Program
There are several protein types to choose from, each with their own unique aspects and potential benefits. When it comes to protein powders, milk proteins, egg, and pea are among the most desirable.
Whey is by far the most popular protein supplement because it has been shown to promote muscle growth and fat loss. It is digested and absorbed faster than other proteins, making it the ideal choice to consume either immediately before or after a workout.
Whey is approximately 20 percent of the protein in cow's milk and has the highest branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) content, including roughly 11 percent leucine and 9 percent combined isoleucine and valine, yielding a 2:1:1 relationship.
Leucine is a very desirable amino acid since it plays a direct role in optimizing muscle-protein manufacturing after strenuous training and in response to a protein meal by increasing the activation of the mTOR pathway. Moreover, whey is probably the most thermogenic protein, meaning that the increase in calories burned per calorie consumed is greater than other proteins. This is likely tied to a more acutely potent effect on muscle protein synthesis.
Casein, the main protein you'll find in milk, is a slow-digesting protein—especially when compared to whey. Depending on how much you consume, casein can take more than six hours to be fully digested and absorbed by the body, which makes this protein great for a sustained amino acid delivery to muscle.
Although it has a lower anabolic, or direct muscle-building effect, when compared to whey, casein is a good source of BCAAs as well as glutamine, which helps it reduce muscle-protein breakdown. Remember net gains in muscle protein reflect the imbalance between muscle protein synthesis (anabolic) and breakdown (catabolic). Thus glutamine lends support more on the anticatabolic side.
Because of its slow-digesting properties, casein is often recommended before bed or in between meals, either by itself or in blends with other proteins.
We know milk is great for dunking chocolate chip cookies into, but did you also know it's great for speeding up recovery after an intense workout? Milk protein contains all of the essential amino acids in a natural 80/20 ratio of casein-to-whey blend, which allows for the fast and sustained release of amino acids necessary for muscle growth.
Milk protein isolates and concentrates are common in protein-powder blends, creamy protein RTDs (ready-to-drink), and protein bars.
Eggs are making a serious comeback now that some of the long-held beliefs about their role in heart disease are being dismissed. The egg protein found in protein powders is mostly egg-white protein isolate, and is an egg-cellent alternative for people with milk allergies!
Egg protein is also at the top of its class when it comes to quality. With a score of 100 on the biological value (BV) index, egg protein contains all the essential amino acids necessary for protein synthesis, and is easily digested by the body.
Perhaps not as well-known as its protein counterparts, pea protein is a great option for vegetarians and those with allergies to dairy and eggs. Not only is it hypoallergenic, it's high in BCAAs and boasts a 98 percent digestion rate—meaning the body is able to use and process the majority of amino acids per serving. This makes pea protein far superior to other plant-based protein powders, which can be difficult to digest and are not well-utilized by the body.
Protein Targeting And Timing
Most sport nutritionists agree that athletes and individuals who train hard in the gym need to make protein a major nutritional consideration and target it throughout the day. A good rule of thumb is to set a target at or around 20-30 percent of total calories, or 1 gram per pound of lean body weight—or your lean body weight target—with personalization based on calorie level and meal frequency. For example, a lean 190-pound athlete eating 3,000 calories would target roughly 190 grams of protein per day, which approximates 25% of caloric target.
Furthermore, each meal should be based on protein, whereby you consume at least 20-30 grams of protein (depending on body size and protein type) every three hours of so. This will help optimize muscle-protein synthesis (MPS) throughout the day. Further still, there are three key meal targets during the day whereby protein is critical:
"Most sport nutritionists agree that athletes and individuals who train hard in the gym need to make protein a major nutritional consideration and target it throughout the day."
Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few months, you've probably heard of protein spiking and nitrogen spiking in the news. Some brands have been tagged as using additional amino acids like taurine and glycine and even creatine to increase the protein count in a product. They're able to get away with this because all those additional nutrients contain nitrogen, which is the factor used by laboratories to estimate how much protein there is in a product.
The problem is that, while those ingredients have their own benefits, they are not protein, nor will they have the same impact on muscle growth or performance benefits as intact protein. So how do you know if the protein you're taking is high quality and contains the right amount of protein?
Look for leucine-content call-outs for on the protein powder's label. Leucine, an essential branched-chain amino acid critical for muscle-protein production, appears to help maximize the mechanisms that "trigger" or stoke muscle-protein synthesis, resulting in strength, power, endurance, and size development. Look for at least 2 grams of leucine per serving (scoop). For a whey protein powder the math is easy, a 25 gram protein claim would yield around 2.5 grams of leucine since whey protein is roughly 11 percent leucine. Keep in mind that casein and soy contain less leucine, about 8 percent.
Overnight, muscle protein breakdown (MPB) is increased, and losses can be as much as 5-15 grams depending on body size and diet throughout the day and leading up to bedtime. Protein and some carbohydrates first thing in the morning help reverse this negative impact on muscle protein and stimulate MPS. Shoot for at least 20-35 grams of protein at breakfast, again depending on body size, protein type, and total protein targets for the day.
Pre- And Post-Workout
A strenuous training session can elevate both MPS and MPB. Your goal is to maximize the former and minimize the latter with both protein and some carbohydrates, either immediately before or after training. Like breakfast, aim for around 20-35 grams of protein.
During the night in an unfed state, muscle-protein balance slides more toward MPB than MPS to generate free amino acids to help fuel the body. Consuming at least 20 grams of casein or whey and casein blend, or a lesser amount protein combined with supplemental BCAAs or more specifically leucine, will help keep MPS higher as you sleep.