Protein powder can be a helpful dietary supplement whether you’re just starting a fitness regimen or a seasoned bodybuilder. Protein is in every cell of the body and helps build our muscles, bones, and skin. It is especially important for those looking to burn fat and build muscle mass.
The National Library of Medicine recommends adults get a minimum of 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight daily or 10 to 35 percent of the total caloric intake. Those doing resistance training will need the high end of these recommendations and possibly more than that.
Most experts agree that it’s best to get most of your protein from food. Fish, lean beef, skinless poultry, low-fat dairy, beans, nuts, and seeds are excellent dietary protein sources.
However, reaching the recommended dietary intake of protein can be challenging. For example, busy lifestyles and dedicated fitness routines mean less time shopping for high-protein foods and preparing meals in the kitchen.
Protein powder can be a healthy and effective way to supplement your diet. In just a minute or two, you can mix up a delicious protein shake with water or milk and get a delicious 25g blast of muscle-building magic.
There are hundreds of different protein powders on the market, and it can be overwhelming to choose the right one. The type of protein you need depends on your fitness goals and what you’re looking to spend. Here’s a look at the best protein powder in several different categories.
Best Overall Protein Powder: Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey Protein
Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey Protein has a fitting name. It is the gold standard for protein powder – a versatile, effective, and budget-friendly product that is suitable for anyone from the once-a-week lifter to the seasoned pro. Optimum Nutrition is a powerhouse in the fitness industry, and this is its most popular product.
The one-scoop serving size packs 24g of whey protein in a blend of isolate, concentrated, and hydrolyzed protein. It also has 5.5g of branched-chain amino acids, essential nutrients that we have to get from our diets because our bodies can’t make them. Branched-chain amino acids help build new muscle and prevent the breakdown of existing muscle.
The product comes in 20 different flavors – including the popular unflavored variety – and has a limited ingredient panel without too many weird fillers or chemicals. Depending on the flavor, it averages about 2g of sugar per scoop. It is also an “instantized” powder, so it mixes easily with just a glass and spoon.
When I first got into fitness and resistance training many years ago, a friend recommended this product to me. While I’ve dabbled with other protein powders over the years, I always found my way back to Gold Standard.
Best Limited-Ingredient Whey Protein Powder: Naked Whey 100% Premium Grass-Fed Whey Protein
Naked Whey protein specializes in high-quality protein that has limited ingredients. It does not use artificial sweeteners, colors, chemical additives, or flavors, and is soy and gluten-free. Seeing an ingredient panel with words we recognize can be a breath of fresh air in the fitness supplement industry.
The unflavored variety of Naked Whey protein has only one ingredient: concentrated whey protein. The flavored versions (chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry) have three ingredients, adding a little coconut sugar and natural flavor to the whey.
Naked Whey advertises that it sources its protein from free-range, grass-fed cows on small dairy farms in California and Idaho. Grass-fed cows mean no artificial hormones and a higher concentration of nutrients.
One scoop of the unflavored version of Naked Whey has 25g of protein, 2g of sugar, and 5.9 of BCAAs.
The only negative about Naked Whey is its cost. With its higher quality ingredients from small dairy farms, the manufacturer recoups the cost by charging more for the product. Still, for those on a clean diet looking to get a boost of high-quality, pure protein powder without additives, this might be your best bet.
Best Budget Protein Powder: Muscle Milk 100% Whey Protein Powder
Cytosport’s Muscle Milk 100% Whey Protein Powder is the best budget protein on the market, and it’s also one of the best-tasting. The California-based company makes a protein powder perfect for those looking for a good product that won’t break the bank – broke college students: take note!
People might be familiar with Muscle Milk’s ubiquitous ready-to-drink protein shakes that you can find in convenience or grocery stores. However, they also sell a whey protein powder at a dirt cheap price – less than half the cost of the leading protein powders – and that still packs 25g of whey protein isolate and only 2g of sugar per scoop.
So what’s the catch? While the ingredient list is not extensive, it does unfortunately include artificial sweeteners like sucralose and acesulfame potassium and a bunch of additives like potassium chloride, soy lecithin, and protease enzymes.
However, this is still a quality protein powder that you can trust from a brand that’s been around forever. A Muscle Milk protein shake can be a cheap, guilt-free, delicious snack after a hard workout and will still help you reach your fitness goals.
Best Plant-Based Protein Powder: Vega Sport Premium Vegan Protein Powder
In a blind taste test, you would be hard-pressed to identify Vega Sport Premium Vegan Protein Powder as a plant-based protein powder.
The Canadian-based company – that promises to plant a tree for every purchase you make – sells a delicious protein powder that rivals some of the whey protein behemoths in the fitness industry. As more and more people seek a plant-based diet, Vega is a tantalizing option.
The protein powder has 30g of plant protein, 5g of BCAAs, and only 1g of sugar per scoop. The 2g of fiber per serving is a luxury not found in most protein powders.
Vega Sport’s protein is from a variety of plant sources, including pea protein, pumpkin seed protein, organ sunflower seed protein, and alfalfa protein. It is gluten-free and has no added sugars, artificial ingredients, flavors, fillers, or chemicals. You can feel good about having this product.
However, the product does have two major cons: the price and the sodium content. Vega Sport is one of the priciest options on the protein powder market because of the quality of ingredients and the company’s manufacturing costs. It also has a whopping 370 mg of sodium per serving, so it’s not a good choice for those on low-sodium or high-blood-pressure diets.
Best Premium Protein Powder: Optimum Nutrition Platinum Hydrowhey 100% Hydrolyzed Protein Powder
It’s no surprise that Optimum Nutrition has multiple entries on this list because it is one of the best companies in the supplement industry, and it makes some of the best protein powders in every category.
The Platinum Hydrowhey 100% Hydrolyzed Protein powder is the finest product in the company’s catalog. Open any bodybuilder’s page on Instagram and this is the product you are most likely to see in the background.
Optimum Nutrition makes this protein powder hydrolyzed, meaning it is broken down into tiny little pieces. This makes it easier for the body to digest, meaning it’s theoretically more effective for muscle growth. Most experts agree that the 30-minute window following a workout is the best time to ingest protein – a fast-digesting protein like this is the ideal supplement.
Platinum Hydrowhey has 30g of protein, 8.8g of BCAAs, 1g of sugar, and 3g of carbohydrates per serving. The manufacturer filters it to remove excess fat and cholesterol, creating a product that is almost pure protein. They also take the guesswork out of picking a flavor by only offering two: Velocity Vanilla and Turbo Chocolate.
As for cons, the product is one of the most expensive protein powders on the market. It also has artificial sweeteners and chemical additives, so those looking for a simple ingredient list will be disappointed.
While Optimum Nutrition’s Platinum Hydrowhey is a top-notch product, your average fitness buff likely does not need this level of protein engineering. The company caters this product to elite athletes and bodybuilders who are precisely timing their protein intake. Unless you are training for a fitness competition, there likely are better options out there.
Best Protein Powder for Muscle Mass: Transparent Labs Mass Gainer Weight Gainer Supplement
It may sound like a good problem to have, but some athletes struggle to gain muscle mass or body weight no matter how much they eat. If you have an inferno-level metabolism, a mass-gainer protein powder sometimes is the only solution.
Transparent Labs is one of the finest companies in the fitness supplement industry today and is famous for its transparent ingredient labels. The company fully discloses every ingredient and the exact amount they use, including inactive ingredients like stevia extract and natural flavoring.
The company’s Mass Gainer Weight Gainer Supplement is the best in its category for those looking to add some bulk. A serving size of two scoops provides a massive 53g of protein and 114g of carbohydrates for a total of 790 calories.
One thing you can count on with Transparent Labs is their products taste damn good. The Mass Gainer comes in two delicious varieties: Chocolate Glazed Donut and Sweet Vanilla. These rich flavors taste like milkshakes from a donut shop more than they do gym supplements.
The only downside of this product is it does contain a concerning level of sugar – 17g per serving. However, this is likely by design because of its weight-gain properties.
Best Lactose-Free Protein Powder: Dymatize ISO100 Hydrolyzed Protein Powder
For those who are lactose-intolerant or who otherwise have sensitive stomachs, Dymatize ISO100 Hydrolyzed Protein Powder is an exceptional option.
Dymatize is a powerhouse in the fitness supplement industry. I’ve used its products extensively over the years and would put them up against Optimum Nutrition, Transparent Labs, or any other top-level supplement company.
The ISO100 Hydrolyzed Protein Powder is nearly lactose-free (less than 0.5g) and has less than 1g of fat and 1g of sugar per serving. It also has 25g of high-quality, hydrolyzed protein that is easy for your body to digest.
Dymatize products are famous for their delicious taste in addition to quality, and this product is no exception. It comes in 11 different flavors (I recommend the vanilla), and it mixes easily into shakes or baked goods like brownies.
The cons of this product are the artificial flavors and sweeteners, especially sucralose. While stevia has a fair reputation in the nutrition industry, sucralose does not.
You’ll find Dymatize ISO100 Hydrolyzed Protein Powder to have fair pricing commensurate with its competitors like Optimum Gold Standard.
Any health and fitness expert will tell you that a protein powder won’t magically give you washboard abs and a cut figure. Many people fall victim to the advertising of the multimillion-dollar supplement industry with its scantily-clad fitness models holding tubs of the brand’s protein.
However, protein powder can play an important role in helping you meet your fitness goals. Unless you’re fully dedicated to a fitness lifestyle and have every meal prepped in advance, chances are you’re going to be short on your dietary protein needs some days.
A quality protein powder can help fill the gaps in your diet and give your muscles fuel between meals and after a workout. All of the products above can be mixed in a glass and consumed in just minutes.
There is no shortage of terrific protein powders, and unlike in the past, you can find them almost everywhere. From online ordering and brick-and-mortar fitness stores to pharmacies and grocery stores, there is likely to be a decent selection of protein powders.
Choosing the best protein powder comes down to what your dietary needs and fitness goals are. Always be sure to read the labels, inspect the ingredients, and use caution if there are a bunch of chemical-sounding ingredients you don’t recognize. Hopefully, the products on this list will give you a good idea of where to start on your protein powder journey.