The best protein powder is the one that works best with your body type, fitness routine and athletic goals. There’s a different powder if you’re trying to gain muscle, lose weight, if you’re a cardio junkie or never leave the power cage. There are NSF-certified mixes, plant-based blends, grass-fed blends and more. Much like the multitude of choices out there when it comes to physical exercise, there are plenty of different protein powders to choose from to compliment and aid in your athletic gains.
If you’re a little lost in the world of protein powder, not to worry — we’ve got you. We’re going to cover all of the factors and variables that should go into your powder of choice and how to choose the one that’s right for you. We’ll also cover when to take protein powder, how to consume it and other tips.
What’s the Purpose of Protein Powder?
Protein powder, like many athletic supplements, serves to supplement other vitamins, minerals or organic material your body needs to recover after a workout. It’s concentrated protein that’s designed to make it easier to feed your muscles, organs and cells with the protein they need to build new tissue in a short amount of time and a small amount of food. It typically requires mixing with a liquid of some sort in a blender or mixer bottle, you should never try to eat plain protein powder.
What is Protein Powder Made Of?
Protein powder’s ingredients vary from brand to brand, but many of them consist of a varying mix of powdered proteins from plants, eggs or milk (also known as casein or whey protein). Protein powder mixes can also include additional flavoring, vitamins and minerals like collagen, thickeners and sometimes added sugars. Always be sure to read the ingredients list and nutritional breakdown of the mix before investing in a gigantic tub of protein powder.
Going even deeper beneath the surface, there are three different types of protein powder differentiated by the way in which they’re made. The same proteins taken from animals or plants, when extracted and prepped differently, result in different mixes that have a varying effect on your body. The three most common forms of protein powders are protein concentrates, protein isolates and protein hydrolysates.
Protein concentrates come from extracting protein from whole food through heat in combination with acid or enzymes. This method typically results in a mix that’s 60-80% protein and 20-40% fat and carbs.
Protein isolates takes it a step further through a filtering process that removes those fats and carbs, resulting in a mix that’s about 90-95% protein.
Protein hydrolysates are produced by further heating the mix with acid or enzymes, breaking down the bonds of the amino acids and thus making it easier for your body to absorb the protein.
What does NSF-Certified Mean?
NSF certification means that an external organization from the manufacturers of the supplement has reviewed the product and ensured that it complies with safety, quality, sustainability and performance standards. This certification becomes especially important with professional athletes who may be tested for performance enhancing drugs.
BCAAs and Protein Powder
If you’re dipping your toe into the world of athletic supplements you may or may not have already heard of branched chain amino acids or BCAAs. These are critical to your muscle growth and recovery in many ways, and are important to consider when looking at the ingredients and benefits of various protein powders. Luckily, we’ve written a whole piece on BCAAs which you can reference along with this piece here.
Now, let’s break down the best protein powders available out there for you and your muscular growth.
1. Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey Protein Powder
There are a lot of reasons why this protein powder from Optimum Nutrition tops the list. It has a 100% whey protein blend with 24 grams of protein per serving. The protein consists of protein isolate, concentrate and peptides all mixed into one blend to support lean muscle mass growth. This protein powder blend also has five grams of BCAAs to aid in muscle growth as well. Each serving is low on carbs, sugars, fat and is gluten-free. The powder has been instantized to improve the quality of the powder and prevent clumping, and has been tested for banned substances so you can feel comfortable consuming the product.
2. Orgain Organic Plant-Based Protein Powder
This Orgain protein powder is entirely plant-based without sacrificing the muscle-building power of lean protein. Each serving has 21 grams of protein in it and is USDA-certified organic. It’s also gluten, dairy and lactose-free and contains no added sugar or artificial ingredients. The protein powder itself is made of organic pea protein, organic chia seeds, organic brown rice and organic fiber. Each serving also contains five grams of fiber and only five grams of carbs so you’ll gain lean muscle mass knowing you’re only putting the finest of organic ingredients into your body. The vanilla taste also pairs well in smoothies and shakes and is delicious on its own.
3. Optimum Nutrition Pro Gainer Protein Powder
BEST FOR MUSCLE GROWTH
If you’re looking to put on some serious muscle mass, you’ve got to dial it up a notch. This mix contains high amounts of high-quality protein for maximizing the amount of muscle growth post-workout. Each serving has 60 grams of protein in it and 86 grams of carbohydrates to keep your energy levels up in the gym and beyond. This mix is also only 650 calories and contains 32 vitamins and minerals for supporting your overall health including vitamin C, E, and Zinc.
4. Nutricost Whey Protein Isolate Powder
BEST FOR LOSING WEIGHT
On the contrary, if you’re trying to lose fat and gain muscle, this protein mix powder is a protein isolate mix that contains no extraneous, potentially fattening ingredients. It only contains 130 calories per serving while maintaining 30 grams of protein so your muscles will have plenty to work with during the recovery phase. This produce is also non-GMO and gluten-free. It’s been third-party tested for quality and is made in an FDA-registered facility. This pack is also on the more affordable end, with a five pound container costing less than $50, at around $0.57/ounce.
5. Body Fortress Super Advanced Whey Protein Powder
BEST BUDGET OPTION
This whey protein powder from Body Fortress contains an intense mixture of protein and nutrients while still being affordable, at about $0.53/ounce. This mix contains 60 grams of protein per serving and about 12 grams of BCAAs. This brand is NSF-certified so you know their claims and formula is trustworthy, and the mix is enhanced with creatine and other amino acids that’ll aid in your muscle growth and physical recovery. The mix includes supplements for maximizing the effectiveness of your workout so you’ll be getting a ton of bang for your buck, and it contains no artificial sweetener and zero gluten.
6. Gainful Personalized Protein Powder
BEST SUBSCRIPTION SERVICE
We’ve written a review of Gainful protein powder on the site already, but we’ll give you a few details here. Gainful is a subscription-based personalized protein powder service that tailors your protein mix to your body type, fitness routine and unique goals. They’re committed to transparency about and the quality of their ingredients, and have delicious flavor mix-ins you can add on to your flavorless protein powder order. Their mission is tailored nutrition to you that’s understandable and accessible, so if you’ve got specific goals in the gym we recommend checking them out.
7. Levels Nutrition 100% Grass-Fed Whey Protein Pure Chocolate
This chocolate mix from Levels Nutrition just happens to taste amazing and is clean grass-fed recovery fuel for your muscles at the same time. Each serving includes 24 grams of protein and 5.4 grams of branched chain amino acids. This clean mix contains no added sugars despite the delicious flavor and is a simple recipe with no fillers, gluten, GMOs, hormones or artificial flavors. Their grass-fed milk whey protein is one of the least processed options in the protein space that’s also loaded up with complete protein and those essential amino acids. The chocolate flavor comes from pure cold-pressed cacao and monk fruit extract as a sweetener. This high-quality mix is made in the U.S undenatured to maintain bioactivity and naturally occurring growth, and is micro-filtered so it’s super easy to mix right out of the container.
8. Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides Powder
BEST FOR OVERALL HEALTH
This collagen peptides powder from Vital Proteins doesn’t directly translate to muscle growth but supports the bodily functions surrounding muscles that enable them to function. This includes your ligaments, tendons and joints as well as hair and nails. It’s one of the most bioavailable collagen mixes on the market, meaning it’s easy for your body to absorb and digest, and it’s quick dissolving in hot or cold liquids. I personally use a scoop of this powder in my morning smoothie every day and really enjoy its tasteless mix, quality of ingredients and positive effects. The collagen comes from grass-fed, pasture-raised cows and contains type one and three collagen in one mix.
9. Bodylogix Natural Grass-Fed Whey Protein Powder
BEST NSF-CERTIFIED POWDER
We recommend that NSF certification be a factor in your decision making when it comes to all protein powders, but this is a great option under the umbrella of NSF-certified powders. It has 24 grams of protein per serving and is sourced entirely from grass-fed cows. This particular mix contains no artificial colors, flavors or sweeteners. 100% of the protein is from whey and nothing else. This product has been tested to ensure ever bottle meets quality and safety standard requirements, so you can rest assured knowing that what you’re putting in your body is safe. This powder also has a complete amino acid profile including 5 grams of naturally-occurring branched chain amino acids per serving.
10. Garden of Life Clean Whey Protein Isolate
BEST GRASS-FED OPTION
This clean whey protein mix is grass-fed and certified non-GMO with no added hormones, antibiotics, or sugars. If the cows feel good, the milk and thus milk protein is going to be good for you, and this grass-fed mix is your best bet. This protein powder is especially formulated for optimal refueling and recovery after a difficult workout with 24 grams of grass-fed whey, 4 grams of glutamine and 6 grams of branched chain amino acids. This grass-fed protein powder mix also includes immune system support, rBST and rBGH-free and has two billion CFO probiotics mixed in as well. It has multiple third-party certifications for quality and credibility including NSF-certification and Informed Choice.
11. Garden of Life Organic Plant-Based Protein
BEST PLANT-BASED OPTION
Contrary to what MANY hard-o’s in the fitness world believe you can totally be plant-based and achieve major muscular milestones in the gym, and this plant-based protein powder from Garden of Life is going to help you get there. This sport formula protein is made with peas and beans and has 30 grams of complete protein and 5 grams of BCAAs per serving. This blend also promotes faster and healthier recovery with a high-antioxidant blend of tart cherries, organic apples, turmeric, gogi berries and blueberries. This blend also contains the immune system support of 2 billion CFU probiotics so training won’t hinder your body’s ability to fight infection.
12. Ladder Whey Protein Powder
BEST BOUTIQUE BRAND
If you’re always looking to be the one in your friend group who discovers the “next big thing,” this protein powder is probably for you. Ladder is a smaller brand we got sent a sample of, and it’s great. All of their products are. They emphasize essential amino acids in addition to branched chain amino acids in all of their blends that are both required to recover properly. Many protein powders contain anywhere from 30-80% absorbable protein, which means there’s a lot of other crap sitting around in your system afterwards. Ladder isn’t like that, they focus on whey protein isolates in this blend that are guaranteed to provide a minimum of 90% pure absorbable protein. It’s also available to buy in a large bulk bag with a scoop or in individual on-the-go packets for busy gym bodies.
13. Ancient Nutrition Bone Broth Protein
BEST BONE BROTH
Yes, bone broth protein powder is a thing and it’s a great protein supplement for those looking to go only the highest-quality route. It delivers all of the protein power of homemade bone broth in a mixable form you can drink in your morning shake or protein mix. It has all the perks of protein powder compounded by the nutrients found in bone broth that include collagen, gelatin, glucosamine and key minerals that are often missing from the standard American diet.