Here’s How to Choose the Best Protein Powder to Meet Your Health Goals

·11 min read
Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy


"Hearst Magazines and Yahoo may earn commission or revenue on some items through the links below."

Protein powder seems so simple at first: All you need to do is add a scoop to your smoothie, right? But as soon as you search “best protein powder,” you’re faced with a ton of choices. Suddenly, you’re picking between whey, soy, casein, pea, rice, hemp, and all different varieties of blends—not to mention options with added sugars, bonus ingredients, and plant-based formulas. It’s almost like a lower-stakes version of buying a new car.

Despite the seemingly endless products available online, finding the best protein powder for your needs is is pretty simple. We tapped dietitians to break down what to look for in your ideal protein powder and recommend a few top-rated brands to add to your diet.

How to choose the best protein powder

As you scan labels, Jennifer McDaniel, M.S., R.D.N., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, recommends choosing options that include their specific type of protein (like pea or soy) as the first ingredient; then, it’s best to go for ones that don’t use artificial sweeteners, keep their ingredient lists short, and have neutral flavors like vanilla or unflavored. Now, it’s time to pick the right kind of protein for you.

Know your diet. There’s a protein powder out there for every diet imaginable; plant-based eaters can enjoy soy and pea protein, for example, while paleo adherents can reach for egg white protein. And if you’re dairy-free, avoid whey or casein and reach for hemp or soy. Before you settle on one, make sure you’re clear on your eating plan.

Understand PDCAAS. “One of the more recent, accepted ways to assess the protein quality and bioavailability is the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS),” McDaniel explains. “PDCAAS ranks proteins on a quality scale of zero to one.” The closer to one, the better; whey, casein, and egg white score 1.0, collagen scores 0.0, and plant-based options score in the middle.

Consider your goals. Protein powder can serve many purposes. Of course, it’s most often used to build muscle, but it can also support your overall nutrition and round out vegan diets. It can even help you lose weight. Whey is the most efficient protein source for bulking up, McDaniel says, but casein can leave you feeling the most satisfied, and hemp provides a ton of fiber. This will help distinguish which type of protein powder you should try first.

Ready to explore some new options or learn more about your favorite? These are the best protein powders to try, according to dietitians and reviewers.

Best Whey Protein Powders

Choose a whey protein powder if you want to increase your protein intake or are looking to build or maintain muscle, McDaniel advises. Derived from cow’s milk, whey is a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids—the ones your body can’t make on its own. Whey enters your bloodstream faster than any other protein and boasts the highest level of the amino acid leucine, which provides muscles with the necessary fuel to power through a workout and build mass.

Best Overall: Naked Whey

With only three ingredients and 25 grams of complete protein per serving, Naked Whey is ideal for gym goers and casual athletes alike—it’s clean, tasty, and pretty affordable, too. It’s a concentrate, meaning it’s slightly lower in protein than whey isolates, but McDaniel appreciates that this one contains no growth hormones, comes from grass-fed cows, and is free from additives. This option is “the ONLY protein powder I’ll ever use,” one Amazon reviewer says. “I didn’t expect to find one that I actually looked forward to eating. The taste is light and not overwhelming—just delicious.”

Best Value: Muscle Milk Protein Powder

Muscle Milk’s whey comes in at just under 60 cents per ounce, a steal compared to many of its competitors. But it doesn’t skimp on nutrition: You’ll get 32 grams of complete protein per serving, but only 3 grams of sugar. And because it’s a whey isolate, it’s absolutely packed with muscle-building protein, McDaniel explains. “I’ve tried many other protein powders over the years, especially during my competitive powerlifting days, trying to find the ‘best one’ and always found myself coming back to this brand,” one reviewer writes.

Best Upgrade: NorCal Organic Vanilla Whey Protein

This whey protein powder isn’t exactly a steal, but it justifies its price tag with a few key features, including non-GMO and organic ingredients, American Humane Association-certified dairy, and real vanilla extract. “This is probably the best whey on the market,” one Amazon reviewer raves. “It’s worth every penny if you can afford it. I have done extensive research on the organic whey protein market, and believe it or not, this is the best value in the highest quality bracket.”

Best Texture: Levels Grass-Fed Whey Protein

With a solid 25 grams of protein per serving, only two ingredients, and glowing reviews, this is the ideal protein powder for adding muscle. It’s “the best, most digestible whey powder I’ve yet found,” an Amazon reviewer explains. “Even in a cheap, old shaker bottle filled with cold almond juice, this powder requires minimal effort to get into non-gritty solution.”

Best Bulk Buy: Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey

When you go through a ton of protein powder, it’s not worth buying smaller quantities—you need something with more heft. This truly massive container (it’s 10 pounds, people!) of complete whey protein is ideal. “This whey protein gives me the strength to move mountains. Build walls. Break them back down. Build another wall,” one Amazon reviewer writes with a wink. “I am strong now.”

Best Casein Protein Powders

Casein, the main protein in milk, is absorbed more slowly than whey, so it’s not quite as efficient at building muscle, McDaniel says. But it can leave you feeling fuller longer, which makes it a great addition to meal replacement shakes or your morning oatmeal, especially if you’re trying to lose weight. Casein has also been found to enhance muscle building when blended with whey in a post-workout shake.

Best Overall: Naked Casein

This micellar casein is the slowest-digesting casein (meaning it’ll keep you feeling satisfied the longest) and comes in a bulk container that’s perfect for people who don’t want to order a replacement every few weeks. “What’s awesome about this protein is it will stay with you for hours, slowly feeding your body,” one reviewer says. Plus, it’s relatively low in sodium.

Best Value: Now Sports Micellar Casein Protein Powder

Boasting 19 grams of protein at just over a dollar per ounce, this cost-effective, unflavored protein powder more than deserves a place in your pantry. It’s another micellar casein formula, ensuring that you’ll feel fuller for longer. “You can tell this is a superior quality to other micellar casein by the lack of grittiness,” an Amazon reviewer explains. Bonus: It contains just two ingredients.

Best Plant-Based Protein Powders

Soy protein is made from ground soybeans that have been dehulled and defatted. It digests at a moderate rate and contains greater amounts of the amino acids glutamine and arginine, which may help support immune function, digestive health, and brain function, McDaniel says. It’s a complete protein and considered the most effective plant-derived source for building or maintaining muscle.

Pea protein, derived from yellow peas, is the most digestible of the plant proteins, making it a good alternative for anyone with a sensitive stomach who doesn’t want dairy or soy. But it’s not a complete protein—it’s low in two amino acids—so pair it with another plant-based protein such as hemp or rice protein to round out its amino acid profile and make it complete.

Hemp protein is made from nutrient-packed hemp seeds, and while it’s not the best for boosting muscle because of its lower protein content and PDCAA score, it does provide a good dose of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. Pair it with pea or rice protein to round out its amino-acid profile and make it complete, McDaniel recommends.

Best Overall: Amazing Grass Protein Superfood

Although this blended, vegan protein powder is plant-based, it’s a complete protein. There’s a reason this option recently topped our list of the best vegan protein powders: It’s got a hearty mix of pea, quinoa, chia, and hemp proteins, plus extra fruits and veggies for added nutrition. “As a weightlifter, I was tired of all the cholesterol in whey protein, so I decided to go plant-based,” a reviewer writes. “I really like this protein, as it is a complete protein source with a lot of vitamins in it. The taste is on par with other whey proteins.”

Best Value: Vega Protein & Greens


This affordable, plant-based powder offers a mix of pea and brown rice proteins, but its true selling point is its added veggies, which include broccoli, alfalfa grass, kale, and spinach. It’s like a green smoothie in the form of a protein shake, complete with plenty of vitamin K and iron. “Overall, this is one of the best budget protein powders I’ve tried,” one Amazon reviewer explains. “I also have a very sensitive stomach (dairy- and gluten-free) for anyone concerned about that, and this powder doesn’t bother me one bit. Definitely recommend!”

Best High-Protein: Garden of Life Sport Plant-Based Protein

This vegan option proves that high-protein supplements don’t need to come from animals to be effective. Looking for complete protein? USDA-certified organic ingredients? Extra probiotics and fruit? You’ll find that all here. “This protein powder is top notch,” one Amazon reviewer explains. “I’ve been using it in smoothies for the past 10 days, and am happy to report it doesn’t cause any discomfort, bloating, or stomachaches, as I experienced with some other protein powders.”

Best Soy: Bob’s Red Mill Soy Protein Powder

This complete protein powder, with is made with just two ingredients, is extra-pure and ready for your next shake. Offering 16 grams of protein per serving, absolutely no sweeteners, and smooth texture, it’s “great added to homemade bread or cookie dough for a big protein boost,” one reviewer notes.

Best Pea: PlantFusion Complete Protein

Although this powder is technically a blend, it’s mostly pea protein—and it’s got extras to ensure that it’s a complete protein with plenty of healthy extras for an added boost of nutrition. Plus, McDaniel notes, it’s easy to digest. “It does not upset my stomach, as other powders have done,” one Amazon reviewer writes. “This is a great breakfast, since it’s one less thing for me to worry about.”

Best Hemp: Bob’s Red Mill Hemp Protein Powder

This hemp protein powder, which offers plenty of fiber and iron along with 14 grams of plant-based protein, has a single ingredient, meaning it’s as simple as it possibly can be. “The flavor is a little bit ‘green’ at first, but you get used to it very quickly,” one reviewer notes. “I love it for my protein breakfast smoothies.”

Best Non-Dairy Protein Powders

Egg white protein is just what it sounds like: Dried egg whites that have been turned into a powder. This protein digests slower than whey but faster than casein. Although it’s not quite as good as whey or casein in terms of muscle protein synthesis, it’s still a good option in a post-workout or meal-replacement smoothie.

Meanwhile, collagen is a blend of connective tissues from cows and fish—and it may aid in protecting your joints, building muscles, and supporting your skin health. “Some believe that collagen ingested will work more quickly than the collagen that is mixed within skin creams,” explains Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., author of Read It Before You Eat It.

Best Egg White: Julian Bakery Paleo Thin Protein Powder

This option is great for paleo eaters and is a favorite among Amazon shoppers, since it packs in 25 grams of complete protein per serving with only 1 gram of carbs and no sugar. “It really is flavorless!” one says. “You cannot beat getting real protein from egg white.”

Best Collagen: Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides Powder

This peptide option—the most versatile of all collagens, Taub-Dix says—is seriously beloved. It’s got 20 grams of protein per serving, along with hyaluronic acid and vitamin C for extra nutrients. “My hair is definitely growing quicker than before,” one reviewer reports. “My hair and nails are definitely stronger … my skin—definite improvement.”

You Might Also Like