Whether you’re trying to gain muscle, lose fat, or just get the nutrients you need on the go, protein powder can be a great addition to any healthy-eating plan.
But which one is right for you? After all, the protein powder aisle is stacked with so many options: whey, casein, soy, pea, concentrates, isolates, grass-fed, and more flavor options than your taste buds probably even know what to do with.
It might (OK, it definitely) can feel confusing, but having all of these options is actually a good thing, says Albert Matheny, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S., a consulting dietitian with Promix Nutrition and trainer at SoHo Strength Lab in New York City. It gives you the ability to pick a powder that’s formulated with your exact nutritional needs and fitness goals in mind.
Follow this guide to find out which protein powder will work best for you.
The “gold standard” of protein powder, whey comes from cow’s milk and contains all of the amino acids (the building blocks of protein) your muscles need in order to repair and grow after your workouts, says Board-certified sports dietitian Joy Dubost, Ph.D., R.D., C.S.S.D. Still, you can find whey in multiple forms—concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate—and an endless number of flavors.
Concentrate is the least filtered of the bunch, meaning it contains slightly more carbohydrates and fat (and thus, calories) than the other forms. However, those carbs can help fuel your muscle before or after exercise, and, if you select a whey concentrate from grass-fed, organic cows, any fat will provide healthful compounds such as omega-3s, CLAs (a fatty acid called conjugated linoleic acid), glutathione (a compound made up of three amino acids), and lactoferrin (a compound that supports your immune system), Matheny says.
- True Athlete’s whey protein contains 20 grams of protein per serving—plus it’s free of artificial colors and flavors.
Isolate is highly filtered so that the vast majority of fat and carbs are removed and nearly only protein remains. That makes it a good choice for people who want pure protein or have lactose intolerance, Deubst says. (Most lactose is removed in the whey isolate filtering process.)
- BodyTech’s whey isolate packs 25 grams of protein, with only 2 grams of carbs and zero fat.
Lastly, hydrolysate is a form of isolate that has been partially broken down so that it can be digested even more quickly and easily. It tends to be the most expensive option, making less practical, unless you have trouble digesting isolate, according to Matheny.
- Optimum Nutrition’s Hydro Whey uses hydrolyzed whey protein isolates and contains 30 grams of protein per serving.
Also from cow’s milk, casein protein is more slowly digested and absorbed, making it ideal for exercisers who want to make sure their muscles stay fueled with amino acids while they sleep, Dubost says. For instance, in one Journal of Nutrition study, when exercisers consumed casein protein before bed, they saw greater gains in muscle mass and strength after 12 weeks than a placebo group.
Matheny recommends reading the label for brands that use “micellar casein,” which is the naturally occurring and slowly digesting form of casein your body craves. Luckily, it’s relatively low in lactose, and tends to be well tolerated in those with mild lactose intolerance, he says.
- A serving of BodyTech® chocolate micellar casein contains 24 grams of protein per serving.
Soy protein is a good option for vegetarians and vegans because soy is one of very few complete proteins, meaning it contains all of the amino acids you need for muscle health and strength, Dubost says. She recommends soy protein isolate over concentrate, as is contains higher levels of protein.
While some experts recommend limiting soy intake because of it contains isoflavones, compounds that have weak estrogen-like effects in the body, current research on their effects on health is a mixed bag.
Still, soy allergies are a common reason for avoiding soy protein powder, says Matheny. Plus, according to the USDA, almost 100 percent of soy grown in the U.S. is GMO. Though the World Health Organization states that GMO foods available internationally have passed safety inspections and do not appear to impact human health, search for a non-GMO variety of soy protein or use another protein source if you’re not a fan of GMO.
- Jarrow’s Iso Rich soy protein packs 25 grams of protein per serving—and it’s non-GMO.
If you’re vegan and have a soy allergy, these plant-based protein powders are for you. Unfortunately, unlike soy, all of these vegan proteins are incomplete, meaning they don’t contain a full array of amino acids that your body needs, Dubost says.
For that reason, it’s best to select tubs that contain multiple protein sources. For instance, rice and pea proteins are often paired together in order to supply consumers with a complete amino acid profile, says Matheny. Rice protein tends to be the easiest plant-based protein to digest and tastes less ‘earthy’ than proteins from pea and hemp, he adds.
- Sunwarrior’s Warrior Blend uses a combination of pea, hemp, brown rice, amaranth, chia, and quinoa proteins, and comes in at 17 grams of protein per serving.
- Orgain plant-based powder contains organic brown rice, hemp, chia, and pea proteins, and comes in at 21 grams of protein per serving.
Save this handy infographic to pin down your perfect protein powder: