Though some people used to think protein powders were just for bodybuilders, these convenient supplements can be helpful for anyone who wants to up their protein intake—including vegans, pregnant women, and anyone who exercises a lot.
While no replacement for whole-food sources of protein, “Protein powders are a great way to boost protein, a highly satiating and muscle-preserving macronutrient,” says sports nutritionist Hayden James, M.A., R.D.N., C.D., C.D.E. You can blend them into smoothies, shake them up with water or milk, stir them into oatmeal, and even incorporate them into pancake or waffle mix.
Before you go ahead and just grab the first tub you see, though, consider the following questions. They’ll help you find the protein that best fits your needs, lifestyle, and preferences.
1. What Is The Protein Source?
“There are so many different types of protein powders available, including plant-based proteins and animal-based proteins,” says New York City-based dietitian Chelsey Amer, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N.
Which protein source is best for you depends on your taste preferences and personal dietary restrictions. “For omnivores and dairy-consuming vegetarians, whey protein is a heavily studied and highly bioavailable protein source,” James says. Vegans, meanwhile, would opt for a plant-based powder.
Not sure what type of protein to pick? This guide breaks down all of your protein options—from whey and casein to soy and rice, pea, and hemp—to help you find the best fit for you.
2. Is The Powder A Complete Protein?
Though animal-based protein powders contain the right variety and balance of amino acids to be considered “complete” proteins, you’ll need to take extra care when searching for a “complete” plant-based powder.
“Plant-based blends usually provide complete proteins,” says dietitian Alesa Latour, R.D.N., L.D.N. While pea and hemp proteins make good powder bases, they typically have other proteins added to provide additional amino acids. Rice protein, meanwhile, is too low in the amino acid lysine to be considered complete.
Wondering if it really matters? “Proper muscle recovery and growth requires all of the amino acids,” says Latour. If you don’t get all of them from your protein powder, you’ll need to supplement with aminos or amino-rich foods.
3. Is The Powder Sweetened? With What?
If you’re concerned about your sugar intake, scan protein powder labels carefully and check ingredient lists for sweeteners.
“Oftentimes, flavored protein powders are sweetened with either real sugar or artificial ingredients,” explains Kate Martino, P.A., who focuses on nutrition and holistic health. “Though it’s generally best to minimize sweetened foods, up to five grams of sugar per serving may be okay after a workout.”
If you want to avoid artificial sweeteners, in particular, look for an unflavored protein powder or one that’s sweetened natural ingredients like stevia, vanilla extract, cinnamon, or monk fruit.
4. Does This Protein Sport Any Quality Seals?
Brands worth adding to your cart have been put through the ringer to ensure they meet or exceed various standards. As a result, they flaunt various logos or seals on their packaging.
“I always recommend purchasing a protein powder approved by an independent testing agency,” says James. A few label certifications that indicate quality to look out for:
- Informed Choice
- USDA Organic
- Project Non-GMO
Look out for The Vitamin Shoppe’s own quality seal, which reflects a rigorous 320-step quality assurance and third-party testing process, on all of our brand name products.
5. How Long Is The Ingredient List?
In foods and supplements alike, super long ingredient lists can indicate a product contains additives. If you’re focused on eating clean, you may want to keep that ingredient list simple.
“Protein powders on the market vary, and some are more processed than others,” says Martino. When in doubt, look for a short ingredients list and ingredients you can pronounce and recognize.
6. Does The Protein Powder Contain Any Allergens You Avoid?
If you have any food allergies or sensitivities, pay extra-close attention to a protein powder’s ingredients list. “Getting a product that contains no soy, dairy, or gluten may be a better choice for someone who already suffers from bloating and other digestive issues,” advises dietitian Jeanette Kimszal, R.D.N., N.L.C.
Though you might pay a premium for protein powders free of certain allergens, it will be well worth the avoided risk.
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