With so many protein powders out there, how do you know which one to choose?
If you’re like me and eating as many foods in an all-natural state as possible, minding your added sugar intake and avoiding processed dairy, even the “all-natural” protein powders can present a challenge.
And, if you’re okay with dairy and want a quality whey protein powder, what are the guidelines for choosing one?
Don’t worry – I’ve got you covered.
I also included some really important information below the recommendations about protein intake and why this nutrient is so vital – especially if you’re training regularly. Please use it as a reference.
To all my lovely ladies who are worried about it “bulking you up” – I hope this helps clear up some myths and empowers you with the knowledge to balance your nutrient intake more effectively!
Allow me to present my personal choice awards – along with some information about protein powder processing and some things to watch out for. Feel free to click the links I’ve included and read more about the products – they will open in a new window so you can continue reading the article.
#1: Warrior Food: Natural Vegan Protein
Why I recommend this: Health Force, the company behind Warrior Food is dedicated to the quality of their products. They use only non-GMO, sprouted brown rice and hemp seed protein for this superior protein powder blend.
It doesn’t matter if you’re vegan or not, this protein powder is formulated for absorbability. The problem with regular grains is that you can’t actually digest them very well, due to the phytic acid that’s found on the external coating of the bran. This phosphorous-bound acid binds with important minerals in your gut as it passes through, stripping them from your system.
Soaking, sprouting, fermenting or otherwise enzymatically breaking down grains as a form of pre-digestion is the absolute best way to ensure our bodies can absorb their nutrients.
The addition of the hemp seed protein is what really sold me on this blend. Hemp is one of the best sources of easily digestible plant protein there is, which means the grams of protein listed on the jar are getting used and absorbed by your body.
They also include BCAA’s (or branch-chain amino acids) in their protein blend. Essential branch chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) cannot be made by the body and must be acquired through food. BCAAs are metabolized in muscle tissue, rather than in the liver for faster utilization and they are proven to increase strength, endurance and muscle synthesis, enhance recovery, reduce muscle soreness and inflammation and improve energy and mood.
Warrior Food Protein Powder doesn’t have any added sugars* AT ALL, making it my top choice and what I currently use. I usually add it to a green smoothie, or blend it with fruit and water or almond milk because this does not taste “yummy” by itself. I’m also a fan of this company’s commitment to their product – they package it in hard plastic, 100% recyclable containers that preserve the nutrients.
Features: sprouted grain protein, hemp protein, BCAA’s, non GMO, vegan, gluten-free, soy free, no added sugar
#2 Egg White Protein Powder
Why I recommend this: Egg white protein is one of the most bioavailable proteins in existence. It's got all the essential amino acids, and it's totally great for anyone without a specific dietary restriction (vegan, egg allergy, etc).
I always liked Jay Robb egg white protein powder, even though they add lecithin to their blend (which is an emulsifying compound extracted from soybeans that improves shelf life) - and they are a well-known company and brand. They use egg whites from hormone-free chickens, and don't add any sugar or products to the protein powder (aside from the lecithin).
They've recently switched their packaging from containers to "reusable ziplock pouches" which I'm not sure about - though they are still offering reusable containers for sale. Interesting.
Some of the things to look for when it comes to egg white protein powder are:
1. Where the eggs come from - for example, are they farm raised or commercial?
2. Have the chickens had growth hormone injected?
3. How has the protein powder been processed? Typically they will pasteurize it (heat) to kill any harmful bacteria. Jay Robb does flash pasteurization, and doesn't do any additional heating (which can inactivate some of the protein).
4. Is there any added sugar, sweetener or additional products added?
I personally think it's important to get a variety of protein sources, so this is one I keep in the mix and don't use as a staple since I prefer to just eat whole eggs in their natural form, and usually opt for the protein powder above. But when it comes to absorbable, quality protein, egg white is right at the top.
I often use it when I'm making protein pancakes or muffins - though be sure to add a little extra liquid if you do as this is a protein powder that will affect the texture of your baked goods. It's also naturally salty, which I use advantageously in recipes like the No Bake Peanut Butter Protein Bars. Also cool is you can often find it in individual packets which is helpful for traveling.
Features: gluten free, dairy free, no sugar added, excellent bioavailablity of protein, hormone-free chicken eggs
Protein: 24 g
#3 Garden of Life Organic Plant Protein (Grain-Free)
It’s really creamy - even when I blend it in my blender bottle - no chalky or grainy taste even without the blender.
It’s got a nice blend of plants - pea, flax, cranberry, chia, pumpkin, moringa - which is an African leaf that's loaded with potassium - and baobab, rich in minerals and antioxidants.
It also contains BCAA’s to help with protein absorption, 13 raw enzymes, and 1 billion CFU of probiotics for better digestion.
This company is USDA Organic and GMO free. This blend contains 15 g of protein per serving – which is a little lower than the two above. I will say it is far superior to many of the other protein powders on the market, and one I'm using all the time.
I've had excellent results baking with it (I like making protein pancakes, and adding natural protein powders to my muffins) this protein powder does a great job!
Features: plant proteins, wide variety of protein sources, grain free, soy free, vegan, gluten free
Protein: 15 g
#4 Jay Robb Whey Protein Isolate
Why I recommend this: If you are okay with dairy, when it comes to protein powder it's ALL about the quality of the process the manufacturer uses. Whey contains whey proteins, lactose, minerals and small amounts of fats. There are several different methods that accomplish the filtration of the whey protein from whey - and may often be heated, sprayed or flavored, colored, etc (no different than non-dairy protein powders - which is why it pays to read the labels).
There are 3 ways whey protein is processed**:
Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC) - Produced via ultrafiltration of whey, this refers to whey proteins that contain < 90% protein concentration, but could be as little as 20%. Usually the specific concentrations will be notated following the term “WPC”, such as WPC “85”. The rest of the concentration is made up of lactose, minerals, and fats.
--->avoid this kind of whey if you are lactose intolerant, and opt for one of the 2 below (which are often more expensive due to their processing)
Whey Protein Isolate (WPI) - May be produced by a variety of membrane filtration techniques, with the goal of reaching >90% protein concentration and removal of most (if not all) lactose. Manufacturers will also often combine filtration with an ion-exchange technique to selectively filter out particles by ionic charge rather than just molecular size
Whey Protein Hydrolysate (WPH) - A relatively new technique in whey protein production, whey protein hydrolysates are produced via enzymatic hydrolysis of either WPCs or WPIs. Essentially, this acts as a method of “pre-digesting” the protein by separating (i.e. lysing) peptide bonds; hence the time for digestion and absorption of amino acids will be reduced.(
**descriptions courtesy of MuscleandStrength.com
Many common whey protein powders will be a combination or hybrid of WPC and WPI, which makes them more cost effective, but less pure quality. I'd definitely opt for a blend over plain WPC, but top of my list (if I ate dairy!) would be the WPI or WPH.
Avoid brands that have sugar added in the form of fructose, dextrose and maltadextrin. The Jay Robb natural has no added sugar. They do use stevia to sweeten the chocolate and vanilla flavored brands (read below for more on that and make your own decision).
I like Jay Robb's approach to this entire process. They're pretty cost-effective, and they use a cold filtration process that doesn't denature any of the protein. They also use whey from farm-raised, pasture-grazed, grass-fed cows that haven't had any bovine growth hormone injected - something that is HUGELY important to me as a consumer and should be a strong consideration in purchasing your dairy products. The quality of any animal product is going to be vastly affected by its environment, diet and treatment.
Features: whey protein isolate, pasture-grazed, grass fed cow's milk, no bovine growth hormone added
Protein: 25 g
ADDED 1/22 HONORABLE MENTION:
SFH Whey Protein Powder -
I've been using this one in the rotation ever since I discovered it at Whole Foods. It doesn't irritate my stomach at all and is made from grass-fed whey concentrate, sweetened with stevia, and well formulated.
You can order the individual packets to try it out and save some $ before ordering the full on bag. I love the taste. My faves are the chocolate and vanilla - not a strawberry fan, but if you are, you might like their newest flavor.
Very similar to Garden of Life and Warrior Food, the SunWarrior Warrior Blend protein is also a mix of sprouted plant protein - namely pea protein and hemp protein. Their proprietary blend includes goji berries as well.
They are all made from non-GMO plants, and are soy, dairy and gluten free and vegan.
The naturally flavored protein (in the photo) does not have any added sweetener, and contains minimal ingredients. If you're using the natural one, I'd recommend using something to add flavor like cacao powder or fruit.
Features: non GMO plant sourced protein, sprouted plant protein, hemp protein, no added sugar, gluten free, dairy free, soy free, vegan
Protein: 18 g
Other natural Protein Sources:
More on Hemp: I also recommend raw hemp seeds as a good natural protein source. They also contain all the essential fatty acids and other nutrients as well. You can also buy hemp protein powder, but I see no point in this at all when whole, hemp seeds are usually just as available and you're going to blend the protein powder anyway.
If you're using a blender bottle or shaker cup however, hemp protein powder would be a great option. It is going to have less protein per serving (about 15g) than the above, but if you're adding other nutrients that contain protein to your shake this won't be a concern.
Stevia and Sugar in Protein Powder
*A note on added sugars: the plain version of the protein powders I use generally don't have added sugar (even stevia). However, some of their flavored (vanilla or chocolate) powders do.
My primary reason for avoiding sugar in my protein powder and food is that I don't want added sugar. Swapping out "natural sugar" for other sugar is still adding sugar to the diet - but as long as you're being mindful of your daily sugar intake a little sweetener in your protein powder probably won't send you over the edge...just be sure you know what you're putting in your body.
I don't think there is anything wrong with protein powder that has stevia added. I just know that the more accustomed I get to eating sweet things on a daily basis, the more I want them. My goal is to avoid added sugar as often as possible, and enjoy it on purpose when I do eat it.
I use protein powder in addition to the protein I include in my daily intake from plant and animal sources, and only have a protein powder once a day - generally on days I train. My goals are currently maintenance - to determine what's appropriate for you, do your research, consult with a personal trainer or check out the following information:
Include Protein with All of Your Major Meals.
When I decide what I'm going to eat at any time of day, whether I'm at home, in a restaurant, or at the grocery store, the first thing I think about is what protein source I'm going to include.
Building the rest of my meal is easy once I figure out the protein. That's because protein is the foundation of every vital function in our body, and I'm not going to make the mistake of leaving it out!
Eating protein is not going to “bulk you up.”
It’s an important nutrient that’s responsible for multiple body functions. It is even more satiating than fat or carbs, and it can boost your metabolic rate while lowering your appetite. If you're constantly craving sugar or sweets, it is important to take a look at the nutrients in your daily dietary intake to see if you're getting enough protein, fat and complex, wholesome carbohydrates.
Animal protein is generally a complete protein (meaning it contains all the essential amino acids your body needs) while plant protein (with a few exceptions) is generally incomplete. However eating a combination of plant foods can make a complete protein. I eat a mixed diet, and include grass-fed whey protein powder or sprouted plant based vegan protein powder several times a week to ensure I'm meeting my needs without having to cook EVERYTHING.
HOW MUCH PROTEIN DO I NEED?
The “right” amount for each individual is going to vary depending on your activity level and goals - just like any other nutrient. Just like most body tissue, muscles are in a constant state of breakdown and repair. To gain muscle, you have to eat more protein than your body is breaking down.
For people whose goal it is to gain mass, increasing protein intake will help build muscle and strength (in conjunction with a fitness regimen of course).
For individuals who want to hold onto the muscle they have while losing body fat, an increased protein intake is also appropriate as this increase spares muscles tissue while losing weight.
A common recommendation for gaining muscle is 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, or 2.2 grams of protein per kg. This estimate is a bit high for those in maintenance mode or general fat loss (while active and maintaining muscle).
It’s hard to give an exact figure because of how much conflict there is in studies but it’s safe to say 0.7-1 grams (give or take) per pound of body weight is a reasonable estimate.
Beware of online calculators on bodybuilding sites that will tell someone weighing 120 lbs that they need to consume 180 g protein per day. Wowza! That may be appropriate for a competition diet, but that's not something you should undertake without supervision from a qualified professional, IMO.
Like any of the nutrients, eating a range of food sources is a good way to ensure you're getting adequate minerals, vitamins, phytonutrients and everything you need to maintain your lean muscle and decrease fat storage.
I'm unable to provide a review of every protein powder on the market but I sincerely hope this post will help you make good decisions with what is available where you are!
Let me know what protein powders you prefer and why, I'm always interested in learning more about YOU and hearing your thoughts!