Last Updated: 9/20/18
With so many protein powders out there, how do you know which one to choose?
If you’re like me – eating as many foods in an all-natural state as possible and minding your added sugar intake – even some of the “all-natural” protein powders can present a challenge.
This guide will help you navigate the often confusing maze of choices in protein powder out there, and give you some of my recommendations on trusted brands.
My hope is that you can use the guide to find the best option for you, whether or not you use my recommendations.
Protein powder is a SUPPLEMENT to a healthy, whole food diet, and is not something you have to have to be healthy. That said, it can definitely be a very helpful and cost-effective way to get enough protein in your system without having to cook all your meals.
Please read Protein 101 to understand why you need it, how much you need, and to see if having a supplement is a good idea for you.
What to Look For:
When it comes to your protein powder, it’s more about the ingredients than it is the actual brand. What’s in a powder mix (or what’s NOT) is what gets my stamp of approval.
It goes deeper than that, though – you also want to look at the source of those ingredients. Is it plant-based, non-GMO, grown in good, healthy soil, and free from potentially harmful chemicals?
It’s also about how the protein is actually made. There is an extraction process that takes the raw material into a powdered concentrated protein, so I’ll give you some things to look for there in the different kinds.
Added 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 natural sugars). However, if you’re not planning to add any fruit or natural sweetness to your shake, this can be pretty unpalatable! I generally opt for a protein that’s been sweetened with something natural like monk fruit, coconut, or stevia.
A lot more companies than ever before are opting to use low-calorie, or no-calorie sweeteners in their supplements to meet the growing consciousness about the detriments of overconsumption of sugar. Be on the lookout!
I strongly encourage you to avoid any sucralose (aka Splenda), dextrose, maltodextrin, cane sugar, and all sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols like erythritol and xylitol are very popular right now in mainstream products because they are a “no calorie” sugar that adds a lot of sweetness.
Neither of these digest in the body, and can cause bloating and irritate the gut in some people. Also, erythritol is made from cornstarch, which is most often GMO cornstarch.
I do pay attention to added sugar in my protein powder – just like I would with any food I’m buying that’s pre-made. 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 overall sugar intake, a little natural sweetener in your protein powder from a wholesome source probably won’t send you over the edge…just be sure you know what you’re putting in your body and choose mindfully.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with protein powder that has some natural sweetener added. Just read the label and be sure you know how much sugar is included in a serving (for example if the label is referencing a scoop is 6g of sugar and you need 2 scoops to make 1 serving, that’s actually 12g of sugar – nearly half of the daily recommended limit for women).
Even some sugars that sound healthy can be overused – I’ve seen some “healthy” protein powders just loaded with sugar from rice syrup or another non-threatening sounding sweetener. So just pay attention.
I 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. So just be aware and mindful and be sure you’re not nickel and diming your sugar intake away in your supplements.
How I Use It:
I rotate through different protein supplements just like I rotate through different whole food protein sources, different greens in my smoothies, different forms of complex carbs, etc. It’s important to give your body a variety of amino acids.
Even protein powders with a “complete” protein don’t always have everything YOU need all the time as your needs vary – so mix it up. I personally rotate between at least two throughout a week in addition to other whole food sources of protein.
You’ll see that for each recommendation, I’ve broken down a few basic facts, like how much protein is in a serving, the price and featured ingredients.
Of note: I sincerely appreciate my readers who help me stay on top of the protein powders on my list, as companies do change their formulations periodically (for various reasons, i.e. to save money, or because an ingredient is no longer available). If you notice something in this article that isn’t what you’re seeing on a manufacturer’s label, please feel free to tell me in the comments, as I WILL investigate, and I do update this list* and stand by my recommendations – these are all brands that are in the heavy rotation in my cupboard!
I am currently formulating my own protein powders so I can give you 1000% confidence in a protein powder that I am happy with and meets all my criteria. Stay tuned for more on that!
#1 Plant-Based Multi-Source Protein Powder
Why I recommend this: I like a protein powder sourced with a couple plant sources of protein to get a broader spectrum of amino acids and benefits from plant foods I might not eat daily. I love getting plant protein from a combination of a couple of things, like rice, pea, pumpkin or hemp. Some protein powders also have superfoods added as well, which can be a nice bonus.
I give preference to organic protein in this case, and also am looking for a non-GMO label. 100% Certified Organic means non-GMO, but if you can’t find an organic protein (sometimes it’s hard to source ALL the ingredients as organic), look for the non-GMO label to ensure you’re not putting genetically modified foods in your body inadvertently.
What to Look OUT for:
It’s so important to know how the plant protein has been extracted from its source. There are 3 main methods for extraction:
- Hexane based: hexane is a chemical neurotoxin derived from petroleum that can damage your central nervous system, and is commonly used to remove the plant oils in soy protein as well as some other types. AVOID.
- High Heat: when plants are exposed to high heat in order to remove the natural oils to make the protein powder, other nutrients are damaged and this can make the end result not as absorbable or beneficial to you. AVOID.
- Enzyme-based: natural enzymes are added to the plant seeds to remove the oils. This is the preferred method for making plant proteins. RECOMMENDED.
While I’m not eating a plant-based only diet, multi-source plant-based protein is one of my staples. I’ll either use this or a collagen protein for my shakes and smoothies.
What to Look FOR:
Read your label and make sure you know what everything in those ingredients are, number one. I look for a plant-based protein that includes sprouted or fermented grains when grains are used (rice, for example).
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. You’ll see that brands like Warrior Food are amazing at including these kinds of ingredients.
You may see ingredients like superfoods, enzyme blends, probiotics, BCAA’s, or other components that may be useful. Be sure to google these if it’s your first time seeing them and make sure it’s something you want.
RECOMMENDED PLANT-BASED, MULTI-SOURCE PROTEIN POWDERS:
Features: 100% plant-based, hypoallergenic, highly-digestible, and complete protein powder made from organically-grown yellow pea protein and organically-grown sprouted brown rice, BCAA’s, GMO free, gluten-free, casein free, lactose free, cholesterol free, dairy free; organic, vegan, kosher
Price: $54.95 / 50 servings
NOTES: This one is not flavored so you’ll want to be sure you’re mixing it into a smoothie or shake or something you’re adding a natural flavor or sweetness source to, think smoothie for example with banana, strawberries, greens and nut milk. Consider adding a scoop of cacao powder for chocolate superfood goodness. This company is AMAZING – everything from their containers to the soil they grow the source plants on. Top recommendation for an unflavored, high quality plant protein.
Powerootz™ Protein Powder (different flavors available)
Features: gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, vegan, non-GMO, no added sugar, no chemical fillers, corn-free, additive-free, no artificial flavors or preservatives
Protein: 19g-23g/serving (varies depending on flavor)
Price: $64.99 / 20 servings
(options available for how much you want to buy at a time)
NOTES: This is a recent discovery and I love the combination of superfoods in Powerootz blends
#2 Collagen Protein Powder
Why I recommend this: Collagen protein is in my heavy rotation for top choice protein powders. I usually rotate between it and the multi-source plant-based protein (#1). It’s really versatile in that the plain ones are *virtually* tasteless, can be mixed in anything, dissolve well, and the benefits of collagen protein are many.
You can find a lot of uses for it outside of adding it to a smoothie, for example, I make a delicious chocolate nut butter spread I call “healthy Nutella” that I have for breakfast with my homemade buckwheat bread.
Collagen used to make its way into our diets through foods like bone broths, slow-cooked organ meats, kidney pies, baked beef hearts, whole crustaceans, and whole-fish soups and stews. But if you’re not regularly eating these types of foods, you may not be getting any of this goodness into your body.
What to look for: Look for hydrolyzed collagen – which just means that the naturally larger molecules of collagen are broken down into smaller molecules called peptides for better absorption in our bodies.
Collagen peptides are well absorbed by the digestive system and make their way to targeted tissues where they act as building blocks and trigger our own internal collagen production.
Scientifically proven benefits of Collagen Protein:
1: Improves skin elasticity – which can improve the signs of aging and the appearance of cellulite.
2: Improves muscle mass and strength (if you need a refresher on why you want to help your body develop lean muscle, read this).
3: Decreases inflammation – osteoarthritis sufferers who were given supplements during a 70-day study experienced significantly reduced pain and symptoms compared to those given a placebo.
Collagen protein gets its name from the Greek word “kolla” which means glue. That’s because it’s one of the major building blocks of bones, skin, muscles, tendons and ligaments. Collagen protein accounts for approximately 1/3 of the protein in our body – and we want to preserve it.
Our body makes less and less collagen as we age, which contributes to signs of aging like wrinkles, sagging skin and joint pains (due to weakened or decreased cartilage)
Fun fact #1: you can help your body preserve and protect collagen by avoiding behaviors that damage it. These include eating excessive amounts of processed carbs and sugar (#truth sugar breaks down collagen), smoking (duh, don’t smoke) and getting sunburned.
Fun fact #2: make sure your balanced diet includes optimal amounts of Vitamin C. When we consume collagen, collagen levels naturally increase in our bodies – but collagen can’t form without Vitamin C. Since our body doesn’t produce enough Vitamin C on its own, we need to be mindful of including it in our diet, or in supplement form (this is the one I use, it’s a highly absorbable lypo-spheric vitamin C).
Good sources of vitamin C from food include citrus fruits, fruits like kiwi, cantaloupe, watermelon, berries (and fresh-picked local produce will ensure you’re getting the maximum concentration), bell peppers, leafy greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, parsley and bok choy.
There are 2 types of consumable collagen: Collagen hydrolysate and Gelatin.
- Collagen hydrolysate is processed more intensively, breaking down the proteins into smaller pieces so that it can easily mix in liquid.
- Gelatin (think bone broth protein) only dissolves in a hot liquid.
When choosing a collagen protein, I look for one made from grass-fed, pasture-raised cows. This means they are less likely to be injected with antibiotics and growth hormones, not to mention I prefer to spend my money supporting responsible farming practices where the animals are fed a more natural diet.
Collagen protein powder can be added to many things you’re already eating just like you would a plant-based or whey protein powder – like a shake (just add a spoonful of antioxidant-rich cacao/chocolate powder or vanilla and some fruit and you’ve got a naturally sweet beverage that’s perfect post-workout) or baked in a recipe – the possibilities are endless.
Taste and Texture Notes on Plain Collagen protein: While I find it to be virtually tasteless, I do hear that some people can taste it. Genetically speaking, we do all have a variety of taste receptors (some people can’t stand the taste of broccoli for this reason for example).
I’d recommend mixing it into things like you would a normal protein powder. It does a great job of dissolving, but if you’re putting it in a clear beverage (or your coffee – which I don’t – just use it like a normal protein powder) you may see some small flecks. It is collagen, which is a gelatin based product so that isn’t surprising.
I use it in my smoothies, mix it into my nut butters (try my healthy nutella!), add it in my baking, and swirl it into my hot chocolate.
You can also get flavored collagen – and with that I would stress looking for one with the LEAST amount of added ingredients and avoid the sugar alcohols as a sweetener like I mentioned in #1.
RECOMMENDED COLLAGEN PROTEIN:
Bulletproof collagen (PLAIN only*)
Features: grass-fed, pasture-raised hydrolyzed collagen protein powder
Protein: 22 grams/serving
Price: $39.99/19 servings
*I do not recommend Bulletproof’s flavored collagen, as they are using erythritol as their sweetener. I don’t recommend sugar alcohols (like xylitol or erythritol) as a sugar alternative because they can cause bloating, acid reflux and gas in some people. Erythritol is often derived from GMO corn using a chemical processing method called sugar hydrogenation – without the Non-GMO label, you cannot guarantee the source of the erythritol).
Features: grass-fed collagen, sugar-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, soy-free, paleo-approved
Protein: 10g/serving (serving = 1 scoop)
Price: $39.99/24 servings
#3 Plant-Based Single-Source Protein
Why I recommend this: As an alternative to a multi-source plant-based protein, a single source is also fine as long as the source of the plant used is quality grown and has not been treated with chemicals, and the soil was rich.
It’s hard to tell for sure these days if everything has been optimal, so usually, the best we can do is to look for the label to have the certified organic seal and “non-gmo.” I also recommend you just look up the company and read about anything you can to do with their sourcing practices.
I like using single-sourced plant protein in baking, so when I have it on hand that’s what I”ll normally use it for. It’s also great to use in a smoothie or shake.
There are 20 total amino acids your body needs to function. Eleven of those are made IN your body, but the other 9 need to come from the foods you eat – we call those “essential amino acids.”
Many plant-based proteins – like hemp and pea, for example – deliver those 9 essential amino acids, which makes them “complete proteins.” It’s not necessary to get all 9 in a serving or meal necessarily – as long as you eat them throughout the day. But it is nice and convenient to take care of your needs in one place.
I do not recommend soy protein generally, as 90% of soy today is genetically modified. Organic, fermented soy – which is a staple food in many Asian cultures (think miso, natto, tempeh and certain soy sauces) is a wonderful food. The processed soy we find in protein powders, however, should be avoided – especially soy protein isolates.
What to Look for: Look for the organic and non-GMO labels on your protein. Read the label on the back to see what kind of sugar was used to sweeten the protein.
Try to get a protein powder with less ingredients than more, especially with a single-source protein powder. If it’s a flavored one like vanilla, you should recognize the ingredients being used – a protein source, a vanilla flavor and a sweetener.
RECOMMENDED PLANT-BASED, SINGLE INGREDIENT PROTEIN POWDERS:
Features: Made from raw hemp seeds; Certified organic and non-GMO; Vegan; All 20 amino acids, including the 9 essential; Essential fatty acids (omega 3 & 6); Good source of dietary fiber; Gently cold-processed; Never hexane processed; Always chemical free; Non-irradiated; Non-BPA container
Amino Acid Profile: All 20 amino acids, including the 9 essential
Price: $36.75 / 45 servings
#4 Whey Protein Isolate
Why I recommend this: Whey is a great and natural protein source if you tolerate dairy well. Whey contains whey proteins, lactose, minerals and small amounts of fats.
What to look for: When it comes to protein powder it’s ALL about the quality of the process the manufacturer uses – not to mention the source ingredients. What you want to look for is a high-quality grass-fed whey that doesn’t contain all the fillers, artificial sweeteners and junk that you’ll, unfortunately, find in far too many whey-based protein powders.
Here is how whey protein powders are made, so you can know what to look for and how to find a quality whey protein. READ YOUR LABELS and ingredients always.
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 greater than 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 if you are lactose intolerant, instead opting 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 greater than 90% protein concentration and removal of most (if not all) lactose. This is known as the “purest” whey. 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) – 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 – which may mean there is greater muscle protein synthesis post-workout. The process produces a bitter taste, so it’s often masked by sweeteners.
Avoid brands that have sugar added in the form of fructose, dextrose, and maltodextrin.
Other things that add to the quality of a whey protein is 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.
I don’t personally use whey protein powder, so I don’t have a great brand suggestion here for you. Just use the suggestions above to choose one if you are using it.
#5 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 great for anyone without a specific dietary restriction.
You may find lecithin added into this kind of protein – avoid soy lecithin, opt for sunflower lecithin or none. Look for egg whites from hormone-free chickens, and be sure there is no added sugars you don’t want in your body, and minimal to no additional products in the protein you buy.
What to Look for:
- Where do the eggs come from – for example, are they farm raised or commercial?
- Have the chickens had growth hormone injected?
- How has the protein powder been processed? Typically they will pasteurize it (heat) to kill any harmful bacteria. Flash pasteurization, with no additional heating, will ensure the protein isn’t inactivated.
- 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 on occasion and use in baking. I don’t use it as a staple since I prefer to just eat whole eggs in their natural form, and usually opt for a collagen and a plant-based protein as my main 2 staples.
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. It’s also convenient that you can often find it in individual packets which is helpful for traveling.
I use this type of protein powder the least, but it is a great option and these are 2 brands that meet my standards:
RECOMMENDED EGG WHITE PROTEIN:
Features: Non-GMO, Egg Whites from US Farms, No Additives, Paleo, Dairy Free, Gluten Free, Soy Free
Protein: 25g / serving
Price: 59.99 / 36 servings
Features: Soy Free, GMO Free, Egg Whites From USA Farms, Dairy Free, Gluten Free, Soy Free
Protein: 25g / serving
Price: $39.99 / 30 servings
Also of note, nutritional yeast and brewer’s yeast are good sources of protein that also contain selenium, chromium and B-complex vitamins that most people need.
I love sprinkling nutritional yeast on my popcorn (non-GMO popcorn, just look for the label!) with a little extra virgin olive oil, or adding it to a salad for a cheesy flavor.
For more information about Protein, how much you need, the best food sources for it, and how it works in your body, be sure to read Protein 101.