How to Pick Protein Powder
Protein is essential for muscle repair and growth, so ensuring you get adequate amounts aids in muscle recovery. Protein powders can be a way to add supplemental protein to an outdoor person’s diet when it’s either impractical or inconvenient to get enough through eating enough whole foods.
We chose Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey as the Best Pick for Most People based on an overwhelming amount of reviews praising its taste and the variety of flavors and sizes available. It also scored well in our price and nutritional analysis. We chose the Garden of Life Sport as the Best Plant-based Protein powder because it has a high protein yield per serving and many reviewers liked the taste. If you're on a budget, the Cytosport 100% Whey is certified for quality and the best priced per ounce of the protein powders we considered.
How we identified the best protein powder
In our search for the best protein powder, we analyzed reviews from high-quality professional reviews from Outside Online, Livestrong, Nerd Fitness, Gear Patrol, The Wirecutter, and Runnerclick. In total, we compared 23 products and narrowed it down to three winners: Best Whey Protein Powder, Best Plant-based Protein Powder, and Best Budget Protein Powder. We focused on whey and plant-based protein powders because these are the most reviewed options. Whey powder and plant protein powder are also suitable and effective for the greatest number of people.
In addition to researching reviews that are already out there, this review was informed by my educational and professional background.
I am a nutritionist, a certified holistic health coach, and adventurer with a B.S. in Plant and Molecular and Cellular Biology. I also hold a botanical medicine certificate and have taken courses in functional nutrition and culinary genomics. I have a passion for wellness backed in scientific research.
To confirm our findings, we purchased most of our top picks to determine harder-to-research aspects of protein powder like texture, mix-ability, and taste.
What to look for in a protein powder
A complete amino acid profile means that the protein contains all nine essential amino acids needed for normal body function that the body cannot make these on its own. According to the USDA Dietary Intakes Reference, this is important for proper muscle recovery and repair.
A high protein yield and price per gram of protein ensure good value for the product. We compared price to the the percentage of protein (vs. fillers) per serving. Our research shows that you also do not need to spend more than $0.07 per gram of protein to get a product that is certified as clean and high quality by third-party labs. However, products below $0.03 per gram of protein are more likely to have fillers, such as cornstarch, sawdust, and other contaminants. We cross-checked our findings quality measurements from independent certifying labs such as NSF and Informed Choice.
Powders which are easy to dissolve in water are useful for people in the backcountry who lack access to blenders or who are using a shake-bottle for instant protein after a workout.
Good taste is important to ensure that protein powder remains in the diet. Chalky, bland, or foul-tasting powder is more likely to end up unused on a kitchen shelf than in your smoothie.Taste was one of the top characteristics commented on by the Amazon reviews we analyzed.
Stomach issues are one of the biggest complaints among protein powder users. While every body processes protein powder differently, some powders seem to get better reviews for “digestability” than others. For example, whey isolate has less fat and lactose than the whey concentrate. This can make it easier for most people to digest. However, isolate is usually more expensive, so most “budget” powders are made of whey concentrate and thus, are more difficult to digest.
Third party quality analyses and certification may help you avoid adverse ingredients. The three major science-based certification organizations for protein powder are the NSF, Informed Choice, and Clean Label Project. According to each group’s website, NSF International is an independent, accredited organization that develops standards and tests and certifies products, Informed Choice is a monitoring program that tests for banned substances, and Clean Label Project is a non-profit focused on health and transparency in consumer product labeling.
What to know about contamination in protein powder
A 2018 Clean Label Project study analyzed 134 top-selling protein powders and found 70% contaminated with lead, 74% contaminated with cadmium, and 55% contaminated with BPA. A 2010 Consumer Reports study also detected heavy metals in protein powder including arsenic, cadmium, lead, and/or mercury.
Despite some controversy over the Clean Label Project study, we still think it is worth reading because of the similarity to some of the Consumer Reports findings. NSF criticized the Clean Label Project’s protein powder study for lack of transparency and peer-review, and for not disclosing the names of the researchers, authors, or conflicts of interest. Although it took several months, right before publication of this story, Clean Label Project released their raw data from their protein powder study. Clean Project released raw data and sought peer review for similar studies they’ve conducted.
Scientists have differing opinions on how important detectable levels of contaminants can be on the body. NSF scientists criticized Clean Label Project for asserting that a detectable level of a contaminant means a dangerous level of a contaminant. Detectable levels mean there are enough for an instrument to pick up. The body can process some detectable levels of heavy metals without causing any adverse health effects. However, Consumer Reports’ scientist Tunde Akinleye notes that while a single serving may have heavy metal levels below a daily threshold, these substances can accumulate over years of multiple servings per day consumed.
All the proteins we consider have third-party certification. If contamination is of concern to you, we suggest reading the studies and paying attention to which organization provides the third-party certification.
Curious about what protein powders made our list?
Read Treeline Review’s Best Protein Powders of 2018 full comparative review here.
Clean Label Project, “2018 Protein Powder Study,” 2018
USDA Dietary Intakes Reference: The Essential Guide to Nutrient Requirements, Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, eds. Otten, J., Hellwig J., Meyers, L. 2006.
NSF International, “Clean Label Projects Protein Powder Report Overlooks Basic Scentific Principles,” March 20, 2018
Informed Choice, “About,” accessed 2018
Consumer Reports, “Arsenic, Lead Found in Popular Protein Supplements,” March 12, 2018