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[Review] The Protein Powder Buyer’s Guide — 150 Popular Protein Powders Shaken Up And Graded

Protein powder, whey protein powder, plant protein powder, vegan protein powder, plant based protein powder, brown rice protein, natural protein powder, all natural protein powder, natural whey protein powder, protein, best protein powder, whey protein weight loss, highest quality protein powder, best protein powder for women, best protein powder for men, protein supplements, best protein to build muscle, best protein to lose weight, top protein powder, protein powder rankings

One-hundred and fifty — the protein powder market is overflowing with colorful options, yet 95% of the jugs aren’t worth your cash.
We sifted through the shelves — 150 powders deep — and held an unadulterated protein powder bonanza to cut through the noise, rank the prospects, and unearth the best bangs for your buck.

Outside of fish oilprobiotics, and maybe a multivitamin, protein powder is one of the few staple supplements that everyone should be taking on a regular basis. It’s the easiest way to ensure that you’re always getting regular infusions of HQ protein — a nutrient that forms the cornerstone of a lean diet, and by translation, helps cultivate a killer physique that’s LEAN, muscular, and stripped of blubbery fat mass.

Protein works hard for yousimultaneously, from two different angles:

  • Builds Lean Muscle — a constant waterfall of protein is critical for the growth and development of lean muscle mass, and helps preserve existing muscle tissue (so that your muscles won’t deflate over-time, aka catabolism).12 It also helps increase strength gains.3456
  • Supports Fat Loss — protein suppresses appetite and keeps hunger from flaring up;7 reduces the body’s propensity to store fat, by controlling blood sugar levels and insulin — a hormone that controls fat storage;8 and it torches major calories after consumption (via thermogenesis), which promotes weight loss and prevents fat gain.91011

Protein incinerates upwards of 35% of its own calories during digestion and metabolism, whereas carbs & fat lie in the inefficient 5-15% range. Translated, a 100 calorie meal from protein burns up to 35 calories; that same meal from carbs or fat would only knock off 5-15.121314151617

Protein powder is the easiest way to perpetually sustain the superpowers above; in particularly if you’re on-the-go or constrained by a budget. But that leads to one MAJOR problem — mass hysteria. The 15,360-search-result variety.

ProteinPowderSearchResults

The protein powder market is ENORMOUS; dominated by mainstream behemoths like Optimum Nutrition & CytoSport’s Muscle Milk, with a flood of ambiguous surplus to fill out the category. Beyond the big boys, there’s a seemingly infinite shelf of kaleidiscopic protein powders; each of which is shrouded by endless marketing gobbledygook, and padded with lexicon that merits its own language (hydrolyzed, multi-phase, ultra-microfiltered, Aminogen…wtf?).

Here’s the reality: natural tiers of quality exist — and, yes, some products are far superior to others — but for the most part protein powder is extremely redundant. A high number of brands are more-or-less the same product, wrapped in different packaging, with the only real differentiator being PRICE.

We dug into the long tail to uncover the gems hidden within a marketplace of juggernauts. The key word — value. Powders that squeezed out the best combo of quality AND price floated to the top; those that were extremely overpriced sank to the bottom.

 

The Criteria & What We Looked For


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We sifted through the 150 most popular protein powders on Amazon and Bodybuilding.com — including whey protein blends, whey isolates, sustained-release blends, and plant-based varieties — crunched the numbers, parsed through the noise, and came up with a comprehensive rating system for the entire protein powder category.

Aggregate ratings were handed out based on a cornucopia of critical dimensions. Here’s what we really care about —

  • Protein Type. Is a given powder made of whey concentrate? Whey isolate or hydrolyzed whey? Milk or casein? Soy? Plant protein? A blend? Type of protein is CRITICAL, as it impacts digestion rate, purity, amount of lactose, propensity to cause stomach issues, usability in the body, function (post-workout, meal replacement), and timing.181920
    Quantity also factors in.

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  • Ingredients. Is the ingredient profile clean and all-natural, or is it loaded with artificial sweeteners, fillers, colors, and other additives?
  • Sweeteners. Is it all natural (e.g. stevia, monk fruit), or is it gushing with artificial sweeteners (e.g. sucralose/Splenda, Ace-K)?
  • Purity. What % of calories come from protein? Is it oozing with sugar, fat, sat. fat, and carbs?
  • Key Differentiators. Does a brand have any beneficial additives? Probiotics, digestive enzymes,21 BCAA’s, creatine, glutamine, fiber, MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides), CLA, green blends, flax seed, and chia are all value-adds and a good proxy for quality products.
  • Price. $/serving. The 5 dimensions above are fine-and-dandy, but deciphering relative value all funnels down to price.

*Flavor was NOT taken into account, given that we haven’t tried every product across-the-board.

Using the criteria above we aimed to rank each protein powder based purely on relative value, and ultimately dig up the brands that represent best-in-class.

Again, that’s QUALITY relative to PRICE. A number of extremely high quality products are exorbitantly priced (e.g. Jay Robb, Optimum Platinum Hydrobuilder, Vega) and not worth the cash; others are dirt cheap, but the poor quality doesn’t merit a purchase (e.g. Bioplex, Muscle Milk).

 

Protein Strategy — Which Type Of Protein Should I Take?


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Looking at the composite protein powder universe, we stratified products into 4 distinct categories; each of which has unique qualities, varying price-points, and different uses for different people depending on individual goals and needs. Each category has its own dedicated ranking.

And just like fish, chicken, and cottage cheese — protein powder is GENDER NEUTRAL.

Protein powder, whey protein powder, plant protein powder, vegan protein powder, plant based protein powder, brown rice protein, natural protein powder, all natural protein powder, natural whey protein powder, protein, best protein powder, whey protein weight loss, highest quality protein powder, best protein powder for women, best protein powder for men, protein supplements, best protein to build muscle, best protein to lose weight, top protein powder, protein powder rankingsWhey Blends

Avg. Price: $.75/serving

A blend of whey concentrate and other protein types across a spectrum of quality and purity; ranging from lower quality whey concentrate and soy to higher quality hydrolyzed whey, egg, and whey isolate.

Whey blends are less expensive; not as pure; higher in fat, carbs, and sugar; digest at a moderate rate; and are typically laced with artificial sweeteners.

They may also cause digestive issues (bloating, gas, and other fun things) depending on stomach sensitivity and level of lactose intolerance.

Digestion Rate: Moderate

Ideal For: All-around value and those looking for a versatile, use-anytime protein. Anyone focused on general health and leanness, or that wants to infuse a little extra protein into their diet, but isn’t reliant on taking protein powder everyday. Those on a budget.

Timing: Post-workout. Meal Replacement. Snacks.

Protein powder, whey protein powder, plant protein powder, vegan protein powder, plant based protein powder, brown rice protein, natural protein powder, all natural protein powder, natural whey protein powder, protein, best protein powder, whey protein weight loss, highest quality protein powder, best protein powder for women, best protein powder for men, protein supplements, best protein to build muscle, best protein to lose weight, top protein powder, protein powder rankingsWhey Isolate

Avg. Price: $1.13/serving

Protein composed of whey isolate and/or hydrolyzed whey. It’s the quickest to digest; extremely pure; generally extremely low in carbs, fat, and sugar; devoid of lactose, which results in minimal stomach discomfort (ahem, gas and bloating); and ideal post-workout to MAXIMIZE growth and recovery.

Isolates are the product of heavy filtration (or ion exchange), which removes almost all of the lactose and carbs, and leaves behind close-to-pure protein (generally isolates are 90-100% protein).

“Hydrolyzed” means that the protein has already been pre-digested and further broken down into its component amino acids, which hyperaccelerates digestion & absorption (i.e. it works really fast and it’s especially effective post-workout).

Given its high quality and functional use, isolates more expensive.

Digestion Rate: Fast

Ideal For: Anyone trying to maximize muscle growth and recovery. Those with digestive issues. Anyone who’s on a low-to-no carb diet.

Timing: Post-workout.

Protein powder, whey protein powder, plant protein powder, vegan protein powder, plant based protein powder, brown rice protein, natural protein powder, all natural protein powder, natural whey protein powder, protein, best protein powder, whey protein weight loss, highest quality protein powder, best protein powder for women, best protein powder for men, protein supplements, best protein to build muscle, best protein to lose weight, top protein powder, protein powder rankingsSustained-Release Blends

Avg. Price: $1.06/serving

A mix of slow (casein, milk) and fast-digesting proteins (whey, egg, soy) that provides a long-term stream of protein/amino acids to muscles. Sustained-release blends smash hunger and are especially effective as a meal-replacement or snack.

They’re generally higher in calories, with added fats (some healthy, some not) to boost fullness and slow digestion.

Digestion Rate: Slow

Ideal For: Anyone who regularly drinks protein shakes as an everyday snack/meal replacement. Those who take isolates post-workout and need a supplementary, drink-anytime protein source. A filling breakfast or healthy late-night snack.

Timing: Meal replacement. Snacks. Before bed. Breakfast.

Protein powder, whey protein powder, plant protein powder, vegan protein powder, plant based protein powder, brown rice protein, natural protein powder, all natural protein powder, natural whey protein powder, protein, best protein powder, whey protein weight loss, highest quality protein powder, best protein powder for women, best protein powder for men, protein supplements, best protein to build muscle, best protein to lose weight, top protein powder, protein powder rankingsPlant-Based Blends

Avg. Price: $1.63/serving

Natural blends made up of some combination of brown rice protein, pea protein, soy, and various other plant-based sources.

They’re free of milk products, therefore perfect for vegans; generally all-natural and have no artificial ingredients or sweeteners; and often come pre-loaded with antioxidants, fiber, omega-3’s, and other phytonutrients.

Given the quality and nascent market, plant-based protein costs a premium.

Digestion Rate: Moderate

Ideal For: Vegans. Those with lactose intolerance and digestive issues (gas, bloating, and other fun things). Anyone that wants an all-natural option.

Timing: Post-workout. Meal replacement. Snacks.

Upgrading from a whey blend to an isolate is like tossing your Prius for a Ferrari. Whey blends are cost effective, versatile, and get the job done, but isolates are faster and more powerful (in terms of digestion, absorption, and stimulating growth & recovery).

If you’re an athlete or serious about building muscle mass, isolates can provide a surge of high-octane fuel post-workout; if you’re training more casually — with general health and leanness, as well as budget, in mind — sticking with a whey blend probably makes more sense.

And if you’re going the isolate route, pair it with either a sustained release or plant-based protein blend. Isolates should be used exclusively post-workout — sustained release and plant-based blends can help fill the void for random shakes, snacks, or mini meals.

As a general rule of thumb, we recommend .75-1g of protein per LB of bodyweight to optimize a lean lifestyle. If you’re 150lbs, shoot for 112-150g/day.


 

Our Protein Powder Recommendations


Given the INSANE number of choices there’s absolutely zero reason to buy anything other than our 5-star rated protein powders. We recommend any of the following brands for each category —

ALWAYS buy your protein powder online from either Amazon or Bodybuilding.com (check both sites for prices/deals) — it’s marginally cheaper than the markup applied in stores like Vitamin Shoppe or GNC.

 

Lean It UP’s Protein Powder Rankings — Whey Blends


The Lean It UP Protein Powder Rankings is split into 4 dedicated parts, divvied up by type of powder. Access each through the links at the bottom.

You can also download the full rankings file here (there are 4 tabs at the bottom of the download file; each tab holds a different protein type).

*Click on each image to enlarge.

 

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Pages: Intro, Whey Blends | Whey Isolate | Sustained Release | Plant-Based Protein

 
 

References, Notes, Links

  1. Farup J, Rahbek SK, Vendelbo MH, Matzon A, Hindhede J, Bejder A, Ringgard S, Vissing K. Whey protein hydrolysate augments tendon and muscle hypertrophy independent of resistance exercise contraction mode. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2013 May 7. []
  2. Joy JM, Lowery RP, Wilson JM, Purpura M, De Souza EO, Wilson SM, Kalman DS, Dudeck JE, Jäger R. The effects of 8 weeks of whey or rice protein supplementation on body composition and exercise performance. Nutr J. 2013 Jun 20;12(1):86. []
  3. Matthew B Cooke, Emma Rybalka, Christos G Stathis, Paul J Cribb and Alan Hayes. Whey protein isolate attenuates strength decline after eccentrically-induced muscle damage in healthy individuals. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2010, 7:30 doi:10.1186/1550-2783-7-30 []
  4. Douglas Kalman, Samantha Feldman, Michele Martinez, Diane R Krieger and Mark J Tallon. Effect of protein source and resistance training on body composition and sex hormones. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2007, 4:4  doi:10.1186/1550-2783-4-4 []
  5. Wilborn CD, Taylor LW, Outlaw J, Williams L, Campbell B, Foster CA, Smith-Ryan A, Urbina S, Hayward S. The Effects of Pre- and Post-Exercise Whey vs. Casein Protein Consumption on Body Composition and Performance Measures in Collegiate Female Athletes. J Sports Sci Med. 2013 Mar 1;12(1):74-9. []
  6. Walker TB, Smith J, Herrera M, Lebegue B, Pinchak A, Fischer J.The influence of 8 weeks of whey-protein and leucine supplementation on physical and cognitive performance. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2010 Oct;20(5):409-17. []
  7. Bendtsen LQ, Lorenzen JK, Bendsen NT, Rasmussen C, Astrup A. Effect of dairy proteins on appetite, energy expenditure, body weight, and composition: a review of the evidence from controlled clinical trials. Adv Nutr. 2013 Jul 1;4(4):418-38. doi: 10.3945/an.113.003723. []
  8. Zafar TA, Waslien C, AlRaefaei A, Alrashidi N, AlMahmoud E. Whey protein sweetened beverages reduce glycemic and appetite responses and food intake in young females. Nutr Res. 2013 Apr;33(4):303-10. []
  9. Madzima TA, Panton LB, Fretti SK, Kinsey AW, Ormsbee MJ. Night-time consumption of protein or carbohydrate results in increased morning resting energy expenditure in active college-aged men. Br J Nutr. 2013 Jun 17:1-7. []
  10. Halton T. The Effects of High Protein Diets on Thermogenesis, Satiety and Weight Loss: A Critical Review. J Am Coll Nutr October 2004 vol. 23 no. 5 373-385 []
  11. Welle S, Lilavivit U. Thermic effect of feeding in man: Increased plasma norepinephrine levels following glucose but not protein or fat consumption. Metabolism. 1981 Oct;30(10):953-8. []
  12. Johnston CS, Day CS, Swan PD: Postprandial thermogenesis is increased 100% on a high-protein, low-fat diet versus a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet in healthy, young women. J Am Coll Nutr 2002, 21:55-61. []
  13. Bendtsen LQ, Lorenzen JK, Bendsen NT, Rasmussen C, Astrup A. Effect of dairy proteins on appetite, energy expenditure, body weight, and composition: a review of the evidence from controlled clinical trials. Adv Nutr. 2013 Jul 1;4(4):418-38. doi: 10.3945/an.113.003723. []
  14. Skov AR, Toubro S, Rønn B, Holm L, Astrup A. Randomized trial on protein vs carbohydrate in ad libitum fat reduced diet for the treatment of obesity. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders : Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity [1999, 23(5):528-536. []
  15. Layman D, Boileau R. A Reduced Ratio of Dietary Carbohydrate to Protein Improves Body Composition and Blood Lipid Profiles during Weight Loss in Adult Women. J. Nutr. February 1, 2003vol. 133 no. 2 411-417 []
  16. Belko A, Barbieri T. Effect of energy and protein intake and exercise intensity on the thermic effect of food. Am J Clin Nutr June 1986vol. 43 no. 6 863-869 []
  17. Martens E, Lemmens S. Protein leverage affects energy intake of high-protein diets in humans. Am J Clin Nutr January 2013 vol. 97 no. 1 86-93 []
  18. Boirie Y, Dangin M, Gachon P, Vasson MP, Maubois JL, Beaufrère B. Slow and fast dietary proteins differently modulate postprandial protein accretion. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 94:14930–14935. []
  19. Volek JS, Volk BM, Gómez AL, Kunces LJ, Kupchak BR, Freidenreich DJ, Aristizabal JC, Saenz C, Dunn-Lewis C, Ballard KD, Quann EE, Kawiecki DL,Flanagan SD, Comstock BA, Fragala MS, Earp JE, Fernandez ML, Bruno RS, Ptolemy AS, Kellogg MD, Maresh CM, Kraemer WJ. Whey protein supplementation during resistance training augments lean body mass. J Am Coll Nutr. 2013;32(2):122-35. []
  20. Burd NA, Yang Y, Moore DR, Tang JE, Tarnopolsky MA, Phillips SM. Greater stimulation of myofibrillar protein synthesis with ingestion of whey protein isolate v. micellar casein at rest and after resistance exercise in elderly men. Br J Nutr. 2012 Sep 28;108(6):958-62. []
  21. Julius Oben, Shil C Kothari and Mark L Anderson. An open label study to determine the effects of an oral proteolytic enzyme system on whey protein concentrate metabolism in healthy males. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2008, 5:10 doi:10.1186/1550-2783-5-10 []

 

Bryan DiSanto

Bryan DiSanto

Founder & Editor-in-Chief at Lean It UP
ELLO ELLO I'm Bryan DiSanto. I'm the Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Lean It UP, a CPT/CSN/Fitness Coach, Chef trained at Le Cordon Bleu – Paris, NYU graduate, ex-fat kid, and all-around fitness junkie.

I also contribute to Men's Health Magazine.

When I'm not working on my abs (or somebody else’s), whipping up avocado roses and avocado toast, or running a Tough Mudder, I'm probably yelling at a Carolina Panthers game somewhere.

Come be friends with me on Instagram (@BRYDISANTO) & Snapchat (BRYDISANTO).
Bryan DiSanto

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