[Review] The Protein Powder Buyer’s Guide — 150 Popular Protein Powders Shaken Up And Graded
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 oil, probiotics, 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 you, simultaneously, 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). It also helps increase strength gains.
- Supports Fat Loss — protein suppresses appetite and keeps hunger from flaring up; reduces the body’s propensity to store fat, by controlling blood sugar levels and insulin — a hormone that controls fat storage; and it torches major calories after consumption (via thermogenesis), which promotes weight loss and prevents fat gain.
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.
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.
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
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.
Quantity also factors in.
- 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, 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
References, Notes, Links
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)
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