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As a Nutritional Therapy Consultant, I get a LOT of questions about protein powder. People wonder whether protein powder is only for athletes if it’s an adequate meal replacement, and, most often, which type of protein is right for them.
The confusion is totally understandable when a visit to your health food store’s protein powder aisle or a quick scroll of options on Amazon yields so many varieties. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of protein powder options on the market now, ranging from peanut butter to eggs. There are different flavors, sweeteners, stabilizers, supplements, and even powdered fruit and veggies added in. So, what’s the right type of protein powder for you? Below, I’ll break it down to help you find the simplest, most effective options!
Protein Powder Frequently Asked Questions
Protein is the building block of your body. In fact, the body uses and assembles about 40,000 different proteins to form organs, nerves, muscles, flesh, hair, nails, and more! All proteins are made of a combination of amino acids. There are 9 essential amino acids, meaning your body can’t make them on its own, and 11 non-essential amino acids, meaning your body is able to produce these. These amino acids have many functions in the body, from building muscle to gene regulation to supporting our hormones and neurotransmitters. In short, protein is VERY important to our bodies’ daily function!
You probably already know that a properly balanced diet includes eating a wide range of carbohydrates, healthy fats, and protein every day – but how much do you need exactly? The recommended daily intake of protein is about 0.8 grams per kilogram of weight, but this varies based on your activity level. Anyone who lifts weights or lives a more active lifestyle will need more protein. To get an idea of how much protein you should be consuming each day (and whether or not you’re getting in enough protein right now), check out this online calculator.
One of the reasons that high protein diets and nutritional supplements are commonly associated with athletes is because exercise can cause muscle protein to break down. The extent of this breakdown depends on how intense your workout is, but consuming protein after a workout provides your body with the amino acids it needs to rebuild this muscle tissue. If you’re looking to gain more muscle, these amino acids can also form as the building blocks for new muscle.
Protein powder is a supplement made from whole foods that have been processed so that only protein remains. It grew in popularity as a way for athletes to get adequate protein after workouts and has continued to grow in popularity as a regular meal replacement. You can find a wide variety of protein powders on the market, from whey protein to various forms of vegan protein powder.
While we are advocates for real food first, protein powder is great to use whenever you need a quick protein boost but don’t have time to cook or prepared proteins on hand. This is what makes it so great for post-workout – you can throw some protein powder and water in a blender bottle, shake it up, and have your post-workout protein shake on the go. Protein powder is also great to use in smoothies for busy mornings when you don’t have time to cook, or for those who are underweight and need to supplement additional meals to gain weight.
The cleanest protein powder you can buy is grass-fed whey protein. It is minimally processed and can be found without any additives.
No, you do not need to have protein shakes every day! Protein shakes are a great when you need a quick source of protein, but a healthy, well-rounded diet should provide the majority of the protein you need.
What is the healthiest protein powder?
The healthiest protein powder is one that has minimal ingredients, a complete amino acid profile, and that works best for your body! While whey protein is our top protein recommendation, if you can’t digest dairy it obviously isn’t a good choice for you. Luckily, there are plenty of great plant-based protein options out there as well!
When looking for a protein powder, we recommend choosing the one with the least ingredients. While a ready-to-mix formula can work in a pinch, our preferred way to use protein powder is in a smoothie with whole fruits and vegetables. Smoothies are a better option for meal replacement and as a post-workout meal, because they have balanced macronutrients as well as plentiful vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes. Below we’ll talk about our favorite protein supplements – all of which are gluten-free and additive-free!
Below is a full nutritional comparison of the most popular protein powders.
|Whey Protein Concentrate||130||24 g||2 g||3 g||2 g|
|Whey Protein Isolate||115||27 g||0 g||<1 g||0 g|
|Pea Protein||105||24 g||0 g||3 g||0 g|
|Hemp Protein||90||15 g||3 g||9 g||1 g|
|Flax Protein||100||15 g||3 g||6 g||0 g|
|Pumpkin Seed Protein||102||20 g||3 g||4 g||0 g|
|Sunflower Seed Protein||97||15 g||3 g||3 g||0 g|
|Collagen Peptides||70||18 g*||0 g||0 g||0 g|
|Rice Protein||120||24 g*||0 g||3 g||0 g|
|Egg White Protein||140||26 g||0 g||<1 g||0 g|
|Soy Protein Isolate||117||27 g||1 g||1 g||0 g|
- Numbers are per 30g serving
- Collagen peptides and rice protein are not complete proteins.
Whey Protein Powders
Whey protein powder is our favorite choice for protein powder, as long as you can tolerate dairy. Whey protein is made from, of course, whey – which is the liquid that separates from milk during the cheese-making process. Whey protein contains all 9 essential amino acids and is high in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which can help speed muscle recovery, and is fast-digesting. These qualities make it a great complete protein supplement! Whey protein is also one of the best-tasting protein powders available and creates thick, creamy smoothies without altering the flavor significantly.
Types of Whey Protein Powder
When looking for whey protein powder, you’ll come across a LOT of different terms. Here’s what they all mean!
- Whey Protein Concentrate – Whey protein concentrate is less processed, which leaves more of the natural carbohydrates and fats present in milk in the resulting protein powder. This means it also contains some lactose. Also, whey protein concentrate tends to be cheaper than isolate. On average, a 30-gram serving of whey protein concentrate will have 24 grams of protein, 2 grams of fat, 3 grams of carbohydrates, and 2 grams of sugars.
- Whey Protein Isolate – Whey protein isolate is further processed to remove the carbohydrates and fat from the whey, producing a pure protein supplement. This makes the resulting powder lactose-free, so it is a great option if you have lactose intolerance! On average, a 30-gram serving of whey protein isolate contains 27 grams of protein, no fat, and only 1 gram or less of carbohydrates.
- Hydrolyzed Whey Protein – Hydrolyzed whey protein, or whey protein hydrolysate, is a whey protein isolate that has been broken down so that it is essentially “pre-digested,” so that your body can absorb and utilize it even more quickly. Whey protein is already quickly absorbed, and a hydrolyzed version will definitely be on the more expensive side, but it is worth springing for if you are working hard to build muscle in the gym!
|Opportuniteas Whey Protein Isolate||115||27 g||0 g||>1 g||0 g||$1.69|
|Tera’s Vanilla Whey Protein||110||21 g||1.5 g||4 g||3 g||$1.60|
|Primal Fuel Chocolate Whey Protein||180||20 g||9 g||5 g||0 g||$1.22|
|Clean Simple Eats||110||20 g||0 g||9 g||1 g||$1.43|
Our Favorite Whey Protein Powders
Below are our favorite options for the best whey protein powder!
- Clean Simple Eats – this is our current favorite protein option! Cassy and Lauren both use it daily. This protein is naturally sweetened, comes from grass-fed cows, and includes an enzyme blend that helps with digestion. The price comes in at $49.99 per 34.9-ounce bag or $1.43/ounce.
- Opportunities Plain Whey Protein Isolate and Chocolate Whey Protein Isolate – we love these simple protein powders from Reserveage nutrition. The whey protein comes from grass-fed cows, creates a creamy smoothie or shake, and there’s no gritty texture. They are also a more affordable option at about $27/pound or $1.69/ounce.
- Primal Kitchen Foods Whey Protein powder – We love this protein powder for its taste, ingredient quality, and the inclusion of collagen peptides along with whey protein. Another reason we like this option is the addition of coconut powder. You’ll notice that this protein powder is a bit higher in fat and calories, and this is why. The fat helps make it more satisfying and will keep you full for longer. At $37.99 for 31 ounces or $1.22/ounce, this is the most affordable option of the whey protein powders listed here.
- Tera’s Whey – Tera’s Whey has great protein powder options that contain minimal ingredients and are sweetened with stevia. Choose from Chocolate Whey, Bourbon Vanilla, or even Goat Whey Protein for those who can’t tolerate cow’s milk. Starting at $19 for 12 ounces, or $1.60/ounce, this is another affordable whey protein option.
Pea Protein Powders
While whey protein is our top choice for protein powders, if you are dairy-free or vegan, you’ll need to go a different route. Pea protein is one of the most common vegan protein powders on the market and it is also a great choice! Pea protein is made from ground-up yellow peas but is actually nearly flavorless. One of the reasons pea protein is such a popular choice is that it is one of the few types of vegan protein powders that contains all 9 essential amino acids, plus it is rich in Branch Chain Amino Acids, which can help with workout recovery, is one of the easiest to digest protein powder options available, and contains about 25% of your daily iron needs.
On average, a 30-gram serving of pea protein powder has 24 grams of protein, about 3 grams of carbohydrates, and no fat.
|Anthony’s Pea Protein||105||24 g||0 g||<1 g||0 g||$0.47|
|Sprout Living Pea Protein||100||20 g||2 g||1 g||0 g||$1.24|
|Ripple Pea Milk (Unsweetened)||70||8 g||4.5 g||<1 g||0 g||$0.09|
Our Favorite Pea Protein Powders
Just like with whey protein, we prefer an unflavored pea protein powder with no added sugars that can be blended with fresh fruits and vegetables for a complete meal, vs. just shaking up with water. Here are our top picks:
- Anthony’s Unflavored Pea Protein – Anthony’s pea protein is a great beginner protein. It is super affordable at just $15 for 2 pounds ($0.47/ounce) and is less gritty than other pea proteins we’ve tried. Note that this is a basic protein, so while it is great blended into a smoothie, it won’t taste great simply shaken up in a blender bottle.
- Sprout Living Pea Protein – Sprout Living is the smoothest, most mild protein powder that we’ve tried, so if you are just testing the waters, this may be a good one to start with. However, it comes at more than double the cost of Anthony’s at $19.99 for 1 pound, or $1.24/ounce.
- Honorable Mention: Ripple Pea Milk – Ok, so ‘pea milk’ may not be the most appealing name out there, but this milk is amazing for mixing up smoothies! It has 8 grams of protein per serving, ZERO grit, is super creamy, and comes in a variety of different flavors that can be found at your local grocer.
Hemp Protein Powder
Hemp protein powder is another popular vegan option with a really great profile. It’s made from finely ground hemp seeds and, just like pea protein, contains all 9 essential amino acids and is easy to digest. Hemp protein is also really rich in fiber, healthy fats, magnesium, calcium, iron, and antioxidants. Hemp has an earthy (sometimes described as nutty) flavor but blends well in protein shakes and smoothies.
On average, a 30-gram serving of hemp protein powder has 15 grams of protein, 9 grams of carbohydrates (8 grams coming from fiber), and 3 grams of fat.
Our Favorite Hemp Protein Powder
If you’re looking to blend hemp protein powder with fruit and veggies for a complete meal, we like Nutiva’s Hemp Protein because it’s organic and cold-pressed. Because of hemp’s earthy, nutty flavor, if you’re looking to make a quick protein + water shake, we recommend going with Nutiva’s vanilla or chocolate options.
Multi-Blend Vegan Protein Powders
If you’re looking for a protein powder that you can simply shake up with water and drink, multi-blend protein powders can be a good option, though you’ll need to take a good look at the ingredients when choosing one of these.
Multi-blend protein powders are often loaded with artificial ingredients and tons of added sugar, so be sure to steer clear of those! These types of protein powders combine multiple sources of protein to provide the best flavor and make a complete amino acid profile, ensuring that you get a great protein source.
Nutrition varies greatly based on the brand of multi-blend protein powder that you choose.
|KOS Vanilla Protein Powder||160||20 g||6 g||8 g||3 g||$1.53|
|Tone it Up Vanilla Protein||100||15 g||3 g||3 g||0 g||$1.98|
|Orgain Simple Protein||150||20 g||3.5 g||10 g||6 g||$1.20|
Our Favorite Multi-Blend Vegan Protein Powders
Here are our top picks for this type of protein powder:
- KOS Organic Plant-Based Protein Powder – Our favorite multi-blend option is KOS Organic Plant-Based Protein Powder (chocolate and vanilla options are linked here, but there are several other flavors available) because it’s an organic protein powder, tastes great, is made with natural ingredients, has no added sugar, and it includes digestive enzymes and even powdered fruit and vegetables for an extra nutrient boost. KOS Plant-Based Protein is a blend of pea, flaxseed, quinoa, pumpkin seed, and chia seed protein. It retails for $29.99 for 1.2 pounds or $1.53/ounce.
- Tone It Up Plant-Based Vanilla Protein – This pea and pumpkin seed protein blend is organic, sweetened with stevia and monk fruit, and tastes great! This protein powder is on the more expensive side at $44.99 for 1.54 pounds, about $1.98/ounce.
- Orgain Simple Protein – Orgain’s simple protein blend is made from pea protein and a blend of nuts and seeds. It’s organic, contains minimal added ingredients, and is sweetened with coconut sugar, a nice alternative for those who don’t enjoy the taste of sugar-free sweeteners. This blend sells for $23.99 for 1.25 pounds, about $1.20 per ounce.
Most Allergen-Friendly Protein Powder
I have multiple food sensitivities, and after trying many protein powders and experiencing negative side effects, I came across Sprout Living’s simple protein line and immediately placed an order. These protein powders are gum- and thickener-free, with no added flavoring, and they are made from seeds! While these aren’t complete proteins, they’re a great option for those with digestive issues, and, when combined with another protein source like collagen, you can get all of your amino acids in.
|Flax Protein||100||15 g||3 g||6 g||0 g||$1.40|
|Pumpkin Seed Protein||102||20 g||3 g||4 g||0 g||$1.52|
|Sunflower Seed Protein||97||15 g||3 g||3 g||0 g||$1.55|
While I tried every protein available from this line, my favorite was the Sunflower Protein. I found the Pumpkin Protein and Watermelon Protein to be good, but a bit on the grittier side. I love that the sunflower protein provided a slightly nutty flavor to my morning smoothie and blended up smooth. It will give you 15 grams of protein per 28-gram serving. Update: Sprout Living has a new line called Epic Proteins (blend of pea, sunflower, and pumpkin) with superfood additions that are packed with probiotics and powerhouse ingredients.
Bonus Protein Supplements
In addition to our favorite protein powders listed above, the following supplements can also make a great addition to your daily protein shake!
We are huge fans of collagen peptides! In fact, we’ve written a full guide to collagen peptides in the past. The short version though, is that collagen is the most abundant protein in the body and functions to provide structure to skin, bones, hair, nails, and other connective tissues. Collagen has many benefits like relieving joint pain, improving skin elasticity, preventing bone loss, increasing muscle mass, increasing nail and hair growth, and promoting a healthy gut, and has been linked to weight loss. While you can (and should) certainly eat collagen-containing foods like bone broth, beef, chicken + pork skin, and fish, supplementing with a pure, high-quality collagen peptide powder is also a good choice. For a quick, easy dose of collagen, we like adding a scoop to our morning cup of coffee.
On average, a 20-gram serving of collagen peptides contains 18 grams of protein, no carbohydrates, and no fat.
Can collagen peptides replace my protein powder?
Even though collagen peptides are chock full of protein, they are a special type of protein with a different amino acid makeup than you’ll find in the protein powders listed above and are not a complete protein. That’s because collagen peptides are designed to help your body replenish collagen, whereas dietary protein and protein supplements are complete proteins that contain all 9 essential amino acids that can help your body build muscle, recovery from a workout, stabilize blood sugar, and more.
However, collagen is still great for bone, joint, and ligament health, which means it is great for your post-workout drink and beyond. We recommend adding a scoop in with your protein powder, rather than using it alone!
Our Favorite Collagen Peptides
- Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides – Vital Proteins’ collagen peptides are unflavored, bioavailable, and dissolve easily in hot or cold liquids.
- For a flavored collagen option, we love Primal Kitchen’s Collagen Fuel because it tastes good, isn’t too overpowering, and is free from artificial sweeteners.
- Physician’s Choice Collagen Peptides – If you have trouble with your digestion, Physician’s Choice may be a good brand for you as it includes digestive enzymes to help you more easily absorb the collagen peptides!
Branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplements
Three of the 9 essential amino acids are also known as branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs): leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Some benefits of BCAAs are muscle growth, decreased severity of muscle soreness (post-workout), and reduced exercise exhaustion and fatigue.
We always prefer going the real food route when possible, so be sure to get plenty of BCAAs in your diet through the foods that you eat. Beef, chicken and turkey breast, tuna, salmon, eggs, and Greek yogurt are all great sources of BCAAs. Because BCCAs have significant benefits, using a supplement may be something to consider, but just like with collagen peptides, these should be consumed with your protein powder, not on their own!
Our Favorite BCAA Supplement Powders
When it comes to BCAAs, we love using Vital Performance Recover because it provides 5 grams of BCAAs per serving in addition to all 9 amino acids and 20 grams of collagen peptides. After your workout, simply combine 2 scoops with 16 ounces of water and shake!
Which protein powders should you skip?
Now that we’ve covered our favorite protein powder options, here are a few that we recommend skipping:
- Soy Protein Powder – With the exception of occasional fermented soy in the form of tamari or miso, or fresh edamame, we typically recommend limiting soy products. While soy is a complete protein, soybeans are one of the most highly genetically modified foods in our world today and contain a compound known as phytoestrogen. It’s believed that the body misinterprets phytoestrogen as an actual estrogen compound, which understandably causes confusion and potentially disrupts a healthy hormone balance. While these claims are debated, there are so many other great protein powder options out there that we recommend just skipping soy protein powders.
- Brown Rice Protein Powder – Brown rice protein powder can be a great choice for especially sensitive stomachs, we chose not to include it in our list because it is too low in the essential amino acid leucine to be considered a complete protein, and we were unable to find a rice protein powder that wasn’t super gritty. Pea protein is a much more palatable and well-rounded option here!
- Egg Protein Powder – While eggs are an incredible protein source and we love animal-based based proteins because they are complete with all essential amino acids, there’s really no getting around the fact that egg protein tastes like eggs. Egg protein powder is made from pure egg whites, so is low in fat and carbs and high in protein, but even flavored varieties will leave you with a slight hint of eggy taste. If you aren’t dairy-free, whey protein is definitely the better option!
- Any Protein Powder with artificial flavors and sweeteners – As we’ve mentioned multiple times, the fewer ingredients in your protein powder, the better! If sweetener and flavor are a must, look for natural options like pure vanilla and chocolate, and sweetener options like stevia and monk fruit. Organic options are also a plus as well!
We hope this serves as a helpful guide for finding the healthiest protein powder based on your needs!