If you're on the hunt for protein powder, you've probably figured out that there are a ton of options on the shelf. The supplement industry, including protein powder, is a multi-billion dollar industry. The global market was worth 71.81 billion dollars in 2021 and is expected to keep growing (1).
Protein powders are commonly used by athletes but have gained popularity among active individuals as well as those pursuing weight loss or a healthier lifestyle.
With such a big market and so many different options in all different price ranges, it can be difficult to know which option to choose.
What is Protein Powder?
Let's start with breaking down the basics. Protein powder is a concentrated protein substance that is available from a variety of sources.
To make a protein powder, protein is extracted from a particular food source and processed into a powder form that is easy to mix into liquids or other foods.
Protein powders are utilized for a multitude of reasons. Most commonly, they are used for those with increased protein needs and those trying to gain muscle. those trying to lose weight and/or those trying to live a healthier lifestyle.
While protein powder can be extremely helpful and convenient in adding more protein to your diet, it is not necessary and adequate protein can be consumed throughout your diet alone.
If you're looking for an easy, fast option to add more protein to your diet, protein powder can be a useful tool.
Curious about how protein powder can help with weight loss efforts? Check out this article.
How to Choose a Protein Powder
Choosing a protein powder can be overwhelming, whether you're looking online or looking at the grocery or supplement store there are a lot of options.
Let's take a look at a few things you should consider before buying a protein powder.
There are many things to consider when choosing a protein powder including the protein source, protein content, added ingredients, and sugar content.
Let’s break down each of these considerations to help you better understand what you should be looking for in a protein powder.
These selection criteria can be applied to any type of protein and to other nutrition supplements with slight modifications.
This one seems obvious but we still have to cover it. You want your protein powder to have quite a bit of protein. Most of your calories should be coming from protein.
Choosing something with at least 20g of protein for one scoop is going to be ideal.
Not only are there endless options for brands of protein powders but each brand usually has multiple types of protein. There are a few key players when it comes to types of protein powders and we’re going to take a look at the top 3.
These aren’t the only options; if you find these sources don’t work well for you, you can explore other protein sources.
Keep in mind that these selection criteria can be applied to any type of protein and even loosely to other nutrition supplements.
Whey has long been the favorite amongst athletes and has become somewhat of the “gold standard” of protein powder. There are a few reasons for this.
Whey is easily digestible and has a complete amino acid profile with plenty of leucine which is needed for protein muscle synthesis.
Whey comes in two forms: whey isolate and whey concentrate or a combination of both. Whey isolate is typically recommended as it's more refined and has a slightly higher protein content and a lower carbohydrate, fat, and lactose content.
However, if the price is a concern and you're on a budget, whey concentrate is a good option. Whey concentrate is often cheaper and provides many of the same benefits with a slightly different macronutrient distribution.
Casein protein has unique benefits related to how it is digested. Casein is digested slower than other proteins so it has been recommended to take it before going to bed to utilize the release of human growth hormone and stimulate muscle protein synthesis by having protein readily available (3,4).
There are numerous plant-based protein powders, but they are not all the same. When choosing a plant-based protein, it’s important to look for one that has a blend of different protein sources to create a complete and adequate amino acid profile (5).
You’re buying protein powder so this sounds obvious, but you want the majority of the calories coming from protein. Look for a protein powder with at least 20 g of protein per serving.
If your goal is muscle gain, you also want to ensure that the protein powder has a complete amino acid profile and adequate leucine (2+ grams/serving) to promote muscle protein synthesis.
The sugar content can vary drastically between protein powders. Because added sugar is associated with negative health outcomes and most Americans already consume more than their recommended daily intake of added sugar, it’s best to look for a protein powder that’s low in added sugar.
Instead of consuming carbs from sugar, you can consume other whole food sources like fruit in a smoothie or oats in oatmeal when consuming protein powder; which will create an overall more nutrient meal or snack.
It’s also important to look for sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners because these can cause digestive problems and GI discomfort. Everyone has a different tolerance level for these so if it's something you want to try, start with a small one and see how you're body tolerates it. Protein powders with artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols are not recommended for athletes because high-intensity or prolonged exercise may intensify GI distress.
It’s common for protein powders to include added ingredients for a multitude of reasons. One key reason is that it allows companies to bulk the product inexpensively another is to improve taste and texture.
Common added ingredients include:
Fillers: psyllium, cellulose, and different flours are used to add bulk at a lower cost. While not inherently bad for you, proteins with these will likely be lower quality and can cause more GI discomfort.
Thickeners: Xanthum gum, guar gum, arrowroot, and other thickeners are often used to improve the texture of the protein powder. These are not necessarily bad but can impair digestibility and cause GI discomfort
Vegetable oils: many protein powders will add vegetable oils to improve texture, taste, and mouth feel. This will increase the fat and calorie content as well.
When looking for a quality protein powder you want to read the ingredients and look for an "other ingredients" section which is fairly common on supplement labels.
The key is looking for a short ingredient list that you recognize with limited to no additives.
There is no regulating body for supplements. This is why it’s so important to do your research and to find companies and supplements you trust. Some companies pay for third-party testing to help gain their customer's trust and ensure a few things.
One, you want to make sure that what's on the label is actually in the supplement and two, that there are no banned substances, and three, quality.
If you’re an athlete that undergoes testing for banned substances you want to look for supplements with NSF Certified for Sport, Banned Substance Control Group (BSCG), or Informed-Sport.
If you’re not an athlete undergoing drug testing some of the other most notable third-party testing companies for quality include NSF, Informed Choice, and USP.
Third-party testing companies will still ensure the supplement is going through testing for quality and purity, which is something every consumer should look for.
When looking for protein powders, availability varies depending on your location unless you’re buying online. It’s helpful to know what to look for when you’re buying a protein powder or any supplement for that matter.
Be sure to pay attention to the protein source of your choice that aligns with your dietary preferences and goals, something with at least 20g of protein, limited added sugar and added ingredients, and third-party testing.