This is a very common question and for good reason! There are thousands of different protein powders on the market that vary in their ingredients, benefits, taste and price. The purpose of this post is to provide a few simple pointers to help you find a protein powder that works for you.
Before I begin, however, I should clarify one thing! It is not necessary to use a protein powder in order to be healthy, to lose fat or gain muscle. Protein is present in many foods (you can read my post on high protein foods here) and it is certainly possible to get all of your protein needs met with food. Protein powder is simply a helpful and convenient option! Those who are vegetarian, vegan or have a low appetite may find protein powder to be a particularly helpful way to increase their protein consumption. The choice is yours!
Alright, let’s talk about how to pick a protein powder!
Most people who use a protein powder are either interested in increasing their protein consumption or ensuring adequate consumption. It follows that you will want to choose a protein powder that is high in protein. While this may seem obvious, you may be surprised at how little protein some protein powders actually contain! I recommend that you take a look at the nutrition label on any protein powder and compare the serving size (in grams) with the protein content (in grams). You want these two numbers to be as close as possible. The nutrition label you see here is an example of a protein powder that has a high protein content. One serving is 28g and 24g of that is protein. I would consider this to be a good choice for that reason. On the other hand, if you find a protein powder that is 28g per serving but only 12g of that is protein then you will want to see what the other 16g are. It could be anything from added sugars to greens products and you will want to decide whether or not that is desirable for you and your goals.
Source of Protein
Protein powders are made from everything under the sun these days, from milk to peas! The type of protein you use will be an important consideration for you if you follow a vegetarian/vegan diet or have food allergies/intolerances. Here is a quick run down of the more common types of proteins on the market:
Whey protein is one of the most widely available types of protein powder. Whey is formed as a byproduct of cheese-making or can be separated from casein in milk. This means it isn’t a good choice for those who are lactose intolerant or sensitive to dairy. Whey proteins can be further divided into two categories: isolates and concentrates. Whey isolates are fast-absorbing and low in carbs which is helpful for people on low-carb diets, but they tend to be pricey. Whey concentrates are more cost effective and are usually a great option for most people even though they don’t digest as fast.
Casein protein, like whey, is made from milk so it is not suitable for people who cannot tolerate dairy. Casein is a slower digesting protein which makes it great for people who are looking to use a protein shake as a meal replacement. When mixed with liquid it tends to have a thicker consistency which some find preferable.
Soy protein is a good choice for those who want a vegetarian source of protein. It contains high amounts of glutamine and BCAAs (some research supports that these will assist with recovery from workouts) and has been found to boost thyroid hormone output. I should note, however, that soy protein has a taste that is difficult to mask with other flavours (not that the taste is bad, just distinct).
Egg albumin protein is made from the protein found in egg whites. Before milk-derived proteins came onto the market, this was a very popular type of protein powder. It is another good option for those who eat eggs but do not eat milk or soy.
Plant proteins are ideal for vegetarian or vegan diets, or lactose sensitive people. They are derived from sources like peas, hemp, sprouts, brown rice, quinoa, millet, spirulina, and chia. They’re also high in vitamins and minerals, and can provide antioxidants and fibre, too!
Flavour and Sweeteners
The taste of your protein powder will be a huge factor in whether or not you like it and use it, so I think it is quite important! There are a few different options when it comes to taste:
- Unflavoured and unsweetened options can work best for those who want to bake with their protein powder.
- Naturally flavoured and sweetened are great for those who do not like the idea of consuming artificial ingredients. You will likely want to buy smaller portions of your protein because they are less shelf-stable. You should also be aware that the protein powder will likely have higher amounts of carbohydrates or sugars as a result of the natural sweeteners and flavours used.
- Artificially flavoured and sweetened protein powders range widely in flavour and are shelf-stable making them a good option for buying in bulk. You can be assured that these ingredients have been found safe for human consumption.
Price will vary depending on the type of protein you use, the company behind it, and the store that is selling it. Higher price does not always correlate with a better product so do you research, check the label and shop around! If you are trying out a new protein powder, purchase it in the smallest available size to make sure you like it. If you find that you do like it you can purchase it later in the larger size in order to save some money. Some companies and stores will also offer samples if you ask nicely!
Tip #1: it is not uncommon for people to experience gas, cramping and even headaches when using whey or casein protein (even those who are able to tolerate dairy products). If you find that you experience these symptoms, a plant, soy or egg based protein may be a better option for you.
Tip #2: I don’t know if it’s just me, but I find that chocolate protein powders rarely taste chocolate-y. To fix this, I will add 1-2tbsp of pure unsweetened cocoa powder and problem solved! Plus, cocoa is rich in magnesium and anti-oxidants.
I hope that this gives you a better understanding of what to look for when shopping for protein powder! If you have a question, don’t hesitate to ask!