Real talk: Generally healthy adults don’t need protein powder. Protein is a nutrient, and nutrients comprise food. Eating real, whole ingredients to up your protein intake (particularly: eggs, seafood, beef, poultry, legumes, seeds, nuts, dairy products, and pork) is always the gold standard, no matter what.
That said, there are specific situations — based on health status, life stage, or training programs — when having a protein powder on-hand can help you meet your nutrient needs. If you’re using a protein powder for a medical reason or taking any medications, it’s always best to check with your doctor before starting a supplement regimen. Learn more about how to pick protein powders based on your needs and get our top 12 picks below.
What is protein?
Protein is comprised of amino acids, which are essentially the building blocks that exist in your body and in food. You need these amino acids to build new tissue, whether it’s red blood cells or muscle cells. Protein is also responsible for many other functions in your body, including: transport, immune function, fluid-electrolyte balance, blood clotting, and energy (since it provides 4 calories per gram). Our bodies use protein stores to make glucose when there isn’t enough elsewhere (i.e., from stored carbs or fat) to provide the energy you need.
When would I need a protein powder?
Protein powder can provide these building-block nutrients, add calories to food without increasing volume, and often digests more easily than just carbs or fat alone. It can help in situations like:
• If you’re on a hardcore training regimen for an athletic event
• If you’ve recently had surgery or undergone any form of health-related trauma
• If your nutrient needs are higher due to specific medical conditions, like certain cancers, organ failure, or wounds
• If you’ve recently had any oral surgery or a treatment in which swallowing is difficult
• If you are caring for someone who’s struggling to keep their appetite up
How do I choose the best protein powder?
Carefully — since protein powders are considered dietary supplements, they’re not overseen by the FDA. That means they may contain unwanted or potentially harmful ingredients or they simply won’t provide the “life-changing!” benefits touted on the packaging. Use dietary supplements to fill in the gaps from what might be missing in your diet — not to take the place of food. Here’s what to consider before you pick a protein powder:
• Potential Dietary Restrictions: Since they aren’t FDA-regulated, there’s no real way of knowing whether these powders are acceptable for people with allergies or intolerances. They may not have any allergens in their ingredients list, but there’s still potential for cross-contamination in the manufacturing process.
• Other Ingredients: Added sugar and fast can up the calorie content in protein powder. Choose unflavored versions made with only with a protein isolate for keeping calories in check. (You should be able to multiply the grams of protein by four and get the same number as total calories.)
• Serving Size: Most protein powders recommend define “scoop” differently. Make sure you know how much to use to get the best bang for your buck.
• Sodium: While it’s less of a concern for endurance athletes, you may want to double check the sodium per scoop. The amount especially soars in chocolate-flavored products.
• Calories: If you’re looking to optimize weight gain, look for the most calories and grams of protein per scoop. The reverse holds for weight loss or general use in smoothies: Look for powders with the lowest total calories for around 20 grams protein per scoop.
• Other Nutrients: They may (or may not) be desirable based on what you’re using it for. For example, if you know you’re not getting enough iron in your day to day (a key nutrient for athletes!) you may want to choose versions with a higher iron content.
Remember: Eat food, first. Load up on the veggies, fruit, unsweetened dairy products, 100% whole grains, pulses, nuts, seeds and legumes (plus plant-based oils for cooking). Nut butter is a great food alternative to protein powder, but check labels for sneaky added sugar.
How We Picked This List
The products that met our rigorous standards were all (save for Vital Proteins) verified by a third-party lab for safety of ingredients. We cross-referenced with the ConsumerLab.com database to ensure our top picks were accurately sourced, labeled, and backed by lab analysis. This helps ensure that there’s no harmful material (like lead, which has been found in supplements) in the products themselves, and also verifies that what’s in the bottle is what it claims to be (e.g., actual protein versus Splenda).
Best for Women
Hemp Protein Powder (1 Pound)
Arguably our favorite of the bunch: Nutiva’s Organic Hemp Protein Powder is easily mixed into liquids, though it will settle over time — so drink up! It’s simple while providing the nutrition you need: 3 grams of unsaturated fat (from hemp seeds), 8 grams of fiber, and 15 grams of protein, which makes it a perfect addition to cereal, smoothies, or baked foods. For smoothie lovers: The powder’s slightly nutty taste pairs well with peanut butter and banana.
Best for Women
Protein Superfood Powder (12 Ounces)
$21.24 (15% off)
One scoop of this original blend provides 20 grams of protein at 110 calories — and it’s also made with a blend of real veggies and fruit, which provide antioxidants and minerals we need to stay well. A scoop also provides over 10% of the daily value for iron and calcium, both of which are important nutrients for women at every stage. Plus, since the blend is derived from pea protein and hemp, you’ll also benefit from the unsaturated fatty acids (omega-6 and omega-3), which can help with immune function and support heart health. We love that there’s pineapple and banana in there, too! Mix a scoop into a morning smoothie for a boost of protein, vitamin A (20% of your daily value!), and 3 grams of satiating fiber.
Best for Weight Loss
Unflavored Impact Whey Isolate (2.2 Pounds)
Made from whey protein isolate, this unflavored powder easily goes in whatever you’re making, from overnight oats to smoothies and lattes — providing 22 grams of protein for just under 100 calories. The simplicity of the product plus the calcium content (whey is derived from animal or milk protein) provides the added boost you’re looking for, without any frills.
Best for Weight Loss (Vegan)
Pea Protein Unflavored Protein Powder (4 Pounds)
This top pick is a plain and simple vegan protein blend made from pea protein isolate — and nothing else, a key distinguishing factor from so many protein powders on the market. One scoop contains 120 calories, 24 grams of protein, and 35% of your daily iron — a crucial mineral for supporting your body’s circulatory system. The simpler the protein powder, the better it is for anyone seeking a protein powder that supports weight loss. Your best bets will be unflavored, single-ingredient picks that you can add to any smoothie, shake, coffee, or tea lattes to create a more substantial, protein-packed snack.
Best Meal Replacement
Total Lean Lean Shake 25 Rich Chocolate (2.6 Pounds)
Two scoops of this chocolate-flavored protein powder contain 200 calories and provide 50% of your daily calcium needs, plus 20% or more of other key nutrients, including B-vitamins and minerals. Since it’s got 25 grams of protein from milk protein and whey, blending this into a smoothie or mixing with water (or milk) can help tide you over when there’s no time for a sit-down meal.
Best for Weight Gain
AMP Wheybolic Whey Protein Powder, Chocolate Fudge (3.4 Pounds)
If you’re personally struggling with appetite loss or trying to rebuild, GNC’s Amplified Wheybolic 40 provides 40 grams of protein per two-scoop serving. Loss of appetite is extremely common with some medical conditions, stress, anxiety, post-surgery recovery, and age-related changes (appetite tends to wane over 65). In those cases, maximizing the nutrients you can get from anything is crucial — you want as much nutrient density as possible to get the job done! Forty grams will help you on your way, but your best bet is to blend two scoops of this powder into a homemade milkshake, which will provide extra calories (without losing out on the protein your muscles need for strength and function).
Best for Vegans
Garden of Life Meal Replacement Vanilla Powder (2.1 Pounds)
Garden of Life
While some of the other protein powders are vegan, this one is our top choice thanks to its ingredients. The protein found in Garden of Life’s product is from a blend of pea protein, brown rice protein, amaranth, millet, and quinoa (all 100% whole grains) plus seeds and pulses, including lentil, garbanzo, flax, and chia. Those provide a variety of nutrients that vegans especially need to stay healthy. The mix is also high in fiber (7 grams) and provides 20 grams of plant-based protein for 115 calories in each scoop. It’s also a lower-in-sodium blend (140 mg), which is beneficial for anyone cutting back on salt. You’ll get 15% of your daily value for zinc, 30% of the daily value for selenium, and 25% of vitamin C — all of which support immunity and wellbeing. The best benefit: One scoop packs 100% of your daily vitamin B12 needs, a tough-to-find nutrient for vegans.
Best for Muscle Gain
Beachbody Performance Recover Post-Workout Formula
This popular protein powder is a great pick for post-workout snacks that can help build lean body mass. At 130 calories per scoop, the blend has a chocolatey taste and provides 10 grams of carbs with 20 grams of protein. When mixed with a cup of milk and a banana, you’ll take in more carbs and protein, which can make muscle-building more efficient. Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are the predominant type of amino acid that your muscles require for strength and function, and they’re typically found in plant-based sources of protein. Since this blend combines whey, micellar casein, and pea proteins, it can help meet your needs. Flavored with beet sugar and cocoa powder, you’ll also get a sweet taste for a mere 6 grams sugar per scoop.
Salted Caramel Protein Powder (2 Pounds)
Quest products have a cult following, but their protein powders deserve some credit in their own right. Made from whey protein isolate and micellar casein, the salted caramel flavor tastes like a sundae (it’s sweetened with sucralose and stevia) — all while providing 26 grams of protein in a 120 calorie scoop. It’s a nutrient-packed, satisfying snack option when blended with milk and ice. One word of caution: If you’re looking to cut back on salt, this may not be the protein powder for you. One scoop contains 300mg (10% of your recommended intake), which can sneak up on you throughout the day if you’re in the mood for multiple shakes. That said, the slow-to-absorb micellar casein can help you feel satisfied and the powder packs 25% of your daily calcium needs, so it’s an all-around sound option for anyone with an active lifestyle.
Best for Endurance Athletes
Sport Certified Grass Fed Whey Protein Isolate, Chocolate (1.4 Pounds)
Garden of Life
$38.47 (30% off)
Garden of Life’s whey vanilla flavor is slightly sweet tasting but blends evenly in smoothies or on its own with water and ice. It has 4 grams of fiber per serving, which makes a post-training snack more filling. The combination of whey and milk protein provides an ideal blend for recovery of any type, but this mix also provides BCAAs (to support muscle repair) plus added probiotics, which could help with GI issues over time. The blend is also NSF Certified for Sport (a go-to recommendation for athletes, since it’s approved for use by the United States Anti-Doping Agency).
Best for Endurance Athletes (Vegan)
Sport Premium Protein, Vanilla (1.8 Pounds)
Vega Sport Performance Protein is another great choice, particularly for endurance trainers who want a vegan option. Made from a combo of pea, pumpkin seed, and alfalfa protein, this blend tastes best blended into fruit smoothies. Plus, 5 grams of the 30 total grams of protein per serving are BCAAs, which may help with long-distance training recovery. A scoop provides about 20% of calcium and iron (both crucial for athletes), plus 410mg potassium (17% of your daily value), and 240mg sodium, both of which are important for replenishing electrolyte losses after work-outs.
Most Travel Friendly
Collagen Peptides Powder Stick Packs (20 Count)
These portable packs were not included in ConsumerLab.com’s tests, but the collagen-peptide sticks are convenient and portable. That makes them an asset for those who love smoothies or shakes at the office or when traveling. At 35 calories and 9 grams protein per serving, these can add a boost to your morning latte, too.