Protein powders can be found in thousands of formulations on tens of thousands of shelves across the country. And while they’re popular for their ability to help people gain and retain muscle, these supplements aren’t just for body builders — or even people with regular gym memberships. “Protein powder is also great for vegetarians to absorb protein,” says nutritionist and personal trainer Aynsley Kirshenbaum. “Or if you have a picky-eater child.” She has no qualms about adding protein powder to her kid’s macaroni and cheese. All of the nutritionists we spoke to stressed that protein powders should really be taken as a supplement to three balanced, protein-rich meals over the course of a day; as nutritionist Heidi Skolnik pointed out, “no powder is giving you something you won’t get from nuts, eggs, or fish.” But with so many to choose from — each with its own list of potentially unfamiliar ingredients — those new to protein powders might find it hard to know which is the right one for them. “There are a lot out there,” admits nutrition and fitness coach Gabbi Berkow. “My clients often come to me confused about which to buy.” We talked to Kirshenbaum, Skolnik, Berkow, and ten other nutritionists, athletes, and trainers who use protein powders regularly about their favorites.
Best overall whey | Best chocolate-flavored whey | Best vanilla-flavored whey| Best whey for competitive athletes | Best (less expensive) whey for competitive athletes | Best collagen | Best overall plant-based | Best chocolate-flavored plant-based | Best plant-based for competitive athletes | Best plant-based for sensitive stomachs
What we’re looking for
Protein source: Every nutritionist we spoke to told us that the first and main decision is whether you want an animal- or plant-based protein powder, which they say comes down to dietary preference. (A person’s age, gender, or body type are not really factors to consider, according to the experts.) If you’re going animal-based, powders with whey protein (which comes from cow’s milk) are generally what they recommend for the most digestible fast-acting powder to help with muscle building and weight loss. There are two types of whey protein — whey protein isolate and whey protein concentrate — and the experts say the best kind is whey protein isolate, because it is strained in a way that gives it a lower lactose content than whey protein concentrate.
For vegans, vegetarians, lactose-intolerant folks, and anyone else who doesn’t eat animal products, plant-based protein powders are (obviously) the way to go. As the nutritionists told us, powder made with pea protein is generally seen as the most effective plant-based alternative to whey. And they say a pea protein isolate, like a whey protein isolate, is even better, because it has the highest amount of protein per scoop. While they warn that some people may experience issues like stomachaches with plant-based powders, all of the ones in this story are easy to digest, according to the folks who recommend them.
Flavor: From there, the experts say it comes down to choosing a flavor you like. The most common options are vanilla, chocolate, and unflavored. But some powders come in a whole range of flavors, including some more exciting ones like matcha or chai. “I recommend people just try one and see how they feel on it,” says Kirshenbaum. This is especially true if you are sensitive to lingering aftertastes in your smoothies. All of the recommendations below were chosen for both their ingredients as well as their taste.
Clean ingredients: As with any nutritional supplement, you want to choose a protein powder that adds only the highest-quality ingredients to your diet. So watch out for powders that have excess chemical additives and artificial sweeteners where possible. Nutritionist Ariane Hundt cautions against powders that have Splenda and suggests looking for ones with natural sweeteners like stevia or monk fruit.
Best overall whey protein powder
Whey protein | Unflavored | No added sugar or artificial sweeteners
Personal trainer Kern Alexander told us that after 15 years of trying different options, his powder of choice is this unflavored one from Now Sport, a multigenerational-family-owned brand that Berkow also cited as one to look for. It is packaged in the USA, contains whey protein isolate, and “isn’t loaded with artificial sweeteners,” according to Alexander, who says its lack of flavor means “I can add berries and banana and just taste those.” If you prefer some taste, this protein power is also available in vanilla or chocolate flavors, both of which include stevia for sweetening.
Best chocolate-flavored whey protein powder
Whey protein | Double rich chocolate | Made with natural and artificial flavors, no added sugar
Trainer Taj Felix told us he’s been using this chocolatey whey protein powder from Optimum Nutrition, which contains a blend of whey isolate and concentrate, for “about eight years now” and that many others in his industry use it too. (Berkow named Optimum Nutrition as another reputable brand.) According to Felix, part of this powder’s appeal is that it “doesn’t have a ton of ingredients, which can make people nervous.” A self-described chocolate fan, he says this powder mixes smoothly, actually tastes “very good,” and is never chalky. It is also available in vanilla and milk-chocolate flavors.
Best vanilla-flavored whey protein powder
Whey protein | Vanilla | Made with natural and artificial flavors and sucralose (an artificial sweetener)
If you prefer vanilla to chocolate, celebrity trainer Steve Uria says this whey protein powder — also a blend of whey isolate and concentrate — has a minimal ingredient list and is his favorite of the ten he’s tried. Uria told us he has used it for four years and that he never experiences “any bloating or gas.” While his favorite flavor is vanilla, he says the brand makes other options, like peanut-butter marshmallow, which let him switch it up occasionally.
Best whey protein powder for competitive athletes
Whey protein | Chocolate | Made with natural flavors and stevia
According to our panel of nutritionists, a cow’s diet can make a difference in the quality of whey protein. If they’re grass-fed, the milk they produce (and any whey protein derived from it) will be hormone free. This chocolate powder’s whey protein isolate is derived from grass-fed cows; it’s a favorite of fitness expert Jeff Halevy, a former health correspondent for the Today Show, who says it is “not overly sweet” and the best of some 15 other protein powders he’s tried. Another reason Halevy likes this protein powder is that it’s NSF-certified, which trainer Don Saladino explains is a “nationally recognized verification that proves there are no banned substances in the product,” making it a great option for athletes who compete professionally.
Best (less expensive) whey protein powder for competitive athletes
Whey protein | Chocolate | Made with organic natural flavors and stevia
Saladino, who trains actors like Hugh Jackman and Ryan Reynolds for their superhero turns, told us he prefers this less expensive, NSF-certified powder that contains whey isolate protein derived from grass-fed cows’ milk. He favors the taste of this chocolate flavor, but notes you can get it in other flavors, such as vanilla and strawberry.
Best collagen protein powder
Cow-based collagen peptides | Unflavored | No added sugar or artificial sweeteners
While less effective for building muscle, collagen-based protein powders are an increasingly popular supplement due to their purported hair and skin benefits. Kirshenbaum likes them because she has issues digesting whey, and collagen-based powders “tend to be a more available protein than vegan powders,” she says. Actress and model Molly Sims adds this Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides powder to all of her smoothies and juices and says that after six months of using it, she has “seen a difference” and even “feels younger.” In addition to collagen this powder also includes hyaluronic acid and vitamin C.
Best overall plant-based protein powder
Pea protein | Unflavored | No added sugar or artificial sweeteners
Like Alexander, fitness coach Ebonny Fowler prefers an unflavored protein powder so she can better mix it with other ingredients. However, she also follows a mostly plant-based diet, which is why she looks for powders with pea protein isolate and “no added sugar, preservatives, or fillers, so the only ingredient is pea protein isolate.” While her favorite protein powder is currently out of stock, this one from Now Sports — a brand mentioned by multiple nutritionists and trainers — has a similar formulation, in that its only ingredient is pea protein isolate.
Best chocolate-flavored plant-based protein powder
Pea, chia-seed, and brown-rice protein | Chocolate | Made with natural flavors and stevia
Two of the nutritionists we spoke to named Orgain as a reputable brand, and trainer Ray Grayson told us he has used this chocolate-flavored powder from the company for two years (after trying more than 20 other kinds). Made with a blend of pea, chia-seed, and brown-rice proteins, it won out for Grayson because it tastes good and has “clean ingredients without a bunch of fillers.”
Best plant-based protein powder for competitive athletes
Pea, pumpkin, and sunflower-seed protein | Chocolate | Made with natural flavors and stevia
As a competitive racer, running coach David Roche says his main requirement in a protein powder is that there are no ingredients that could be bad for his health or drug testing. Made from a blend of pea, pumpkin, and sunflower-seed proteins, this powder from Vega Sport (a brand Berkow approves of) is NSF certified, which is a big reason why he says it’s his favorite of the dozens he’s used over the years. Another? The powder’s “light chocolate taste” is “smooth and not overpowering,” Roche says.
Best plant-based protein powder for sensitive stomachs
Pea protein | Available in vanilla, chocolate, coconut acai, chai, and matcha | Made with natural flavors and fruit-derived sugars
Three-time Winter Olympics gold medalist Shaun White drinks this protein powder mixed into a smoothie once a day, usually after a workout. And he bluntly explains why: “It’s the only plant-based, protein-shake-type thing that doesn’t make me super gassy. I’ve tried a bunch — with all the others, I always feel like something is not right after I drink them,” he says. Because Ka’Chava advertises this shake as an all-in-one meal replacement, White says he’ll sometimes just mix it with water “in a pinch.” But his usual go-to is a more rounded-out mix of the brand’s pea-protein-based chocolate powder blended with oat or almond milk as well as a banana or an avocado.
• Aynsley Kirshenbaum, nutritionist and personal trainer
• Gabbi Berkow, nutrition and fitness coach
• Kern Alexander, personal trainer
• Heidi Skolnik, nutritionist
• Taj Felix, trainer
• Steve Uria, celebrity trainer
• Jeff Halevy, fitness expert and former health correspondent for the Today Show
• Don Saladino, trainer
• Molly Sims, actress and model
• Ebonny Fowler, fitness coach
• Ray Grayson, trainer
• David Roche, competitive racer and running coach
• Shaun White, three-time Winter Olympics gold medalist
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