If you’re looking for protein powders, you’ve probably realized 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 in 2021 and is expected to continue to grow (1).
Protein powders are commonly used by athletes, but have gained popularity among active people, as well as those looking to lose weight or lead a healthier lifestyle.
With such a large market and so many different options in all price ranges, it can be hard to know which option to choose.
What is protein powder?
Let’s start by breaking down the basics. Protein powder is a concentrated protein substance that is available from a variety of sources.
To make a protein powder, the protein is extracted from a particular food source and processed into a powder that is easy to mix with liquids or other foods.
Protein powders are used for a multitude of reasons. Most commonly, they are used for those with higher 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 useful and convenient for adding more protein to your diet, it is not necessary and adequate protein can be consumed only throughout your diet.
If you’re looking for a quick and easy option to add more protein to your diet, protein powder can be a helpful tool.
Curious about how protein powder can help with weight loss efforts? Take a look at this article.
How to choose a protein powder
Choosing a protein powder can be overwhelming, whether you’re looking online or at the grocery store or supplement store, there are plenty of options.
Let’s take a look at some things to 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 to look for in a protein powder.
These selection criteria can be applied to any type of protein and to other nutritional supplements with slight modifications.
This one seems obvious, but we have yet to cover it. You want your protein powder to have plenty of protein. Most of your calories should come from protein.
Choosing something with at least 20g of protein per scoop will be ideal.
Not only are there endless options for protein powder brands, but each brand typically has multiple types of protein. There are a few key players when it comes to protein powder types and we are going to take a look at the top 3.
These are not 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 to other nutritional supplements.
Whey has long been a favorite among athletes and has become something 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 necessary for muscle protein synthesis.
Whey comes in two forms: whey isolate and whey concentrate or a combination of both. Whey isolate is generally recommended as it is more refined and has a slightly higher protein content and lower carbohydrate, fat, and lactose content.
However, if price is a concern and you’re on a budget, whey concentrate is a good option. Whey concentrate is usually cheaper and provides many of the same benefits with a slightly different distribution of macronutrients.
Casein protein has unique benefits related to how it is digested. Casein is digested more slowly than other proteins, so it is recommended to take it before 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 out there, but not all are created equal. When choosing a plant-based protein, it’s important to look for one that has a combination of different protein sources to create a complete and proper amino acid profile (5).
You’re buying protein powder, so this sounds obvious, but you want the majority of your calories to come from protein. Look for a protein powder with at least 20g of protein per serving.
If your goal is to gain muscle, you’ll also want to make sure the protein powder has a complete amino acid profile and adequate leucine (more than 2 grams per 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 the recommended daily intake of added sugar, it’s best to look for a protein powder that’s low in added sugar.
Instead of consuming carbohydrates from sugar, you can consume other whole food sources such as fruit in a smoothie or oatmeal in oatmeal when you consume protein powder; which will create a more nutritious meal or snack overall.
It’s also important to look for sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners because they can cause digestive problems and gastrointestinal upset. Everyone has a different tolerance level for these, so if it’s something you want to try, start small and see how your body tolerates it. Protein powders with artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols are not recommended for athletes because high-intensity or prolonged exercise can intensify gastrointestinal upset.
It is common for protein powders to include added ingredients for a multitude of reasons. One key reason is that it allows companies to sell the product in bulk cheaply, and another is to improve flavor and texture.
Common added ingredients include:
Fillings: Psyllium, cellulose and different flours are used to add volume at a lower cost. While not inherently bad for you, the proteins with these will likely be of lower quality and may cause more GI upset.
Thickeners: Xanthan gum, guar gum, arrowroot, and other thickeners are often used to improve the texture of protein powders. These are not necessarily bad, but they can affect digestibility and cause gastrointestinal upset.
Vegetable oils: Many protein powders will add vegetable oils to improve texture, flavor, and mouthfeel. This will increase the fat and calorie content as well.
When looking for a quality protein powder, you should read the ingredients and look for an “other ingredients” section, which is quite common on supplement labels.
The key is to look for a short list of ingredients that you recognize with limited or no additives.
third party testing
There is no regulatory body for supplements. This is why it is so important to do your research and find companies and supplements that you trust. Some companies pay for third-party testing to help build trust with their customers and ensure certain things.
One, you want to make sure that what is on the label is actually in the supplement and two, that there are no banned substances, and three, quality.
If you are an athlete who is tested for banned substances, you want to look for supplements that are NSF Certified for Sports, Banned Substances Control Group (BSCG), or Informed-Sport.
If you’re not an athlete taking drug tests, some of the other notable third-party quality testing companies include NSF, Informed Choice, and USP.
Third party testing companies will still ensure that the supplement is tested 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 buy online. It helps to know what to look for when shopping for a protein powder or any supplement.
Be sure to pay attention to your protein source of 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.