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 great for vegetarians,” says nutritionist and personal trainer Aynsley Kirshenbaum. Or kids who are picky eaters. Kirshenbaum adds protein powder to her kids’ macaroni and cheese.
All of the nutritionists we spoke to stressed that no one should attempt to survive on protein powder alone. Instead, it should supplement 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.” Registered dietitian Kaleigh Tjoelker agrees: “I always encourage my clients to focus on whole foods first to meet their nutrition needs,” she says. “Protein powder should be used as a supplement to a balanced diet. However, certain people can benefit from protein powders, like athletes who have very high protein needs, people who are traveling, or people who are vegan or plant-based athletes.” And if you’re taking protein supplements after a workout, a good rule of thumb is to get your post-workout shake within 30 minutes of completion of your session, according to ASCM fitness nutrition specialist and personal trainer Oscar Colon IV.
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 nutritionists, athletes, and trainers who use protein powders regularly — and tested some ourselves — to determine the best powders for every type of person.
What we’re looking for
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 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.
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. All of the recommendations below were chosen for both their ingredients as well as their taste.
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. Tjoelker prefers products with simple ingredients: “The purpose of a protein powder is to provide a convenient high-protein snack. We do not need these powders to provide an assortment of other nutrients.” She also looks out for artificial sweeteners, which she say can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort. Similarly, nutritionist Ariane Hundt cautions against powders that have Splenda and suggests looking for ones with natural sweeteners like stevia or monk fruit. Some powders have been NSF certified, which trainer Don Saladino explains is a nationally recognized verification that proves there are no banned substances, contaminants, or masking agents in the product — making it a great option for athletes who compete professionally.
Best whey-protein powders
Best overall whey-protein powder
Protein source: Whey protein isolate | Flavor: Unflavored | Ingredients: 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 fitness coach Gabbi Berkow 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.” I’ve tried this powder and I like the unflavored version. When I’m in a hurry and don’t have time to make an elaborate shake with lots of ingredients, I like mixing the unflavored powder with just water and gulping it down. I’ve mixed it into yogurt-granola bowls, and beyond the slight texture change, I can barely notice a difference in taste. If you prefer some flavor, this protein power is also available in vanilla and chocolate, both of which are sweetened with stevia. I’ve mixed a scoop of the vanilla version in pancake batter to make protein pancakes (as I’ve done with the Podium protein powder below), and I liked how the flavor wasn’t overpowering — they still tasted like normal pancakes.
Best chocolate-flavored whey-protein powder
Protein source: Whey protein isolate | Flavor: Double-rich chocolate | Ingredients: 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 eight years and that many others in his industry use it too. (Berkow named Optimum Nutrition as a reputable brand.) According to Felix, part of this powder’s appeal is that it doesn’t have a ton of ingredients. 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
Protein source: Whey protein isolate | Flavor: Vanilla | Ingredients: Natural and artificial flavors and sucralose (an artificial sweetener)
If you prefer vanilla to chocolate, celebrity trainer Steve Uria says this whey-protein powder — 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 after he drinks it. While his favorite flavor is vanilla, the brand makes other options, like peanut butter marshmallow, which Uria chooses occasionally.
Best whey-protein powder for mixing into smoothies and shakes
Protein source: Whey protein isolate and whey protein concentrate | Flavor: Maple Butter Pancake | Ingredients: Natural and artificial flavors, no added sugar
This whey from Podium was the main protein supplement I used for weight training in 2022 for one reason: It’s the best protein powder I’ve tried for mixing into shakes and smoothies because of its consistency. Podium’s powder is finer than others on this list (including the Optimum Gold Standard, Momentous Essential Grass-Fed, and Orgain’s Organic Plant-Based) and doesn’t clump together when stirred or blended as much as chunkier powders. Podium doesn’t offer the usual chocolate or vanilla flavors — instead, the brand has flavors like Maple Butter Pancake (which I’ve used for shakes and for mixing into regular pancake batter to make blueberry or banana protein pancakes — a new favorite recipe of mine) and Peanut Butter Crunch, both of which are very sweet. That’s another reason I like the Podium powders for mixing: I don’t feel the need to add additional sweeteners to my drink. Some folks might find the powder too sweet on its own, but I prefer that to an overly bitter, chemical taste.
Best whey-protein powder for competitive athletes
Protein source: Whey protein isolate | Flavor: Chocolate | Ingredients: 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. I agree; the chocolate flavor is subtle — its taste reminds me of semisweet cacao bars — and a great choice for athletes looking for a plain flavor. Another reason Halevy likes this protein powder is that it’s NSF certified.
Best whey-protein powder with simple ingredients for competitive athletes
Protein source: Whey protein isolate | Flavor: Unflavored | Ingredients: No artificial flavors or sweeteners
Registered dietitian Kaleigh Tjoelker works with athletes, many of whom play tennis, so she pays particular attention to protein powders that are NSF certified, which ensure that the product contains no banned substances. Tjoelker prefers this simple, NSF-certified whey-isolate mix from Klean. She also likes that this mix doesn’t have artificial sweeteners, which she says are “common in protein powders to provide sweetness without extra carbs or calories. However, these sweeteners make protein powders very sweet.” It’s also unflavored, so it’s easy to mix into different types of smoothies and shakes.
Best whey-protein powder with dual-protein blend
Protein source: Whey protein isolate and egg white powders | Flavor: Chocolate | Ingredients: Natural flavors and stevia
This protein powder comes recommended by personal trainer Oscar Colon IV, who likes its mix of fast- and slow-release proteins. It has whey isolate, which is an instant-release protein, whereas the egg-white protein takes longer to digest and will be released in the hours after, as you recover. “When you ingest a protein, your body breaks it down into individual amino acids and rearranges them, refolds them, and turns them into whatever is needed at the time,” Colon explains. He likes this powder’s macronutrient breakdown per serving (24 grams of protein, 5 grams of carbs, and 1 gram of total fat) and recommends it to those trying to build muscle while minimizing increases in excess body fat.
Best lactose-free chocolate-flavored whey-protein powder
Protein source: Whey protein isolate | Flavor: Chocolate or vanilla | Ingredients: Cocoa powder, monk fruit, and stevia
Barry’s chief instructor Kate Lemere says that this has been her go-to powder for years and likes it for its simple ingredients list. “When I was breastfeeding, my daughter had a milk intolerance, so I used it through a lot of different seasons of my life.” Lenere adds that is has a good calorie-to-protein ratio, and she often reaches for Iconic’s premixed protein shakes on busy days: “On the days I don’t want to mess with my Vitamix, I like the premade bottles — it‘s convenient.”
Best collagen-protein powder
Best collagen-protein powder
Protein source: Cow-based collagen peptides| Flavor: Unflavored | Ingredients: 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. 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 an improvement in her hair and skin and even “feels younger.” In addition to collagen, this powder includes hyaluronic acid and vitamin C.
Best plant-based protein powders
Best overall plant-based protein powder
Protein source: Pea protein isolate | Flavor: Unflavored | Ingredients: 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 follows a mostly plant-based diet, which is why she looks for powders with pea protein isolate and “no added sugar, preservatives, or fillers.” 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. If you’re going to be using this protein powder in shaker and blender bottles, make sure to wash your bottles thoroughly. I’ve found that the pea ingredients can leave a stronger odor than other protein powders when the container is left uncleaned.
Best plant-based protein powder with simple ingredients
Protein source: Pea protein, chia seeds, pumpkin seed protein, almond protein | Flavor: Vanilla | Ingredients: No artificial sweeteners
This recommendation comes from Tjoelker, who looks for protein powders without artificial sweeteners, which she says some people can’t tolerate well and could lead to stomach aches. “I like products without any artificial sweeteners or small amounts of added sugar for just a touch of sweetness,” she says. (While this pea-based protein powder doesn’t have any artificial sweeteners, it does contain organic coconut sugar.)
Best chocolate-flavored plant-based protein powder
Protein source: Pea, chia-seed, and brown-rice protein | Flavor: Chocolate | Ingredients: 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
Protein source: Pea, pumpkin, and sunflower-seed protein | Flavor: Chocolate | Ingredients: 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
Protein source: Pea protein | Flavor: Available in vanilla, chocolate, coconut acai, chai, and matcha | Ingredients: Made with natural flavors and fruit-derived sugars
Three-time Olympic 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.
• Kern Alexander, personal trainer
• Gabbi Berkow, nutrition and fitness coach
• Oscar Colon IV, personal trainer and founder and CEO of MTHD by Oscar
• Taj Felix, trainer
• Ebonny Fowler, fitness coach
• Ray Grayson, trainer
• Jeff Halevy, fitness expert and former health correspondent for the Today show
• Aynsley Kirshenbaum, nutritionist and personal trainer
• Kate Lemere, Barry’s chief instructor
• David Roche, competitive racer and running coach
• Don Saladino, trainer
• Molly Sims, actress and model
• Heidi Skolnik, nutritionist
• Kaleigh Tjoelker, registered dietitian
• Steve Uria, celebrity trainer
• Shaun White, three-time Olympic gold medalist
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