Updated: Oct 26
Written by: Audrey Clement, RD
There are so many protein powders out there which can make it overwhelming to choose the right one. There are so many supplements out there, period. Believe it or not, protein powders are classified as supplements, not food products. Supplements are not regulated by the FDA which can make it even more challenging to feel confident in your choices.
We are going to break down the most important things to look for when choosing a protein powder so you can stop second-guessing yourself and make an informed decision.
Third-Party Testing is a Nonnegotiable
You should always choose a protein party that pays for a third-party testing certification. This indicates that each batch is tested to verify the ingredients and amounts of ingredients advertised on the product's label. This is incredibly important for a consumer's safety, especially if you are a drug-tested athlete. A study done in 2023 found that nearly 90% of dietary supplement labels did not accurately list the ingredients in the products. Some of the ingredients found were FDA-prohibited ingredients.
There are two types of third-party testing that a supplement manufacturer can pay for: sport-certified third-party testing or regular third-party testing. A sport-certified third-party testing, such as NSF Certified for Sport or Informed Sport, tests every single batch of product before it is released to the market. These certifications are essential for drug-tested athletes and encouraged for those who desire a high-quality product. Certifications such as Informed Choice are more appropriate for leisure or noncompetitive athletes who desire a high-quality product. With standard third-party testing, the testing is less frequent compared to a sport-certified tester.
Whey Protein Isolate or Soy Protein Isolate
Isolated whey protein and soy protein are complete protein sources and have relatively high essential amino acid compositions compared to plant-based proteins such as rice and legumes. The digestion rate (the time required to digest a protein and for its amino acids to appear in the bloodstream) is also most rapid with isolated whey and soy proteins. This makes the consumption of whey or soy protein isolate desirable after a strength workout when muscles are more sensitive to the effects of protein.
It is also desirable to choose a protein powder that contains roughly 3g of leucine per serving. Leucine is one of the main amino acids that drives muscle protein synthesis, the process of producing new muscle protein. If you choose a high-quality protein powder, it will likely contain 3g of leucine per 20-25g of protein.
Lastly, whey and soy protein isolate powders are going to be lower in calories due to the minimal amounts of fat and carbohydrates per serving. This makes the protein-to-calorie ratio desirable, especially for those trying to lose fat. This also makes the cost very affordable at roughly $1.15 per serving.
Pay Attention to the Ingredient List
We already covered that choosing a protein powder that contains whey protein or soy protein isolate is extremely important. In contrast, avoid protein concentrates because they contain less protein, more lactose and are overall less bioavailable.
Next, you want to choose a product with a short ingredient list to avoid fillers and other unnecessary ingredients. Most protein powders with flavors will contain a sweetener. Since protein isolate powders are low in carbohydrates, they tend to be sweetened with zero-calorie options such as natural nonnutritive sweeteners (stevia, monk fruit) or artificial nonnutritive sweeteners (sucralose, aspartame, saccharin). Both options are safe to consume but you should avoid certain zero-calorie sweeteners if they cause migraines or stomach upset. Some protein powders will use sugar alcohols as a lower-calorie sweetener (xylitol, sorbitol, erythritol). Avoid sugar alcohols as they can cause stomach upset, especially if you consume protein powder daily or multiple times a day.
The Price is not Always Right
Do not choose a protein powder because it is cheaper than other options. With protein powders, you really do get what you pay for. Third-party testing is expensive but important, which is why reputable brands pay for it. Think about it, if you pay for a cheap, non-tested protein powder that claims to give you 20g of protein but actually only provides you with 15g, you’re not saving money!
Make sure you enjoy the taste of your protein powder! Utilize samples before committing to a 2-10 lb tub of protein powder. Just because your friend or dietitian thinks it tastes good, doesn’t mean you will!
Performance Dietitian’s Top Protein Powder Picks: