How to Choose A Protein Powder

By Sally Cameron on May 13, 2014

breakfast, food for thought, the daniel plan,

15 Comments

How to choose a protein powder | AFoodcentrlicLife.com

Smoothies are an energizing and nutritious way to start your day. With a bewildering array of options on the market, how do you choose one? Here are tips on how to choose a protein powder to help you make a smart choice.

What Are Protein Powders?

Protein powders are an easy way to supplement high quality protein in our diets. Once the domain of bodybuilders and elite athletes, protein powders are now mainstream, used by many health-oriented people. They come in a variety of options to fit individual needs.

The Protein Powder Debate

The big debate over protein powder is how they are made. Some claim they are too processed to be considered healthy, and I share some of those concerns. There are both healthy and unhealthy options on the market. Truthfully, there are a lot that are really junk with all kinds of additives you don’t want or need. But there are also new brands on the market that are terrific.

Reading labels is critical. Some brands include preservatives, genetically modified or engineered ingredients, artificial sweeteners and flavors, and even contaminants like heavy metals, as revealed by Consumer Reports. Not what you want in your diet.

Why Use Them?

Eating protein at breakfast (really at all meals) helps curb hunger, keep you balanced and reduce cravings throughout the day. When you add protein to a morning smoothie, it helps you feel full and satisfied, longer. And making a smoothie takes just minutes on a busy morning. It can also be taken with you on the way to work or school.

Concentrates vs. Isolates

In general, concentrates tend to offer less protein per serving than isolates and are often less expensive. Concentrates are less processed. Isolates require more processing to make, offer higher protein per serving and can be more expensive, and there are differences how they are made. You’ve got to read the labels and check out the producers websites. You can even pick up the phone and call them. I do that frequently.

Animal-Based Options

Whey

Many popular protein powders are made from whey, a by-product of the cheese making process and one of the two protein found in dairy milk. They are available from both cow and goat milk. If cow milk gives you digestive issues, try goat milk. Some people find goat milk more digestible do to the fact that the fat particles are smaller. If lactose (the natural sugar in milk) gives you problems, try a brand that is lactose-free.

You will find whey protein powders in organic, hormone-free, and grass-fed options. Grass-fed is really the best way to go. If you can’t get grass-fed, choose organic and be sure the label states it is rBGH-free and non-GMO. The challenge with “organic” is that current USDA regulations permit 100% organic animals to be fed a diet primarily consisting of only corn, soy, and potentially other cheap fillers. So while its organic, grass-fed, which is like beyond organic, is better.

Choose a brand where the protein is un-denatured. If the label does not say, call the producer and ask or look for the FAQ section on their website. Some brands process their whey protein powder with heat, which denatures the protein (not good). Others use a cold process. A product that offers non-denatured protein is better for you.

Whey powders are higher in grams of protein per serving, dissolve easily, and whip up creamier than plant-based proteins powders. Whey protein also provides complete protein, which is all of the amino acids that our bodies need to build muscle. But there are differences in how brands make their products. And of course, many people are lactose intolerant, lactose sensitive, or choose just not to consume dairy.

Casein

Another animal-based option is casein, which is the main protein found in dairy milk. Casein digests and absorbs more slowly than whey. Casein is often take before bed for muscle recovery when you won’t be eating for a long period. Here is a helpful article about casein protein from Authority Nutrition. Casein might be harder on the stomachs of people who have lactose issues.

If you are using protein powder, say in a smoothie, before or after a workout, then it makes sense to use whey, which digests more quickly. If you are using it before bed, then you might try casein, which digests more slowly.

Egg White

If you want to forgo dairy, another option to consider is egg white protein powder, but check the sodium levels.

Plant-Based Options

If you want to avoid dairy or animal products, vegan plant-based powders are a great choice. They are blends of proteins derived from vegetables, such as peas, grains such as rice, seeds such as quinoa, hemp, and amaranth, and legumes such as garbanzo, adzuki and lentils. They tend to be a little more granular in texture than whey-based powders.

Other plant-based options are pure hemp powder and soy protein powder. Pure hemp powder has an earthy taste that takes getting used to on it’s own, but it is good in blends. You can adjust the flavor with what you use in your smoothie.

If you choose soy, be sure it is organic or non-GMO certified. And as soy is controversial, you might not want to use this every day. Of course if you are allergic to any of these ingredients, pass.

Even if you enjoy dairy, try adding a plant-based protein to your pantry as a way to get more plant-based nutrition into your diet. It’s good to mix it up. And one last note on rice-based powders. Be sure they have been tested for heavy metals. Rice is naturally high in the heavy metal arsenic, which it absorbs from the land and water. The brown rice powder I use from Naked Nutrition states on their website that it has been independent third-party tested for heavy metals.

Updates On New Brands I’ve Tried

Update 2/25/17 – The latest whey protein powder test is from Levels Nutrition. Levels is 100% grass-fed, free of corn and gluten, which is the best way to go. Grass-fed protein powders are finally becoming more widely available. Grass fed animals eat a nutrient rich, diverse diet of pasture, which creates a higher concentration of vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial nutrients. And at approximately $15 a pound, Levels is a great price. Buy it on Amazon.

Update 12/26/16 – My latest new protein powder purchase is an unsweetened, unflavored, grass-fed, hormone-free whey protein from Opportuniteas. Buy it on Amazon. It’s clean tasting, light, mixes easily and is a very clean product. Really good, but at almost $25 a pound its a but pricey.

Update 10/1/15 – I just discovered protein powders from NKD Nutrition. My first purchase was their whey protein powder. It uses milk from grass fed cows from small dairy farms and employs a careful manufacturing processes to create a non-denatured whey protein with essential amino acids, glutathione (called the master antioxidant). It is now what we have switched off to for our daily smoothies.

The taste is terrific, and I am very pleased with their products. It’s only available online, but the shipping is free, from their website or Amazon. The only downside for small kitchens could be storage. The 5 pound container is a huge round tub (76 servings). I transfer a small amount to a container where my smoothie supplies are and leave the big tub in my pantry.

NKD also makes rice, pea, casein, goat, and an oats-whey combo protein powder. I’ve recently been using their brown rice protein. It’s a little grainy, as are most plant-based powders, but I really like it. It provides 25 grams of protein per serving and I flavor it with liquid stevia drops. Last note on Naked – they do independent testing for heavy metals on their rice powder. Important because rice is naturally high in arsenic. To try all of their offerings, order the single-serving multi-pack with one of each.

Update 9/9/15 – Found a protein powder called Mattole Valley Naturals. Their formulas look great as the labels read, but I’ve not tried them for taste yet. You can read more about them on their website by going to the “shop” drop down and choosing the formula you are interested in.

Update 8/15/15 – Just received my first bag of Pure Food protein powder and I’m impressed. Creator Scott Christ has worked hard to bring a terrific product to the market with 100% real food ingredients and no junk. They offer raw cacao and vanilla flavor, and while I usually choose only unflavored, they use real cacao and real vanilla, nothing artificial or “natural” (which is never so).  Check out the Pure Food Company website.

Update 2/8/15 – I recently tried BioChem Sports brand of vegan powder. It is simply pea, hemp and cranberry proteins, nothing else. Seemingly a good, clean choice. Unfortunately when I asked about their “natural vanilla flavoring”, I got a not-so-good answer back. When they explained the process, it sounded fishy. Disappointing. To me if a product claims “natural flavoring”, it’s often anything but natural. If they simply used real vanilla, I would love their product. I’ve also found the more I have tried this powder that it has kind of a funny, metallic or chemical, unnatural taste. Too bad. I wish they would just leave the flavor out.

Read Labels & Choose Carefully

  • Be aware of the sodium if you are on a sodium-reduced diet
  • No added sugar or hidden sugar
  • If sweetened, choose a brand made with stevia (but unsweetened is best)
  • Free of GMO or GE ingredients
  • No fillers, additives, or artificial anything
  • Organic or non-rBGH (no hormones) if whey
  • Cold-processed if choosing whey
  • Choose non-denatured protein if whey
  • Look for gluten-free and soy-free options if needed
  • Choose one that offers between 15-25 grams of protein per serving
  • No stimulants such as caffeine, coffee extract or guarana
  • Grass-fed, if whey

Sample Before Investing

Many companies offer trial or single packet servings. Try a packet before you decide to buy a tub, because protein powders can be expensive. If you don’t see a small packet available, call the company and ask if they offer them. When you find one you like, start with a small tub (if they offer one) to be sure the formula works for you. When you are sure, buy larger sizes to save money.

How Much Protein Do I Need?

The Institute of Medicine recommends a daily minimum intake of approximately 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men. Another way to figure your need is by multiplying your weight in pounds by .36 (or .8 grams per kilo). This number will tell you approximately how many grams a day your body needs. This will vary with age, exercise levels,  individual body chemistry, and special health concerns (like pregnancy, breastfeeding, athletes, dieters), but it’s a good starting point.

Another viewpoint says that the average woman should get 75– 80 grams daily, whereas most men should get 100– 120 grams of protein a day. Figure out what your body needs.

How To Choose a Protein Powder: My Personal Experience

I have tried many brands over the 19 years I have been drinking breakfast smoothies and continue to try new ones that I find, so this post will be a constant work in progress. As I learn more, I’ll add notes.

Here are a few that have worked for us. It gives you a place to start. This does not mean they will work for you. We all have different tastes and different digestive systems. Find the protein powder that best works for you. Click the links below and do some reading.

  • Whey protein
    • Naked Nutrition – my new favorite and the best I’ve found so far. Great taste, unflavored and unsweetened, grass-fed cows’ milk and non-denatured.
    • Levels Nutrition – another new favorite, right up there with Naked. Level’s whey powder is 100% grass-fed and non-denatured. The unsweetened, unflavored one is what we use. It’s a fine powder that disappears quickly and easily when mixed.
    • Reserve age  – unsweetened and unflavored, also grass-fed, non-denatured.
    • Designs For Health  – unflavored , unsweetened, non-denatured, but pricey.
    • Jay Robb – This was my go-to whey powder for over a decade, but no longer. Its’a cold-processed, non-denatured whey protein isolate from grass-fed cows not treated with the synthetic bovine growth hormone rBGH. The website says they never use artificial flavors or sweeteners. The ingredient label says “natural flavor” which I am very suspicious of. Most of the time natural flavors are not truly natural. Their product also contains xanthan gum which is just a filler. These last two reasons are why Jay Robb is no longer even in my pantry.
  • Plant-based protein – Garden of Life RawPure Food Company, and Naked Nutrition
  • Egg White protein – Jay Robb 
  • Organic Whey protein – Tera’s Whey (goat and cow) and Reserveage

Sweetening  and Flavor Options

Lately I have been using Sunny Day Organics Vanilla Bean Powder to add my own vanilla flavor to smoothies. This works much better than using an extract that contains alcohol as you can taste the alcohol in the smoothie. Extracts work for baking because the alcohol burns off. There are also non-alcohol based extracts.

Raw unsweetened cacao powder gives a nice chocolate flavor and is a rich source of antioxidants and important minerals including magnesium and iron.

For sweetening, try Sweet Drops flavored liquid stevia by Sweet Leaf. So many flavors! More than 20, including lemon, chocolate, berry, coconut, pumpkin spice, vanilla cream, cola, rootbeer and cinnamon and peppermint!

Ingredients: Inulin and Sodium

Some brands add inulin to their powder or shake formulas to increase fiber. Inulin is made from chicory root. It gives some people digestive upset such as gas or bloating. Another good reason to try a sample packet first.

A note on sodium levels. I was surprised at the sodium level on the Jay Robb Egg White protein powder. On their site they explain that it is naturally occurring, not added. If you are on a sodium-controlled diet, try another brand. For more information, read here and decide for yourself.

For a no sodium option, try Garden of Life raw protein powder. It has less than 5mg of sodium per serving so it does not have to be listed per FDA rules. If you are concerned about sodium, try  this brand.

Alternatives to Protein Powder

If you are still not sure that you want to use a protein powder, no problem. You can still add protein with these options:

  • Hemp powder – provides 6 grams of protein in 2 tablespoons, 12 grams in a quarter cup. I’ve tried Bob’s Red Mill and suggest you also try Navitas Naturals
  • Hemp seeds or hemp hearts – provides 10 grams of protein in 3 tablespoons. And the hemp seeds taste great in smoothies. Better than the hemp powder, at least to me. I’ve tried Navitas Naturals and Manitoba Harvest. Plus they are a good source of healthy omega 3 fats.
  • Creamy raw almond butter –  provides 7 grams of protein in 2 tablespoons, along with good healthy fat
  • Creamy raw cashew butter – 3 grams per tablespoon
  • Plain Greek yogurt – provides 12-17 grams of protein in 4-5 ounces (may vary by brand)
  • Ground flaxseed – provides 3 grams of protein in 2 tablespoons
  • Chia seeds – provide 3 grams of protein in 2 tablespoons (and it’s a natural thickener)
  • Creamy tahini (sesame seed butter) – provides 5 grams of protein in two tablespoons
  • Organic unsweetened soy milk – provides 7 grams of protein in 1 cup
  • Spirulina – provides approximately 3 grams of protein in 1 teaspoon (good in a green smoothie)

The bottom line – do your homework and choose what works best for you. Only you can make that decision.

Interesting Links

This post contains general health information and is not intended to be medical advice or a substitute for professional health care. Consult an appropriate health care professional for your specific needs and to determine whether making a lifestyle change or decision based on this information is appropriate for you.

Last update 2\25\17

15 Comments

Leave a Comment
Ellen | May 13, 2014 at 12:40 pm

BLESS YOU!!! I read in “The Daniel Plan” that I should buy a “high quality protein powder” and have been unable to find anything to tell me what that means. I’ve never bought protein powder, high quality or otherwise, and didn’t know where to begin!

    Sally | May 13, 2014 at 4:06 pm

    Thanks Ellen. I hope it helps you. It is not easy these days! Please report back what you end up with.

Carol Willis | May 13, 2014 at 2:00 pm

The 46 grams protein for women and 56 grams for men are really a bare minimum, though one might be able to “get by” with this low amount for relatively short periods of time like days or weeks, eventually this low amount is going to catch up with the person with energy; hair loss, quality, and growth; overall body maintenance; and grounding issues. I’d go with something like 60 grams protein for women and 70 grams for men for long-term maintenance and stability, plus more protein if you work out intensely.

After 25 years of trial and error, I too prefer the Vega One protein powders, Spirutein, Fruitein SunWarrior, Brewer’s Yeast, Detoxitech, Manitoba Naturals Hemp-Pro-50. And add-ons: tocotrienols powder for the tocotrienol forms of Vitamin E, Garden of Life Perfect Food Raw for a variety of green and other superfoods, and Solgar Lecithin granules for choline.

I don’t care for whey proteins as they’re dairy and many people have issues with fast pulse afterward (likely showing a food sensitivity), feeling strung out and ungrounded, also very loose stool. Further, whey protein powders are often over-sweetened,which perverts our sense of taste and from a TCM perspective negatively affects “spleen Qi”. The whey type of protein has been over-promoted to and by the bodybuilding community, and they have become conditioned to seek out and favor whey without regard to downside risk above and to the exclusion of other options.

    Sally | May 14, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    Hi Carol. Thanks for your comment. There is a lot of debate about how much protein we all need, and yes those numbers are minimums per the Institute of Medicine. Our diets can be anywhere from 10% to 35% at that is a wide range. That is why I also listed the calculations people can make, so they can figure it for reference and as a guide, then adapt to their particular needs. People need to listen to their bodies and find what works for them.

    Whey protein works for many people. I’ve used it for more than 15 years with no problems. I also like Vega One and GOL Raw a lot and trade off with them as we move to have more plant-based foods in our diet.

    Glad you like the Sun Warrior. Many do, another option for people to try. I find it too granular and chalky. Although I still have some in the pantry I am not using it like the Vega and GOL. I’ll send you mine! Like you I like to add things to my smoothies. Fiber, chlorella, and superfoods. I am always trying new things. Sounds like you do that too for optimum nutrition.

    What works for people is very individual and I encourage everyone to experiment and find what is best for them. Thanks again for sharing your experience. Would love to get a conversation going here.

Sophia | May 14, 2014 at 5:44 pm

Thank you Sally for this information! I am reevaluating my nutrition once again and protein powder is a key supplement for my running. Your post was very informative and to the point. It was simple to understand for someone like me that is always on the go! I currently use a Whey protein powder and I also have a hemp protein powder from Bob’s Mill. I haven’t evaluated the ingredients on my protein powder which I will do next, It will be an important part of my training. Thank you!

Organic Whey Protein | June 1, 2014 at 3:08 am

Very informative. There was also a study done by consumer reports identifying various brands which contained high levels of lead and other contaminants: : http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine-archive/2010/july/food/protein-drinks/whats-in-your-protein-drink/index.htm

    Sally | June 2, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    Hi, Mark. Yes, I read that too. It was very informative. Thanks for commenting. Not something we need in our protein powders!

Chantal | February 5, 2016 at 10:30 am

Thank you Sally – you’re such a blessing !!

    Sally Cameron | February 8, 2016 at 8:39 am

    Thanks Chantal! Glad it is helpful. I will keep updating with new info.

Julie Richter | March 1, 2016 at 9:13 am

I was wondering whether whey concentrates or whey isolates are better? I read somewhere that isolates were a purer form and were the best out of the two. Is that true?

    Sally Cameron | March 1, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    Hi Julie. It’s a big debate. Some say that concentrates are better as they are less processed. You have to look at the particular manufacturer and see how they make their product to really get a good feel. I’ve called many times and asked questions of the makers. Some people say that any protein powder is too processed and will only use whole foods, like hemp seeds, etc. I like using them and think there are good, clean options out there today, like I’ve listed in my ongoing post notes. Like most things in nutrition, it’s always a debate. Most important to me is that a powder doesn’t have any added junk, no sweeteners or flavors (unless they are truly natural, like vanilla bean, not natural vanilla flavor which is not natural) or cocoa powder. I prefer to add my own, my own raw cocoa powder and a little liquid stevia. Hope that helps.

Julie Richter | March 14, 2016 at 5:56 am

Hi Sally,

I was wondering if you know anything about this protein powder? I saw it advertised at my fitness center. The natural version seems to be okay. The chocolate or vanilla ones say “natural flavors” which is typically not natural as you say 🙂 http://www.amazon.com/Vital-Whey-Natural-2-5lb-bag/dp/B008JFQ3O0

    Sally Cameron | March 14, 2016 at 9:27 am

    Hi Julie. It looks good! Non-denatured, concentrate, nothing on label about any flavors or sweeteners, looks clean, and it’s grass-fed whey. Add your own flavors (cocoa powder or vanilla powder, flavored stevia drops if you like). Good find! I have not seen this one. There are so many coming out all of the time. The good news is they seem to be getting better. We are now testing the collagen style proteins. More news on that when I can update the post. Thanks for commenting and highlighting this one.

Deanna | August 23, 2016 at 7:28 am

Just curious about your opinion – Have you heard of Apollo protein from Unico Nutrition? Thoughts about their products? I *think* it is good but would love an expert opinion!

    Sally Cameron | August 24, 2016 at 9:58 am

    Hi Deanna. I had not until now. Went to their website. Not crazy about their ingredients list and know that there are better choices on the market. They include a lot of unnecessary stuff like inulin (fiber), natural & artificial Flavor (fake), Xanthan Gum, Cellulose Gum, Guar Gum (fillers), Acesulfame Potassium, Sucralose (artificial sweeteners, terrible), Soy Lecithin. In my opinion, not a clean formula. Personally I would not buy it. If whey is what you are after, try Naked Nutrition. For vegan, look at Pure Food Co, Sprout Living and there are several others in the post with links.

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