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.
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.
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.
If you want to forgo dairy, another option to consider is egg white protein powder, but check the sodium levels.
Collagen is the most abundant protein in our bodies, found in bones, muscle, blood vessels and connective tissue. It is why good bone broth is jiggly like jello; its the collagen that seeped from the bones. Our production of collagen naturally slows with age and with damaging lifestyle choices, like high sugar diets, smoking and too many summers on the beach without sunscreen. Collagen strengthens hair, nails, bones, muscles and improves sleep, and is a good addition to smoothies.
Many collagen protein powders on the market come from cow sources (but are dairy-free) with the best options being grass-fed, pastured cows and unflavored. Three brands I’ve tried an dare very happy with are Vital Proteins, Sports Research, and Great Lakes. Find them all on Amazon with the links provided.
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 Brands I’ve Tried
Update 9/1/17 – Ran out of the NKD brown whey and it was out of stock. Good opportunity to try another band. Purchased Natural Force Organic Whey on Amazon. It’s unflavored, unsweetened, and made from 100% raw organic milk from grass fed, free range cows untreated by antibiotics and growth hormone from California family farms.It’s a super clean protein powder that is undenatured and cold processed, leaving the amino acid profile pure and undamaged.
Update 7/30/17 – Tried a the brown rice protein powder from Zen Principle Organics. It is unflavored, unsweetened, vegan, no soy, gluten or dairy, and very fine. Mixes easily, has no taste. Really good for morning smoothies. And the container is a manageable size at 3 pounds. While the label lists 4 small scoops for 30 grams of protein, I use half that, two scoops for 15 grams and get extra protein from hemp seeds, flaxseed, raw cacao and spirulina. Very good! And using just two scoops makes it very budget friendly.
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.
- Plant-based protein – Naked Nutrition, Garden of Life Raw, Pure Food Company, and Zen Principle Organics
- Whey protein (grass-fed, organic options)
- Naked Nutrition – my new favorite and the best I’ve found so far in whey. 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.
- Tera’s Whey – offers goat and cow
- Reserveage – grass-fed, no gluten or soy, minimally processed
- 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 in my pantry.
- Egg White protein – Jay Robb
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. It even provides a little fiber and protein.
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.
- Shed Pounds with Protein, By Dr. Jonny Bowden
- Consumer Reports article on heavy metals in some protein powders
- To add your own fiber, try Organic Clear Fiber by Renew Life
- How much protein do we need?
- About protein, from the Harvard School of Public Health
- How to Choose Protein Powder, from Dr. Mark Hyman
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