How to Choose A Protein Powder

By Sally Cameron on May 13, 2014

Breakfast, Living Well, the daniel plan

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. For more information, read my e-book 12 Tips for Building Better Smoothies +12 Recipes. Find it on my eBook page.

protein powder |

How to Choose a Protein Powder

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

One debate over protein powder is how they are made. Some claim they are too processed to be considered healthy and while that was once true there are many clean quality options available today. Is there still junk out there? Yes, with all kinds of additives you don’t want or need so 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. Don’t use protein powder just for smoothies, try these no-bake chocolate chip energy bites for a snack or treat.

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 Protein Options


Many popular protein powders are made from whey, 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, look for lactose-free.

You will find whey protein powders in organic, hormone-free, and grass-fed options. Grass-fed  and organic are the best way to go.  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. It’s better for you. 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. Others use a cold process.

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. Casein might be harder on the stomachs of people who have lactose issues.

Egg White

If you want to skip dairy, try 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. Our production of collagen naturally slows with age and with damaging lifestyle choices, like too much sugar, smoking, and too much sun exposure. 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.

Hawiian Green Smoothie|

Plant-Based Protein Options

If you want to avoid dairy or animal products, plant-based powders are a great choice. They are blends of proteins derived from peas, grains (rice), seeds (quinoa, hemp, and amaranth), and legumes (garbanzo, adzuki and lentils). They may be a little more granular in texture than whey-based powders. A warning for those who are are nut-allergic: be careful purchasing products with hemp or pea protein in the blend, as they are classified as nuts and could be a problem for you. They are in the same family as peanuts.

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. If you choose soy, be sure it is organic or non-GMO certified (and soy is controversial). 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. It’s good to mix it up. For plant-based options to animal collagen look for marine collagen.

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
  • Be careful with plant-based blends if you are nut-allergic as both hemp and peas are surprisingly classified as nuts and could give you problems.
  • If using brown rice powder, be sure they are third-party tested for heavy metals (arsenic)

Sample Before Investing

Many companies offer single packet servings. Try a packet before you buy to see if it works for you, 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 are sure, buy larger sizes to save money.

How Much Protein Do I Need?

The Institute of Medicine recommends a daily minimum intake of 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men but these are minimums. Most people do better on higher levels. 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. Amounts vary with age, exercise levels,  individual body chemistry, and special health concerns, but it’s a good starting point. Figure out what your body needs.

matcha avocado smoothie|

Ingredients, Sweetening  and Flavor Options

  • 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!
  • 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.
  • If you are on a sodium-controlled diet, watch labels closely
  • To add fiber, try what I use
  • Warm spices, matcha powder, spirulina, and many other ingredients are nice add-ins

Alternatives to Protein Powder

If you are still not sure that you want to use a protein powder, try these options:

  • Hemp powder – provides 6 grams of protein in 2 tablespoons, 12 grams in a quarter cup
  • Hemp seeds or hemp hearts – provides 10 grams of protein in 3 tablespoons.  Plus they are a 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
  • 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)
  • Try pumpkin seed powder

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.

  1. Ellen - May 13th, 2014

    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!

  2. Sally - May 13th, 2014

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

  3. Carol Willis - May 13th, 2014

    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.

  4. Sally - May 14th, 2014

    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.

  5. Sophia - May 14th, 2014

    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!

  6. Organic Whey Protein - June 1st, 2014

    Very informative. There was also a study done by consumer reports identifying various brands which contained high levels of lead and other contaminants: :

  7. Sally - June 2nd, 2014

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

  8. Chantal - February 5th, 2016

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

  9. Sally Cameron - February 8th, 2016

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

  10. Julie Richter - March 1st, 2016

    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?

  11. Sally Cameron - March 1st, 2016

    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.

  12. Julie Richter - March 14th, 2016

    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 🙂

  13. Sally Cameron - March 14th, 2016

    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.

  14. Deanna - August 23rd, 2016

    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!

  15. Sally Cameron - August 24th, 2016

    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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