Once considered a luxury item for bodybuilders and athletes, protein supplements are so commonplace that it seems strange when someone doesn’t have a tub sitting on top of their fridge. Protein powder begins as a cheese byproduct; it’s that clear liquid you see sitting on top of your yogurt. Once it’s filtered, flavored, and packaged, it’s ready to be consumed and help you with your fitness goals.
Protein is a universal supplement with studies showing that it’s as effective for muscle building as it is for performance enhancement and recovery. Like most supplements, not all protein powders are created equal. Let’s take a look at the best protein powders on the market that can enhance your workout and results.
We take quality seriously. To ensure we can provide you with our recommendations for the best protein powders, we personally tested dozens of brands. For each brand we looked for quality, label accuracy, and effectiveness for enhancing workouts. Here are our picks for the best protein powders:
Best for Versatility: BSN Syntha-6
Best for Post-Workout Recovery: Optimum Nutrition Oats and Whey
Best for Bulking Up: MRM 100% All-Natural Gainer
Best for Low-Carb and Keto: Isopure Zero Carb
Best for Vegans and Vegetarians: Vega Sport
Best Protein Powders Reviewed
It’s important to note that each brand of protein powder below is outstanding for the fitness goals of muscle building, weight management, and performance enhancement. You can try any one of the following protein powders and as long as you are using a comprehensive workout and dietary program, you’ll see results. Since every brand delivered as far as fitness goals, we decided to separate them according to protein timing and dietary preferences.
The Best Protein Powders
Syntha-6 contains six types of protein powders, making it an all-around great supplement to use regardless of your goals, meal timing, and dietary preferences. Each of the six protein types brings a unique benefit to the supplement table:
- Whey Protein Concentrate: High in protein and low in carbohydrates, whey concentrate has a moderate digestion speed and can be used throughout the day.
- Whey Protein Isolate: This is an ideal post-workout protein as it contains over 90% of protein by weight and digests rapidly.
- Calcium Caseinate: Offering a slow digestion speed, calcium caseinate ensures a steady release of amino acids over hours.
- Micellar Casein: The slowest digesting protein, micellar casein provides a high level of anabolic nutrients for several hours. This makes it ideal as a meal replacement or bulking supplement before bed.
- Milk Protein Isolate: Quick to digest, milk protein isolate contains over 90% of whey and casein protein by weight.
- Dried Albumen: This is egg protein and it is as effective (if not more so) as whey protein. Highly bioavailable, albumen contains all of the amino acids that whey does.
Given its protein profile, you can take Syntha-6 before, during, and immediately after your workouts. It can also work as a meal replacement shake, supporting your goals of weight management. If you’re trying to bulk up, Syntha-6 is better than most maltodextrin-based gainers. It might not have as many calories, but the caloric density it does have is focused on quality protein, bioavailable carbohydrates, and healthy fats.
Like most protein powders, Syntha-6 does contain artificial sweeteners and flavors. If you’re trying to cut these out of your diet, Syntha-6 might not be the best option for you.
Optimum Nutrition Oats and Whey
Studies show that in order to optimize your post-workout recovery, you should consume between 20 to 40 grams of a high-quality protein within 90 minutes of completing your workout. Due to its incredible bioavailability rating, whey protein is one of the best sources of post-workout nutrition; however, you can also use egg, beef, and plant-based protein.
Other studies highlight the importance of post-carbohydrate intake for recovery and future performance. Research points out the necessity of replenishing muscle glycogen stores after a tough workout.
Given the need for both a high-quality protein source and simple carbohydrates, Optimum Nutrition Oats and Whey is the best option for a post-workout shake. It provides 24 grams of an isolate and concentrate protein blend along with 22 grams of carbohydrate from oats.
If you’re an endurance-focused athlete who isn’t limiting carbohydrate intake, you will have to consume another carbohydrate-heavy source.
Oats and Whey is an effective post-workout supplement, but only for those who are not worried about carbohydrate intake. Also, if you’re trying to cut sugar from your diet, it’s important to note that each serving of Oats and Whey provides seven grams.
MRM 100% All-Natural Gainer
Hard gainers know the struggle of hitting the weights four times a week, stuffing their faces with everything in sight, and not seeing a difference on the scale. While the foundation of a healthy weight gain should be focused on using a comprehensive training program and caloric-surplus diet program, supplements can also help.
Typical weight gainers provide around a thousand calories per serving, most of which is coming from high-glycemic carbohydrates. This is more likely to result in fat mass than muscle mass. While MRM 100% All-Natural Gainer only provides 340 calories per serving, it’s coming from quality protein, carbohydrates, and fat content.
All-Natural Gainer from MRM contains no artificial sweeteners, sugar, or MSG. This makes it an ideal way to put on some mass without the junk you’ll find in other gainers. We can’t stress enough that this weight gainer is a complement to a well-structured dietary program.
The one downside is that it does use some maltodextrin, but it is not the primary source of carbohydrates. Also, given the fiber content, this will slow the rate of absorption into the blood stream, making this a low glycemic form of carbohydrates. In other words, you won’t have to worry about this spiking your blood sugar and being stored as fat mass.
Isopure Zero Carb
While Isopure Zero Carb can be used as an effective post-workout protein supplement, it’s better suited for those following a low-carb or ketogenic diet. While studies have demonstrated the value of post-workout carbohydrate consumption, there’s another side to that coin.
Other studies have found that protein, not carbohydrates, are more important for muscle recovery after a workout. For those following a low-carb or ketogenic diet, the focus is on ketone bodies as fuel and recovery markers, not glucose (carbohydrate-based blood sugar). Studies show that ketone bodies and protein consumption can provide benefits of muscle building, weight management, and workout enhancement.
Our only concern with the Isopure Zero Carb protein is that it does include all of your recommended vitamins and minerals. If you’re currently taking a multivitamin, it is probably a good idea to stop when taking Isopure. This will ensure you avoid any accidental vitamin overdosing.
Don’t worry, we didn’t forget about our vegetarian and vegan readers. Studies show that plant protein is equally as effective as whey protein is promoting a protein synthesis response and supporting fitness goals.
In fact, one study compared the effects of whey protein to plant protein on body composition, muscle thickness, force production, and workout performance. Researchers concluded that whey protein and plant protein were equally effective at improving each predefined measurement.
Vega has been the leading plant-based protein for years, and with good reason: you’ll be hard pressed to find a higher quality supplement. Aside from delivering 30 grams of a blend of protein-based proteins, Vega Sport also has probiotics for proper digestion and tart cherry for performance recovery. What’s more, it’s free of artificial additives like sweeteners and flavoring.
Even if you are following a meat-based diet, it can only help to incorporate more plant sources into your daily eating habits. Vega Sport can help you do that.
What You Need to Know
Whether you’re going to choose one of the best protein powders we recommend above, or you’re going to go shopping on your own to find a brand, there are a few things to keep in mind. Here’s what to look for when considering protein powders.
There are several types of protein that vary based on how it is filtered and what primary ingredient is used in protein extraction:
Whey Concentrate: On average, whey concentrate will contain around 80% protein by weight; the remaining 20% is made up of carbohydrates and fats that are naturally found in milk. This is what you’ll find in most average quality protein supplements. It’s cost-effective and it’s been shown to help with muscle building and weight management.
Whey Isolate: A highly filtered type of protein, whey isolate is at least 90% protein by weight. But the highest quality brands are closer to 97% protein by weight. Whey isolate contains no sugars, carbohydrates, or fats, allowing it to be rapidly digested and enter the blood stream with no barriers.
Casein: This is a slow-digesting protein. When you make a protein shake using casein, you’ll notice that it has a considerably thicker consistency. Instead of digesting immediately, casein will take hours to digest. This means that you’ll get a steady flow of amino acids during this time instead of all at once like with whey isolate.
Egg Albumin: Did you know that eggs are one of the most bioavailable forms of protein? This means your body won’t have any issues with digesting and assimilating the nutrients. Providing you with the same amino acids as whey protein, egg protein has been shown to effectively promote enhanced workout performance, muscle gains, and weight management.
Plant: Thanks to a greater interest in vegan and vegetarian diets, there has been a significant spike in plant-based protein in the last decade. As we discussed above, plant-based protein is equally as effective as whey. The one thing that you have to keep a close eye on is ensuring at least two different plant sources are used in the supplement. Plants don’t have the same amino acid profile as animal products. This require two or more plant sources to be used together in order to provide the same level of benefit.
Speaking of benefits, protein supplements are used for three primary reasons (all back by research):
Protein Synthesis: Protein supplements have been shown time and time again to increase protein synthesis, or the creation of muscle protein. These proteins are used to repair the microtears that are formed during tough workouts. They also help with muscle cellular health.
Muscle Building: An increase in protein synthesis can help to promote muscle building, especially when a workout geared toward hypertrophy is used. Studies show that protein powder supplementation can help to increase the size of lean muscle tissue.
Fat Loss: Protein is satiating, which means that it keeps you feeling full long after you eat it. This is one way to protein powder can help with weight loss. Some studies also suggest that aside from suppressing your appetite, protein powder can directly increase your body’s metabolic response, promoting calorie burning and fat loss.
With the popularity of protein powders, most brands follow an unofficial level of quality. Low-quality brands are usually called out in reviews and blogs. Still, that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. Here are two things to watch out for when buying a protein supplement.
Nitrogen Spiking: A common practice to watch out for is nitrogen spiking. This is when a protein brand will incorporate additional amino acids such as glutamine and creatine into the ingredients in order to achieve a higher nitrogen reading. The more nitrogen that is found, the higher the grams of protein reported.
True Serving: While not as common, it’s important to read the nutrition label on your protein powder to see what constitutes a true serving. Is it two or three scoops? If so, the total number of servings might be lower than you realize.
Why Would You Use a Protein Powder?
The best protein powders can be an essential complement to any fitness and dietary program. From muscle recovery to weight management, numerous studies suggest using a protein powder as a part of your daily regimen.