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Protein powders are a great way to add beneficial supplements to your diet, especially if you’re aiming to improve your fitness performance. Ideally, you want to aim for 0.36 grams of protein per pound (0.8 grams per kg) of body weight, and that’s where the best protein powders can help if you’re not getting enough in your regular diet. While it’s true that some supplements on the market are sketchy at best, there are safe and reliable options available.
If you’re new to protein powders, it’s helpful to know that there are two common types to fit your needs: whey-based and plant-based. Even though protein powders aren’t required, having the option can help you add protein easily into your diet. We tested many protein powders on the market and narrowed it down to the best whey and plant-based protein powders that you’ll enjoy. Check out our top picks below.
Huel is a brand that I spotted in a social media ad and it piqued my interest because of the variety it has to offer. The company has several product lines, including protein shakes and powders as well as meal replacement shakes. Each product includes 27 essential vitamins and minerals, fatty acids, carbs and other nutrients. It’s low-sugar and dairy-free.
Huel’s protein powder is made up of pea, faba and hemp powder. Even though the brand says its plant protein has a neutral flavor, I’d disagree because there is a distinct difference upon tasting it that makes it stand out compared to other plant-based proteins. After trying flavors from both the Black Edition and Complete Protein lines, I established that my favorite Huel flavor was the vanilla caramel flavor from the Complete Protein line. I blended it with iced coffee and oat milk and it tasted like a delicious specialty flavored iced latte you would order from your local coffee shop. I’m not even a fan of caramel, but I was impressed by the flavor profile and smooth consistency of the beverage. I also had no negative side effects and the aftertaste was minimal with this one.
One serving of Huel’s Complete Protein contains 20 grams of protein and 110 calories. This makes it an ideal drink to have post-workout or as a snack, but if you’re looking for something to hold you over a little longer, Huel’s Black Edition, Huel Powder and Ready-to-Drink options are considered complete meals, with 400 calories and extra protein.
- Vanilla Caramel flavor blends well with coffee and milk
- Well thought-out, plant-based formula across all Huel’s products
- Includes probiotics, which is important for gut health
- Expensive; it has to be acquired as part of a subscription or one-time purchase bundle
- Flavor isn’t as consistent across the Complete Protein and Black Edition line
- Hemp and faba may not be a favored plant-based ingredient for everyone
Giselle Castro-Sloboda/ CNET
I’m particularly sensitive when it comes to whey-based protein powders, but was pleasantly surprised by Ascent’s take on protein powder. I’ve used this whey protein isolate powder consistently over the past year and have found no negative side effects. Whey protein isolate powder is a refined form of protein powder, making it ideal if you are just looking for a powder in its purest form. Ascent’s vanilla and chocolate flavors are delicious, stomach-friendly and have no weird aftertaste. They also blend well with other ingredients, such as fruits and leafy greens if you’re looking to boost your protein shakes.
Ascent’s whey-based powders have 25 grams of protein per serving, consisting of 12 grams of essential amino acids (necessary for muscle health) and 2.7 grams of leucine (important to stimulate muscle growth). They’re gluten-free and use stevia as a sweetener instead of sugar. If you’re looking for a low-carb, no-added-sugar and easy-to-mix whey-based powder (with water or milk) then you’ll love this product.
- Blends well with different milks and water
- No negative gastrointestinal side effects during my tests
- Good flavored whey protein isolate option
- Expensive ($42) for a two-pound bag and requires a subscription or one-time purchase on website
- No price difference through third-party sellers
- Flavor variety is slightly lacking
Giselle Castro-Sloboda/ CNET
I like the option of having an unflavored protein powder because you can build your own flavor around it, without sacrificing the protein component. Myprotein’s Impact Whey Isolate powder has the ideal profile to do just that.
One serving of Myprotein Impact Whey Isolate has 23 grams of protein and is made up of 90 percent protein with less than one gram of carbohydrates. Myprotein’s unflavored Impact Whey Isolate Powder is undetectable if you mix it with other ingredients, which is a good option if you typically don’t like the aftertaste of some protein powders.
You can also have it on its own by mixing it with water if you are simply taking the supplement to get extra protein into your diet. Another plus was that it didn’t upset my stomach, which, for me, is always a risk with any whey-related products. For the more adventurous, Myprotein also offers many different flavors of its Impact Whey Isolate Powder.
- Ideal for whoever wants protein in its purest form
- No negative gastrointestinal side effects for the writer
- Unflavored variety allows you to blend different flavor profiles
- Can only be purchased through official site
If you want a protein powder that is plant-based, reliable and can be bought in bulk, Orgain Organic Protein is your best bet. I’ve used this protein powder for over two years now and have only had a positive experience. The plant-based powder provides 21 grams of protein that’s made up of pea, brown rice and chia seeds and contains 150 calories per serving.
This protein powder can be found at Costco and is sold in bulk in about a three-pound tub. This tub usually lasts me several months. The standard flavor I go with is Orgain’s Creamy Chocolate Fudge because it tastes good as a blend on its own and mixes easily into oatmeal or yogurt. If you’re a chocolate lover and follow a plant-based diet, you can’t go wrong with this protein powder option.
- Excellent taste
- Easy to mix in milk, water or other bases
- Limited flavors available in bulk
- Some people might find chocolate too sweet
Giselle Castro-Sloboda/ CNET
Ghost’s protein powder flavor variety brought me back to my childhood — without all the extra sugar. Ghost is a lifestyle nutrition brand that’s figured out how to turn popular cookie brands such as Chips Ahoy, Oreos and Nutter Butter into protein powders. Ghost’s flavors are all whey-based and have a taste reminiscent of the real cookies. The Chips Ahoy flavor consists of real chocolate chips, the Nutter Butter version will appease any peanut butter lover, and the Oreo variety has actual pieces of the cookie in the powder.
When I tried these, I kept it simple and mixed the powder with dairy-free milk and was delighted at how the flavors reminded me of my favorite cookies. Despite having 25 grams of protein a serving (and less than 6 grams of sugar), it doesn’t remind me of a standard protein shake; instead it tastes like a milkshake. This product does include artificial sweeteners such as sucralose, so be mindful if your stomach tends to be sensitive when you consume these types of additives.
I was also impressed by Ghost’s vegan options like Chocolate Cereal Milk, which reminded me of the sweetened leftover milk created by Cocoa Puffs cereal. Ghost’s vegan proteins have 20 grams of protein per serving and are made up of pea, organic pumpkin and watermelon seed protein.
I’d recommend Ghost’s protein powders to someone who is bored with the traditional protein powder flavors. Compared to the other brands on the list, Ghost is the most creative with its flavors and also adds a nostalgic element by letting you relive your childhood breakfasts.
- Unique flavor variety
- Has whey and vegan options
- Creamy and full of flavor
- Can be found at third-party retailers for less
- Some selections may be too sweet for some people
- Artificial sweeteners may cause gastrointestinal issues
Giselle Castro-Sloboda/ CNET
Myprotein’s latest protein powder line, Whey Forward, has a unique twist. It created a whey-based protein that has animal-free dairy protein. To achieve this it fermented tiny organisms called microflora to convert them into dairy-identical protein. This makes the protein more sustainable and environmentally friendly since it was developed without the use of cows.
So far Whey Forward has only three flavors: Decadent Chocolate Brownie, Creamy Mint Chocolate Chip and Rich Salted Caramel. It has 20 grams of protein per serving, and I was pleased with the flavor selections. Normally I gravitate toward chocolate-flavored powders, but among this line my favorites were the Creamy Mint Chocolate Chip and Rich Salted Caramel. I especially liked that the former had pieces of chocolate chip in the mixture.
I found the flavors to be rich and creamy when blended, and they weren’t overwhelmingly sweet. Another plus is that there was no bad aftertaste or gastrointestinal discomfort. Myprotein may be onto something by creating a whey-based protein in a more sustainable way.
- Environmentally friendly formula
- No aftertaste
- Lack of flavors
- Can only be purchased through official retailer
- Less protein per serving than other whey-based protein powder
Other protein powders we tried
Ladder Whey Protein: I tried blending Ladder’s vanilla-flavored whey-based protein powder in my usual protein shake mix; unfortunately it was not my favorite. The ingredients left my drink grainy and the aftertaste overpowered the vanilla flavor of the powder.
Ascent Plant-Based Protein Powder: I named Ascent’s whey-based protein powder as one of my favorites on the list so I was excited to try its newest plant-based addition. This version did not taste as good as its whey counterpart, and I think the formula could use some improvement starting with its texture, which was on the thicker and grainier side.
How we picked
Flavor profile: We taste-tested to see if the flavor is reminiscent of the real deal, such as chocolate or vanilla. In addition, we made sure there wasn’t a bad aftertaste or negative texture to the beverage.
Ingredients: We looked at ingredients to see if they include additional minerals and nutrients to support the protein profile. We also checked for unnecessary or questionable additives.
Grams of protein: We made sure that the products had at least 20 grams of protein per serving.
Side effects: We observed whether gastrointestinal issues arose, because they can be a potential side effect to consuming supplements with whey or artificial sugars.
Factors to consider
- Make sure to read the ingredient label on a bag of protein — especially if you have lactose intolerance, or a sensitivity to dairy or artificial sweeteners.
- Some protein powders can be expensive and come in big tubs and bags. Few brands offer sample sizes, which can be the downside to committing to a product you haven’t yet tried.
- If you plan on purchasing online, check the return policy in case the protein is not the right match for you.
- Whey concentrate and whey isolate commonly make up whey-based proteins. The difference is in the way they are processed, with whey isolate having more protein but less fat and carbs. Plant-based protein main ingredients tend to be a mix of pea, brown rice, hemp, pumpkin seeds or soy.
Protein powder FAQs
What should you look for when shopping for protein powders?
The FDA doesn’t regulate supplements, such as protein shakes and powders, but a good way to make sure you’re getting a quality protein powder is by checking which brands are tested by third-party companies. These include NSF International or Informed Choice certifications.
Is whey-based protein powder better than plant-based ones?
Whey-based protein powder is isolated from whey and contains lactose. It is considered the gold standard for muscle growth because it is a complete protein, meaning it has all nine essential amino acids. Plant-based protein powder is only considered a complete protein if it is made up of soy. However there are many plant-based powders made up of peas, hemp and pumpkin that, when combined, form a complete protein with all essential amino acids and branched-chain amino acids. With plant-based powders, avoid ones that have added sugars or fillers. Also be mindful of any allergies or sensitivities to specific ingredients.
Do you need to drink protein powders?
It’s important to remember that supplements are intended to support a balanced diet and should not be used as a substitute for real food. You don’t need to drink protein powders if you are getting enough protein throughout the day. However, they’re helpful if you need an on-the-go option to meet your protein quota.
Are there any negative side effects from taking protein powder?
If you’re lactose intolerant or sensitive to dairy, whey-based protein powders may not be the best choice because they can upset your stomach. Additionally, some protein powders may contain artificial sweeteners or ingredients that may also cause bloating or other gastrointestinal issues, so it’s important to read the nutrition labels first.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.