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How to Know If You’re Buying the Right Kind of Protein Powder

The important differences between 5 popular types.

 

YOU PROBABLY KNOW that protein powder can help you build and maintain muscle. You also probably know that protein powder can help promote satiety, or a sustained feeling of fullness. But what you may not know is just what kind of protein powder to buy.

I mean, there are options: whey protein powder, casein protein powder, collagen protein powder, pea protein powder, soy protein powder, almond protein powder, and all this is enough to make you dizzy in the supplement store.

So, of all the types of protein powder, which is the best?

The answer depends largely on two major things: your diet and your goals.

We’ll get into which protein powder is best for each condition in a second, but first it’s important to know what to look for when buying anyprotein powder (or any supplement, for that matter.)

 

The FDA does not regulate the supplement category as a whole. While they can issue a recall of a supplement deemed dangerous if enough people report side effects, the governing body doesn’t inspect or verify what supplement companies claim their products are doing (or not doing).

But supplement companies can submit their products for third-party testing to ensure that their products do contain what they advertise at the amounts advertised. And they ensure that a product is free of substances banned in sport. Informed Choice, National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), and United States Pharmacopeia (USP) are all viable third-party testing entities. Look for their seals on any supplement you buy.

Now, on to what types of protein powder to buy.

 

Best All-Around: Whey Protein Powder

Whey protein “is high in the amino acid leucine, which research continues to suggest maximally stimulates muscle protein repair after training,” says Kelly Jones, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D.

Science has long backed up the muscle-building ability of whey protein, and the stuff is widely available.

And it goes down easy. The unflavored stuff is neutral in taste (unlike grassy-tasting pea proteins). The flavored stuff—which ranges from classic chocolate to Fruity Pebbles—usually tastes pretty great, especially when combined with milk.

Except if you can’t handle dairy.

“Some people report gastrointestinal discomfort with standard doses of whey isolate, even if they typically tolerate dairy. In that case, I’d recommend another option,” says Jones.

 

 

Best Overnight: Casein Protein Powder

Caesin is a slower-digesting dairy-based protein, which makes it a good choice to chug before you go to sleep.

But why would you want to drink a protein shake before bed, anyway?

A 2020 study analysis concluded that “post-exercise ingestion of at least 40 g casein protein 30 minutes before sleep, especially after resistance exercise in the evening, could be an effective nutritional intervention to stimulate muscle recovery.”

So if you work out late, and you’re looking to put on more muscle, casein protein powder might be worth adding to your bedtime routine.

 

 

Best Plant-Based: Pea Protein Powder

In terms of muscle building, plant-based protein powder is as good as whey or casein, says Eric Helms, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., a sports physiology and nutrition research fellow at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand.

One small, but important point: Pea protein isn’t made from green peas, but split yellow peas. And although pea protein manufacturers are working on ways to improve the situation, the flavor and texture of pea protein powders can come off as a little course.

 

 

Another Best Plant-Based: Soy Protein Powder

Soy protein powder, like pea protein powder, has also been shown to be as effective as whey protein powder for muscle building.

A 2020 study found that people who did resistance training for 12 weeks while supplementing with either whey or soy protein powder that contained two grams of leucine both experienced the same significant increases in lean body mass and strength.

If you’re worried about man boobs or other hormonal side effects from consuming soy, a 2021 review of studiesfound that there’s no connection between soy consumption and male hormonal changes.

And in terms of flavor and texture, this stuff is pretty good.

 

 

Best Nut-Based: Almond Protein Powder

You can’t do dairy, and you don’t love the taste of pea or soy protein. Almond protein powder is here for you.

A scoop has about 20 grams of protein, which is on par (if slightly below) many whey proteins, though unlike whey it also contains some fiber.

Flavor-wise, it’s faintly almond-y, as you’d expect, which makes it awesome in shakes.