Protein powders are among the most practical hacks to building and maintaining muscle mass. But with so many on the market now, which one should you choose?
All of the protein powder chatter tends to focus on protein completeness, which is a measure of amino acid content. If a protein contains all nine of the essential amino acids, it’s thought to be a complete protein, and it achieves the bare minimum standard of acceptability.
The thing is, not all amino acids are created equally with respect to the ceilings they establish for muscle growth and maintenance, and leucine, isoleucine and valine are undisputedly the most important amino acids in effectuating this desired outcome, with leucine being the most important of all. This means that if you’re evaluating protein powders according to a good-better-best model, you can’t place a protein in the “best” category unless it has significant quantities of all three. Otherwise, what are we even doing here?
For the purposes of this list, other factors taken into consideration include protein digestibility, price-per-serving, comparisons between next-best-alternative food products (or flat-out superior food products), and in some cases, a deep dive into why a product would even exist in the first place.
So without further ado, here is our unofficially official ranking of the best protein powders, from first to worst.
1) Whey. This is the gold standard by which all protein powders are measured, and I’m not saying that simply because Gold Standard’s whey protein is the most popular brand of protein in the world. Whey is the liquid protein that’s separated from the casein protein during the cheesemaking process, and whey just happens to reliably contain more leucine than casein, thereby making it a better producer of muscle mass.
Studies have definitively demonstrated the superiority of whey protein in comparison to protein sources like soy and casein when it comes to muscle growth. Yet, we must mention that whey comes with a clear downside to those suffering from lactose intolerance or other sensitivities to dairy products. But if you possess a constitution that enables you to literally stomach whey protein, whey has enjoyed a decades-long reign as the world’s go-to protein for a reason.
2) Egg Protein. Powders aside, egg is the gold standard by which all proteins are measured, and I mean that in a close-to-literal sense. Egg is used by the World Health Organization as the standard all other proteins are compared with for digestibility and quality. Also, egg ranks second only to whey in terms of its muscle-crafting leucine content. Frankly, it may only be out of respect for whey’s incumbency that I’m keeping egg from claiming a share of the top spot, since the two stack up almost identically, and egg contributes to fewer digestive problems than whey.
3) Casein. You can take almost everything I’ve stated about whey protein and apply it to casein. Both are components of milk protein, except that casein composes 80 percent of the protein in cow’s milk, while whey is the dominant protein in human milk by a ratio of three-to-two. Casein is also absorbed into the muscles far more slowly than whey is, and it contains less leucine.
The same negatives that apply to whey also apply to casein: People suffering from dairy allergies are essentially as likely to be as sensitive to casein as they are to whey, thereby resulting in both protein sources being disqualified from use by a wide swath of adult humans. Casein is clearly superior to most protein sources, but we have to trust that researchers knew what they were doing when they completely stepped over the predominance of casein protein contained in cow’s milk to isolate and prioritize the whey. Still, many theorize that casein’s slow-release nature would be advantageous during the evenings to prevent the breakdown of muscle during sleep.
4) Chicken. Chicken contains more leucine, isoleucine and valine than eggs do; that’s simply a fact. What isn’t a fact is that the best use of a chicken is to make a protein powder out of it. This is one of those instances where you need to apply some outside logic to the scenario before you make a judgment.
If you break down the price of a container of chicken protein isolate, with roughly 20 grams per serving, and then you look at an actual chicken breast that has 40 grams of protein per breast, you can calculate that each one-pound container of chicken protein powder contains the equivalent of 8.5 chicken breasts. So far so good. But when you tabulate that you’d pay a maximum of $15 for seven chicken breasts at a store like Target, that’s when you’d rightly conclude that you’re essentially paying twice as much for your chicken protein powder with almost none of the enjoyment that comes with eating a hot meal.
If you eat meat, just buy the chicken and cook it. That’s way more enjoyable than shoving the remains of a dehydrated, mutilated chicken into a blender and drinking it.
5) Soy. The gold standard by plant-based protein standards, soy is as complete as plant proteins get. Soy is also relatively tasteless — in a good way — which enables it to blend seamlessly with other foods if you wish to use it as the foundation for a smoothie. The problem is, soy falls noticeably short of whey and most animal proteins in leucine, isoleucine and valine.
6) Pea Protein. Far from being a byproduct of green peas, pea protein is actually derived from split peas, which are a protein-packed food source. Despite this attribute, pea protein suffers from a lack of completeness due to its paucity of methionine and cysteine. To top it off, pea protein has been dogged by a reputation for having a noticeable “pea” taste, which means it can’t really be consumed as a flavorless, gulping protein, nor can it be utilized as a blank canvas for adding tastier ingredients to smoothies like soy.
In this case, pea has been a favorite of activist consumers of vegan-friendly protein because split peas lack the strong link to GMO food production practices that soy possesses. If consuming pea protein assuages some feelings of guilt and adds to your sense of social responsibility, I’m all for that, but this doesn’t make it better than soy for our purposes.
7) Pumpkin Protein. You get the sense that this was the brainchild of someone dreaming up a way to boost the annual output of the pumpkin industry aside from contributions to pie fillings, craft beer and spice lattes. Pumpkin protein is sky high in iron, so it can be an unobtrusive way for anemia sufferers to graft some additional iron into their diets, as opposed to choking down iron supplements. However, pumpkin protein falls short of the mark inasmuch as you need to consume more of it by total volume to hit the same nutrient marks as more efficient protein sources. Some designer versions can be used as mixes in attractive fall-themed drink blends, but the best post-Halloween use of a pumpkin remains launching it in the face of Ichabod Crane.
8) Rice Protein. I guess we’re producing so much rice these days that we need to find something to do with the leftovers. Rice protein was principally developed for inclusion in infant formula for babies allergic to cow’s milk, so it makes sense that companies would ultimately get around to promoting it for adult use. Rice is also among the best-tasting protein powders, with most people barely noticing it’s there. This makes sense — if I asked you to describe the taste of white rice, could you do it?
The biggest problem with rice protein is that it just barely scrapes by at being considered a complete protein due to its low levels of lysine and threonine, so if you’re relying on rice protein powder as your go-to protein, you’re going to need to further supplement it with other sources.
9) Hemp Protein. IMHO, hemp protein is just another attempt to increase the viability and visibility of products that are at least ostensibly marijuana-themed. The thing is, you would need to purchase and consume twice as much hemp protein to enjoy the same muscle-building payoff as whey, soy or any other protein on the top half of this list.
10) Cranberry Seed Protein. We’ll start with the redeeming quality of this protein, and believe me, this won’t take very long — cranberry seed protein is high in fiber, which makes it easier to digest than several other protein supplements. Otherwise, this barely qualifies as a protein powder. On a calories-per-gram-of-protein-consumed basis, you’d be better off eating mushrooms, which no one thinks of as a high protein food. Seriously, cranberry seed protein contains 15.5 calories per gram of protein, while an average mushroom contains 7 calories per protein gram. With established protein powders sitting closer to 5 calories per gram of protein, you’d be required to ingest more than three times as many calories of cranberry seed protein to match up with them in terms of protein content.
Which is probably the moral of this story overall: Just because you’re capable of making a protein supplement out of a fruit, doesn’t necessarily make it a useful innovation.