How do you choose a whey protein powder? Do you go on the recommendation of your buddy at the gym and take what he takes? Do you pick the bottle with the shiniest, most cutting-edge label? Do you go by what tastes good or what’s on sale at your local GNC?
The truth is, these are serious questions. You know that taking whey protein at the right times of day can make all the difference in between building an extra half-inch on your arms or adding 20 pounds to your personal best on the bench press. But not just any whey will do. There are great whey protein products and there are not-so-good whey protein products. And being able to tell the difference between them can be critical to your gains.
The first step in determining whether your protein is worthy is to give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve recognized whey’s benefits and have included it in your daily regimen. Just to review, whey is enormously beneficial for several reasons, including amino acid and microfraction content (more on that in a minute) and digestion rate.
Whey is one of the richest sources of BCAAs, which include the three amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine. These bad boys have been shown to be absolutely critical for muscle growth, and even for energy during workouts. Whey protein also contains biologically active protein microfractions such as alpha-lactalbumin, beta-lactoglobulin, glycomacropeptides, immunoglobulins, lactoferrin, lactoperoxidase and various growth factors. These provide antioxidant benefits, boost immune function and enhance muscle recovery and growth.
But probably the most critical factor that puts whey protein miles ahead of other forms of protein is digestion rate. Whey digests very rapidly. In fewer than 30 minutes it can fast-track a good portion of its aminos to your muscles, and that rapid delivery of amino acids to muscle cells has been shown to be important for pushing muscle growth.
If you know that whey is one of the proteins found in milk, then it should be obvious that whey protein production starts with dairy cows. Cows are milked on the farm, and this milk is the starting source for most protein powders. But if you think that supplement companies like Optimum, Cytosport or Nature’s Best are out in the back milking cows to make their protein powders, you’ve got another think coming.
Way back when, whey was actually considered a waste byproduct of cheese production and was routinely dumped. These days, dairy companies recognize the value of whey and have set up factories to concentrate and purify it. Every supplement company that sells products that contain whey buys raw protein from a dairy manufacturer, and there are only so many of those.
That means that multiple supplement companies acquire raw whey protein powder from the same handful of manufacturers. Two of the major protein manufacturers are Glanbia, with main headquarters in Ireland, and Hilmar Ingredients, in California. These are the places where milk actually undergoes rigorous processing that involves various forms of filtering and purification to produce specific protein powders.
Supplement companies like Optimum or Dymatize order raw protein powders, such as whey protein isolate, whey protein concentrate, whey protein hydrolysate and, yes, calcium caseinate or micellar casein, from companies such as Glanbia or Hilmar. These raw, unflavored protein powders are shipped to the supplement companies in massive containers. Each company then adds its own often proprietary blend of ingredients, including flavorings, colorings and other ingredients (extra aminos, say, or enzymes to help digest the protein) to produce their final blend, which ends up in the jug on your kitchen counter.
Whey protein powder is far more effective than any other protein form out there, but its effectiveness can vary widely. Often the limiting factor of a whey protein product is the other ingredients companies add to it. But the type of whey — and the amount of each type present in a product — can also affect effectiveness.
Great Whey Protein Powders
When you buy a protein powder your intention is to buy protein, not carbs and not fat. Carbs and fat are easy to get in your diet, so when you’re laying down your hard-earned cash for a jug of protein, you want it to have as much protein in it as possible. A quick glance at the Supplement Facts panel will let you know how many carbs and how much fat are in the product.
But you’re not done yet. Keep scanning down the label until you get to the ingredients list. The information contained here is the key to knowing whether a protein powder is really amazing or just simply passable. First you might notice that most whey protein products contain more than one type of whey. You might see whey protein isolate, whey protein hydrolysate (or hydrolyzed whey protein) or whey protein concentrate. To be considered a great whey protein the product MUST list whey protein isolate or hydrolyzed whey protein isolate as the very first ingredient. That’s because whey protein isolates are the purest form of protein you can get, with some being more than 90% protein. And “hydrolyzed whey protein isolate” means that that high-quality whey has been pre-digested into smaller protein fragments for even faster digestion than regular whey isolate. Whey protein concentrate, on the other hand, goes through less filtering, which means fewer of the natural carbohydrates found in milk are removed. The result is a whey product that is much lower in protein content. Although most whey protein concentrates are somewhere between 70-80% protein, some can be less than 35% protein. This is why most companies make a big deal about their whey protein isolate powders. (This is also why isolates and hydrolysates generally cost more.)
But to really know if a whey protein powder is top notch, you’ll need to do some math. Take the grams of protein per serving listed on the supplement facts panel and divide it by the serving size (in grams). This will give you the percentage of protein in each serving. To be considered a great whey protein powder, the percent protein per serving (or scoop) should be 80% or greater. For example, if a whey protein powder provides 25 grams of protein per 28-gram scoop, that protein powder is about 90% protein and is a great whey protein for the money.
These whey protein powders made our “Great” list:
ProSource NytroWhey Ultra Elite
The power source that has fueled a generation of phenomenal physiques. NytroWhey Ultra Elite combines the highest-quality whey isolate and hydrolysate proteins with a cutting-edge leucine peptide technology that jumpstarts tremendous growth like no other protein in existence. Absolutely delicious, too. This one’s the gold standard.
This gem includes an amino acid Power Complex with 10 grams of leucine and 4 grams of both isoleucine and valine, all primed to give you enough BCAAs to keep you powering through workouts and enhancing your recovery time.
With 13 flavors and easy mixing, ON’s 100% Whey is consistently lauded for its creamy taste and reliable results.
ISO-HD carries more purified whey isolate and hydrolysate than other powders. That means it digests faster, gets to working muscles quicker, and stops catabolism while jump-starting growth.
Isoflex delivers a 27-gram protein bomb in only one scoop—all with zero grams of fat, no sugar, and only one gram of carbs. The four propri- etary delivery systems work fast to fuel your muscles post-workout.
Impact Whey Protein is 100% whey protein concentrate with no other proteins added and is also low in fat and carbohydrates, which makes it a perfect source of whey protein for those looking to reduce body fat levels but increase lean mass.
Muscletech Performance Series Nitro-Tech
Each scoop of Nitro-Tech contains 30 grams of protein, primarily from whey protein isolate and whey peptides. Nitro-Tech is also enhanced with the most studied form of creatine for even better gains in muscle and strength and contains only 1g of sugar and 3g of creatine.
BSN Clean 100% Whey (GNC Exclusive)
With 24 grams of protein and only 140 calories per scoop, it’s one of the leanest clean supps on the market today.
MHP Maximum Whey
MHP Maximum Whey has 25 grams of protein per scoop. MHP uses an enriched whey protein complex with whey concentrate and isolate, purified and condensed through a double-filtration process.
Zero Carb Isopure
Low- and no-carb options are hard to come by, but Isopure Zero Carb powder contains 50 grams per serving of whey isolate with not a single gram of filler carbs in sight.
Animal Whey is met with consistently high customer satisfaction scores across online retailers.
Whey Protein Powders That Suck
Companies like Glanbia and Hilmar start with high-quality milk. And what they charge for the protein powders that come from that high-quality milk is based on what the milk costs. In today’s market, that means that the prices for raw milk-based protein powders are high. Protein manufacturers will pass that cost on to consumers, meaning you’ll pay more for protein powders that use high-quality raw protein from reputable protein manufacturers.
Unfortunately, not every supplement manufacturer goes to the reputable protein manufacturers. To cut costs and make their protein powders more affordable, some supplement manufacturers use questionable protein suppliers. Sure, they pay much less for the raw protein, which saves you a ton of cash when you buy their jug of protein powder, but the problem is that that protein powder likely contains far less protein and far more carbs and fat than claimed on the label. More frighteningly, these lesser-quality protein powders may also contain impurities and contaminants.
Remember the melamine-contaminated milk scandal in China? Because melamine is high in nitrogen content, as is protein, it can be added to milk that has been diluted to bump up the nitrogen (“protein”) content of the milk.
The easiest way to spot a protein powder that is using cheap raw protein is its price. If it’s much cheaper than the major brand protein powders, you better suspect that something is up. If you think that you’re getting a great deal on a cheap protein powder, that’s all that you’re getting. You are NOT getting a good-quality protein powder. There is only one way for a company to undersell all other reputable companies, and that is by buying inferior protein. So be careful of protein powders that are not major brands, that you can’t find on bodybuilding.com, GNC or The Vitamin Shoppe, and are incredibly cheap. As they say, you get what you pay for.
In addition to price, you can also distinguish a low-quality protein powder by its percent of protein. While most quality whey protein concentrates are somewhere around 70-80%, there are also whey protein concentrates that are as low as 35% protein. That means the majority of the protein powder is carbs (lactose) and fat. If a protein powder lists whey protein concentrate first on the ingredients list, followed by whey protein isolate and/or whey protein hydrolysate, but has less than 70% protein per serving, then it only has a very small amount of whey protein isolate and/or hydrolysate in it. Some companies add minuscule amounts of whey protein isolate and hydrolysate just to claim their products contain them, but the amounts are so small that they’re not going to do much for your body.