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There are as many brands of protein powder out there as there are vegan alternatives to meat, cheese, and mayonnaise. Picking the right one can be tough. In a confused and crowded market, we turned to one of the leading brands in sports supplementation—Optimum Nutrition (ON), which is celebrating 30 years in the industry—for a guide to buying a product that’s safe, legal, and actually does what it claims. Heather Nelson Cortes, PhD, Director of Scientific Affairs for Glanbia Performance Nutrition (ON’s parent company), weighs in on what to look for.

There are many types of protein on the market, which is the right one?

Whey, casein, and soy protein are considered high-quality, complete proteins meaning they contain all essential amino acids. Both whey and casein come from milk, whereas soy is a plant protein. Whey protein is quickly digested, therefore it is recommended for consumption after exercise to rapidly deliver amino acids to the muscle and help support muscle growth and recovery. Soy is a good choice for vegetarians, vegans, or those who are not able to consume dairy products. On the other hand, casein digests slowly, which helps lead to a sustained release of amino acids. For this reason, it may be advantageous to consume casein between meals or before bed for lasting muscle support.

How do you know if a protein powder is not full of fillers?

The amount of protein in a product is typically measured by the nitrogen content of the protein. Some products may have certain amino acids added to them, which will increase the nitrogen content, but these aminos can be much cheaper than a whole protein, such as whey, and may not offer the same benefits. You can see these aminos on the label, they’ll be listed under ingredients and are sometimes identified as “added amino acids.” Another common filler used is maltodextrin, a type of sugar. When looking at protein powders, consumers should look at the ingredient statement and make sure that proteins are listed first, which means they make up most of the product.

How can we tell if a product is free of banned substances and harmful chemicals?

One sign of a reputable supplement is a plastic seal on the lid or top of the container, a safety element that helps ensure that the supplement was not tampered with prior to sale or use. An official product seal for instance, Optimum Nutrition’s hologram stripe along the product’s neck band will help verify that the product is not counterfeit. Finally, the Informed Choice seal, which includes a check mark along with the words “Trusted by sport,” signifies that the supplement has been tested by a world-class sports anti-doping lab.

NEXT: Find out how Optimum Nutrition is celebrating 30 years of setting the Gold Standard>>

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Optimum Nutrition’s Gift of Fitness 30 Year Anniversary Giveaway

Through Oct. 31, 2016, specially marked Birthday Cake–flavored, 2-pound Gold Standard 100% Whey products, which bear the ON 30-year logo, will feature an entry code that can be redeemed at optimumnutrition.com/30year. If the entered code is a winner, that fan will be awarded a prize from a collection that includes fitness trackers, headphones, gift certificates, and ON products. One grand-prize winner will receive an all expenses-paid trip to meet and train with ON athlete and physique competitor Steve Cook. The prize program is designed to award approximately one in every 30 participants.

30 Years of Setting the Gold Standard

A look back at some of the brand’s highlights and innovations:

1986: Optimum Nutrition is founded by brothers Mike and Tony Costello.

2000: Debuts the first instantized BCAA, revolutionizing the delivery mechanism for the supplement.

2005: Launches Gold Standard 100% Whey, which goes on to be distributed in 130 countries. ON buys (and due to its quality control standards, rejects) more whey than any other brand.

2005: The “slow protein” category is created with ON’s formulation of the first casein powder.

2010: ON begins the “anytime energy” category with the introduction of Amino Energy, which supports focus without extreme doses of caffeine.

2014: Optimum Nutrition moves into its new headquarters in Downers Grove, IL.

2016: Gold Standard 100% Whey becomes available in Birthday Cake flavor.

2016: Will host an official 30th birthday celebration at the Mr. Olympia in Las Vegas, Sept. 15–18.

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