While few, if any, amateur athletes need protein powder to support their exercise regime, it can be a very convenient way of ensuring you have all the fuel required to repair and build muscle after a workout.
Downing a protein shake every day will, of course, have no effect if you aren’t also putting in the work, but using them after your training is certainly a quicker and easier (if less tasty) method of upping your protein intake than eating a rotisserie chicken.
However, picking between the huge range of protein powders available is difficult, especially when each and every one of them makes grand promises about the effect they will have on you.
You might assume that all of them do the same job, but that’s not the case. Coach spoke to Dr Daniel Fenton, clinical director and GP at London Doctors Clinic, about the differences between protein powders, how much price matters and whether they contain any ingredients you should be wary of. We then assessed the best protein powders out there using Fenton’s criteria and tasted them too so you have a better idea of what you’re buying.
What are the key things people should look out for when choosing protein powder?
“How much protein you obtain from each serving, the amino acid profile, the cost, taste and number of additives are a few key factors. I tend to focus on yield – the actual amount of protein you obtain from each serving – and amino acid profile.
“I suggest you choose a low-fat, low-carbohydrate, high-protein powder. While you require all three to aid muscle development, balance is key.
“The difference in protein content in various powders can be phenomenal. Do not simply pay for a brand name – the proof is in the numbers. Look carefully at the concentration and type of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) included in the protein. Leucine has been shown to be one of the most important BCAAs so it should contain decent quantities.”
What are the differences between the two main types of protein – whey and casein?
“Muscle growth is determined by simple science: protein (muscle) breakdown vs protein synthesis. If the synthesis of new muscle protein is greater than the breakdown of muscle protein, you will get a net gain of muscle mass.
“Whey is typically processed very rapidly into amino acids, which will reach peak levels within an hour of consumption and therefore assist muscle synthesis very quickly. However, the peak levels also fall very quickly.
“Whey is considered an anabolic protein because it rapidly accelerates protein synthesis so it’s great for quick muscle regeneration, but has very little effect on naturally occurring muscle breakdown after a workout.
“Casein can take several hours to be metabolised and as a result creates a slower release of proteins to help muscles recover and grow. It is often referred to as an anti-catabolic protein, because it also helps to prevent excess protein breakdown.
“The downside is that casein will remain in the stomach for a substantial period of time, and one can appreciate that it is difficult to complete a high-intensity workout with a full stomach.
“In essence, balance and timing are key for maximum gains. Ignore those who say ‘casein is the key’, or ‘only whey works’ – scientifically, this is simply untrue. Both work very well if used appropriately, complementing your workout and your own natural metabolism.”
What should you get if you pay more money for protein powder?
“There is a natural tendency to think that more expensive products are better – but this is a fallacy. Content is more important than cost. All protein powders will contain some additives including thickeners, preservatives, sweeteners and fillers.
“I would strongly recommend taking a look at the label before you purchase. While your main focus is gaining muscle, you should aim to avoid putting nutritionally-redundant chemicals into your body. Here are a few of the things to look out for.
“Avoid artificial sweeteners, which includes sucralose, aspartame and saccharin. The presumption is that these are better for you than sugar but this is not quite true. There is no good evidence that they reduce weight gain, type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome and some studies actually show an increased risk of adverse health outcomes.
“Milk powders are a cheap bulking agent widely used in protein powders. They are high in lactose sugars which is terrible if you are lactose intolerant. This can contribute to gastrointestinal upset including bloating and loose stools.
“Oils and fats are added to protein supplements to increase richness; they are non-essential ingredients which can contribute to hypercholesterolemia [high cholesterol]. It is fairly common to see high cholesterol levels in bodybuilders and athletes despite their immense fitness levels and generally healthy eating – taking protein powder with added oils is thought to be a contributing factor.”
Is it worth looking out for extra benefits from protein powder such as vitamins and minerals, or fibre?
“The simple answer is no! While these make for an excellent selling point, if you are eating a balanced diet alongside the protein supplement you should not need additional vitamins.
“Is there a limit to how much protein the body can absorb from a serving?
“The human body is an impressive machine, which likes to maintain a balanced constant internal environment. We can fill ourselves with protein, but we will only absorb as much as we require for muscle synthesis.
“The Department of Health recommends approximately 55g of protein a day for male adults and a little less for females. Obviously, if we exercise at high intensity, muscle turnover is higher and protein demand is therefore greater, so we will often require more than this. But if we consume too much protein, the body will simply metabolise and excrete it. This means you could literally be flushing money and protein down the pan.”
Coach Picks The Best Protein Powders
Natural Nutrients Whey Protein Isolate
This powder uses whey isolate and delivers 24.7g of protein per 30g serving, which is about as good as it gets in terms of protein per gram. There’s 3.2g of leucine in a serving, and 5.6g of BCAAs in total. There’s really nothing else of note in there – fibre and carbs clock in at 0.5g apiece, with stevia used as the sweetener.
Vanila taste test: The powder mixes very easily but the taste tested our tolerance for sweetness to its limits.
Buy from Amazon | £34.99 for 1kg
PhD Smart Protein
The hook with this powder is that the oat flour it contains makes it an excellent ingredient for whipping up a protein-packed baked treat, and it’s also easy to make into a mousse rather than a shake if you prefer a thicker post-workout pick-me-up. Each 30g serving contains 19g of protein and 116 calories, and sucralose is the sweetener used to keep the sugar count low at 0.9g.
Lemon drizzle cake taste test: We assumed this would just taste of lemon, but there is definitely a cake flavour in there as well. It’s a pleasant, if slightly too sweet, taste, while the texture is satisfyingly thick.
Buy from PhD | £24.99 for 900g
Neat Nutrition Whey Protein
There’s no messing around here; this is a simple whey powder that doesn’t feel the need to blast you with extra features. The ingredient list is very short indeed, with two of the five ingredients being whey concentrate and whey isolate, and thaumatin is the sweetener used.
Chocolate taste test: The simplicity extends to the serving, since Neat Nutrition has provided a 30g scoop so you don’t have to double dip to get the recommended serving which helps to avoid a powdery mess when making the shake. The chocolate flavour has caramel hints to it, which is charming, and the powder mixes in water or milk with the minimum of fuss.
Buy from Neat Nutrition | £34 for 1kg
Kin Nutrition WHEYLESS Whey Protein
This supplement is made with 90% whey isolate and delivers a solid 23g of protein in a 30g serving. Kin has also aimed to set itself apart by adding fibre (via flaxseed powder) and probiotics to aid digestion. It’s a welcome touch, even if the 1.3g of fibre you get in a serving is still pretty measly.
Vanilla taste test: It’s vanilla, Jim, and exactly as we know it. A standard but nonetheless pleasing flavour, although we were a little underwhelmed by the consistency of the powder – even a vigorous shaking left some clumps at the bottom.
Buy from Kin Nutrition | £34.99 for 1kg
SiS Advanced Isolate+
Each 40g serving of the Chocolate Orange flavour of SiS’s Advanced Isolate packs in a massive 32g of protein, including 9g of BCAAs of which 5g is leucine (the amount of protein varies a little with different flavours). The carb count is low at 2.7g per serving (0.9g sugars), though sucralose is used to add some sweetness and there’s a mere 0.9g of fat per serving.
Buy on Amazon | £24.75 for 1kg
Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Whey
ON’s popular Gold Standard Whey provides 24g of protein per 30g serving, with the whey being a easy-to-mix blend of isolate, concentrate and hydrolysed isolate. Each serving contains 5.5g of naturally occurring BCAAs including our old friend leucine, and 4g of glutamine and glutamic acid, which is another supplement that helps support muscle growth. There’s just 1.1g of fat in each 113-calorie serving and 1.8g of carbs. Two artificial sweeteners – sucralose and acesulfame K – are used to counter the lack of sugar.
Buy on Amazon | £49.99 for 2.27kg
Multipower 100% Pure Whey Protein
The whey complex in this protein powder is primarily whey isolate and the powder has been instantised, which makes it easier to mix with water. The 30g serving contains 24g of protein, including 5.7g of BCAAs. It’s low in fat at 1.3g per serving and carbs at 1.4g per serving, and the sweeteners used are sodium cyclamate, sodium saccharin and acesulfame K.
Buy on Amazon | £27 for 900g
Scitec Nutrition 100% Whey Protein Professional
There’s nothing especially novel about this protein powder aside from its impressive range of flavours (kiwi banana, anyone?), but it offers a solid package of 22g of protein per 30g serving. There’s just 2g of fat and 1.4g of carbohydrate in a serving, with the sweetness provided by acesulfame K and sucralose.
Buy on Amazon | £26.39 for 920g
Grenade Hydra 6 Protein
This 50:50 blend of whey and casein uses premium forms of both – whey isolate and micellar casein – to provide what could well be the ultimate mix of fast- and slow-absorbing protein. The isolate ensures the drink mixes easily and you absorb the whey rapidly after a workout, while micellar casein is digested more slowly than other forms of casein so you get a sustained hit of protein throughout the day or night. There are 5g of BCAAs and 2.2g of leucine per serving. Sucralose is used to sweeten the mix.
Peanut Nutter taste test: The name might suggest that the flavour is going to be overbearing, but the truth is quite the opposite – the nuttiness is pitched just right. The shake isn’t too thick or stodgy, either.
Buy on Amazon | £64.99 for 1.8kg
SiS Overnight Protein
This powder is a 50:50 mix of whey protein concentrate and milk protein isolate, with the latter being 80% casein and 20% whey. The whey protein is from milk and high in leucine. It’s a treat to drink hot or cold, but if you are going to drink it before bedtime then obviously warm is the way to go. The carbs and fat content is low – 3.1g and 2.3g respectively – but the powder does contain sucralose sweetener.
Buy on Amazon | £48 for 1kg
Vegan Protein Powder
Supernova Advanced Vegan Protein
There’s all kinds of stuff going on here. Way too much to get your head around, to be honest. The protein is sourced from peas and brown rice, that much we understand, but there’s also a whole load of adaptogens: medical mushrooms like chaga and cordyceps, along with maca and ashwagandha, all of which offer reportedly impressive benefits. We take all of those claims with a pinch of salt, but you get 20g of protein in a serving and all the essential amino acids needed for muscle growth, which is something you can hang your hat on.
Unflavoured taste test: The taste is reminiscent of plaster, but it doesn’t show through when you mix the powder into smoothies or add a couple of shots of espresso into the mix, as you always should when using unflavoured powder. Frankly, we’re not sure we’d trust anyone who drinks unflavoured shakes.
Buy on Amazon | £35 for 480g
Healthspan Elite Complete Vegan Protein
Pea, pumpkin and brown rice proteins are blended in this powder to provide a complete protein that contains all 20 amino acids. There are also added vitamins in the powder, including 100% of your recommended daily intake of B12, which is hard to obtain from food when eating a vegan diet. The powder comes unflavoured but you can add a flavour shot to your order for free. Each 27g serving contains 20g of protein, 100.7 calories, 1.5g fat and 2.8 of carbohydrates.
Buy from Healthspan | £24.99 for 1kg
Stealth Vegan Recovery Protein
This powder contains everything you need to recover from long exercise sessions which makes it ideal for runners and cyclists. Along with the 20g of protein per 50g serving, there’s 19.5g of carbs as well as electrolytes to replace those lost through sweat. The vegan protein is a blend of pea and rice protein, and the sweetener is stevia.
Mint chocolate taste test: The texture is a little thinner than we’d have liked, but that’s the norm with a recovery drink compared to a traditional protein shake. The mint overpowers the chocolate slightly, but that made the shake surprisingly refreshing after a long run in the sun, and the powder mixes very easily with water.
Buy from Stealth | £25 for 660g
SiS REGO Rapid Recovery+
A shake that’s packed with nutritional goodies to help you recover after your toughest training days. The hefty 70g serving contains 38g of carbs and 24g of protein (whey concentrate) including 6g of BCAAs. Leucine clocks in at 3g and l-glutamine at 5g per serving.
Lemon taste test: Perhaps surprisingly, after trying a few different flavours of the REGO powder lemon was the clear winner in the taste stakes. The texture is smooth and slightly creamy, and there’s none of the cloying sweetness that often scuppers fruity shakes. The powder also mixes with water without any difficulties.