With the click of a mouse, you can order any protein powder, and it’ll arrive at your doorstep in a matter of days. This is great news for you since protein is an essential macronutrient that repairs muscle tissue to help you gain strength, keeps you satiated, balances your hormones. And boy, are people clicking their mouses.
In 2018, the global whey protein powder market was valued at $7.4 billion. Whey protein may be flying off of the shelves, that’s for sure. What isn’t for certain is which brand you should buy. There is a seemingly endless number of protein powder options, but some may not be suited for your goals. In contrast, others may be low-quality, which is why we tested out dozens of protein supplements, from the biggest supplement sellers to the little-known underdogs. Now, you’ll be able to make an educated protein selection.
The Best Whey Protein Powders
- Best Whey Protein Overall: Legion Whey+
- Best Whey Protein With Zero Additives: Transparent Labs Grass-Fed Whey Isolate
- Best Vegan Alternative: Performance Lab Protein
- Best Value Hydrolyzed Whey Protein: Dymatize ISO 100
- Best Whey Protein for Digestion: Cellucor Cor-Performance
- Best Whey Protein for Women: PrettyFit Whey
- Best Whey for Meal Replacement: IdealShape IdealShake
- Best Whey for Weight Loss: FitMiss Delight
- Best Whey for Weight Gain: Promix Nutrition Grass-Fed Whey Isolate
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for the diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before beginning a new fitness, nutritional, and/or supplement routine.
Best Whey Protein Overall
Our top pick contains effective and transparently sourced ingredients, is free of potentially harmful fillers, and delivers on taste.
Legion Whey+ Protein
Legion Whey+ contains zero artificial flavors and sweeteners, is GMO- and lactose-free, and uses whey from a traceable source. It’s also higher in calcium and iron compared to other protein isolate powder. We like that Legion Whey+ mixes well in water and milk. It comes in various flavors: Salted Caramel, Mocha Cappuccino, Cinnamon Cereal, and Mint Chocolate, in addition to the normal variations of chocolate and vanilla you’ll often see from manufacturers. If you want to avoid soy or maltodextrin, however, then look elsewhere; this protein powder contains both of those ingredients.
Who Should Buy Legion Whey+
- People who want an all-natural whey protein without sacrificing flavor or variety of flavors.
- Customers who want higher amounts of essential vitamins and minerals, such as iron and calcium, in their shake.
- Athletes on the go who want a smooth-mixing protein powder.
Who Shouldn’t Buy Legion Whey+
- People who want to avoid maltodextrin at all costs. This is a common additive in many whey proteins to help with flavor, and Legion’s Whey+ does contain some.
- If you’re avoiding soy, you may want to look elsewhere. Whey+ contains a tiny amount of soy lecithin to help with mix-ability.
Best Whey Protein With Zero Additives
If you’re looking for a whey protein supplement that delivers just the essentials, then no look further. Transparent Labs has you covered.
Transparent Labs 100% Grass-Fed Whey Protein Isolate
Transparent Lab’s formula contains just four ingredients: grass-fed whey isolate, natural flavor, salt, and stevia. For people who prioritize supplements with as few additives as possible, it’s tough to beat what Transparent Labs has to offer. Their product contains zero fat, nothing artificial, and has an incredible 28 grams of protein per 120 calorie serving, with fewer than two grams of carbs. That said, fillers are sometimes added to help a shake mix more effectively, and so this whey’s mixability may be inconsistent. Also, Transparent Labs doesn’t offer a lot of flavor options if that matters to you.
Who Should Buy Transparent Labs 100% Grass-Fed Whey Isolate
- Customers who want a simple whey protein with no additives or extra ingredients.
- Folks who want something very low in carbs and/or fat.
- People looking for a grass-fed, simple protein that also tastes good.
Who Should Buy Transparent Labs 100% Grass-Fed Whey Isolate
- If you want a huge variety of flavors, this might not be the one for you.
- This is a solid protein supplement, but the mixing can be somewhat inconsistent with no gums or thickeners.
Best Vegan Alternative
Whey protein is industry standard for protein supplementation, but it’s not easy on every athlete’s stomach. In addition, whey is not vegan-friendly. Others may want to avoid whey due to potential spoilage (though this is rare if good storage conditions are met) or unappealing smells/taste.
Performance Lab Protein
Performance Lab has formulated a protein supplement using Oryzatein®, a patented brown rice protein that (according to their research and findings) absorbs as well as whey. (According to the company, their product’s leucine content may actually absorb up to 30% faster than that found in whey protein.) And while some users aren’t into the texture and flavor of vegan protein alternatives, Performance Lab has done some good work on the user experience here: The flavor is complex, made with organic cocoa, vanilla bean, cinnamon, yacon root, monk fruit and stevia.
Who Should Buy Performance Lab Protein
- Customers who want a vegan alternative to whey protein.
- People who want to try something a bit different than the norm.
- Athletes who may experience digestive discomfort with traditional protein supplements.
- People who want added prebiotics.
Who Should Buy Performance Lab Protein
- Performance Lab Protein only comes in one flavor option. If you want more variety, it could be best to look elsewhere.
- This is a relatively low-calorie supplement, at 100 calories for 20 grams of protein. If you’re looking to bulk, you might want something with more additional macronutrients.
Best Value Hydrolyzed Whey Protein
When it comes down to it, most proteins will offer just about the same muscle-building benefits. That said, price is a big factor for many folks, and we think that Dymatize offers one of the best quality hydrolyzed proteins at a competitive price.
Dymatize ISO 100
Why Dymatize? Besides the fact that it tastes great with water — though, some may find it too sweet — the first ingredient in the product is hydrolyzed whey protein. We dive deeper into the science further down this article, but the long and short of it is that hydrolyzed whey absorbs faster than other forms. That’s because enzymes partly break it down.
Who Should Buy Dymatize ISO 100
- People who like mixing whey with water; these shakes taste great on their own.
- Low-fat dieters; there’s no fat at all (or maybe 0.5 grams) in most of the flavors.
Who Shouldn’t Buy Dymatize ISO 100
- People looking for all of their whey to be hydrolyzed; while it’s the first ingredient, there’s also some regular isolate here.
- Folks without sweet teeth; the product is really quite sweet. That’s why it’s great with water.
Best Whey Protein for Digestion
Protein doesn’t agree with everyone’s stomach. For those with digestive issues, a protein that has digestive enzymes may be what you need.
Cellucor Cor-Performance contains three digestive enzymes, which may help to improve absorption, and is soy-free. It also mixes well and tastes great with water — the Peanut Butter Marshmallow flavor did not last long in the BarBend office. That said, this protein does contain artificial sweeteners, which may not fly with everyone, and is manufactured with equipment that processes eggs, wheat, and soy. If you have severe allergies, you may want to avoid this pick.
Who Should Buy Cellucor Cor-Performance
- Guys who want to limit soy; there’s no soy lecithin in this product, which is extremely common in the industry.
- Those who are convinced that whey is better with digestive enzymes to help with absorption.
- People who can only stomach whey when it contains lactase, an enzyme that can sometimes help with lactose sensitivities.
Who Shouldn’t Buy Cellucor Cor-Performance
- People avoiding the artificial sweetener acesulfame potassium.
- It’s manufactured on equipment that processes egg, wheat, and soy, so if you have really sensitive allergies, it may not be ideal.
Best Whey Protein for Women
Generally speaking — very generally speaking — women tend to want a protein powder that’s low in calories, fat, and carbs. So which takes the top spot?
PrettyFit protein is an excellent whey isolate that contains under a gram of carbs and fat per serving. This makes it super low in calories. It doesn’t contain any soy — which may be useful for women concerned about consuming phytoestrogens — and this whey protein is free from artificial flavors, colors, and sweeteners. Even though it’s lactose-free, it contains five digestive enzymes to minimize stomach problems potentially. If you like how that all sounds, well, be prepared to shell out some decent coin. You may also want to mix this in milk as it didn’t taste great with just water.
Who Should Buy PrettyFit Whey
- Women who want to minimize soy in their diets.
- Anyone who wants to absorb as much of their protein as possible, as there are five enzymes here, far more than you normally see.
- People who want protein with as little carbs and fat as possible; each scoop is 100 calories with less than a gram of fat and carbs.
Who Shouldn’t Buy PrettyFit Whey
- Those who prefer to mix their protein powder in water.
Best Whey for Meal Replacement
What if you want a whey protein with plenty of micronutrients to nourish you as well? That’s where this product comes in.
IdealShake was our best bet for a whey offering near-complete nutrition. There’s a pretty blurry line between “whey that has some extra vitamins” and a “whey-based meal replacement shake.” IdealShake has come out on top as a viable meal replacement shake. It’s got a base of whey concentrate and whey isolate, and it has 100 calories per serving (and about as many carbs as grams of protein). Also, IdealShake delivers roughly 75 percent of the recommended daily intake of most vitamins and minerals per serving. That includes iron, Vitamin D, magnesium, and B12. That’s not a bad spread.
Who Should Buy IdealShape IdealShake
- Folks who like the idea of getting protein and a multivitamin in one shake.
- Those who like getting enzymes with their shakes; there are three here, plus a blend of them called DigeSEB®.
Who Shouldn’t Buy IdealShape IdealShake
- Those minimizing carbs. As a meal replacement, it offers complete nutrition and has about as many carbs as it does grams of protein.
- Those avoiding artificial sweeteners, as it contains sucralose.
Best Whey for Weight Loss
Protein is filling, but what if there was even more to it to help curb your appetite? This product sounded a little fanciful, but we could tell it was different when we tried it out.
Disclaimer: Please note that none of these products describe themselves as weight loss supplements and should not be taken as such. Please consult with a medical professional before beginning any weight loss protocol.
Because of its ingredient profile, FitMiss Delight was our favorite protein for weight loss. It’s very low in calories, offering just 90 calories, 20 grams of protein, one-and-a-half grams of fat, and three grams of carbs. That protein may be lower than you want, however. It also contains a hefty dose of greens powder for extra antioxidants. Still, the most impressive ingredient is SolaThin™, a protein made from potatoes shown to help boost satiety. The flavor options are limited, and this powder contains a low amount of micronutrients and a higher amount of artificial sweeteners.
Who Should Buy FitMiss Delight
- People who struggle with hunger; the potato extract really does produce more satiety than other protein powders with more calories. (That’s in our own anecdotal experience — talk to your doctor before taking new supplements.)
- Those who want as few calories as possible; it’s rare to see a protein powder that’s under 100 per serving.
- Anyone who likes the idea of greens powders. This product is made with a blend of powdered broccoli, barley grass, artichoke, and more fruits and veggies to help boost the antioxidant profile.
Who Shouldn’t Buy FitMiss Delight
- Those who like vanilla; they’ve only got a Vanilla Chai flavor, which has a stronger taste.
- People avoiding soy or artificial sweeteners.
- Don’t expect many vitamins and minerals because there are powdered greens; there’s a ton of B12 but very few other micronutrients.
Best Whey for Weight Gain
If you want a whey with a few more calories and more energy, but you’re not interested in getting a wholly dedicated mass gainer, then go with this select.
Promix Nutrition Grass-Fed Whey Isolate
Here’s an all-natural whey that provides 155 calories in a scoop: 25 grams of protein, eight grams of carbs, one gram of fiber, and two-and-a-half grams of fat. (Note those macros vary based on the flavor you pick.) The whey comes from grass-fed cows, which is really important to many people as it’s better for the environment and is a little higher in healthful fatty acids. Note that even though coconut sugar sounds healthy, it’s essentially the same as standard sugar, which means you should steer clear if you’re on a low-carb diet. Also, it’s expensive.
Who Should Buy Promix Nutrition Grass-Fed Whey Isolate
- People who want all-natural protein; it’s grass-fed and free from artificial ingredients.
- Folks who want a few extra calories with their whey without going overboard; the carbs help give you energy, and any athlete is probably consuming more carbs than protein throughout the day.
Who Shouldn’t Buy Promix Nutrition Grass-Fed Whey Isolate
- Anyone who wants to avoid added sugar. Coconut sugar is a little higher in antioxidants than cane sugar, but there’s no real practical difference.
- Those on low carb diets.
- Penny pinchers; it’s pricier than conventional whey.
The Benefits of Whey Protein Powder
Protein powders usually offer a higher protein concentration than food, but they may also lack other nutrients that naturally accompany proteins found in meat, fish, dairy, and whole grains. Protein from food offers vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and healthy fats often unavailable in protein powder. We would never recommend that you take protein powder as a complete protein substitute — just a dietary supplement.
[Related: Should Athletes Consume Soy At All?]
There’s plenty of debate among bodybuilders and strength athletes alike as to whether a post-workout shake significantly improves recovery and muscle growth.
Some research suggests that taking a protein shake after you work out might be better for muscle gain than whole foods. A study published in Physiological Reports suggests that 40 grams of whey protein is better than 20 grams, so maybe you should have two protein shakes. (1) Another study suggests pre-workout protein is even more important. (2) As for the type of protein you should consume, does it have to be whey? Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD, at Precision Nutrition told us:
Whey protein has an incredibly high biological value, incredibly high leucine content, and it’s digested rapidly so you get this quick rise in muscle protein synthesis. And if you look at short term studies, two hours after a workout you see this rapid rise in protein synthesis with whey more so than soy.
If you’re regularly engaging in strenuous exercise, you need to calculate your macros and consume a relatively large amount of protein (and calories overall) to build muscle, recover properly, and get stronger for the next workout. Whey is a fantastic way to do that.
How We Decide the Best
It may look uncomplicated, but assessing the key differences between different protein powders is no easy task. It’s important to emphasize that some of the areas we note below aren’t necessarily good or bad. Some athletes prefer foods without artificial sweeteners, and some try to limit soy. That said, there’s not much evidence that either has negative effects; we simply point them out if they’re a problem for you. Here are the ingredients and factors we took into consideration when putting together this guide.
[Related: We Decide the Best Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Whey Flavor]
Type of Protein Powders
Whey proteins typically contain one or more of three kinds of protein: concentrate, isolate, and/or hydrolysate. They each have their own pros and cons: whey concentrate is cheaper and extracted with an enzyme or acid; whey isolate has fewer fat and carbs; hydrolyzed whey digests more quickly and could be safer for those with allergies. All of this is taken into account.
Protein Per Calorie
A gram of protein has four calories, and many measure the protein density of a supplement by how many calories it provides per gram. If a shake offers 25 grams of protein, then you’re getting 100 calories (if there aren’t any added carbs and fat.) To keep calories lower, you typically want a protein powder with fewer grams of carbs and fats. so, pay attention to this number.
We’re not taking a stance on whether artificial sweeteners are unhealthy, but we can’t ignore that many athletes prefer to avoid them. To that end, we’ll point out the presence of aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame potassium, and anything else used to sweeten the product like stevia or sugar alcohols, which can cause digestive issues among a small portion of the population.
Protein Powder Additives
Some people avoid soy at all costs, but soy is trendy in protein supplements as a means to improve mixability. Perhaps you have issues with thickeners and stabilizers like xanthan gum or carrageenan, which can cause digestive discomfort. Again this is about your preference, but we take these ingredients into account.
Protein Powder Taste
Chalky, smooth, sweet, earthy, bitter…there are a lot of ways a powder can taste. We consider the real taste test to be how a protein powder tastes with water — it’s not as hard to make something that tastes good with milk.
Protein Powder Price
We’re talking about protein powder, so the value is in the protein. Cost per pound or per serving means less than the cost per gram of protein, which is why you’re buying it. The average whey protein powder is between four and five cents per gram of protein, and the cost is affected by the type of whey powder, additives, protein density, and other factors.
What’s In Your Protein Powder?
Here’s a guide to the most common ingredients you’re likely to find in a tub.
Whey Concentrate, Isolate, or Hydrolysate
Usually a byproduct of cheesemaking, whey concentrate is the cheapest form and contains the most fat and carbs, including lactose. whey isolate has been processed through a microfilter and results in fewer carbs and less fat, sometimes none at all, while hydrolysate (aka hydrolyzed whey) has been further broken down with enzymes, so it digests the fastest.
Sometimes included with whey protein powders, casein is the other protein found in milk. (Milk protein is about 80% casein, 20% whey.) Used to make cheese — it’s not a byproduct of cheesemaking, it is the product — casein digests more slowly and is more filling. It also thickens really easily, so it’s great for making protein puddings and “ice cream.”
Protein powders almost always contain either sucralose or acesulfame potassium, as they’re widely recognized as safe for human consumption. The FDA recommends a daily limit of 15 milligrams about the amount of sweetness in half a pound of sugar.
This is a fatty substance used to improve mixability. Lecithin is usually made from soy, but sometimes you’ll find the more expensive sunflower lecithin in products that are more geared toward the soy-phobic Paleo crowd. There’s no good reason to fear soy lecithin unless you have an allergy or sensitivity — reams of research has found no correlation between soy ingestion and reduced testosterone or muscle mass. (5)(6)
Protease helps break down proteins, lipase fat, amylase carbs, lactase lactose, and there are a few enzyme blends you’ll find like Aminogen®, found in many Optimum Nutrition products. Some interesting evidence suggests they might help to increase the absorption rate and reduce the risk of indigestion. (7)
What to Know Before You Buy Protein Powder
Protein powder is just dehydrated milk with some sweeteners, but it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the process of buying a whey protein powder. Here are the most important things to keep in mind.
Whey Concentrate Might Not Be Great for Those With Lactose Sensitivities
It’s the cheapest form and has the most calories, but whey concentrate isn’t bad: the difference is usually two or three grams of protein when compared to isolate. But concentrate does contain lactose. It’s not a lot but consider buying a hydrolyzed whey — which is typically easier on the stomach — if you’re really sensitive.
Hydrolyzed Whey Probably Isn’t Worth the Price
It’s the most expensive form of whey, and yes, some studies have found it useful for athletes who work out twice per day and need to recover really fast. However, for the average person, it won’t make a practical difference. A caveat here is that hydrolyzed whey is so broken down that it’s usually the whey of choice for people with milk allergies. (8) (If you have a milk allergy or any food allergy for that matter, consult with your doctor before taking a protein powder.) The downsides of hydrolyzed whey — it’s more expensive and tastes worse — probably aren’t worth it to most people.
Don’t Worry About Soy Lecithin
The vast majority of protein powders contain a dash of soy lecithin because it helps to improve mixability. As noted in the previous section, no good evidence has found that the tiny amount of plant estrogen found in soy lecithin has any effect on human hormones. (And note that if you’d rather avoid plant estrogen, you’ll also need to cut out coffee, oatmeal, apples, and a lot of other foods, too.)
Grass-Fed Whey Won’t Have a Practical Difference to Your Health
Grass-fed dairy is indeed higher in antioxidants and healthful fats, like Omega-3s and CLA than regular dairy. (9)(10) That said, whey has almost all of the fat taken out of it anyways. For context, people supplement with one or two grams of Omega-3s when consciously trying to consume more. Whey has about three grams of fat, and less than five percent are polyunsaturated fats. Even less of that fat Omega-3. (11) The same dosage goes for CLA, of which you’d find 0.06 grams in a scoop of grass-fed whey. (10) Grass-fed cows probably live happier lives with more time spent outdoors, which is a valid reason to prefer it. But don’t think taking grass-fed whey over regular whey is like taking a multivitamin. (12)
You Don’t Have to Take Protein Before, During, or After a Workout
There are many myths perpetuated by 1990s bodybuilding magazines — one of them is that you need to down a protein shake minutes after your workout to feed your starving muscles. While that might not be a bad idea for an Olympia competitor who already has all of their calories, macros, micros, sleep, hormone levels, and everything else dialed in, it doesn’t matter for the average person. Your total calories and macronutrients determine whether you gain muscle and lose fat, not when you eat.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is whey protein powder?
There are two types of protein in milk: whey and casein. The two get separated in the cheesemaking process, and while whey used to be considered something of a waste byproduct, it’s a very high quality protein that can be processed into powder. Usually, flavorings are added to make for a convenient and relatively inexpensive way to consume protein.
What is whey concentrate?
Whey concentrate is the most basic, unprocessed, and inexpensive form of whey protein powder. It also contains the most carbohydrates (including sugar, and lactose) and fat. It’s nonetheless relatively low in carbs and fat, with about two to five grams of each for every 20 to 25 grams of protein.
What's the difference between whey concentrate vs isolate?
Whey concentrate is the least processed kind of whey protein powder, so it has the most carbohydrates and fat. (About three grams each per 20-25 grams of protein.) Whey isolate is further processed in a way that reduces most of the carbs and fat. Some whey isolates contain no carbs or fat whatsoever. This makes it more diets that severely restrict carbohydrates and/or fat, though the taste does suffer somewhat.
It wasn’t easy to land on these top picks; we had to weigh ingredients, effectiveness, taste, and many other factors, including the fact that different consumers value totally different qualities in their health supplements. But we’re confident that we’ve selected the best whey protein powders no matter what your reasons are for turning to protein shakes. All we can say now is bottoms up!
1. Macnaughton LS, et al. The response of muscle protein synthesis following whole-body resistance exercise is greater following 40 g than 20 g of ingested whey protein. Physiol Rep. 2016 Aug;4(15).
2. Stark M, et al. Protein timing and its effects on muscular hypertrophy and strength in individuals engaged in weight-training. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012 Dec 14;9(1):54.
3. Norton LE, et al. Leucine content of dietary proteins is a determinant of postprandial skeletal muscle protein synthesis in adult rats. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2012 Jul 20;9(1):67.
4. Breen L, et al. Leucine: a nutrient ‘trigger’ for muscle anabolism, but what more? J Physiol. 2012 May 1;590(9):2065-6.
5. Hamilton-Reeves JM, et al. Clinical studies show no effects of soy protein or isoflavones on reproductive hormones in men: results of a meta-analysis. Fertil Steril. 2010 Aug;94(3):997-1007.
6. Kalman D, et al. Effect of protein source and resistance training on body composition and sex hormones. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2007 Jul 23;4:4.
7. Oben, J et al. An open label study to determine the effects of an oral proteolytic enzyme system on whey protein concentrate metabolism in healthy males. J Int Soc Sports Nutr . 2008 Jul 24;5:10.
8. Potier, M et al. Comparison of digestibility and quality of intact proteins with their respective hydrolysates. J AOAC Int . Jul-Aug 2008;91(4):1002-5.
9. La Terra, S et al. Increasing pasture intakes enhances polyunsaturated fatty acids and lipophilic antioxidants in plasma and milk of dairy cows fed total mix ration. Dairy Sci. Technol. 90, 687–698 (2010).
10. Dhiman, TR et al. Conjugated linoleic acid content of milk from cows fed different diets. J Dairy Sci . 1999 Oct;82(10):2146-56.
11. Månsson,HL et al. Fatty acids in bovine milk fat. Food Nutr Res . 2008;52.
12. Jude, C et al. The environmental impact of corn-fed vs. grass-fed beef finishing systems. J. Anim. Sci. 88 (E-supplement 2):686.