As the most popular and most widely recommended sports supplement, whey protein is enormously popular and consequently is available in countless flavors and varieties. It’s convenient, tasty, inexpensive, a lot more portable than steamed chicken breasts, and it’s considered one of the highest quality proteins available — whey is extraordinarily high in leucine, the amino acid most closely associated with muscle gain. When someone is new to weight gain or weight loss, they’re frequently told to buy themselves some protein powder, but it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the options available. That’s why we tried dozens of different offerings so you can decide for yourself.
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Do the Different Types of Whey Matter?
There are two types of protein in milk: casein and whey. Traditionally, cheesemakers would separate the two and use the casein to make cheese, discarding the whey. But whey is a phenomenally high quality protein and when it makes its way to your tub of protein powder, it’s usually in in one of three forms (or a combination of them).
This is the least processed form of whey, so it’s the most inexpensive. The potential downsides are that it also has the most carbohydrates, lactose, fat, and cholesterol, so it’s the least protein dense.
But “least protein dense” is a very relative term when it comes to whey: you’re still looking at roughly 20 grams of protein to every 2 or 3 grams of carbs and fat, so it’s a great protein source if you don’t have sensitivities to lactose and don’t mind the creamier taste.
Whey isolate is the product of processing whey concentrate in such a way that it removes most of the carbs and fat — in fact, some isolates contain no carbs or fat whatsoever.
This makes whey isolate attractive to a lot of people following very low carb or low fat diets or those who want to minimize lactose in their whey. It’s pricier and not as tasty as whey concentrate.
Also called hydrolyzed whey, this is the most expensive of the three kinds of whey. Hydrolyzed whey is the most processed form of the protein — enzymes or acids are used to break down the whey so that it’s easier to digest. Some even call hydrolyzed whey “pre digested.”
It does indeed digest the fastest, with some research showing that it’s superior for helping athletes recover their power when they’re working out twice a day.(1)(2) It’s unlikely to have much practical benefit for the average person, though, and it’s worth noting that a lot of the protein in hydrolyzed whey is broken down into free amino acids, which can sometimes make it taste a little bitter.
So how did we land on the best whey protein powders? We tried each and every one of them — here’s the criteria we used.
Type of Whey
As cited above, every type of whey has its own pros and cons. Whey concentrate is creamier and cheaper, but has more calories and cholesterol; isolate is friendlier to restrictive diets but it’s pricier and not so tasty; hydrolysate digests the easiest but it can be bitter and expensive.
It’s untrue to say that something is unhealthy just because it’s artificial, but there’s no denying that a lot of people avoid artificial sweeteners, flavors, and so on. For this reason, we pointed out when a whey has artificial ingredients so you can make up your own mind.
Beside sweeteners, most controversial additives you’ll find in whey proteins are soy lecithin — used to help with mixability — and gums, to help thicken and stabilize the product. Some have sensitivities or experience indigestion to these ingredients, others simply feel they’re not great to consume, so we noted their presence.
Cost Per Gram of Protein
It’s not really enough to go by cost per tub or cost per serving, as protein powders vary in the size of their scoops. Since people are buying the product for the protein, cost per gram of protein is the best way to compare brands. The average price of a popular brand is between 3 and 6 cents per gram of protein, while more expensive wheys (such as those made from grass-fed dairy) usually cost more.
- There’s no denying that whey mixes more easily when it contains lecithin, a type of fat usually sourced from soy. If you don’t want to consume soy, look for sunflower lecithin instead.
- When calculating the cost of a protein powder, take the cost of a tub, divide it by the number of servings in a tub, then divide that by the grams of protein per serve. That’s the cost per gram of protein, a far more useful number than the cost for a tub or a scoop.
- A lot of people will tell you grass-fed whey is healthier, but the benefits of grass-fed dairy really only extend to the healthful fatty acids. Since most of the fat is removed from whey, the main benefit of grass-fed whey is really that the animals probably spent more time outside.
- Digestive enzymes like protease or Aminogen® are often added to protein powders, as limited evidence suggests that they may help to increase protein uptake and facilitate muscle healing post workout.(3)(4)
At the end of the day, every whey protein powder will give roughly 20 to 25 grams of high quality protein and less than 5 grams of fat or carbs. Unless you’re a high level athlete or you have digestive issues, the difference between the different forms of whey isn’t all that important — pick a brand that you think will taste good and doesn’t have ingredients you object to and enjoy a convenient, tasty way to meet your protein requirements.
- Potier M, et al. Comparison of digestibility and quality of intact proteins with their respective hydrolysates. J AOAC Int. 2008 Jul-Aug;91(4):1002-5.
- Buckley JD, et al. Supplementation with a whey protein hydrolysate enhances recovery of muscle force-generating capacity following eccentric exercise. J Sci Med Sport. 2010 Jan;13(1):178-81.
- 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.
- Miller PC, et al. The effects of protease supplementation on skeletal muscle function and DOMS following downhill running. J Sports Sci. 2004 Apr;22(4):365-72.