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You’ve just finished an insane workout and you’ve got a serious pump going. If you’re like most guys, you’re gonna reach for a protein shake. Truth is, muscle isn’t built in the weight room, it’s built after you leave the gym, and depends largely on what you’re refueling those muscles with.
Not all protein is created equal, though. Whey protein powder is known as the gold standard for getting bigger and building muscle. It’s derived from cow’s milk, and actually contains two main types of protein, whey (20%) and casein (80%). After being separated during cheese production, whey (the liquid portion) goes through various processing steps to become what people know as whey protein powder.
Now here’s where it can get unhealthy. Whey protein doesn’t taste very good on its own, so that’s why most commercial protein powders have added flavors, ingredients, and sugars. Any powder that’s labeled as whey protein isolate or hydrolysate is the purest form of whey powder. There are three main types of whey protein powders:
- Whey Protein Concentrate: About 70–80% protein—contains some lactose and fat but usually has the best flavor.
- Whey Protein Isolate: 90% protein or higher—contains less lactose and fat
- Hydrolysate: Also known as hydrolyzed whey, this type has been pre-digested so it gets absorbed faster.
With so many whey protein powders available in the marketplace, it can be tricky to find the right one. Oftentimes when it comes to supplements, you get what you pay for. Cheap store-brand protein powders are usually of lower quality and contain many additives and lower amounts of actual whey protein. So how do you pick out the right one? Use these rules to help guide your decision:
- Look at the ingredient label: It should be pretty simple with whey protein being the first ingredient
- Look for protein powders that don’t have a lot of added sugar or artificial ingredients. If you’re looking to add carbs, then add them yourself in the form of milk, fruits, or natural honey.
- Look for a powder that contains at least 20 grams of protein per serving
- Look for a company that lists the amino acid profile on the label or on their website, and make sure there’s a high leucine content per serving (at least 2 grams)
- Choose powders that are third party tested for quality and safety assurance like NSF Certified for Sport or Informed Choice. These companies test the products for banned substances and make sure that what’s on the label is actually in the product.
We’ve done the tough work for you and these are the best whey protein powders you can buy.
Jordan Mazur, M.S., R.D., is the coordinator of nutrition and team sports dietitian for the San Francisco 49ers.