Protein shakes have become synonymous with post-workout gains. But if building muscle strictly hinged upon protein consumption, we’d all be sitting around eating spoonfuls of whey protein and never hit the gym. Of course that’s not the case. You need the proper stimulus—a sound strength-and-conditioning program combined with a balanced diet high in protein. To take your physique to new heights, protein powder is a must. But here’s the kicker: You want a clean protein powder. Not all protein is created equal, and there are a lot of subpar options on the market.
What Makes a Clean Protein Powder
Ignore the marketing jargon and look straight at the ingredient label. Here’s your checklist to find the cleanest protein powders:
- Whey or a plant-based protein source should be the first ingredient. Avoid unnecessary fillers and additives.
- There shouldn’t be much added sugar or artificial ingredients (read: under 2 g sugar per serving). If you’re looking to add carbs, add them yourself in the form of milk, fruits, or natural honey.
- Prioritize powders that have at least 20 grams of protein per serving.
- Look for a company that lists the amino acid profile on the label or on its website, and make sure there’s a high leucine content per serving (at least 2 grams).
- If the brand lists where the whey protein is sourced from, that’s a good sign it’s focused on quality protein.
- 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 what’s on the label is actually in the product.
Which Is Better: Whey or Plant-Based Protein Powder?
Pros and Cons of Whey Protein Powders
Whey protein is derived from cow’s milk, which makes it a dairy product. During cheese production, whey is separated and isolated. Most dairy milk contains two types of protein: casein (80 percent) and whey (20 percent). After that, whey protein goes through some processing to make it whey powder, and this is where it can get unhealthy.
Most whey protein alone tastes pretty terrible, so many manufacturers add sugar and ingredients to make it more palatable. To keep it clean, look for powders where the whey is either an isolate or hydrolysate form.
There are three main types of whey protein powders:
Whey Protein Concentrate:
Usually contains the lowest percentage of whey protein. The lower end tends to have 30 percent protein and can go up to 90 percent. It tends to have low levels of fat and carbs, and a better flavor.
Whey Protein Isolate:
Ninety percent protein or higher and contains less lactose and fat than concentrates.
Whey Protein Hydrolysate:
This type is considered pre-digested—having undergone partial hydrolysis so it gets absorbed faster in the digestive tract. This reduces allergen potential.
Historically, animal proteins (like whey protein) have been considered the superior protein source. That’s because animal protein—poultry products, beef, pork, and dairy foods—is “complete,” meaning it provides all nine essential amino acids, and is most similar to the naturally occurring proteins found in the human body. Humans are able to digest, process, and use animal protein very efficiently.
When it comes to building muscle, animal protein reigns supreme over plant-based protein. Some research shows plant protein is inferior when it comes to digestibility and the muscle-building response to consumption. This is most likely due to one specific amino acid called leucine, which is responsible for starting the muscle-building process in the body.
Pros and Cons of Plant-Based Protein Powders
Alternatively to whey protein, plant-based protein powder and vegan protein powder have become increasingly popular and available due to the rise in popularity of plant-based or even vegan diets. Many individuals also have digestive issues when it comes to whey protein (since it’s derived from dairy), so plant-based protein can remedy that. These powders are derived from vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Plant proteins are often low in some of the essential amino acids, or don’t contain all of the essential amino acids required to build protein—some examples being beans, lentils, and nuts. As such, they’re deemed a second tier protein source. You want to prioritize complete protein 9 types of amino acids you need to get from food (e.g. lentils, peas, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains).
Conversely, plant foods provide many more nutrients like vitamin C, flavonoids, quercetin, catechins, and antioxidants that animal proteins don’t. The choice is yours whether you choose whey protein or plant-based protein powder to supplement your diet. Just make sure it’s high quality and free of unnecessary additives, preservatives, or synthetic ingredients.
Something to consider: Oftentimes when it comes to supplements, you get what you pay for. Cheaper brands are often lower in quality and contain many additives, contaminants, lower amounts of actual protein, or unfavorable amino acid profiles.
If you’re curious about the amount of protein per day you need, consult our guide.
We’ve done the tough work for you. These are the cleanest whey and plant-based protein powders you can buy.
1. Momentous Essential Grass-Fed Whey Protein
Momentous alleges to have some of the cleanest, most transparent supplements available. You can go on its website to learn where each ingredient is sourced from. You won’t find any unnecessary additives or preservatives in its grass-fed whey protein, and everything is NSF Certified for Sport and Informed Choice tested (checked for banned substances and contaminants like lead). If you want a plant-based option, the Essential line boasts some of the highest-quality plant protein on the market, combining optimal ratios of pea protein isolate with rice protein concentrate to maximize the available amino acids. The flavor is unrivaled.
[$55; livemomentous.com]Get it
2. John’s Killer Unsweetened Unflavored Grass Fed Native Whey Protein
John’s Killer Protein hones in on quality and product integrity. The unflavored whey protein blend is minimally processed, made with organic ingredients, certified GMO-free, soy-free, and growth hormone-free. The best part about it is it only contains one ingredient: native whey protein (grass-fed and minimally processed).
[$40; johnskillerprotein.com]Get it
3. Klean Athlete Klean Isolate
Klean Athlete Isolate contains only two ingredients: whey protein isolate and sunflower lecithin (a necessary stabilizer). Containing no artificial sweeteners or flavors, this powder is a great option to get your daily protein and amino acid intake, plus it’s NSF Certified for Sport tested.
[$52; kleanathlete.com]Get it
4. biPro ELITE 100% Whey Protein Isolate Unflavored
biPro whey protein isolate has the same two ingredients: whey protein isolate and sunflower lecithin, as well as a clean label promise that guarantees it has zero grams of sugar, only natural sweeteners and flavors. In short: You get the highest-quality protein—no fillers, no compromises. Oh, and it’s NSF Certified for Sport tested (sensing a trend?).
[From $25; biprousa.com]Get it
5. Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey
One of the best affordable options is ON Gold Standard Isolate. It contains a combination of whey isolate and hydrolyzed isolate, so it’s a fast-digesting complete protein powder containing no more than 1 g of carbs, less than 1 gram of fat, and more than 80 percent pure protein per serving. It’s third party tested by Informed Choice for banned substances and quality.
[From $10; optimumnutrition.com]Get it
Gainful is a new wave of customized protein powders based on your unique goals, body composition, and lifestyle. After taking a quiz, the brand formulates a powder for you (opt among whey, plant-based, and keto). The powders never contain gluten, soy, fillers, artificial flavors, dyes, or sweeteners. On top of that, your subscription gives you access to a registered dietitian to answer any questions you have.
[$39; gainful.com]Get it
7. OWYN Plant Based Protein Powder
OWYN offers a plant-based powder which provides 20 grams of protein from pea, pumpkin, and chia seeds. It also provides a full serving of organic greens, probiotics, omega 3s, and trace minerals.
[From $28; liveowyn.com]Get it
8. Naked Nutrition Grass-Fed Whey Protein
Naked’s whey is sourced from grass-fed cows from small California dairy farms raised without growth hormones. Its powders are completely free of additives and artificial sweeteners; the company is simply on a mission to shorten the steps between the farm-sourced whey and you.
[$90; nakednutrition.com]Get it
9. Naked Nutrition Pea Protein Powder
Naked Pea has only one ingredient: pea protein extracted from yellow split peas grown on US and Canadian farms. This protein is highly digestible and easily absorbed. Pea protein also contains all nine EAAs for muscle building (however, it’s low in methionine). Naked Pea is free of additives and artificial sweeteners. Naked also tests all its supplements with independent third-party tests for heavy metals.
[$55; nakednutrition.com]Get it
10. Ascent Unflavored Whey Protein Powder
Ascent uses native whey protein. Why does that matter? It means it comes from grass-fed, hormone-free, and antibiotic-free milk. On top of all that, it’s 95 percent pure protein. It’s also Informed Sport Certified (which means its unflavored whey has been third-party tested for a list of banned substances) and hormone-free.
[$40; ascentprotein.com]Get it
11. Levels Whey Protein Powder
Grass-fed, hormone-free dairy is the only dairy Levels uses to make its whey protein. Quality matters: There are no added sugars, bleach, fillers, or artificial flavors or sweeteners.
[$30; levelsusa.com]Get it
12. KOS Organic Plant Protein Unflavored
KOS organic plant protein provides a combination of pea protein, flax seed protein, quinoa trim, pumpkin seeds, and chia seeds for a wide range of amino acids and added nutrients. This powder contains helpful digestive enzymes to help with digestion and absorption, and nutrients from real foods like broccoli, apples, carrots, tomatoes, cranberries, and mushrooms, making it a multivitamin source as well. It’s USDA organic and also comes with a 90-day guarantee if you’re not completely happy with it.
Jordan Mazur, M.S., R.D., is the coordinator of nutrition and team sports dietitian for the San Francisco 49ers.
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