Protein powder is a convenient way to get more of the macro into your diet, and whey just happens to be one of the most popular choices for those looking to supplement their meal plans.
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"Whey is one of two proteins found in cow's milk," says dietitian Kayla Girgen, RD, founder of Nutrition Untapped. (The other protein is casein.) "Whey protein is a complete protein, which means it contains all nine essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are building blocks of protein that our body cannot make on its own and must be consumed from our diet."
Whey protein is becoming increasingly popular because it digests quickly and usually has a high concentration of the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine and valine, Girgen says.
"Because of its fast absorption and amino acid profile, whey protein is thought to be an ideal post-workout supplement," Girgen says.
There are four main types of whey protein:
- Whey protein concentrate: "Whey protein concentrate is the least processed type of whey and consists of 70 to 80 percent protein," Girgen says.
- Whey protein isolate: "Whey concentrate is stripped of most of its lactose (milk sugar) although it can be filtered even more to remove a great amount of lactose and fat creating whey protein isolate, which is 90 to 95 percent protein," she says
- Whey protein hydrolysate: "Whey hydrolysate is a form of pre-digested whey protein, meaning the protein strands are smaller and absorbed into the bloodstream more quickly," she says.
- Micellar whey: This one is a newer form of whey protein. "It has been manufactured to digest more slowly and extend amino acid release into the bloodstream," Girgen says.
The standard serving size for protein powders is one to two scoops (25 to 50 grams), but check the instructions on the package before using the product.
Now that you know the basics, read on for the best whey protein powders.
1. Best Budget Whey: Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Whey
Per 1 scoop: 120 calories, 1.5 g total fat, 50 mg sodium, 3 g carbs, 1 g sugar, 24 g protein
"Optimum Nutrition's Gold Standard protein is a whey blend that includes whey protein isolate and whey protein concentrate," Girgen says.
This line of protein is NSF Certified for Sport, meaning it's third-party tested for harmful ingredients. It has over 5 grams of BCAAs to help you build muscle and enhance your workout.
At 92 cents per ounce, it's one of the most budget-friendly products out there. And it has many delicious flavors for you to choose from, including Chocolate Hazelnut, Chocolate Malt, Chocolate Peanut Butter, Mocha Cappucino, Rocky Road and more.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $29.33
2. Best Tasting Whey: Dymatize Elite Whey
Per 1 scoop: 120 calories, 0.5 g total fat, 140 mg sodium, 2 g carbs, <1 g sugar, 25 g protein
This protein blend is made of all three types of whey (concentrate, isolate and hydrolysate) and comes with 25 grams of protein and less than 3 grams of carbohydrates per serving.
It's gluten-free, contains no added sugars (but does contain artificial sweeteners) and is third-party certified by Informed Choice Trusted by Sport, an organization that tests for impurities and banned substances. Best of all, it's super tasty!
"Dymatize is known for its versatility and delicious flavors," Girgen says. Indeed, it comes in Chocolate, Simple Vanilla, Fruity Pebbles and Cocoa Pebbles (which should satisfy your childhood nostalgia).
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $31.14
3. Best Unsweetened Whey: Naked Grass-Fed Whey
Per 2 scoops: 120 calories, 2 g total fat, 45 mg sodium, 3 g carbs, 2 g sugar, 25 g protein
This pick contains just one ingredient: whey protein concentrate — and it's sourced from small dairy farms where the cows are grass-fed year-round. "It's GMO-free, growth hormone-free and contains no artificial colors, sweeteners or flavors," Girgen says.
It contains 5.9 grams of BCAAs to help with workout recovery. Plus, it's certified by Informed Choice Trusted by Sport.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $89.83
4. Best Vanilla Whey: BiPro ELITE French Vanilla
Per 1 scoop: 90 calories, <1 g total fat, 150 mg sodium, <1 g carbs, 20 g protein
"This is one of the cleanest whey protein isolates on the market," Girgen says. "It contains just four ingredients (whey protein isolate, natural flavors, sunflower lecithin and stevia leaf extract)."
It's sugar-free, gluten-free, hormone/RBST-free and certified kosher, with no fillers or artificial flavors. Each serving contains 20 grams of whey protein isolate, as well as 2.5 grams of leucine.
Finally, it's NSF Certified for Sport, so you know each batch has been tested for banned substances and is suitable for people who work out.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $37.99
5. Best Grass-Fed Whey: Levels Grass-Fed Whey Protein
Per 1 scoop: 130 calories, 2.5 g total fat, 60 mg sodium, 3 g carbs, 2 g sugar, 24 g protein
"This whey concentrate is made from grass-fed protein," Girgen says. "It's free of artificial fillers, flavors, and sweeteners and is GMO- and soy-free."
Each serving contains 24 grams of protein and 5.4 grams of the BCAAs leucine, isoleucine and valine. In terms of flavors, Chocolate is the fan-favorite — it's made from cold-pressed cacao and lightly sweetened with monk fruit extract.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $29.95
6. Best Whey for Weight Gain: Transparent Labs Mass Gainer
Per 2 scoops: 790 calories, 14 g total fat, 610 mg sodium, 114 g carbs, 17 g sugar, 53 g protein
"This blend of whey proteins makes a great post-workout for anyone looking to gain mass after a hard lift at the gym," Girgen says, "The 2:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio helps feed and repair muscles for a speedy recovery." The carbs come from tapioca, sweet potato and oats while the protein comes from grass-fed whey concentrate.
It's free of artificial flavors (unlike many other mass gainers) and is sweetened with stevia and monk fruit instead.
"This whey protein supplement is fortified with a fruit and vegetable blend as well as fiber and probiotics for optimal gut health" she adds. "It can be used as a meal replacement or post-workout."
Big bonus: Transparent Labs truly lives up to its name as it tests its product line with a third party and shares the results on the site.
Buy it: TransparentLabs.com; Price: $49.99
What to Consider When Choosing a Whey Protein Powder
"Whey protein hydrolysate and micellar whey tend to be more expensive which doesn't necessarily mean they are better," Girgen says.
If the price tag is important to you, Girgen says whey protein concentrate is typically the most affordable of the whey proteins.
Consider the different types of whey and how they can help your health goals.
If your goal is weight gain, you might want to pick a hydrolysate form of whey — and if your goal is weight loss, you might want a micellar whey.
"Whey protein hydrolysate is pre-digested and absorbs much more quickly into the bloodstream (keep in mind that whey protein is already very fast-digesting!). Because the hydrolysate form of whey is absorbed so quickly, it causes a greater insulin response which isn't always desirable — especially for weight loss," Girgen tells us.
"Micellar whey, on the other hand, is a form of whey that is digested slowly resulting in a slower insulin response in the bloodstream."
"Anyone with a milk protein allergy should avoid any and all types of whey and casein proteins.," Girgen says.
Whey protein isolate might be the best bet for anyone who is lactose intolerant because it contains a lesser amount of lactose compared to whey concentrate, Girgen says.
"Because supplements are not closely regulated by the FDA, some people opt for whey protein that is NSF Certified for Sport or Informed Choice Trusted by Sport," Girgen says.
This third-party certification ensures that the product matches the supplement facts label and doesn't contain any unwanted substances or additives.
"The NSF Certified for Sport symbol helps protect consumers and ensures they are getting what they pay for — nothing less and nothing more," she says.