There are so many different brands of protein powders, and so many different types of protein products, that consumers can often feel paralyzed by choice. Protein powder makes for a convenient and healthy way to build muscle or have a meal-on-the-go.
But what makes a good protein powder and what makes a bad one? What's the ideal protein dose for building muscle? What added ingredients should consumers watch out for that may be unhealthy? And how do the top brands compare on per-serving price?
In this article we'll answer all of these questions and more as we explain the three things consumers should look out for when choosing a protein powder, and feature our top six protein powder picks across six categories (Overall, Vegan, Collagen, Low-Cost, Keto, Flavored).
Our goal is for this article to be the most comprehensive and informative guide to choosing a healthy and effective protein powder on the internet.
What Makes a Good Protein Powder?
There are three main criteria we recommend consumers look out for when shopping for a protein powder: clean formulation, effective protein dose and price.
Clean formulation is the most important consideration, and this means an ingredient list without any questionable additives.
Protein powder is a simple product, so ideally we're looking for a product sourced from grass-fed animals that has no additives at all.
A medical review published in the Nutrition Journal suggests that animal products from pasture-raised animals are more nutritious, primarily because of a more optimal omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio.
Effective dose is our second consideration when evaluating protein powder brands.
We generally recommend protein powder products that contain a minimum dose of 20 grams (g) of protein, because a 2013 clinical trial suggests this is the effective minimum dose for building muscle after exercise.
Price is an obvious third consideration. Since price varies significantly based on the number of servings in the protein powder product, we will analyze price per 20 g of protein to standardize price comparisons.
Product certifications are also worth considering.
Some protein powders contain certifications like NSF Certified for Sport which guarantee product purity and a lack of harmful contaminants like anabolic steroids.
In the next six sections of this article, we'll recommend our Best Overall, Best Vegan, Best Collagen, Best Low-Cost, Best Keto and Best Flavored protein powders.
Best Overall – Naked Whey
Naked Whey is our top overall protein powder pick, and is sold by a brand called Naked Nutrition that we've recommended before on Illuminate Health.
This product passes the clean formulation test because it only has one ingredient: whey protein sourced from grass-fed cows.
The protein dose per serving is 25 g, so it passes the effective dose test as it’s dosed above the minimum-effective dose of 20 g.
Naked Nutrition’s protein powder is Informed Choice certified. Like the NSF, this certification ensures that the product is free of contamination from banned substances such as anabolic steroids.
The brand also publishes independent heavy metals testing proving the purity of their protein.
The price of Naked Nutrition Grass Fed Whey Protein Powder is $94.99 for a one-time purchase, which equates to $1 per 20 g protein serving.
Interested consumers can check out Naked Whey at this link to the product page on the brand's official website.
Best Vegan – Hemp Yeah!
Vegan protein powders are increasing in popularity, and vegans may have a greater need for supplemental protein powder than meat eaters.
Hemp Yeah! from Manitoba Harvest is our top vegan/vegetarian protein powder pick.
This product passes the clean formulation test because it's made from two simple ingredients: organic hemp protein and oregano extract.
This is the most nutrient-dense protein powder we've come across.
One serving provides 15% of the Daily Value (DV) of iron, 20% of potassium, 15% of magnesium, 20% of zinc and 90% of copper. And these nutrients come from the whole food ingredients, not synthetic additives.
The protein dosage of this product is 20 g, which meets the effective dose.
Hemp Yeah! has a USDA Organic product certification, which is important when considering plant proteins. Organic plant material has been shown in medical research to be lower in pesticides and slightly more nutrient-dense.
The price of Hemp Yeah! is $37.49 for a one-time purchase, which equates to $1.39 per 20 g protein serving.
Interested consumers can check out Hemp Yeah! at this link to the product page on the brand's official website.
Best Collagen – Bulletproof
Bulletproof Collagen Protein is our top collagen protein powder pick.
Collagen protein is a great protein powder option for consumers who are also focused on skincare, because oral collagen intake is clinically shown to reduce signs of skin aging, and improve skin hydration and firmness.
This product passes our clean formulation test because it contains one single ingredient: hydrolyzed collagen sourced from grass-fed animals.
The protein dose per-serving is only 18 g, so it may be worth using slightly more than one serving for consumers using this product to build muscle.
Bulletproof Collagen does not contain any third-party certifications of note. For whatever reason, certifications and third-party testing is rare in the collagen market.
The price of Bulletproof Collagen Protein is $43.95 for a one-time purchase, which equates to $1.95 per 20 g protein serving.
Interested consumers can check out Bulletproof Collagen Protein at this link to the product page on the brand's official website.
Best Low-Cost – NOW Sports
NOW Sports Whey Protein is our top low-cost protein powder pick because it provides bulk savings.
NOW Sports protein powder passes the clean formulation test because it’s unflavored and only contains two active ingredients: whey protein and sunflower lecithin, which is a safe and non-toxic food-based emulsifier.
There is no mention of whether the whey protein is sourced from conventionally-raised or pastured animals, and when a brand fails to distinguish, we tend to assume the former (because if you sourced from grass-fed animals you would want to market that).
This product provides 25 g of protein per serving, passing the protein dose test.
NOW Sports Whey Protein is Informed Sport certified, like Naked Whey.
The price of NOW Sports Whey Protein is $133.99 for a one-time purchase, which equates to $0.66 per 20 g protein serving.
Interested consumers can check out NOW Sports Whey Protein at this link to the product page on the brand's official Amazon store.
Best Keto – Isopure
Keto is short for ketogenic, and is a diet model that significantly reduces carb intake.
Isopure Zero Carb Protein Powder is our top keto protein powder pick.
Isopure passes the clean formulation test because it contains two simple ingredients: whey protein powder and soy lecithin. There are no unhealthy additives and zero carbs.
There is no mention of whether the whey protein is sourced from conventional or pastured animals.
It's worth noting that most protein powders would be allowed in a keto diet (Naked Whey only contains 3 g of carbs for example), but in our opinion it makes sense to save the limited carbs on a keto diet for nutritious whole foods like fruits and vegetables.
This product provides 25 g of protein per serving, passing the effective protein dose test.
There is no mention of certifications on the product's Amazon listing.
The price of Isopure is $72.52 for a one-time purchase, which equates to $2.15 per 20 g protein serving.
Interested consumers can check out Isopure Zero Carb Protein Powder at this link to the product page on the brand's official Amazon store.
Best Flavored – Future Kind
Future Kind Vanilla Flavored Protein Powder is our top flavored protein powder pick.
We typically recommend unflavored protein powder from a health perspective, but understand that some consumers strongly prefer flavored powders.
This is the healthiest flavored protein powder we've come across, because it uses organic natural flavors, which is a higher standard of ingredient safety in our opinion than natural flavors or artificial flavors based on USDA flavoring guidelines.
Future Kind's protein powder contains 20 g of protein per serving, passing the effective protein dose test.
This product doesn't appear to have any third-party certifications or test results available.
The price of Future Kind protein powder is $59.99 for a one-time purchase, which equates to $1.76 per 20 g protein serving.
Interested consumers can check out Future Kind Vanilla Flavored Protein Powder at this link to the product page on the brand's official website.
What’s Wrong With Most Protein Powders
The ingredients list above is from Optimum Nutrition's chocolate protein powder flavor (one of the most popular protein powders on the market), and we publish it here to illustrate why we consider most commercial protein powders to be unhealthy.
Artificial flavor is a highly questionable food category in our opinion. In 2018 the FDA even removed eight artificial flavors from the market over concerns they may cause cancer.
Sucralose is an artificial sweetener that's clinically shown to cause negative changes to insulin levels in healthy adults, as we documented in our review of Body Fortress Whey Protein.
Acesulfame potassium is another artificial sweetener that was shown in animal studies to be harmful to the gut.
There's also no mention of whether this protein powder is sourced from conventional or grass-fed animals, and all things being equal, we recommend the latter.
Put simply, most commercial protein powders contain a large number of questionable additive ingredients, and we believe all six products featured in this article are a healthier option.