The Best Whey Protein Powder
In a barely regulated industry where lawsuits are common, what’s in a protein powder is just as important as what isn’t. Our benchmarks — set with the help of nationally renowned sports nutritionists — cut out steroids, artificial sweeteners, and controversial food coloring like Red 40. We checked the remaining powders using Labdoor to confirm that what’s inside the tubs matched the label. Turns out, there is only one whey protein powder worth drinking. Thankfully, it comes in two flavors.
- Optimum Nutrition Naturally Flavored Gold Standard 100% Whey — Chocolate
- Optimum Nutrition Naturally Flavored Gold Standard 100% Whey — Vanilla
There’s literally only one whey protein powder we stand behind, but not all of its 28 flavors. (Sorry, Rocky Road, Cake Batter, and Vanilla Ice Cream.) Natural Chocolate and Natural Vanilla both pack in 24 grams of whey protein per serving without any added colors, artificial sweeteners, or questionable additives. (Both flavors $30 for 1.9 pounds.)
In 1994, a law passed — namely the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act — that excused manufacturers from needing FDA approval to market protein powders. The result has been what you might expect: an abundance of product blends with questionable pedigrees.
To find the best whey protein powder, we had our work cut out for us: Check the labels of 503 contenders (every single flavor of every whey brand we could find) and screen out anything iffy. The whole point of a protein powder is to boost your intake of what’s good for you, not to take a risk on a mystery drink.
How We Found the Best Whey Protein Powder
First and foremost: It must not contain steroids.
“The National Science Foundation’s Certified for Sport Program and Informed-Choice.org are crucial for ensuring the safety of sports supplements in an industry without strict government regulation.”
We cut anything with controversial food colorings and artificial sweeteners.
Food dyes don’t add anything good; that’s for sure. They’re added simply to make food fun and appetizing. And while they’re FDA-approved, even the FDA admits there’s no such thing as “absolute safety of any substance” — only “a reasonable certainty of no harm.” Detractors claim they’re not so benign. If they’re not beneficial and might be harmful, we’re not willing to take the risk.
Same goes for artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose, which can cause headaches, dizziness, and bloating.
To be on the safe side, we compiled a master list of additives that have been deemed controversial by the Department of Health and Human Services, the FDA, and other scientific journals — and we threw out any products whose Supplement Facts labels listed them.
It must have a Labdoor quality grade of B- or higher.
Not all labels are accurate. Across 73 different supplement product lines (many of which were on our initial list of whey powders), on average they had 70.4 percent more sodium and 12.7 percent less protein than the labels stated. To boot, 52 percent of the powders also contained measurable amounts of free-form amino acids, which can artificially inflate the protein measurements in lab results.
After eliminating all the powders that actually labeled their potentially harmful ingredients, we verified the compositions of the remaining competitors using Labdoor, an independent company that performs detailed chemical analysis of nutritional supplements. Labdoor’s quality grades evaluate label accuracy, product purity, nutritional value, ingredient safety, and projected efficacy.
Which means the score takes into account the reality of nitrogen spiking, the unfortunately common practice of boosting a protein powder’s lab results for protein content by “spiking” it with inexpensive amino acids like creatine, taurine, glycine, and alanine. These ingredients aren’t necessarily detrimental, but if you think you’re getting 60 grams of protein daily and you’re really only getting 20, that’s a problem.
We required a minimum grade of B- for a contender to pass through this final screen.
“The amount of protein listed on a product’s Supplement Facts panel can be misleading. Some manufacturers intentionally spike their powders to make it seem like they have more protein than they actually do.”
Our Pick for the Best Whey Protein Powder
When you consider that only two out of 28 flavors of ON’s 100% Whey Gold Standard passed every stage of our testing, it might make you think our purity standards are too high. But there’s no denying the peace of mind that comes from knowing your supplement contains only wholesome ingredients. The Natural Chocolate is flavored with straight-up cocoa and sugar, while Natural Vanilla has “natural flavor” and sugar. Both flavors pack in 24 grams of protein per serving. This is thanks to a blend that includes “whey isolates,” which have higher protein content and fewer carbohydrates, as well as less lactose and fat, than less-refined “whey concentrates.”
In a taste test conducted for our review of all protein powders, we found that despite the presence of sugar, Natural Vanilla’s sweetness isn’t over the top; our tasters noted a distinctly “mild” flavor. They also appreciated how well it blended with water, calling it the “best texture” among the three shakes they sampled.
Flavors cut due to artificial coloring
Banana Cream, Key Lime Pie, Strawberry, Strawberry-Banana
Flavors cut due to artificial sweeteners
Cake Batter, Chocolate, Chocolate Coconut, Chocolate Malt, Chocolate Mint, Coffee, Cookies & Cream, Double Rich Chocolate, Extreme Milk Chocolate, French Vanilla Creme, Mocha Cappuccino, Rocky Road, Salted Caramel, Tropical Punch, White Chocolate, Vanilla Ice Cream
Did You Know?
Only whey and soy are complete proteins.
In addition to our top whey pick, our main protein powder review highlighted two other powders that meet our criteria: Vega Sport Performance Protein and Garden of Life Raw Organic Protein. Both of these powders derive their protein from plants including pea, rice, and alfalfa. While these are perfectly legitimate sources, only whey and soy provide all nine of the essential amino acids your body needs.
Whey is one of the most effective protein powders.
The three most common types of protein powder — whey, casein, and soy — all have an abundance of essential and branched-chain amino acids, the stuff your body needs to build muscle. However, whey has a higher content of leucine, the amino acid that most aids quick muscle growth and repair, making it possible to get the same results with less whey than with casein or soy. Whey is also the easiest protein for your body to digest, and dissolves most easily in water.
Vegans have obvious reasons not to use animal-based whey, but Marie Spano, sports nutritionist for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, points out another reason to consider non-whey supplements. She notes that “casein and soy are digested more slowly than whey, leading to a prolonged rise in amino acids in the bloodstream. So someone who wants a more sustained ‘effective’ period of post-workout muscle-building should consider combining whey with soy or casein.”