Do I need to have protein powder?
Which protein powder do I use?
How much is too much to spend on protein?
What’s the difference between all of them?
What happened to the Wirecutter protein powder guide?
–Many of you all throughout the history of this column
There we were, a motley crew of seven Wirecutter writers, editors, and producers, standing around a table in Wirecutter’s Chinatown office (really, a repurposed apartment) as the days snowballed into the 2016 holiday season. We were gathered just outside the kitchen area, and the table was stocked with a few dozen kinds of protein powder samples in sets of two: one mixed with water, another with milk, to be parceled out into little Dixie cups for each of us to taste. Our goal: to identify The Best Whey Protein Powder for Most People. A feeling not quite like anticipation filled the air; suspense, perhaps. Apprehension, maybe. And, as with all protein-powder-related experiences, just the slightest hint of dread.
It was customary in the Wirecutter office for anyone who was around to feel welcome and encouraged to dip into ongoing testing sessions and offer their takes. For the protein powder guide, we’d had to do something more along the lines of recruitment; not just to make sure we got enough opinions to round it out, but because “tasting different kinds of protein powder” is not an activity people are exactly shoving each other out of the way to be chosen for.
Still, how bad could it be? The guide’s writer, Shannon Palus, had already drilled the selection down to a relative handful of options from the sea of protein products on the internet. We’d based our selection on the quantity and quality of reviews, as well as macro profile (the rough ratio of calories to protein; powders that were highly caloric and more like nutrition shakes than protein supplements were discarded) and availability of at least two basic flavors, chocolate and vanilla, in hopes of satisfying as many preferences as possible.
We poured tiny samples of the first protein powder brand, milk and water, vanilla and chocolate, for each tester. In unison we all took our first sips. Every face recoiled like a Revolutionary War cannon. Choruses of “Aughhh” and “Nope. Nope, nuh-uh” filled the room. And we still had 37 samples to go.
As Shannon later wrote of that fateful day: “As soon as I served them the first round, I realized that I actually might be subjecting them to the grossest way to spend a morning... turning attention to the flavor is a dangerous prospect for pretty much all types and varieties.”
As one of the testers, I can disclose that I tasted some absolutely foul protein powders that day, flavors and textures that no human on earth should be subjected to. Shannon told me she remembers of that day that despite the reactions, “Everyone who we had testing was pretty nice about it.” But on that day, I also emerged stronger, capable of both enduring the lows but also acutely identifying the highs (such as they are) of consuming protein powder. (If you want to know what I know of what happened to the Wirecutter guide, skip to the end.)
Because of this experience I can confidently say there was not tons to learn about protein powder in a head-to-head taste test. I would let Wirecutter do it because it was sort of fun and funny and in the spirit of the publication, but Everyone wants protein powder to be enjoyable and desirable to consume; that protein powder doesn’t exist. Things are also always changing so fast in this product category that a real product guide would become pretty quickly outdated, slipping like so much protein powder through all our fingers.
For that reason, I’m going to try and answer as many typical protein powder questions as I can in here, as thoroughly as I can. But I’m not going to center any particular brand or product as the One True Answer to the protein problem, because I don’t think it really works that way. And you probably know already that I’d rather teach you to be a smart and savvy consumer of protein powder as a product than just tell you what to do.
So first, the question on everyone’s mind: