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. The highest expectation you should set of protein powder is "serviceable." 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:
Do I have to use protein powder?
My sweet summer child, you don’t have to do anything in the whole wide world. With that in mind, we can boil this down to a simple if/then:
IF you struggle to meet your protein intake goals,
THEN protein powder can be helpful to you.
It’s important to keep in mind that, true to its product category, protein is a supplement, not a whole meal. If you need several scoops of protein a day, something is wrong; what you actually need is more proteinful foods. But if a scoop or two’s worth of protein (20-50g, depending on brand) helps you more easily hit, say, the 1g/lb bodyweight intake number recommended to new lifters, that’s a gift you can give yourself.
You are also free to experiment. You can do a little dance, a little two step, a bit of milly-rock up and down the protein intake spectrum. Does getting only 0.75g/lb bodyweight not affect you at all, and you find that doable without supplements, and you continue to add weight to your lifts each session? Vaya con dios! You may never need to deal with protein powder at all. If it does affect you, you can pull the “protein supplement” lever. Some people may benefit from even more protein than 1g/lb bodyweight. The only way is to make a little science experiment of yourself.
My personal approach is this: Almost every day I have my mush (swoalts/protein oats), which has half a scoop of protein in it. On days I work out, I will usually have a protein shake. But I have been in the game a long time; when I was starting out, I hugely benefited from having a protein shake every day, because 140g of protein every day is a lot of chewing. Protein powder takes some of the work out of that.
Okay. I am already selecting the blue pill here and just want a protein powder to buy.
If all you want to know is “a protein powder to buy,” you don’t have to read any farther than this section. For price and taste, I still recommend, and use myself, Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard over all. The price is right, the flavors are consistent and numerous. There’s something for everyone. It’s available many places online, like Amazon and Bodybuilding.com. My nearest Costcos also sell this one in big plastic zipper bags, which IMO are a little less annoying to deal with and store than the tubs.
Lately I have started using PEScience (specifically chocolate peanut butter cup), and it’s very good. It’s a little more expensive than ONGS, but I would say it mixes just slightly better and tastes just slightly better. Its big sizes also come in those big plastic zipper bags.
Myprotein used to be my go-to mix-in protein (see below) when it was cheap, and now it is very much not anymore; it literally costs more than Optimum, which is bonkers. And to my knowledge, it has not improved at all in quality (which was just passable whne it was cheap, suited for mixing into things but not drinking alone). We need a new “value” protein on the market, if someone would please step in.
At Wirecutter, we also tested vegan protein powders. They were, frankly, so bad that I don’t remember any of the testing described in the guide, as I must have blocked it from my memory. But the recommended protein powder was Vega Sport, and I would stand behind that. I’ve had Orgain and a couple others recently, and they were an affront to the concept of a product fit for human consumption.
Okay, I'm a red pill, as in I have "read" this far and want to know more. Teach me protein powder.
If you want more of a “teach a man/woman to fish” approach to protein powder, here is a lot more information. First, how to size up a protein on factors other than taste.
Evaluate the macros
A typical protein-to-calorie ratio for whey isolate powder is 20-24g of protein for 90-120 calories. If your powder or drink is much more caloric than this for the same amount of protein (like the original Muscle Milk, or Soylent), that’s more of a nutritional shake than a protein shake. Protein powders are meant to help tip the scales in your favor in terms of getting enough protein relative to your caloric intake. If not getting enough calories IS your problem, getting more of them in beverage form can really help (see below for my favorite protein smoothie recipes). But if you are drinking Soylent thinking you are drinking a protein shake and still having a tough time getting all your protein: No you aren’t. You might need a real-deal protein powder that you can mix with water or milk and bend the protein macro count in your favor.
Read: The magic protein ratio
Many grocery store proteins, like what you might find at Trader Joe’s or in the food section of CVS or Walgreens, usually have terrible macros, or very little protein for the price and calories involved. If someone knows of an exception to this rule, it would be the first I’d ever seen. Skip this type of protein powder entirely.
Look at the cost
As of this writing, Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard is still a good “gold standard” (haha) for the cost: $75 for 5 lbs (lordy, only a few years ago it was a flat $50 for 5lbs. Inflation/capitalism is that bitch…..). A protein that is wildly more than that better be a LOT better in terms of taste and mixability (and, per my argument, it usually isn't), or it better be, like, the only flavor of protein powder you can bear to consume on the market. If it’s not, you are getting ripped off. If it costs less but it’s fine and/or you want to use it for something other than mixing alone in shakes, then go for it.
There are fancy powders with which you can treat yourself. Some protein powder prices out there are just exorbitant, and I wouldn’t pay them unless I felt reasonably assured of their quality and I was getting a funner-than-usual flavor (e.g. Ghost, Unico. Get one of the GOOP-ass protein powders from that SELF guide below, I don’t care!). But honestly, protein powder is already pretty cheap. For a product you have to have most days, you are allowed to splurge a little bit.
Whey protein vs. milk protein vs. whey isolate vs. whey concentrate vs. whey hydrolysate vs. casein
This is a part of protein powder shopping that feels very, very confusing. Usually they will have one of these phrases emblazoned across the front, with absolutely no elaboration as to why "whey hydrolysate" is worthy of its big red text. So my suggestion is to ignore that part of the packaging–it's just marketing–and turn it over and look at the nutrition label.
When you look at the nutrition label, one of these substances will be listed as the first ingredient. There are differences between them, but the differences are, for the most part, carried over to the nutritional content itself–a milk-protein-based powder is more caloric than a whey isolate. If the calorie-to-protein ratio works for you, it does not really matter which ingredient is used. But let's talk about all the differences anyway.
Powders that use “milk protein” are sometimes lately marked as a “whey + casein blend.” (Which is just… what milk is.) They are typically more caloric. PEScience is popular with many influencers and is technically a “whey + casein blend.” There’s nothing REALLY magical about this, but the argument is that casein digests slower. Straight casein meant to be used by people who are (a) bulking and/or (b) trying to remain full/build muscle overnight, usually by an additional before-bed evening shake. Whey + casein is like an attempted at an "extended release" protein: whey to hit right away, casein to percolate slowly into your system. But the added benefits of this versus any other form of whey are very slim, unless you are a highly scientific bodybuilder; it's basically little more than a marketing flourish. If you needed casein, your paid bodybuilding coach would probably tell you.
But what’s the difference between all the rest? In terms of cost and processed-ness, it goes like this: Whey concentrate < whey isolate < whey hydrolysate. They are all "whey." In my experience, the difference in taste or effects of all of these is negligible. Most regular protein powders that are not otherwise labeled are concentrates. Whey isolates tend to be down to the bone in terms of optimized macros, so they have absolutely zero sugar and tend to taste worse. Hydrolysate tends to be wildly expensive but unless you are extremely elite, you don’t need whatever it promises to do in terms of faster absorption.
You don’t need to avoid artificial sweeteners (???)
Unless you know, scientifically, that they bother you. Sigh; what a bullshit guide of wildly unnecessarily expensive protein powders here. What a sad place the world has come to in terms of e-commerce! Anyway, moving on:
Protein consumption tips
Get a protein shaker and keep it clean (easily!)
Don’t resign yourself to spoon-stirring; protein shaker cups are worth their weight in gold, and you don’t need a fancy one; something like this will do.
My extreme pro tip here: Right after you’re done drinking your shake, put a little soap in there and run some water in there too, close the top, and shake it around. Rinse, with a little swishing around of your hand on the inside walls. Ta-da, you have a clean shaker for tomorrow, and don’t either have to keep eight different ones on hand or “let it soak in the sink” or even involve the kitchen sponge in any way.
Add an ice cube
A little cold will go a long way to making your plain protein shake more palatable. Throw a cube or three in there before you shake; it shouldn’t affect the mixing at all.
Don’t discount mixing with juice
Sounds weird, but hear me out: one of the best versions of protein shakes for my money is vanilla protein powder + orange juice. Having a mixer with a sour note REALLY helps offset artificial sweetener tang. See below for such a recipe.
Other shopping suggestions
Buy the small version. There are few worse things than being stuck with a 5lb horse-feed bucket of protein that sucks. Just get the one-pound or two-pound jar, or even a sample packet, if you aren't sure if you like it yet.
If you are stuck with a bad protein powder, you have options. I actually usually operate with two tiers of protein powder: one slightly nicer one that tastes and mixes better for doing quick shaker-cup shakes, and a lower-rent one that doesn’t mix well on its own with water or milk that can be used in smoothies with more ingredients, as well as in oatmeal, or microwaved into a protein “mug cake.” I will buy an Interesting Flavor of the first one, and just a neutral vanilla for the second. For this reason, I’d suggest buying any protein you are skeptical of in a vanilla flavor, because you can always add your own other flavors (fruit, Hershey's syrup), and it’s easier to mix into stuff if it sucks. Which brings us to:
Protein powder recipes (hear me out)
Some people think the fact that people are out there making food to eat using protein powder is a sign that God has forsaken us. I get it; I consider making, for instance, protein powder pizza crust a bridge too far.
But sometimes I don’t want to drink shakes, or want to use up a powder that cannot hang on its own. Protein powder as breakfast smoothie, or protein powder as dessert, or second dessert, are sometimes hugely preferable formats for me.
So here are some of my protein powder recipe go-tos, both for when I have protein powder to use.
Berries and Cream protein smoothie
- 1/2 cup Greek yogurt
- Handful spinach
- 1/2 frozen banana
- 1/2 cup frozen berries
- 1 scoop protein
- Honey or sugar, to taste (start with 1 tbsp)
- Enough water for it to blend/desired consistency
- 1-2 tbsp peanut butter (optional, if you are going for calories)
Blend all in a blender until smooth. Adjust honey/sugar and water to taste. Without the banana, you could keep this in your fridge for a few days. Do NOT add milk to this smoothie; it will get foamy. Greek yogurt will give you creaminess without the foaminess.
The Ohranj Yulius protein smoothie
- 3/4 cup orange juice
- 1 scoop vanilla protein powder
- 1/2 cup frozen berries (optional)
- 1/2 frozen banana (optional)
- Ice (optional)
Blend all in a blender until smooth. Honestly, this is so good, I want to go make one right now.
- 1 cup milk (dairy, nut, whatever you want)
- 1 cup Greek yogurt (or yogurt of your choice; Greek just has the highest protein :D)
- 1 scoop protein powder (your choice of flavor, but vanilla will be the most neutral; you won’t taste it much)
Blend until smooth and store in fridge; use in place of regular milk for cereal. Should be good as long as the milk is good for.
Protein chocolate mug cake
- 1 scoop protein powder (vanilla, probably, though obviously it could be some type of chocolate)
- 1-2 tbsp cocoa powder (two is VERY chocolaty, but I’m a fiend)
- 2 tsp flour
- A pinch of baking soda
- A pinch of salt
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp neutral oil
- Just enough milk to combine (or water, if you want)
Mix dry ingredients together in a small microwave-safe bowl or mug (I use one of those largeish dessert-size ramekins; something wider and flatter than a mug will probably work better), then add the wet ingredients. Add a little milk and stir; keep adding milk a little at a time, seriously only like a tsp or so at a time, until the mixture comes together and is smooth and a little runny but not liquidy. You don’t want it to be dry like dough, either.
Microwave about one minute, though this will depend highly on the strength of your microwave; check it after 30 seconds and go 15-30 seconds at a time. There’s not really anything that needs to be heavily COOKED in here, so if it’s still a little wet in spots or the center, that’s fine; it will also continue to “cook” itself a bit for a minute or two after, so try letting it stand if it’s still a bit wet.
For a real pièce de résistance chocolate topping, sprinkle chocolate chips, chopped chocolate, or even a whole slab of bar chocolate on top right out of the microwave and let it melt. (Generally, do not mix chocolate in; it will just burn in the microwave.)
Protein “brownie batter”
- 1 scoop protein powder
- 1 tbsp cocoa powder
- A pinch of baking soda
- A pinch of salt
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp neutral oil
- Just enough milk to combine (or water, if you want)
Mix dry ingredients and then wet ones; add milk 1 tsp at a time until it comes together. Eat immediately with a spoon like a little goblin. (Only make this à la minute, because if it stands for a long while it will become sort of gummy.)
When should I have protein powder/my protein shake?
If you are having just a plain shake, have it after the gym. You can have it AT the gym, if that’s somehow more convenient. This is not something to panic over or stress about; you can technically have a protein shake whenever. But if you’re asking, having a nice dose of protein post-gym can help the overall strength-building process.
Note that building muscle is not about ONLY having a protein shake; you need to take care of your general protein needs. A protein shake helps, but it’s not the entire game. It does not cancel out every other nutrition choice. It’s just a supplement.
Likewise, you should not have ONLY protein powder. Other protein sources have a number of other benefits (vitamins, minerals, even natural creatine in meats!), and we benefit from those mystical “varied diets” that we keep trying to reverse-engineer via gummy vitamins and meal-replacement nutrition cubes. Don’t overextend the protein powder concept; let it help you, but don’t make it carry you.
What is this new “microflora” “animal free protein powder” you were talking about?
Reader, I tried it!
I was afraid, but it was totally fine. If I were blind testing them and HAD to identify a difference, I think the microflora one had the absolute faintest of sour/funk notes. But no weird aftertaste, no substantial difference in nutritional profile. The drawback is that it's significantly more expensive than regular whey (varies across brands; at Myprotein it's about 20% more expensive than regular whey).
And that’s it! Probably five new protein powders have landed on the market in the time I’ve written this guide. I would not trust any online review of protein powder as far as I could throw it, and feel secure in the following conclusion that I believe holds true since we worked on that protein powder guide years ago: While there are some incredibly offensive protein powders, there are no really, really delicious ones. If you find one you can drink without gagging a little, you are probably already having 80% of the most optimal experience you could possibly have, and if you try to shop and compare your way through the proteinsphere, will likely put yourself through more suffering than is necessary to net only a 5% or 10% improvement. Not worth it! Experiment if that’s how you get joy in life, but don’t take on the burden of sussing out the one Actually Good protein powder in the world; it probably does not exist (yet?).
[A final media digression] Do you know what happened to the Wirecutter guide on protein?
I don’t. It appears the New York Times (Wirecutter was acquired in late 2016, right around when the protein powder guide was published) took it fully off the internet sometime in 2020; a strange choice by the rigorously ethical publication, rather than deprecate it or unlink it from any of the main pages. (As linked above, you can still access it via the Wayback Machine.)
To take the whole thing down suggests that there was something wrong with the guide. It could be that they decided that trying to keep up with the fast-paced world of health supplements was a losing game, especially for what I understand are slim affiliate-link margins (maybe unless you select those super-high-end brands). But I do digress, media-ly; I still stand behind it. Insofar as anyone has ever undertook to try to get a survey of the protein powder landscape, we did. And we (Shannon especially!!) did a great job. I truly miss those days.
The guide is pretty outdated now in terms of products, particularly because whey protein powder is a commodity product, easy to get hands on and spin up one’s own formula and white-label. (One of the most interesting things I learned reporting this feature on protein for Eater is that, at the time, the largest supplier for raw whey to turn into whey isolate/concentrate was Leprino Foods, which is also the mozzarella cheese supplier for Pizza Hut, Domino’s, and Papa John’s. Eventually, Leprino started rolling its own brand of whey, Ascent Protein, which is unfortunately an assault on the senses). Likewise, brands crop up and then vanish with little fanfare.
But I think the learnings stand, which is why I went all into the process of it in the beginning: Putting a lot of pressure on yourself to find a delicious protein powder is probably a fool’s errand. Anyone who tells you their protein powder is SoOoOo delicious is probably lying. Just temper your expectations, enjoy the benefits of an extra protein dose if it helps you, and don’t think about it a lot more than that.