Take a walk down the supplement aisle at the grocery store and you’ll find protein powders galore: everything from whey to casein to collagen to pea to hemp to egg white. As more and more options crop up, perhaps you’ve wondered which protein powder is best for you, or whether it’s even good for you at all.
Along with carbohydrates and fats, protein is one of the main three macronutrients, which our bodies use in relatively large amounts for daily functioning. Protein, in particular, is necessary for building muscle mass, repairing tissue, immune function and other bodily processes. It also keeps you feeling full.
To make the powdered supplements, protein is extracted from a given animal- or plant-based food source (whey, for example, is found in cow’s milk) through various processes.
But are protein powders OK to consume? And do we actually need them? We talked to registered dietitian nutritionists to find out.
Most people don’t need protein powder to meet their daily requirement.
The recommended dietary allowance of a nutrient is the average amount needed to meet the basic nutritional requirements of practically all healthy people. For protein, the minimum is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (however, certain groups like older populations and people who are very active may need more). So, for example, a person who weighs 160 pounds (about 72 kilograms) would need at least 58 grams of protein a day.
For reference, one 3.5-ounce chicken breast contains about 31 grams of protein, which is already more than halfway to the daily target. Then take into account other sources of protein like eggs (two eggs contain 12 grams of protein), beans (8 grams in half a cup of cooked beans) and salmon (26 grams for a 4-ounce fillet), and you can see it’s rather easy for most people to meet the intake recommendations without much effort.
If you have specific body composition goals in mind — e.g. you’re looking to increase muscle mass — then, in addition to doing physical activity such as strength training, you’d increase your daily intake anywhere from 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. So for a 160-pound person, that would come out to anywhere from 86 to 122 grams of protein a day.
The amount of protein in a serving of protein powder (typically one or two scoops) varies from product to product, but most contain about 20 to 25 grams.
“While protein powder can sometimes be a quick and easy source of protein, it doesn’t offer any benefits over whole food forms of protein,” said registered dietitian Alissa Rumsey, author of “Unapologetic Eating” and founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness. Whole food forms of protein naturally contain other nutrients, like fiber, vitamins and minerals that may be lacking in — or fortified into — powdered supplements.
Some people — like vegans, people recovering from surgery and older adults — may have a harder time hitting their daily targets through food alone.
In that case, “protein powders can certainly help you if you’re not getting enough protein in your diet or have increased protein needs due to a training regimen or a particular health condition,” said Stefani Sassos, registered dietitian nutritionist for the Good Housekeeping Institute.
If you’re not sure if you’re getting enough protein, registered dietitian Danielle LaFata of DB Nutrition — who is board-certified in sports dietetics — suggested keeping a food journal for several days to track your intake. You can talk to your doctor or a dietitian to determine your individual protein needs if you’re not sure.
“Remember protein can also be found, granted in smaller amounts, in grains and starches, fruits and vegetables along with beans and legumes, fish, seafood, poultry, dairy products and beef,” LaFata said.
Protein powder can be part of a healthy diet, in moderation.
While protein powders are not a replacement for real food, they can complement a healthy, varied diet.
“It’s important to remember that no one food or meal determines our health,” Rumsey said, “which is also why all foods can fit and support a healthy diet, including protein powders.”
One benefit of protein powders is their convenience: They’re shelf-stable and can be consumed on the go in a smoothie or a shake.
“They can be a great on-the-run snack and be key to helping you get enough good quality protein throughout the day,” LaFata said. “Total daily protein should come from whole foods, however. If you tend to skip meals or you know you’ll be out running errands, for example, having your favorite protein powder on hand with a shaker bottle is a great option.”
With a smoothie, you can blend in additional ingredients along with the protein powder and your liquid of choice — like milk, unsweetened non-dairy milk or water — to make it a more well-rounded meal. Adding some nut butter (which contains healthy fat and protein), seeds like flax or chia (which contain fiber, fat, protein and omega-3s) and some fruits and veggies (which offer fiber, vitamins and minerals) will provide energy, beneficial nutrients and keep you feeling full longer.
Here’s what to look for in a protein powder (and what to avoid).
Make sure it’s third-party tested.
Protein powder is classified as a dietary supplement, so it is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration the same way that conventional foods or medications are. Supplements do not need FDA approval before they hit the market, “meaning that it’s up to manufacturers to make sure their products are safe and accurately marketed,” according to Self.com. (However, if concerns about a product’s safety or legitimacy are later brought to light, the FDA can investigate those claims and take the product off the market if necessary.)
“That means that there is no requirement that the powders be tested to make sure they contain what the labels say they contain,” Rumsey said. “Certain protein powders have been found to contain heavy metals in levels higher than is what is recommended.”
For that reason, she suggests finding a powder that’s been third-party tested by an independent company — such as Labdoor, NSF International’s Certified for Sport or Informed Choice. You can find their seals on the product label.
The protein you choose depends on your dietary restrictions and sensitivities.
For example, whey protein — which is arguably the most popular — can cause bloating or gas for people who are sensitive to dairy. (Whey protein isolates contain far less lactose than whey protein concentrates, La Fata noted).
People who avoid animal products might gravitate toward plant-based protein powders made of soy, peas, brown rice or hemp seeds. If you’re going this route, products that combine protein sources — like rice and pea together, for example — are best, LaFata said, to ensure you’re getting a well-rounded amino acid profile.
“Some plant proteins are lower in the nine essential amino acids — ‘essential’ meaning our body cannot make them,” she explained. “Those include leucine, isoleucine, valine, methionine, tryptophan, lysine, phenylalanine, threonine, and histidine.” (Animal products, like whey, are considered complete proteins, meaning they contain adequate amounts of all the essential amino acids.)
Xanthan gum, an additive present in some powders, may be derived from corn, wheat or soy, “so if you have a food sensitivity [or] allergy to any of these foods it would be wise to steer clear,” LaFata added. Carrageenan, a thickening agent and emulsifier made from red seaweed, may also cause gastrointestinal discomfort for some.
Go for powders with a simple ingredient list.
Be sure to read the ingredients printed on the label. The fewer, the better.
“It’s best to look for unflavored protein powder varieties with only one ingredient or a protein blend, and use fruit or nut butter to flavor the smoothie naturally instead,” Sassos said.
Look out for added or artificial sugar.
“Added sugars should be avoided, as you can easily sweeten your protein powder yourself with the addition of frozen or fresh fruit, honey or maple syrup,” LaFata said. You may also want to stay away from powders that contain artificial sweeteners (like sucralose), since they can throw off your taste receptors and gut microbiome, she added.