Takeaways That Won’t Fail You
- Gram for gram, whey protein is one of the least expensive sources of protein.
- One needs to address their goals and meal plan before deciding which brand is most suitable since ingredients vary so much. In other words, pay attention to the ingredients.
- If you’re just looking for the best whey protein powder and you’re simply into general fitness, EAS 100% Whey came in as the overall best bang for the buck. This was not my expectation.
- If money is no object, there are better quality whey proteins. I list my top pick below.
Table of Contents
Click to Jump to a Section
Where does whey protein come from?
Concentrate vs isolate
How we use whey protein
How does it build muscle
What about casein protein?
What about sweeteners used?
Are whole food protein sources better?
What are the most important amino acids?
Best bang for the buck based on different criteria
The best whey protein powder
My introduction to supplements
It was 1990 and I worked the front desk at an old-school bodybuilding and powerlifting gym.
I was also still green in the personal training world (it was a small world at the time).
I’ll never forget looking at the rickety cabinet filled with odd named protein powders, ephedrine, meal replacement shakes, and other supplements. They were claiming to make you leap tall buildings (okay, maybe not that part), raise testosterone, make you leaner and to be the best whey protein powder for building muscle.
I’ll also never forget the time when Met-Rx meal replacement shakes were the newest thing. Holy ears, did they taste bad!
There was even a lady who kept buying an awful lot of the Met-Rx to eliminate whole food from her diet. She ended up with all kinds of GI tract issues from the lack of fiber and whole food. That’s a strong message.
I was fortunate to have been in grad school during the wild west of supplements and universities. It gave me the opportunity to do as much research on the products as possible. That was fun and gave me a good insight into the products coming onto the market.
Well, it’s been twenty-eight years now and the supplement industry has come a long way!
There are a lot of improvements. Even though it’s no longer the wild west of supplements, it is still unregulated. So every claim must be questioned.
I think I’ve heard every question about whey protein imaginable:
- What’s the best protein powder?
- How many scoops of whey protein powder a day?
- What’s the best whey protein powder?
- What’s the best protein powder for building muscle?
- Are there any protein powders without sucralose?
- What’s the best protein supplements?
- Should I take a protein shake before or after workout?
- Is it safe for my kids to have whey protein?
And on and on and on…
Choosing the Top Whey Protein Powder Candidates
To begin, every company you consider buying from should have a long solid history and track record of real science backing their claims.
This most certainly applies to protein supplements.
I will look at just the companies who have been through the trenches. I also will only focus only on whey or casein protein.
I will not look into many of the white label brands. That simply means that a blogger or small business can buy from a company who makes whey (or any supplement) and have them put their own label on the product. There’s too many out there to compare.
Some of you don’t care what it costs. However, I’m guessing the majority of you want to know what is the best bang for the buck.
So we’ll make that the conclusion.
Which protein supplements did I evaluate?
I want to rephrase this one…
What are the most reputable whey protein companies with a solid track record that are easily attainable?
So, I figured I’d list all the companies I’ve dealt with, tried and have seen evolve over the years.
I’ve also been fortunate enough to have been involved with several of the key people in the academic world who were, or are, a major contributor for the R & D aspect of product development and research. I made sure to include those companies on the list.
I chose the following companies to review:
- Optimum Nutrition
- Nature’s Best
- Muscle Milk
- Designer Protein
I decided to only review a few of the more popular versions of each brand of whey protein supplement.
Of course, because the taste is so subjective, I opted not to include that as reviewable criteria.
Rather, I looked at the type of whey protein, macronutrient makeup, number of BCAA’s, sweeteners and price.
Also, all of the big brands have figured out the mixability issues of the past. So, that too was ignored.
Clumps were so annoying in the ’90s!
Before evaluating, let’s review. First, where does whey protein come from?
This was covered this in depth in my article BCAA vs Whey Protein, The Differences, which to take and why.
So, let’s just do a brief review.
There are two types of protein that make up the bulk of protein from cow’s milk. The two major players are whey protein and casein protein.
Whey is absorbed quickly and casein is absorbed more slowly. They each have their place in the arsenal of supplements. For the sake of this article, we’re just going to focus on the best whey protein supplements.
What’s the difference between 100% whey concentrate and whey protein isolate?
Each variation still has a high bioavailability rateMeans easily absorbed.
Isolate is simply taken through further filtration to minimize anything that’s not whey protein.
If your meal plan is super finite in preparation for an event, show or competition, this version has merit. If you’re just using whey as a meal replacement shake in addition to veggies or nuts, then the concentrate version is just fine.
That said, I’m finding one of the better quality isolates to be one of the best bangs for the buck. Read on to see my rankings.
They’re almost all a blend of isolate and concentrate.
Based on the brands I evaluated, even the strictly isolate versions incorporate at least 3% concentrate except for Isopure.
How does our body use whey protein?
Simply put, whey is a very useful source of protein. Our muscles use the amino acids from whey to:
- Increase the net muscle protein balance for muscle protein synthesis
- Contributes to a decrease in muscle protein breakdown (helps prevent muscle loss)
It’s clearly been shown to lower the impairment of muscular force after exercise-induced injury (DOMS). In other words, it makes muscle soreness less debilitating.
You can read more about how our bodies use protein in my article on the steps of protein digestion.
Older adults have been shown to respond better than younger adults to a higher gram intake of whey protein (20g vs 40g).
This is only from one study, but I feel like it’s worth mentioning and addresses the common question:
“How many scoops of whey protein powder a day?”
How does whey protein build muscle?
We use protein of any kind for so many different functions in our metabolism. But the focus of this article is whey protein and its use for:
- Muscle growth
- Muscle sparing/repair after exercise
Once we damage muscle tissue after strength training, specific amino acids from protein are used to repair the damage. This results in hypertrophyMuscles get bigger because contractile components grow and the extracellular volume expands.
More specifically, the number of myofibril proteins (actin and myosin) are increased. This translates to an increase in cross-sectional area. These are the components that actually contract the muscle.
We will not discuss satellite cells and the proliferation of muscle tissue. We’ll save that for another article.
As stated in the BCAA vs Whey Protein article, “It’s generally accepted that 20 grams of whey protein ingested after a strength workout is adequate to stimulate muscle protein synthesis for a typical 176-pound male.”
Now that we know how whey protein works, are there better alternatives?
I cannot honestly answer that question without reviewing the research on other types of protein supplements.
They include, but are not limited to:
- Hemp protein
- Casein protein, which I’ll discuss below
- Soy protein
- Egg protein (albumin): This is a good one as far as I’m concerned
- Pea protein
I’m sure there are more, but it’s not relevant to this article.
That said, there are three aspects that are important to mention about whey protein.
- It’s very easy for our body to absorb and utilize whey protein.
- It’s ridiculously convenient to transport and consume and
- Pound for pound, it’s one of the least expensive options for protein.
A quick note about casein protein?
Casein is the other component of cow’s milk protein. It also has a fairly high bioavailability, but takes far longer to absorb.
I see casein protein to be beneficial more as a pre-bed protein shake, or a whole meal replacement mixed with veggies or a fat source.
Simply put, it has its place in your arsenal.
What about the sweeteners used?
This is a topic I would like to further cover in a future article. But I would like to make a few comments about the sweeteners used in selected brands.
- Sucralose does elicit an insulin response much like glucose
- The jury’s still out on the safety of acesulfame potassium. But if deemed unsafe, I believe it would require very large doses to be detrimental
- Stevia does not elicit an insulin response and seems to have additional benefits
- Fructose, a type of sugar does elicit a minor insulin response
Are whole food protein sources better?
Yes and no, but each has its place.
Note from the BCAAs vs Whey Protein: The Differences, Which to take, and Why article that protein from whole food is absorbed faster than individual amino acids.
Protein from whole food satiates us better than whey, but it’s definitely not as convenient.
I prefer a mix throughout the day of protein from whole food and whey protein as a shake.
What are the most important amino acids when evaluating whey protein?
The branched chain amino acids are the most important amino acids for muscle protein synthesis and muscle sparing. They include:
This is why the companies make an effort to list the number of BCAA’s on the front of their packaging.
Okay, enough rambling and reviewing! Here’s the part you care about if you already know the background of whey protein.
Best bang for the buck whey protein powders
If you’re not cutting carbs?
MuscleTech NitroTech Whey Gold – 100% Whey Protein Powder
Because it’s an isolate and comes out to be $0.03/gram of protein. But this is only my first choice if I am not cutting carbs.
If you’re consuming super low carbs
Nature’s Best – Perfect Whey
Because it has the lowest sugars and carbs in the $0.03/gram protein category.
If you’re simply using protein powder to build muscle
EAS – 100% Whey
Because it has the highest amount of BCAA’s and additional calories to feed your weight gain and comes in at $0.03/gram protein. It’s widely attainable and discounted more through volume.
If you prefer a protein powder without sucralose
Designer Protein – Designer Whey
It’s a decent price, has no sucralose, but it is higher in sugars (because of the lack of sucralose) and overall carbs than many others.
The Best Whey Protein Powder if Money is No Object is…
Two versions from the same company.
Nature’s Best Perfect Whey because of the quality ingredients. My only issue is the artificial sweetener used for the whey protein. I would like to see a version with stevia. So as to not elicit an insulin response.
Hands down, Nature’s Best Isopure Zero Carb is a great quality product and number 1 best whey protein on my list. Again, I would like to see a stevia-based version. It’s so costly that I tend to rule it out when making a recommendation.
Nature’s Best and Isopure are the same company. And they have always focused on high-end quality from the inception of the company. You can’t go wrong if you have the money to spare.
My suggestion on whey protein powder
Watch the prices on Amazon or other resellers. They fluctuate a lot, but you can’t go wrong with any brand listed that’s on sale. Of course, your goals and meal plan will dictate which “best bang for the buck” is for you.
Also, the listed brand may not taste as good to you as some of the others. Unfortunately since that is a personal preference issue, I can’t help you much there.
Finding the Best Whey Protein Powder
|Brand||Name||BCAA’s||Price/lb at 4-5 lb||Price/gram protein||Calories||Protein (grams)||Carbs (grams)||Fats (grams)||Sugar||Sweetener||Type|
|Dymatize||Dymatize Elite 100% Whey||5.5||$10.00||$0.03||130||25||4||2||1||Sucralose, Stevia||blend|
|Dymatize||Dymatize ISO 100||5.5||$13.00||$0.04||110||25||2||0||<1||Sucralose, Stevia||Isolate|
|Muscle Tech||Nitro Tech Whey Gold 100% whey||5.5||$9.00||$0.03||120||24||2||2||2||Sucralose, Acesulfame potassium||Isolate|
|Muscle Tech||Nitro Tech 100% Whey||6.8||$11.00||$0.04||150||30||3||3||2||Sucralose, Acesulfame potassium||blend|
|Optimum nutrition||Gold Standard 100% whey protein||5.5||$11.00||$0.03||120||24||3||1||1||Sucralose, Acesulfame potassium||blend|
|Optimum nutrition||Platinum Hydrowhey protein powder||8.8||$15.00||$0.04||140||30||3||1||1||Sucralose, Acesulfame potassium||Isolate|
|EAS||100% Whey||7.3||$8.00||$0.03||170||30||6||3||2||Sucralose, Acesulfame potassium||Concentrate|
|Nature’s Best||Isopure low carb||5.5||$13.00||$0.04||110||25||1||<1||0||Sucralose||Isolate|
|Nature’s Best||Perfect Whey||N/A||$20.00||$0.03||110||22||2||2||1||Sucralose||Blend|
|Cytosport||100% Whey||6||$11.00||$0.03||140||27||3||3||3||Sucralose, Acesulfame potassium||Concentrate|
|Muscle Milk||100 % Whey||N/A||$11.00||$0.03||130||25||3||2||2||Sucralose, Acesulfame potassium||blend|
Conclusion on the Best Whey Protein Powder
It’s funny, I tend to default to either Dymatize Elite 100% Whey, or Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey, based on whichever is on sale.
However, I may have to switch to one of the three listed.
This article has been enlightening to me as well. This is the first time I broke down:
- the price per gram of protein and compared the macronutrient ratios
- types of whey protein
- sweeteners used
- the number of BCAA’s for each brand
This may not break down what the top protein powders are based on laboratory evaluation, but it sure addresses the impact on our wallet.
Now it’s your turn. Let me know in the comments below…What brand and type of whey protein have you experienced to be the “best bang for the buck?”
Research and Resources on Whey Protein Powder
Matthew B Cooke, Emma Rybalka, Christos G Stathis, Paul J Cribb and Alan Hayes, Whey protein isolate attenuates strength decline after eccentrically-induced muscle damage in healthy individuals, Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 20107:30
Dangin, M., Guillet, C., Garcia‐Rodenas, C., Gachon, P., Bouteloup‐Demange, C., Reiffers‐Magnani, K., Fauquant, J., Ballèvre, O. and Beaufrère, B. (2003), The Rate of Protein Digestion affects Protein Gain Differently during Aging in Humans. The Journal of Physiology, 549: 635-644
Joy L Frestedt, John L Zenk, Michael A Kuskowski, Loren S Ward and Eric D Bastian, A whey-protein supplement increases fat loss and spares lean muscle in obese subjects: a randomized human clinical study, Nutrition & Metabolism 2008 5:8
BM Lee and TMS Woleve, Effect of glucose, sucrose and fructose on plasma glucose and insulin responses in normal humans: comparison with white bread, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition volume 52, pages 924–928 (1998)
Schoenfeld, Brad J, The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training, The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: October 2010 – Volume 24 – Issue 10 – p 2857-2872
Jocelynn E. Thomas and Michael J. Glade, Stevia: It’s Not Just About Calories, The Open Obesity Journal, 2010, 2, 101-109
Oliver C Witard, Sarah R Jackman, Leigh Breen, Kenneth Smith, Anna Selby, Kevin D Tipton; Myofibrillar muscle protein synthesis rates subsequent to a meal in response to increasing doses of whey protein at rest and after resistance exercise, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 99, Issue 1, 1 January 2014, Pages 86–95
Raquel Sousa, Reto Portmann, Sébastien Dubois, Isidra Recio, Lotti Egger, Protein digestion of different protein sources using the INFOGEST static digestion model, Food Research International, Volume 130, 2020, 108996.
M. Yanina Pepino, Courtney D. Tiemann, Bruce W. Patterson, Burton M. Wice and Samuel Klein, Sucralose Affects Glycemic and Hormonal Responses to an Oral Glucose Load, Diabetes Care 2013 Apr.
Yifan Yang, Leigh Breen, Nicholas A. Burd, Amy J. Hector, Tyler A. Churchward-Venne, Andrea R. Josse , M. A. Tarnopolsky and Stuart M. Phillips, Resistance exercise enhances myofibrillar protein synthesis with graded intakes of whey protein in older men, British Journal of Nutrition, Volume 108, Issue 10, 28 November 2012 , pp. 1780-1788
Yuko Nakagawa, Masahiro Nagasawa, Satoko Yamada, Akemi Hara, Hideo Mogami, Viacheslav O. Nikolaev, Martin J. Lohse, Noriatsu Shigemura, Yuzo Ninomiya, Itaru Kojima, Sweet Taste Receptor Expressed in Pancreatic β-Cells Activates the Calcium and Cyclic AMP Signaling Systems and Stimulates Insulin Secretion, PLOS One, April 8, 2009