Protein shakes have become synonymous with post-workout gains. But when muscle building relies heavily on protein consumption, we all sit around eating spoons of whey protein and never go to the gym. That is of course not the case. You need the right stimulus – a solid strength and conditioning program combined with a balanced diet high in protein. Protein powder is a must have to take your body to new levels. But here’s the kicker: you want the cleanest protein powders. Not all proteins are created equal, and there are many sub-par options on the market.
What makes a clean protein powder?
Ignore the marketing jargon and look directly at the ingredient label. Here’s your checklist for finding the cleanest protein powders:
- Whey or a vegetable source of protein should be the first ingredient. Avoid unnecessary fillers and additives.
- Not much sugar or artificial ingredients should be added (read: under 2g of sugar per serving). If you want to add carbohydrates, add them yourself in the form of milk, fruits or natural honey.
- Prioritize powders with at least 20 grams of protein per serving.
- Look for a company that lists the amino acid profile on their label or website, and make sure there is a high level of leucine per serving (at least 2 grams).
- If the brand lists where the whey protein comes from, it is a good sign that they are focusing on quality protein.
- Choose powders that have been tested by third parties for quality and safety guarantees, such as: B. NSF Certified for Sport or Informed Choice. These companies test the products for banned substances and make sure that the product is actually on the label.
Which is better: whey or vegetable protein powder?
Advantages and disadvantages of whey protein
Whey protein is extracted from cow’s milk, which makes it a dairy product. During cheese production, whey is separated and isolated. Most dairy products contain two types of protein: casein (80 percent) and whey (20 percent). After that, whey protein goes through some processing to turn it into whey powder, and this is where it can become unhealthy.
Most whey protein on its own tastes pretty awful, so many manufacturers add sugar and ingredients to make it tastier. To keep it clean, look for powders that are either a whey isolate or Hydrolyzate form.
There are three main types of whey protein powders:
- Whey Protein Concentrate: Usually contains the lowest percentage of whey protein. The lower end tends to have 30 percent protein and can be as high as 90 percent. It tends to be low in fat and carbohydrates and better in taste.
- Whey Protein Isolate: Ninety percent protein or higher and contains less lactose and fat than concentrates.
- Hydrolyzate: This type is considered pre-digested – it has been partially hydrolyzed so that it is absorbed more quickly in the digestive tract. This reduces the allergen potential.
In the past, animal proteins (such as whey protein) were considered a superior source of protein. This is because animal protein – poultry products, beef, pork, and dairy products – is “complete,” which means it contains all nine essential amino acids and is most similar to naturally occurring proteins in the human body. Humans are able to digest, process and use animal protein very efficiently.
When it comes to building muscle, animal protein takes precedence over vegetable protein. Some research shows that vegetable protein is inferior in terms of digestibility and muscle building response to consumption. This is most likely due to a specific amino acid called leucine, which is responsible for starting the muscle building process in the body.
Advantages and disadvantages of vegetable protein
As an alternative to whey protein, plant-based protein powders have become increasingly popular and available due to the increasing popularity of plant or even vegan diets. Many people also have digestive issues when it comes to whey protein (since it’s made from dairy products) so vegetable protein can provide relief. These powders are made from vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. Vegetable proteins often contain only a few essential amino acids or do not contain all of the essential amino acids that are necessary for protein synthesis. Some examples are beans, lentils, and nuts. As such, they are considered a second stage protein source.
Conversely, plant foods provide many more nutrients such as vitamin C, flavonoids, quercetin, catechins, and antioxidants than animal proteins. Your choice is whether to choose whey protein or vegetable protein powder to add to your diet. Just make sure it’s high quality and doesn’t have any unnecessary additives, preservatives, or synthetic ingredients.
Note: When it comes to supplements, you often get what you pay for. Cheaper brands are often of lesser quality and contain many additives, impurities, lower amounts of actual protein, or unfavorable amino acid profiles.
We did the hard work for you. These are the cleanest whey and vegetable protein powders you can buy.
1. Significant essential grass-fed whey protein
Current claims to have some of the cleanest, most transparent nutritional supplements available. The website tells you where each ingredient comes from. You won’t find any unnecessary additives or preservatives in its grass-fed whey protein, and everything is NSF certified for exercise and informed choice (checked for banned substances and contaminants like lead). If you want a plant-based option, the Essential line offers some of the highest quality vegetable proteins on the market, combining optimal ratios of pea protein isolate with rice protein concentrate to maximize the amino acids available. The taste is unrivaled.
2. John’s Killer Unsweetened, Unflavored, Weed-Fed Virgin Whey Protein
John’s Killer Protein improves quality and product integrity. The unflavored whey protein mixture is processed only minimally, made from organic ingredients, certified as GMO-free, soy-free and growth hormone-free. Best of all, it has only one ingredient: native whey protein (grass-fed and minimally processed).
3. Klean Athlete Klean Isolate
Klean Athlete Isolate contains only two ingredients: whey protein isolate and sunflower lecithin (a necessary stabilizer). This powder contains no artificial sweeteners or flavors and is a great option for maintaining your daily protein and amino acid intake. Plus, it’s NSF certified for sports tested.
4. biPro ELITE 100% whey protein isolate without flavor
The biPro whey protein isolate contains the same two ingredients: whey protein isolate and sunflower lecithin as well as a clean label promise that guarantees that it contains no grams of sugar, only natural sweeteners and flavors. In short: you get the highest quality protein – no fillers, no compromises. Oh, and it’s NSF Certified for Sport tested (spot a trend?).
[From $25; biprousa.com]
5. Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% whey
One of the best affordable options is ON Gold Standard Isolate. It contains a combination of whey isolate and hydrolyzed isolate, making it a fast-digesting complete protein powder that has no more than 1g of carbohydrates, less than 1 gram of fat, and more than 80 percent pure protein per serving. It is a third party vendor that has been tested for banned substances and quality by Informed Choice.
[From $10; optimumnutrition.com]
Gainful is a new wave of bespoke protein powders based on your unique goals, body composition, and lifestyle. After taking a quiz, the brand will formulate a powder for you (choose between whey, plant-based, and keto). The powders never contain gluten, soy, fillers, artificial flavors, colors or sweeteners. In addition, your subscription gives you access to a registered dietitian to answer your questions.
7. OWYN vegetable protein powder
OWYN offers a plant-based powder that contains 20 grams of protein from pea, pumpkin and chia seeds. It also offers a full serving of organic vegetables, probiotics, omega-3 fatty acids, and trace elements.
[From $28; liveowyn.com]
8. Naked Nutrition Grass-Fed Whey Protein
Naked’s whey is obtained from grass-fed cows on small California dairy farms that have been raised without growth hormones. The powders are completely free from additives and artificial sweeteners. The company is simply on a mission to shorten the steps between farm whey and you.
9. Naked Nutrition Pea Protein Powder
Naked Pea contains only one ingredient: pea protein, which is made from yellow peas grown on U.S. and Canadian farms. This protein is easily digested and easily absorbed. Pea protein also contains all nine of the muscle building EAAs (however, it is low in methionine). Naked Pea is free from additives and artificial sweeteners. Naked also tests all of its supplements for heavy metals using independent third-party testing.
10. Ascent Unflavored Whey Protein Powder
Ascent uses native whey protein. Why does that matter? It means it comes from grass-fed, hormone-free, and antibiotic-free milk. Plus, it’s 95 percent pure protein. It’s also Informed Sport Certified (meaning its unflavored whey has been third-party tested for a list of prohibited substances) and hormone-free.
11. Levels of whey protein powder
Grass-fed, hormone-free dairy is the only dairy that uses Levels to make their whey protein. Quality issues: No sugar, bleach, fillers, or artificial flavors or sweeteners are added.
12. KOS Organic vegetable protein without taste
KOS organic vegetable protein offers a combination of pea protein, flaxseed protein, quinoa trim, pumpkin seeds and chia seeds for a variety of amino acids and additional nutrients. This powder contains helpful digestive enzymes to aid digestion and absorption, as well as nutrients from real foods like broccoli, apples, carrots, tomatoes, cranberries, and mushrooms, which also makes it a source of multivitamins. It’s USDA organic and also has a 90 day guarantee if you’re not entirely happy with it.
Jordan Mazur, MS, RD, is the nutrition and team sports dietician coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers.
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