How to Choose the Best Whey Protein Powder for You

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    In this article, we’ll cover the benefits of whey, its different forms, and finding the best quality.

    Whey protein powder is a natural choice for those looking to add more protein to their diet. When it comes to choosing the best whey protein powder for your needs, there are some important things to consider. In this article, we’ll cover the benefits of whey, its different forms, and finding the best quality.

    Benefits of Using Whey Protein Powder

    Whey protein has been the subject of many clinical studies. Researchers have found several benefits, some of them with more research than others.

    • Recovery after exercise: During exercise, muscles are in a catabolic state, which is a process where the muscles are broken down. After exercise, the body switches to an anabolic state to rebuild and repair muscle, which is how a person can increase muscle mass. But this anabolic phase requires amino acids, the building blocks of proteins and tissues in the body. Protein intake within an hour after exercise fuels this anabolic process. You can also consume protein right before exercise, and it can still enhance muscle rebuilding. Overall, whey protein supports whole-body anabolic processes, because it is easily digested and put to use.

    • Hunger and appetite management: Protein is a nutrient that helps the body feel full, with research finding that those who eat more protein experience an overall improvement in body composition and weight balance.

    • Support protein intake: Whey protein can’t replace all of the body’s needed protein, but it can effectively supplement when protein needs increase or when some easier-to-digest protein is needed.

    • Metabolic wellness: Protein drives important energy processes in the body. Without enough intake, the body lacks the essential amino acids to manage optimal DNA synthesis, energy transportation, and healthy metabolism. Your body also relies on adequate protein for balanced hormones, immune system responses, mood, bone health, and more. An overall higher protein intake over time is linked with greater body fat distribution and muscle mass. It’s important to note that protein alone isn’t enough. You need protein and physical activity to achieve this important metabolic balance.

    Who Should Use Protein Powder?

    Whey protein is an excellent supplement for dietary protein intake. While there are many reasons to take whey protein, some groups of people may benefit from whey protein in a particular way.

    Some include:

    • Athletes and people who consistently train at a moderate to high level and want to support muscle recovery and synthesis
    • Anyone who needs a little boost to their daily protein intake
    • Those looking for an easy meal replacement option, like a protein smoothie, for an on-the-go breakfast or snack
    • Older adults who want to support protein intake in an easily digestible format

    Different Types of Whey Protein

    Whey is made from cow’s milk, a byproduct of cheese-making. There are 3 common forms of whey protein. Each is a little different in benefit and nutritional content.

    Whey Protein Concentrate

    Whey protein concentrate is the most common form of whey protein, and also tends to be the least expensive. Based on the specific brand and product, it contains anywhere from 30%–89% protein, though the percentage is sometimes lower. The rest of the macronutrient content in whey protein concentrate is split between fat and carbohydrate.

    Whey Protein Isolate

    Whey protein isolate is the next most common type of whey protein. It is made by filtering whey protein to remove some of the carbohydrates and fats, leaving more protein per serving. Because lactose is a carbohydrate, this process also makes whey protein isolate a lower-lactose option, typically fine for lactose intolerant people to consume. People with true dairy allergies, however, still shouldn’t consume whey products.

    Whey Protein Hydrolysate

    Whey protein hydrolysate takes the filtering process a step further, breaking down the protein into peptides. This speeds up the digestion and absorption process, which means that the body can use the hydrolysate form faster. Because of the way that it’s made, whey protein hydrolysate tends to be the most expensive form of whey protein.

    How to Choose the Best Whey Protein Powder

    When you’re searching for the best whey protein powder for you, there are several things to consider.


    Each protein powder formula can be slightly different based on the brand and the specific way it was made.

    If you’re trying to decide which type of whey protein powder to choose, consider:

    • The concentrate form may be more affordable, but it takes more servings to equal the same amount of protein in the isolate form. Ultimately, they may be comparable in cost.
    • Hydrolysate is more expensive than the other two, but could be preferable if you’re looking for a type of protein that is more quickly digested and absorbed.

    Read the ingredients label carefully to determine:

    • Serving size
    • How much protein is included per serving
    • Other ingredients
    • Whether the product includes added sugars or other things you’d like to avoid
    • Whether the product contains ingredients you’re allergic to

    After you’ve verified that the product contains the ingredients and nutrient profile that meets your needs, you’ll also want to consider protein quality.

    Protein Quality

    All forms of whey protein contain all of the essential amino acids, making each type a complete source of protein.

    Whey protein concentrate contains the least amount of protein per gram compared to the isolate or hydrolysate forms. However, the amino acids that result from the protein are still the same. The hydrolysate form provides protein in a peptide form, meaning that they are in a form to more quickly be broken down into amino acids, or the basic protein building blocks, in the body.

    Taste and Mixability

    Whey protein concentrate has the mildest taste, with isolate and hydrolysate having increasingly bitter profiles due to the manufacturing process and the more condensed state of the macronutrient.

    All forms of whey tend to blend well into liquids, especially when using a blender or food processor. Whey can also taste different based on the brand, other added ingredients, and what you pair it with. In general, whey has a more palatable flavor profile than plant-based proteins.

    You can improve the taste based on what you pair the whey protein with. There is no shortage of creative combinations for protein smoothies, so in most cases, it comes down to finding your preferred ingredients to mix whey into, versus the taste of whey protein alone.

    Brand Reputation

    Like other supplements, the quality of whey protein is also linked to brand reputation and values.

    To assess a brand, think about:

    • Third-party testing: Many brands opt for independent, third-party certification and testing to demonstrate quality and reliability. These are optional steps that brands can take, but which may provide customers with peace of mind. Some examples of certifications include NSF, USP, and C.L.E.A.N.

    • “Free from” standards: If you have food allergies, sensitivities, or specific dietary boundaries (like a vegan or gluten-free diet), you’ll need to verify that the brand and product you’re looking at meet these needs. Most products are clearly labeled with their ingredients and values, but you should also be able to easily find information about brands on the product label and on the company website.

    Type of Whey Protein

    There’s not really a right or wrong way to choose the type of whey protein for you. Your healthcare provider may recommend a specific type based on why you would like to take it. For example, if you want easier-to-digest protein but are sensitive to lactose, the isolate or hydrolysate forms would more closely match your need. If you want a protein powder that won’t contribute any carbohydrates, the hydrolysate form contains the most protein of the three types. If you’re looking for a protein powder that more closely matches a whole food, the concentrate form contains protein along with some carbohydrates and fat (similar to the nutritional composition of milk).

    When to Use Whey Protein

    You can take whey protein for many reasons, but three common uses are post-workout recovery, weight management, and muscle gain.

    Post-Workout Recovery

    The muscles undergo a tear-down process during exercise that is followed by a post-workout recovery period where the tissue is repaired and new muscle is synthesized. This rebuilding process relies on adequate amino acids, which come from protein.

    Researchers have found that consuming whey protein after a workout can enhance the recovery process. A study of 20 physically active people (all born female) found that consuming whey protein after a workout was more beneficial for recovery measurements and strength compared to carbohydrates. A double-blind, crossover study found that for 12 healthy people (all born male), whey protein enhanced the post-workout muscle-building process and was supportive of recovery after strenuous exercise and intensive athletic performance.

    Weight management

    Weight management must be individualized based on many factors (genetics, age, birth sex, and more) but the need for protein is common since new muscle can’t be made without adequate protein. For healthy weight balance, in most cases there needs to be fat loss and muscle gain.

    Daily protein needs are calculated based on a person’s body weight, written as grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (g/kg). The general guidance is 0.8 g/kg, but higher activity levels and other factors can increase this to between 1.6–2.4 g/kg.

    A randomized controlled trial of 12 people found that a whey protein supplement with additional amino acids led to a better body composition balance during weight in older adults with high body weight. The group who received the whey protein lost more fat mass. While it did not lead to an increase in lean muscle mass on its own, the overall balance between fat and muscle was better in the group who took the whey.

    A double-blind, randomized clinical trial compared three interventions (whey protein, soy protein, or a carbohydrate supplement) on body weight and composition. After 23 weeks, the group who consumed the whey protein had a statistically significant reduction in body weight and fat mass compared to the group who received the carbohydrate, while the waist circumference was smaller in the whey protein group compared to both soy protein and the carbohydrate.

    A systematic review and meta-analysis of nine randomized controlled trials found that, for people with a higher body weight, whey protein led to significant improvements in body weight, lean body mass, and fat mass parameters, in addition to benefits for blood pressure, glucose, and lipid markers.

    However, not all research has found whey protein to be beneficial for weight management.

    A study of 70 postmenopausal people with higher body weight were randomly divided into three groups: one focused on weight maintenance, one focused on weight loss with healthy protein intake from food, and one focused on weight loss with a whey protein supplement and overall higher protein intake. The results found that whey protein didn’t have noticeable effects on either muscle mass or strength in this population. However, a study of 60 people in the same population group found that the hydrolysate form of whey, paired with balanced food intake, led to weight loss, body composition improvement, and upregulated cellular energy production compared to either whey protein concentrate or a weight-loss-focused diet plan.

    In a study that compared two types of whey protein with soy protein and a placebo control, the results found that the type of protein did not affect weight changes, body composition changes, blood pressure, or laboratory measurements. Those who received the protein supplements had a higher thermogenesis effect (burning fat for energy in the body), burned more energy at rest, and had fewer food cravings.

    Protein overall is important for weight loss and body composition balance, with protein supplementation potentially supporting these supportive elements of a weight balance journey.

    Muscle Gain

    A healthy body composition depends on muscle maintenance, and sometimes, on muscle gain. Aging naturally leads to a decrease in muscle, so it’s important to focus on muscle gain as a long-term health strategy.

    A systematic review and meta-analysis of postmenopausal people found that whey protein, when combined with resistance training, enhances measures of strength and lean muscle mass compared to a placebo. On its own, without physical activity, whey protein does not affect these parameters. These findings are also supported by another randomized controlled trial of 208 healthy older adults that compared five different interventions. The group who received whey protein with heavy resistance training three times per week increased strength and maintained muscle mass.

    Possible Side Effects

    When consumed as recommended, there are not many side effects of whey protein. Over-consuming protein can lead to weight gain, but this would depend on a person’s overall dietary intake. Long-term use of whey protein, especially when consumed in higher amounts, has the potential to negatively affect liver and kidney health. It’s important to work with your healthcare provider to assess your protein needs.

    If you’re sensitive to lactose, it’s possible to have digestive issues with whey protein concentrate. There’s no standardized way to label low-lactose products, so anyone who is lactose intolerant or sensitive to dairy products should avoid whey protein.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    How much protein is in whey powder?

    The amount of protein per serving varies based on the product. Read the ingredients label to see how much protein is in a whey supplement. For example, Care/of’s whey protein contains 18 grams of protein per serving.

    How is whey protein powder made?

    Whey is a byproduct of cheese production. After the whey is separated, it is pasteurized and then concentrated to isolate the protein from the other components. The whey is dehydrated (water is removed) to produce a powder that contains the protein.

    Can pregnant people use whey protein?

    Unless your medical provider says otherwise, pure whey protein is safe for pregnant people to take. However, it’s important to confirm with a medical provider before using protein or other supplements during pregnancy. It’s also important to ensure that an overall healthy diet is the priority.

    Pregnant people do have an additional protein requirement, which could be an additional 10 grams per day, but there are individual factors that could alter this.

    What to mix whey protein powder with?

    Whey protein powder is versatile with a relatively neutral flavor profile. It can be paired with any type of smoothie (milk or juice based, with fruits, veggies, chia seeds, or any other favorite smoothie mix-ins) or smoothie bowl, can be added to baked goods, and can even be added to soups or stews if you’re not a smoothie person.

    When should you take whey protein powder?

    When you consume whey protein can depend on why you are taking it. If you’re looking to support muscle recovery or growth, right before or after exercise or resistance training would be the best window to support the anabolic benefits. To support general protein intake, or as part of a healthy weight program, it can be used at any time of the day as part of a meal or snack, interspersed with protein from meals at relatively balanced times.

    How much whey protein powder per day?

    A person’s protein needs vary based on their body weight, physical activity level, age, and other factors. Ask your healthcare provider for your target protein intake per day, and how much of that should be consumed from protein powder. One serving of protein powder could provide 18 grams of protein.

    The Bottom Line

    Whey protein is one of the most common types of protein supplements. It’s a good, easily digested form of protein for many people and can support healthy body composition, muscle synthesis, and appetite management, among other things. Some benefits of whey protein are more noted in some ages or activity levels, but overall, protein is an important macronutrient that is needed by everyone. Whey protein powder can supplement daily protein intake, but cannot replace a healthy, nutrient-dense diet.

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    Laurel Ash, ND
    Laurel Ash, ND: Medical Content Reviewer
    Laurel Ash, ND is a board-certified Naturopathic Physician. She holds additional credentials with a master’s in integrative mental health. Dr. Ash graduated from the National University of Natural Medicine in 2019. Dr. Ash practices in Oregon and Washington where ND’s scope of practice includes primary care. Using the best tools of allopathic/conventional medicine with the holistic tenants of naturopathic medicine has created a powerful force of healing for the patients in her practice. Dr. Ash focuses on combining integrative/functional health modalities with evidence-based medicine. She has experience as a medical reviewer in the holistic medicine field and partners with companies and practitioners to produce science-backed content for readers and consumers interested in holistic medicine. She is passionate about blending the strengths of allopathic and integrative medicine to transform the healthcare industry, empowering people with an understanding of all their options on their wellness journey.
    Mia McNew, MS
    Freelance Contributor
    Mia McNew is a nutrition science researcher with bachelor's and master's degrees in nutrition science and biochemistry. She holds additional certifications in clinical nutrition and formerly managed a private nutrition practice focusing on fertility and the management of chronic health and autoimmune disorders. She is currently pursuing a PhD in human nutrition with a research focus on disability, underserved populations, and inequities in popular nutrition therapy approaches. She has extensive experience as a fact-checker, researcher, and critical research analyst and is passionate about science and health communications that provide practical support.