As someone who writes about food, I kind of want to hate protein powder. I want to scoff at this joyless, utilitarian product, barely recognizable as food. But let’s be real, protein powder is super convenient. And when the alternative is putting chicken in your smoothie, it’s pretty tasty. Of course, I’m not over here snorting dry protein powder, as I imagine powerlifters and gym bros do. No, I’m above such culinary abominations. I mix my powder into smoothies. And with recipes for protein brownies, protein cookies, protein cookie dough, and other such power desserts, things can get pretty delicious. 

Just one problem. At least for me, buying protein powder is incredibly stressful. You’re committing to a whole tub, which is usually at least $15 and can be much more expensive. With so many brands and varieties available, it’s an indecisive person's nightmare. As someone who once spent 10 minutes deciding which kind of earplugs to buy at CVS, it’s my personal hell. What does processed cross-flow micro-filtrated mean? WTF is a BCAA? Is grass-fed whey better? Plus, all the gym bro marketing can be super intimidating. Am I dumb, or are they just spouting B.S.?

In order to prevent this confusing supplement-induced stress headache for myself and other casual protein powder consumers, I talked to dietitians and industry professionals to make this no B.S. guide to finding the right protein powder for you.

Is protein powder actually beneficial?

We all need protein, but actually, many people easily consume enough protein without supplements. However, protein powder “may be beneficial for anyone who struggles to eat enough protein-rich foods during the day, as well as those who are looking to build muscle and have higher protein requirements,” said Katey Davidson (@tasteofnutrition), a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer. “Protein powders can be very useful for many individuals. They provide a quick and convenient source of protein and have been well studied.”

But could protein powders have any negative side effects? “To date, most research suggests it is very difficult to over consume protein,” Katey said. However, “I do not recommend that you use protein powders as your main source of protein…focus on consuming protein-rich foods first since these provide additional vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants,.” According to Katey, you should try and keep your protein powder consumption to one or two servings a day and get most of your protein through food. Sounds good, because if I had protein powder three times a day, I would get sick of it real quick.

Also, protein powder can have less, shall we say, *glamorous* side effects. “Depending on the product's ingredients, a person may experience some stomach issues, such as bloating or gas, especially if they are sensitive to certain ingredients like lactose or sugar alcohols,” Katey said. “In this case, you may need to try different protein powders until you find one that works best for you. If you're consuming a whey protein powder, you may want to choose whey hydrolysate or isolates, which are better digested and tolerated compared to whey concentrates.” Confused about what whey is? Don’t worry. We will get to that.

So you’ve decided to buy protein powder. But how do you decide which kind to buy?

I asked Chrissy Arsenault, registered dietitian and Senior Brand Manager at Vega (one of my favorite protein powder brands), along with Katey, what key aspects consumers should consider when shopping for protein powder. Here’s what they said:

Third-party testing:

“It's best to purchase a product that undergoes third-party testing, which helps to ensure the product contains exactly what the label says and nothing else,” Katey said. “You can tell if your product is third-party tested by looking for labels from reputable third-party companies such as Informed Choice, USP, and NSF Certified for Sport.”

Serving size:

Katey recommends a protein powder that provides 20 to 30 grams of protein per scoop, while Chrissy said to look for 20 to 25 grams.


“Shop around and get the most bang for your buck,” Chrissy said. “Look for a product that contains the most protein per serving or ounce and doesn’t contain artificial or poor-quality ingredients like sugar alcohols such as erythritol.”

Protein source:

Still wondering about whey? Whey is one example of the protein source in protein powder. ““There are many protein sources, such as pea, whey, casein, hemp, brown rice, or soy,” Chrissy said. “Depending on your taste preferences, dietary patterns, and allergies, there are different options to consider in meeting your needs.”

“If you're vegan or vegetarian,” Katey said, “you'll want to make sure that you select a plant-based protein powder, such as pea protein, soy, or a blend.”

Ingredient quality:

“Check the ingredient list before you buy a protein powder,” Chrissy said. “Choose products that have fewer ingredients and ones that are naturally derived. High-quality products should not contain additives or artificial sweeteners.”

“Other things to look for may be artificial sweeteners and flavorings, added sugars, and FODMAPs," Katey said. “Ultimately, this is unique to each individual, so be sure to look at the label and make a final decision based on your unique situation and health.”

Cutting through the B.S.

These guidelines are a great place to start, but what about all the buzzwords and gym-bro jargon plastered on protein powder packaging? Every protein powder company is trying to sell us on why their product is the best, and it can lead to some misleading and confusing claims. Here are the buzzwords that equal red flags.

Proprietary blend: “Many brands don’t disclose individual ingredients,” Chrissy said. “Make sure you choose brands with transparent labeling so that you can make informed decisions.”

Pure protein: “There is no regulatory requirement for ‘pure’ and companies often abuse this claim,” she continued. “Overall, look for fewer ingredients on pack.”

And if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. “If a company is promising that you'll see results just from their product, I would say that's a red flag,” Katey warned. "The biggest misconception is that protein powder will automatically help you build muscle, which isn't true. Unless you're engaging in a strength training exercise that challenges your muscles, you're going to have a hard time building muscle mass just from taking a protein powder.” As disappointing as this is, I think we all know getting swole without setting foot in the gym is unrealistic.

Protein powder is not one size fits all. “Look for a product that fits within your price range, you actually enjoy the taste of, and contains the ingredients you're looking for,” Chrissy said. “There are dozens of protein powders on the market…just because a protein powder is popular, it doesn't mean that it is going to work best for you and your needs.” So even if your friend or favorite influencer swears by a certain brand, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for you. But with a little determination (and this helpful guide), you’ll find your perfect powder in no time.