The best protein powders can certainly help build muscle faster, but they can also be beneficial for recovery and weight loss too. All manners of sportspeople, including bodybuilders, runners and cyclists, can benefit from taking the right protein supplement. Taking protein powder supplements is almost as essential for workouts as wearing the best workout shoes. In this guide, we rounder up the best vegan and whey protein powder options available on the market today.
Most people associate protein powder with bodybuilding but protein supplements, such as the best weight/mass gainers and the best protein bars, can be used for more than just building bulky muscles. Protein helps muscle recovery in general, not just when you pump iron in the gym, so runners, cyclists and other endurance athletes can also benefit from taking protein after their training sessions. Make sure you have a portion ready in your favourite gym bag.
Protein can also help you lose weight fast. Losing weight can go hand in hand with getting fit, and if you want to get fit, you should definitely check out our guide now. Nowadays, you can find many different protein powder varieties, let it be whey protein, casein protein or vegan protein, derived from a range of sources, like cow milk, pea, egg, hemp and more.
Fancy something high protein but maybe a bit more savoury? We have the list of the best jerky options, both beef and veggie/vegan.
Protein powder: what you need to know
There is a saying in gym-circles that goes like this: abs are made in the gym and revealed in the kitchen. This is true not only for abs, but most of your other muscles too. To build lean muscle mass, you have to take protein, ideally sourced from a variety off whole foods. And workout with the best dumbbells, best barbells and best kettlebells. Obviously.
Good sources of protein include lean meats such as chicken breast and lean steak, fatty fish like salmon, nuts, seeds (e.g. flaxseed, hemp seed), eggs and more. To aid muscle recovery and therefore gains, you will need to supply your body with protein on a regular basis, since we haven't got protein reserves.
What is the right amount of protein is a constant source of debate among professionals but the general consensus at the moment states that you'll need to take anything between 1.8-2.2 grams of protein per body kilogram per day if you do rigorous training.
Navigating the minefield of protein shake terminology can be a nightmare, as there are numerous types that all work differently and each is designed to be used at different times of day.
Whey and casein are two of the most common protein types, with the latter acting as a slow release protein that is usually taken before bed and assists the body in repairing and building muscle during rest.
Whey protein is by far the most popular fast-acting choice and can be taken at any time of day to meet your protein requirements. It's usually fashioned from a dairy derivative but many vegan plant-based options are now widely available.
When looking to invest, make sure you spend some time studying the nutritional information on the tub. Steer clear of added sugar, emulsifiers, chemical sweeteners and other nasties that are often included in cheaper products to bulk them out.
How to use protein powder
There are lots of contradicting schools of thought surrounding the optimum time of day to quaff a shake, but most agree that post-workout is a great time to get a shot of whey protein into the system.
The least calorific way to prepare a protein shake is to blend the powder with cold water in a shaker or blender, which typically leads to a thinner consistency and weaker flavour, but contains almost zero fat.
Of course, you can blend with cow's milk or vegan alternatives, bung in some peanut butter, a dollop of chocolate ice cream, a handful of cherries and whizz it into a blender for a truly opulent treat, but the waistline probably isn't going to thank you for it.
Either way, we recommend using a protein shake blender to achieve maximum consistency. You can just use a regular blender but these were designed for chopping ingredients as opposed to mixing them, resulting in a coarser shake.
There are also lots of online resources for those who wish to get creative and sprinkle some protein powder into their bakes and culinary creations, but we'd advise sticking to cold water and downing the stuff for the quickest and most convenient results.
Have one for breakfast, take it at lunch or drink before going to bed to top up the protein in your diet, but ensure you stick to the recommended daily allowance and don't overdo it.
Excessive protein intake can put additional strain on your kidneys and liver, which have to work harder to process the surplus nutrients.
Best whey protein powders
One imagines the product designers at Dioxyme as scientists and doctors in white lab coats, mixing different ingredients in vials, holding them up in the light to see how well they mixed. This is because every detail of Dioxyme products seem to be engineered to perfection: the ingredients, the nutritional profile, the taste, all working together in perfect harmony.
A good example of this tinkering is the Dioxyme Grass-fed Ultra Whey Protein. It is full of the best quality ingredients you might want to include in your dream protein powder, not to mention it just tastes great. Even if only mixed with water, the Dioxyme Grass-fed Ultra Whey Protein will have a phenomenal, rich taste that satisfies the taste buds with every gulp.
The Dioxyme Grass-fed Ultra Whey Protein is a combination of whey isolate 93 and whey concentrate 80: these take up 80% of the mix. The sweetener is organic stevia but even the rest of the ingredients are either non-GMO or organic. Definitely no nasties here.
Each 38-gram serving contains 27 grams of protein, 3 grams of sugar and less than 1 gram of fat. The amino acid profile is also impressive: there is no less than 18 different amino acids crammed into this products. All protein is sourced grass-fed cows and the product itself is paleo-, keto- and eco-friendly too; or so does Dioxyme claims.
A slight criticism – and the only one we can offer – is that although Dioxyme ships to the UK, you will need to pay custom tax which will be added to your total. Considering that the product is not cheap as it is, this might put some people off. If you are in the US, we strongly recommend upgrading your protein game and switching to Dioxyme, going forward.
You should supply your body with protein from a variety of sources but let's face it, you will have at least a protein shake or two a day. If that's the case, you might as well keep these muscle-building drinks as clean as possible. You don't want to ruin your gains with cheap protein powders, choke-full of hormones and additives.
Naked Nutrition's whey protein is as clean as it gets. In fact, this protein powder has only one ingredient and that is whey protein, sourced from grass-fed cows from small dairy farms in California, according to Naked Nutrition. We haven't been invited to check out the farms themselves so we have to take the manufacturer's word for it.
Some basic stats about the Naked Whey protein: it's GMO, soy, gluten and hormone free plus there are no rBGH or rBST present in the product either. It is also cold processed through an acid and bleach-free operation to make sure the final product is pure as snow. Not the snorty variety, though.
One serving of this magic powder (again, not the one that makes you over-excited) has 25 grams of protein and only 2 grams of sugar and fat (each). The only downside of Naked Whey is that you will have to flavour your shakes yourself or go for the 'Less Naked' version which has a bit more sugar in it.
The same unflavoured nature makes the Naked Whey ideal for cooking: protein pancakes, homemade protein balls and fruit shakes will all be cleaner using the Naked Whey protein powder.
Just for the record, Naked Nutrition has a vegan protein powder too called Naked Pea, which is cheaper and contains – you guessed it – pea protein. Actually, the Naked Pea has more protein content than the whey version: there is 27 grams of protein in each 30-gram serving. Not bad.
The Bulk Powders Natural Pure Whey Isolate 90 delivers 26 grams of protein per serving and the mix is flavoured naturally and sweetened using Stevia (a plant extract) as opposed to Sucralose.
The high-protein content found in Natural Pure Whey Isolate 90 is derived from grass-fed cows milk which and is claimed to be free from hormones, antibiotics and genetic modification.
On the downside, this protein powder comes only in two flavours, chocolate and strawberry, unlike Bulk Powders' 'everyday' whey protein, which comes in a million. Never mind, you can mix things up a bit and alternate between Isolate 90, vegan protein blends and Pure Whey and enjoy the benefits of them all.
Two details set the Foodspring protein powder apart from the competition: protein source and composition. Foodspring claims that all whey protein included in this product is from cows that spent at least 90% of their time outside and free to graze the pastures of New Zealand. This obviously makes the Foodspring Whey Protein more sustainable and quite frankly, a better product overall than most of the powders available on the market today.
Secondly, the Foodspring Whey Protein mixes really well, even with water, so no need to invest in the most elaborate protein shakers in order to get an end-product that is not just slightly flavoured liquid sprinkled with little clumps of protein powder. This might not mean much to some but for people who consume protein shakes on a daily basis, an powder that dissolves easily is heaven-sent.
Naturally, the Foodspring Whey Protein has a pretty good macronutrient profile: each 30-gram serving packs 24 grams of protein and only just over 1 gram of sugar and fat (1.3 and 1.1 gram, respectively). The powder is sweetened with Stevia so there is no funny aftertaste either, another positive in out books!
Much like any other premium protein, the Foodspring Whey protein comes in relatively small containers and carries a large price tag: you will have to pay the premium price for the quality ingredients. The larger container is 750 grams and if you take two servings today, you'll consume the whole tub in less then a fortnight. For this reason, the Foodspring Whey Protein is recommended more for maintaining muscle mass/dieting purposes as opposed to body building. For those people, this protein is an excellent choice.
The caramel chocolate flavour tested here is by far one of the most convincing flavours where whey protein is concerned and, thankfully, it lacks that nasty chemical taste that other cheaper rivals seem to possess.
It blends extremely well with water and is specifically engineered for some of the most demanding athletes on the planet, meaning it contains quality ingredients and shuns much of the chemical bulk found in rival powders.
An impressive 26g of protein in a single scoop should be enough to suit most needs, but we found ourselves opting for a second portion just to thicken up the drink a little and add some punch to the flavour.
Easy to guzzle, packed with important amino acids and incredibly low in fat and sugar content, this is our pick of the whey bunch for quick and effective results.
Optimum Nutrition is trusted by plenty of professional athletes around the world and its Gold Standard whey sits at the very top of its range.
With 24g of protein and 5.5g of BCAAs, it delivers a hefty dose of muscle-building nutrients with each scoop, although it's not exactly the most delicious thing to get down your gullet.
It mixes easily with water but the chocolate flavour does a mediocre job of representing a sweet treat. However, there are 17 flavours to choose from, so it's likely some are better than others.
SF Nutrition's Lean Whey Protein is not organic, nor is it vegan, but it is definitely worth your attention. The SF Nutrition Lean Whey Protein is one of the most naturally-tasting protein powder I had the pleasure to test and it's refreshing not to be offered a bazillion different flavours when it comes to buying a bag of protein. Let's face it, even the wackiest of flavours will taste boring by the time you finished that 2.5 kilo bag.
The tested flavour – Dark Chocolate – peaked my interest as I'm a big fan of fatty, high-cocoa chocolate (yet to try Montezuma's Absolute Black) so I was curious if the SF Nutrition powder delivered something that tasted similar than those type of sweets (in this case, bitters). And although it didn't quite taste like that, I must admit it's a relief as I'm not sure if I could stomach a bitter-tasting protein powder.
As for flavour, the SF Nutrition Lean Whey Protein is closer to how cocoa powder tastes like: subtle, ever so slight sweet twang and a bit of an earthiness, but not even remotely as earthy and gritty as meal replacement powders. It also has a decent amount of protein in each serving (21 grams) which is not crazy high but definitely good enough for a lean protein.
I recommend mixing a scoop with some Greek yogurt and mixing it with a spoon; the result will be a mousse-style dessert that's not too sweet but has plenty of carbs in it for a pre- or post-workout snack.
The Organic Protein Company Whey Protein is a good example of why organic supplements have more benefits than just being healthier than their regular counterparts. Sure, the protein used in the Organic Protein Company Whey Protein is derived from grass-fed cows and contains no additives, but it also delivers on texture, micronutrients and – most importantly – protein content.
Each 25-gram serving of the Organic Protein Company Whey Protein contains just under 20 grams of protein and only 0.6/1.3 grams of sugar and fat, respectively. This powder also mixes well and can be used with either milk or water; or you can just go crazy and use it with porridge or even savoury stuff (the unflavoured variety is best for this purpose).
Talking about flavour, the Organic Protein Company just came out with a brand new flavour to accompany the more traditional vanilla and chocolate varieties: strawberry, elderberry and beetroot. The new flavour is hopefully first of many upcoming exciting varieties, but if you excuse me, I must go now to have my third serving of strawberry, elderberry and beetroot protein today.
The Organic Protein Company Whey Protein contains all the essential and branched chain amino acids you need for muscle building and repair and it is also hormone free, gluten free, soya free and GMO free.
The downside? It costs twice as much as your run-of-the-mill whey protein. £22 for a 400-gram bag is definitely not cheap but in return, you can rest assured you don't pump your body full of chemicals, preservatives and unnatural additives.
Innermost is striving to distance itself from the rest of the meathead muscle crowd by unleashing several 'collections' of achingly hip products that all serve a different purpose.
Powders for assisting a detox, energy boosting concoctions, toning pills and recovery capsules are all available, but we're primarily interested in the great tasing whey protein, which is free from chemical nasties and focuses on natural additives to give it a punchy vanilla flavour and creamy texture.
It mixes well, features barely any fats or sugars and packs a massive 34g protein punch. Forget the stylish label, this is up there with some of the best performing proteins on the list.
Unlike the previously mentioned product from Norvia, the awkwardly named Whey Better range from Bio-Synergy strips away any sign of fat and sugar for one of the cleanest protein drinks around.
The chocolate flavour isn't particularly convincing and tastes pretty thin when mixed with water, while the ingredients list can look a little scary for those averse to chemical-sounding additives in their drinks.
Niacinamide, Calcium Pantothenate, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Thiamin Hydrochloride and the tongue-twisting Cyanocobalamin are all forms of additional vitamins and minerals, but the ingredients list makes the more plant-derived products more approachable on paper.
When you take your first steps into the world of protein powders, you’ll be surprised at the things you start to look out for. In the case of USN Essentials Dynamic Whey, it’s not that it helps your recovery after workouts (although it does) and it’s not that it’s great value for money (even though it is). It’s that it mixes well, leaving no lumps or bumps or sticky bits in your protein mix.
It’s something few protein powders get right so USN Essentials deserves credit for figuring out the solution to what seems to be a difficult problem. The flavours aren’t too exciting (Vanilla, Chocolate, etc) and there are better protein powders available, but for this price you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better option.
Best vegan protein powders
Vegan protein powders have come a long way and if you are a lifter with a plant-based diet, you can choose from many products in this day and age since all the major supplement manufacturers have at least one vegan protein powder to their repertoire.
Given the higher calorie amount found in The Protein Works' Vegan Wondershake, it can be added to our best weight gainer list too, but for the time being, we'll just leave it here.
The Vegan Wondershake has it all that made Vegan Protein Extreme great: it's high in protein (85%), low on sugar, virtually fat free and above all, has an acceptable taste.
Not just acceptable: it actually tastes good, especially in comparison to some other popular vegan meal replacement products. It is not recommended for weight loss, though, due to the high calorie content but if you are exercising more vigorously, definitely give the Vegan Wondershake a try.
To some degree, it's crazy to think that in 2020, plant-based protein powders can provide the same macro composition as their whey counterparts. On the other hand, given how popular the vegan diet is, it's really no wonder so many great vegan protein alternatives are available to buy.
One great example of this is the organic vegan protein mix from The Plant Era. Probably the best thing about it is just how thick it gets, even when just mixed with water: it feels more like a meal than a shake, excellent for bringing satiety levels down without succumbing to snacking.
As well as being thick, the The Plant Era organic protein also has the right macro numbers: each 30-gram serving has 21 grams of protein, only 2.2 grams of fat and virtually no sugar plus it also covers 50% of your daily B12 vitamin needs. The Plant Era protein also contains all 20 amino acids (essential and non-essential) to enhance your recovery and health.
The flavours are interesting too: there is dark chocolate and my favourite strawberry & basil to choose from. Granted, the flavours are not super strong and there is plenty of 'plant-based' flavour present, which is something you might be familiar with if you ever tried meal replacement powders before. The Plant Era organic protein is not as gritty as those but most certainly has an earthy flavour to it.
That aside, there really isn't a reason why you shouldn't try The Plant Era organic protein, even if you don't take vegan protein most usually. A little variety always helps.
As protein supplements go, we will stick our neck on the line and say the chocolate peanut offering from Form is genuinely enjoyable to drink, boasting a texture and flavour that isn't far off a proper milkshake.
It's also completely vegan-friendly, gluten-free and is derived 100 per cent from plant-based products, meaning there is a pleasing lack of chemicals on the ingredients list.
In fact, a single serving packs a whopping 30g of protein from brown rice, Algavia and hemp, with Stevia and Thaumatin sweeteners and natural flavours used to make the experience enjoyable.
Each serving also contains a complete amino acid profile and additional probiotics to help boost the immune system of anyone working hard in the gym or out on the field.
Blend it with water and it's enjoyable. Mix it with almond milk or another dairy-free alternative, throw in a banana and you have a genuinely tasty treat that's delivering a hefty dose of protein with every gulp.
The My Protein Vegan Protein Blend is crazy low on carbs – only 0.5 gram per serving – and has no sugar in it, at all. Like, zero amount. If you are looking for a clean protein powder, whether whey or vegan, the My Protein Vegan Protein Blend won't disappoint.
The Vegan Protein Blend is a blend of pea and fava bean protein isolates, in case you were wondering. It comes in two flavours, your everyday strawberry and the more adventurous chilli chocolate.
Not to mention, the My Protein Vegan Protein Blend only contains 102 calories per serving, but still packs 5 grams of naturally occurring BCAAs. Not bad at all.
Made from pea, hemp, alfalfa and pumpkin, the Vega Clean Protein really does live up to its name, while a distinct lack of sugar and fat make it one of the healthiest choices to go for.
Unfortunately, there is a hefty compromise on texture and taste, with the chocolate flavour tested here not really doing much for these tastebuds.
It requires a more vigorous mix than some of the other powders featured on this list but we did find it one of the easiest on the stomach, perhaps thanks to an additional digestive enzyme derived from pineapple.