Best protein powders 2018: build muscle with the best whey and vegan options

Workout boosters rated for taste, vegan-friendliness and shredability, if that's a word

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The never-ending quest for that perfect body can be frustrating, as even the most experienced gym-goer can fail to grasp the importance of nutrition and a clean diet when bulking up, slimming down or generally honing that killer physique. That is where the best protein powders come in.

Ignore the phrase "abs are made in the kitchen", because pretty much every muscle is made in the kitchen and the one key element to building muscle is proooooottteeeein (protein). Chicken breasts, steaks, salmon, nuts and seeds are packed full of the stuff and people looking to add some serious muscle should be stuffing the previously mentioned foodstuffs into their gobs by the bucketload.

"Those undergoing a pretty intense training schedule, say hitting the gym four times a week or more, will need to ingest around 2.5-3 grams of protein per kg of body mass," explains performance nutritionist Josh Dyson, who advises top athletes at the Manchester Institute of Health & Performance (MIHP).

That's a whopping 210g of protein a day for the  average 70kg Joe, which equates to seven average chicken breasts in a 24-hour period. Which is a bit much, to be truthful. 

To make things even trickier on the stomach, Josh says that those training hard should aim to eat every three to five hours and each meal or snack should contain 20-40g of protein, as well as a good balance of carbs and other key nutrients. Can you see why this could be a pain in the glutes?

The humble protein shake aims to make intake a hell of a lot easier and decidedly less chicken-y. By blending powder into an easy-to-consume sweet shake, it tops up the protein levels without the associated cooking time and shopping trips.

How to buy the best protein powder 2018

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.

Spend a bit more cash and it's likely you'll get a much higher portion of quality protein per serving, while the more premium products also tend to blend easier with your chosen liquid.   

It's also a good idea to try a sample flavour before committing to a 1kg tub of the stuff, as taste can vary wildly across the various brands. We've tried to address this in our reviews below. 

Norvia as part of a balanced diet

How to use the best protein powder 2018

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.

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.

The best protein powders 2018, in order

Form Protein hits the spot

1. Form Performance Protein

A tasty, high protein vegan option

Type: Plant-based
Protein per serving: 30g
Sugars: 0.1g
Fat: 2.9g
Reasons to buy
+Amazing taste and texture+Plant-based protein +Added probiotics 
Reasons to avoid
-Some fat content

• Buy direct from Form Nutrition

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. 

USN Blue Lab 100% Whey 

2. USN Blue Lab 100% Whey

The best tasting whey by far

Type: Whey
Protein per serving: 26g
Sugars: 1.6g
Fat: 1.9g
Reasons to buy
+Great taste+Mixes well+Packed with amino acids
Reasons to avoid
-Not suitable for vegans-Expensive 

• Buy from Amazon, currently discounted (but then protein powder usually is…)

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.

ON Gold Standard 100% Whey

3. ON Gold Standard 100% Whey

Old school whey protein favoured by athletes

Type: Whey
Protein per serving: 24g
Sugars: 1.2g
Fat: 1.1g
Reasons to buy
+Widely used by pro athletes+Packed with amino acids+Good quality protein
Reasons to avoid
-Lacks flavour

• Buy from Amazon

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.

Norvia Active Performance 

4. Norvia Active Performance

Delicious… but packed with sugar

Type: Plant-based
Protein per serving: 19.8g
Sugars: 15.4g
Fat: 4.7g
Reasons to buy
+Tastes excellent+Vegan-friendly +Extra nutrients
Reasons to avoid
-High sugar content

• Buy direct from Norvia

Norvia is relatively new to the scene but its range of products (they also offer weight loss solutions) is predominantly plant-based and its branding is absolutely on-point.

The Danish company claims that it has been researching the benefits of a plant-based diet for over 30 years, while its Active Performance range combines all of the proteins, vitamins and minerals your body needs to prepare for exercise.

Arctic Chocolate tastes fantastic and mixes really easily with water, but the scrumptious flavour is probably down to the amount of sugar that's in every pouch. 

Hit one of these before or just after exercise and you'll be ok, but we'd suggest looking at one of the other low sugar brands if you're thinking of guzzling multiple shakes in a day. 

Vega Clean Protein

5. Vega Clean Protein

Not the tastiest but, as the name suggests, super clean

Type: Plant-based
Protein per serving: 25g
Sugars: 0.2g
Fat: 2.3g
Reasons to buy
+Low in sugar+Natural ingredients+Easy to digest
Reasons to avoid
-Weak taste

• Buy from Amazon

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.

Bio-Synergy Whey Better

6. Bio-Synergy Whey Better

Low fat, low sugar, admittedly rubbish name

Type: Whey
Protein per serving: 27.2g
Sugars: Trace
Fat: Trace
Reasons to buy
+Low in sugar and fats+High protein
Reasons to avoid
-Not a great taste

• Buy from Amazon

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 is a little scary for those averse to chemicals in their drinks.

Niacinamide, Calcium Pantothenate, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Thiamin Hydrochloride and the tongue-twisting Cyanocobalamin are all present here, making the more plant-derived products more appealing on paper. 

7. USN Essentials Dynamic Whey

Good, all-round protein powder

Reasons to buy
+Mixes well+Great for post workout recovery
Reasons to avoid
-Not as effective as more expensive options-Taste isn't for everyone

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.

8. MaxiNutrition Max Protein Shake Powder

The perfect entry-level protein powder

Reasons to buy
+Good entry level product+Well priced
Reasons to avoid
-Not the best tasting powder-Contains a lot of sugar

A big name in sports, MaxiNutrition has made its name by delivering high-end protein powders for professional athletes. Those protein powders contain benefits that are mostly irrelevant for us, such as how they don’t contain any substances banned by professional sporting bodies, so it’s good to see MaxiNutrition has also gone the other way with this entry-level protein powder. The key appeal here is the price, which makes it affordable way for those new to the world of protein powders. Word of warning: this has a lot of sugar and carbs, making it better suited to those who are endurance training rather than if you are looking to lift and build muscle.

9. Cute Whey Protein Shake

The protein powder for women

Reasons to buy
+Has free ‘fat buster’ eBook+Unusual cocktail flavours
Reasons to avoid
-Is it really tailored for women?-Pornstar Martini?!

In case the lipstick imprint and 'Cute' don’t give it away, this is a protein powder marketed at women. If you’re wondering how the protein powder differs from that aimed at men, it appears that it doesn’t in any significant way bar the available flavours – no surprise there then. You can choose from Pornstar Martini and Strawberry Daiquiri, flavours which are apparently gender-exclusive if Cute is to be believed. Otherwise, this is a protein powder that does what you expect a protein powder to – helps your protein intake, helps you recover after workouts and helps speed up metabolism.