Have you found it difficult and confusing to choose a whey protein powder? You’re not alone because choosing a whey protein powder now requires the skill of a wine connoisseur. The taste, types of cows used, grass-fed vs. grain-fed, heavy metal testing, artificial colors or sweeteners, cold processed vs. high heat, isolate, concentrate, hydrolyzed or ion exchange, etc. As you can see, it has become a science of its own to determine the best whey protein product for you beyond the amount of grams of protein.
The Differences Between Whey Concentrate and Whey Isolate
What are the biggest differences between whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate?
1) Whey protein concentrate costs less to produce than whey protein isolate and therefore should cost less money for you. This is usually a sign that a product has inferior quality, however, it isn’t true in this case.
2) A good whey protein concentrate usually has 80% protein compared to 90-96% protein in whey protein isolate. This is because concentrate contains small amounts of fat, cholesterol, and lactose, and isolate requires more processing to eliminate these further and increase the protein content. As you will see from the labels, we are only talking a difference of a few grams. However, if you are sensitive to lactose, isolate is going to be the better choice.
3) Whey protein concentrate’s distinct advantage comes containing more bioactive compounds found in the fat that positively influences hormones and immunity. Dietary fat and cholesterol are needed for testosterone production (and estrogen for women) and improves the absorption of key vitamins and carotenoids. The IgG immunoglobulins are a source of glutamine and cysteine needed for glutathione (master antioxidant system) and are bound to fat. CLA – while in a modest amount in fat and higher in grass-fed animals – is an important compound for burning fat and fighting cancer.
Do You Even Need Whey Protein Powder?
Are protein powders really necessary? I’ve grappled with this question for a while, and after reviewing hundreds of sports nutrition food diaries, I’ve concluded that a large percentage of the athletes I have seen do not get enough protein for their activity level. This is especially true post-recovery. Liquid protein post-workout is extremely effective and efficient for amino acids, protein, and minerals quickly to the muscles.
From my own experimenting, I have continually gone back to using whey protein because I can physically see the difference in my body. While you can maintain and repair with proper protein from fish, meat, and eggs, my opinion is that grass-fed whey protein gives you a distinct advantage for recovery and results. Plus, it is incredibly convenient for a quick breakfast or when you need something that digests quickly before your workout. Here are the best and worst whey protein powders.
How to Choose a Whey Protein
Here are your code words and phrases: Cold processed, whey concentrate or isolate depending on allergies or fat preference, tested low for heavy metals, hormone-free, grass-fed (more important for concentrate, and has an environmental bonus), affordable, and does not contain sucralose or any artificial color, artificial flavor, artificial sweetener or natural flavor that contains MSG. All whey protein in the United States is flash pasteurized. The process that follows is where the difference in retaining certain compounds changes.
In one study comparing cold processing to standard heat treatment, lactoferrin, transforming growth factor (TGF-?2), BSA and immunoglobulins were all found in higher levels in the cold processed whey. Some companies will provide testing for their levels of immunoglobulins and lactoferrin.
The Best Whey Protein Powders
1. Promix Grass-Fed Whey (67 servings, $1.19 per serving, 25 grams protein)
When I first wrote this article, there were not nearly as many grass-fed whey protein options as there are now. So as of July 2019, consider the ranking system updated. ProMix has taken remained at #1 since 2015 due to its excellent pricing in bulk. Currently, for 5 lbs. and 67 servings it is $79.99. That is roughly $1.19 for 25 grams of protein per serving. Compare that to some grass-fed whey protein powders that are 1-2 lbs. and more than twice that cost per serving.
Promix follows all the parameters of being grass-fed, antibiotic and hormone-free, non-GMO and cold-processed without any unnecessary or problematic additives. I reached out to the company, and they generously sent me a heavy metals report proving that it is exceedingly low in all those tested.
2. NorCal Organic Whey (36 servings, $1.80 per serving, 21 grams of protein)
NorCal Organic Whey is a very high-quality whey from Jersey cows in Humbolt and Del Norte counties in northern California. It would be great to get a comparison of whey protein powders based on the breed. Maybe I’ll get on that. I have been to these regions, and the pasture is very lush and healthy. This company is also very mindful of winter feed. “When harvested grasses are not enough to meet the cows increased nutritional and energy needs during winter months they are given an organic Non-GMO Project Verified blend of barley, alfalfa, corn, and minerals.”
NorCal Organic Whey is cold-processed, organic, antibiotic-free, does not use any bleaching or acid processing, tested for both heavy metals and all impurities, and is about as pure as it comes.
3. Vital Whey 2.5 lbs (56 servings, $1.06 per serving, 16 grams of protein)
This is a great economic deal for grass-fed whey from year-round pastures, but the protein content is a little lower at 16 grams. The company (Well Wisdom) performs testing annually to ensure that the highest amounts possible of the fragile immune fractions are retained in their native forms. These values are listed on the label (Immunoglobulins, Lactoferrin, and Serum Albumin).
4. Mt. Capra Products Double Bonded Goat Milk Protein (30 servings, $2.14 per serving, 20 grams of protein)
Mt. Capra was the protein powder of choice for the 2014 Superbowl winners, the Seattle Seahawks. According to Mt. Capra, “At the beginning of the season, we were approached by the certified nutritionist for the Seattle-based team and were informed that currently the team was being fed a GMO-laden soy protein powder at every team meal. This, of course, had to stop. The NFL’s premier team couldn’t settle for a protein powder (soy) that was highly allergenic, filled with dangerous phytoestrogens, and literally a frankenfood (GMO).
The team’s forward-thinking nutritionist inquired if Mt. Capra would be willing to start supplying our clean and digestible protein powders to the Seahawks. We, of course, were thrilled to partake in the success of our favorite NFL team and eagerly began sending large 40-pound boxes of protein to the team.”
There are multiple protein powders available through Mt. Capra. My favorites include Double Bonded Protein, Deep230 and Goat Whey protein that is only available through health care practitioners. I have talked with this company many times, and each time I’m very impressed with their process and attention to detail.
Mt. Capra has been making goat products since 1928, and continue to churn out superior products. All of the criteria is matched including the milk being grass-fed, organic, no artificial colors or flavors, GMO-free, they use refractance window drying for cold processing and own their own goat herd in my favorite place, the Pacific Northwest. Ingredients of Double Bonded Protein: Goat milk protein, fermented goat milk protein, organic cocoa powder, natural chocolate flavor, guar gum, xanthan gum, and stevia. *If you do not like the taste of goat products and do not have cow dairy sensitivities, stick with the cow.
5. Wild Whey Grass-fed Whey Protein (30 Servings, $1.67 per serving, 15 grams of protein)
Wild Whey concentrate comes from grass-fed cows in south Australia, ensuring pasture year-round and purity from pesticides, herbicides, and other toxins. Wild Whey claims to test for the highest levels of immunoglobulins, lactoferrin and serum albumin. It is sweetened with stevia, making it a good choice for people who like their protein shake a little sweeter. I have found that the stevia-sweetened whey powders go best mixed with plain yogurt.
6. Antler Farms Whey Protein Isolate (30 servings, $1.63 per serving, 26 grams)
If you are looking for a whey protein isolate instead of a concentrate due to lactose intolerance, Antler Farms from New Zealand provides an exceptional product. It provides 26 grams of cold-processed protein from cows fed on grass year-round with a clean ingredient list. This one is pretty sweet, so I recommend mixing it with plain yogurt.
The Worst Protein Powders
The standard formula for many whey protein powders (especially big companies) will include feedlot dairy fed GMO corn, GMO soy (from some reports even candy or turkey manure is thrown in!) treated with growth hormones and antibiotics, GMO soy lecithin, artificial sweeteners and possibly unhealthy levels of heavy metals. I’ve highlighted the main things to avoid on the label. Heavy metals will be hidden and need 3rd party testing, which also makes me wonder what else is hidden. One of the main sweeteners you will see used is sucralose.
Sucralose is an organochlorine. It has been found to wreak havoc on intestinal bacteria (up to 50% destruction) and express two p-450 enzymes, which activate carcinogens. Your beneficial bacteria is responsible for up to 80 percent of your immune system, your ability to lose fat, maintain selenocysteine levels present in the catalytic center of enzymes to protect the thyroid from free radical damage, and emerging research is connecting anxiety and depression to low beneficial bacteria populations.
You will see online forums try to downplay the issues with artificial sweeteners, but my question is if it doesn’t benefit you, why use it? I’ve added the popular brands here, however, you will find the label pattern is the same for the majority of these type of whey protein powders.
1. Muscle Milk If you can buy it in a can at a 7/11 or Rite Aid, you should probably be suspicious. I am still shocked to read that athletes are drinking this product. If you think that “cold processing” and “grass-fed” are just some fancy schmancy talk, then I’ll explain why this is so important. Here is an example of using heat for processing and getting milk from feed-lot cows.
What happens with this combination? You make number #1 on the list from Consumer Reports for toxic heavy metal contamination and get called Metal Milk. I don’t know about you, but I prefer a drink without excessive levels of cadmium, arsenic, mercury and lead. They have also felt the hot breath of the FDA on their neck for mislabeling their products, apparently because their product isn’t milk.
Let’s take a look at the ingredients: Muscle Milk Chocolate: Calcium and sodium caseinate, milk protein isolate, whey protein isolate, whey peptides, lactoferrin, L-glutamine, MCT, sunflower and/or safflower oil, canola oil, L-Carnitine, cocoa powder, maltodextrin, resistance maltodextrin, fructose, natural and artificial flavor, vitamin mineral blend, fructo-oligosaccharide, potassium chloride, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, soy lecithin. Here you have a combination of heavy metals, GMO’s, artificial sweeteners, harmful vegetable oils and allergenic dairy from feedlot cows.
What is acesulfame potassium aka acesulfame K? It’s often blended with other artificial sweeteners to yield a more sugar-like taste, which is why it gets less attention. Methlyene chloride is a solvent used in the beginning step of creating Acesulfame K.
What is methylene chloride? According to the EPA, it is predominately used as a solvent in paint strippers, removers, and pharmaceutical drugs, and as a propellant for insect sprays and aerosol paint sprays. Exposure from the inhalation of methylene chloride has been linked to headaches, nausea, memory loss, liver and kidney issues, visual and auditory dysfunction, cardiovascular problems and an increased rate of cancer.
According to this FDA 2003 document, “methylene chloride, a carcinogenic chemical, is a potential impurity in ACK resulting from its use as a solvent in the initial manufacturing step of the sweetener. In the past, FDA has assumed that methylene chloride is present in Acesulfame K at the LOD of 40 ppb (worst-case scenario) and has evaluated its safety by performing a risk assessment for methylene chloride-based on this level. No new information has been received to change FDA’s previous risk assessment for methylene chloride.” Do you know how much of this should be considered safe for human consumption? Zero parts per billion.
2. EAS Myoplex In the same study from Consumer Reports, EAS Myoplex had the highest amount of the toxic metal arsenic. According to the EPA, arsenic causes thickening and discoloration of the skin, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting; diarrhea; numbness in hands and feet; partial paralysis; blindness and cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, nasal passages, liver, and prostate.
Here are the ingredients: Water, Milk Protein Concentrate, Pea Protein Concentrate. Less than 2% of the Following: Corn Maltodextrin, Cocoa Powder (Processed with Alkali), High Oleic Sunflower Oil, Vitamin & Mineral Blend (Potassium Citrate, Potassium Phosphate, Sodium Ascorbate, Salt, Magnesium Carbonate, Zinc Gluconate, dl-Alpha-tocopheryl Acetate, Niacinamide, Manganese Gluconate, Calcium Pantothenate, Vitamin A Palmitate, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Thiamine Hydrochloride, Riboflavin, Chromium Chloride, Folic Acid, Beta-Carotene, Vitamin D3, Biotin, Sodium Molybdate, Sodium Selenite, Potassium Iodide, Phytonadione, Cyanocobalamin), Calcium Beta-Hydroxy-Beta-Methylbutyrate, Natural & Artificial Flavor, Cellulose Gum, Cellulose Gel, Acesulfame Potassium, Gellan Gum, Sucralose, and Carrageenan.
3. BSN Syntha-6 Protein BSN Syntha-6 Protein is the second highest selling whey protein on Amazon. All of the reviews are spent raving about the taste, that’s it. What people don’t realize is that companies use artificial sweeteners because they are addictive and send a signal to the brain to keep drinking or eating without an off switch. Studies have repeatedly shown that people who drink diet drinks or use artificial sweeteners actually gain fat because it increases carbohydrate cravings, worsens insulin sensitivity and stimulates fat storage.
So while you are using a protein to gain muscle, it contains artificial sweeteners to make you crave sugar and carbohydrates to pack on some fat with it, not to mention the other list of side effects they can cause. Aspartame has finally received the bad publicity it deserves, but many companies are still resorting to using the artificial sweetener acesulfame potassium and sucralose or Splenda as it’s known. Don’t be fooled by the politics and flawed studies involved with artificial sweeteners. They are big business like anything else and are subject to corruption. Both should be avoided.
Ingredients: A Sustained Release Ultra-Premium Protein Matrix Comprised of (Ultrafiltered Whey Protein Concentrate [Milk] Rich in Alpha-Lactalbumin, Microfiltered Whey Protein Isolate [Milk] Rich in Whey Isolate Peptide Fractions, Calcium Caseinate, Micellar Alpha and Beta Caseins and Caseinates [Milk], Milk Protein Isolate [Milk], and Egg Albumen [Egg], Glutamine Peptides), Richmix Sunflower Powder Consisting of (Sunflower Oil, Corn Syrup Solids, Sodium Caseinate [Milk], Mono- and Di-Glycerides, and Dipotassium Phosphate), Dutch Processed Cocoa Powder, Litesse II Polydextrose, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Nutrisperse MCT Powder Consisting of (Medium Chain Triglycerides, Non-Fat Dry Milk, Disodium Phosphate, and Silicon Dioxide), Ticalose Cellulose Gum, Sucralose, Acesulfame Potassium, Lecithin [Soy], Aminogen, and Papain.
4. TastyWhey by Adaptogen Science The first step is correct using a cold process for their whey concentrate, however, there is no mention of the source of the dairy. I was really surprised to see a product still using partially hydrogenated oils. In this case, it is partially hydrogenated coconut oil in the form of coconut powder, which also contains corn syrup solids, sugar, soy, and carrageenan. You may better know partially hydrogenated as synthetic “trans-fats,” the kind that the FDA has now banned in U.S. processed food within the next three years.
Now we have soy and canola oil used in processed foods and restaurants which really isn’t better at all, but that’s another story. Isolated fructose, artificial flavors, and sucralose are also combined in the protein, making this whole formula problematic on so many different levels.
Ingredients: Cold filtered processed whey protein concentrate, coconut powder (partially hydrogenated coconut oil, corn syrup solids, sodium caseinate, sugar, dipotassium phosphate, propylene glycol esters of fatty acids, mono and di-glycerides, sodium silicoaluminate, soy lecithin, carrageenan), cocoa, fructose, natural and artificial flavors, potassium chloride, guar gum, sucralose.
5. IsoPure Zero Carb IsoPure is a whey protein isolate, which if that’s all it was I would have no problem with it. While it makes a claim to be “aspartame free,” it follows the same formula of adding artificial flavors and sucralose as the other formulas. This product tries to differentiate itself by adding vitamins and minerals to the profile.
Upon first glance, you may not think much about it. But when you break down the forms of the vitamins and minerals, you see some shortcuts in the form of folic acid (best as methylfolate and certain people may need to avoid folic acid), cyanocobalamin (best as methylcobalamin), and magnesium oxide (worst form, only 4% absorbed).
“Natural flavor” also always needs to be confirmed by the company that it isn’t MSG, which spikes glutamate levels. If people are using multiple vitamin and mineral fortified powdered products, bars, and supplements, they can start getting higher doses of certain minerals like copper, selenium and manganese that can be problematic. For this reason, it is important to be aware of the collective totals in conjunction with your diet.
Ingredients: Whey protein isolate, vitamin and mineral blend (dicalcium phosphate, potassium chloride, magnesium oxide, ascorbic acid, sodium chloride, zinc sulfate, d-alpha tocopheryl acetate, niacinamide, calcium d-pantothenate, copper sulfate, manganese, sulfate, pyridoxine hydrochloride, riboflavin, thiamin hydrochloride, vitamin a acetate, chromium chloride, folic acid, d-biotin, potassium iodine, sodium molybdate, sodium selenite, phytonadione, cyanocobalamin, soy lecithin, l-glutamine, natural and artificial flavor, sucralose, xanthan gum.
6. TwinLab Protein Fuel Twinlab uses a blend with whey concentrate that is not from grass-fed cows. As you can see, it has a lot of fillers shared with the other formulas.
Ingredients: Whey protein blend (whey protein concentrates, whey protein isolate), glycine, natural and artificial flavors, non-dairy creamer (sunflower oil, corn syrup solids, sodium caseinate, dipotassium phosphate, mono and diglycerides, soy lecithin, silicon dioxide), cocoa, xanthan gum, guar gum, papain, bromelain, fructooligosaccharides, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, soy lecithin.
7. Quest Vanilla Milkshake Protein Powder Quest uses sucralose and carrageenan. There is research showing that “exposure to the common food additive carrageenan may lead to glucose intolerance and insulin resistance,” therefore contributing to the development of diabetes in mice.
There has also been some concern in studies looking at human intestinal cells that may translate to a pro-inflammatory response on the digestive system. Ingredients: Protein Blend (Whey Protein Isolate, Micellar Casein), Natural Flavors. Contains less than 2% of the following: Cellulose Gum, Sunflower Lecithin, Steviol Glycosides (Stevia), Salt, Carrageenan, Sucralose.
Avoid the hyped-up whey protein powders from guys with shaved chests and giant man nipples. Choose the companies with a smaller marketing budget that are using their resources for the highest quality whey, not man nipples.