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Ranking the best whey protein powder of 2021

Written by John Davis

Last updated: December 8, 2020

Whey protein is among the best sources of protein available, packed with essential amino acids the body can absorb quickly and use to build muscle and strength, as well as supporting weight loss. (1, 2, 3)

Whether you are looking to build lean muscle or just improve your diet with added protein, a whey protein supplement is a great way to go. Here are our research team’s rankings of the best protein powders on the market.

Rankings

1. Transparent Labs Grass-Fed Whey Protein

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Transparent Labs is one our top choices for a few reasons: it’s arguably the purest protein out there: no additives, no artificial sweeteners, no GMOs.

Just pure, grass-fed protein isolate – made from naturally fed, hormone-free cow whey and clean of food dyes, gluten, and preservatives.

It contains one of the market’s highest protein-by-weight ratios at 82% (24 grams of protein per 29.46 gram scoop), making it one of the ideal whey for a post-workouts and hitting your daily protein goals.

If you are going to invest in whey protein powder, this is Alpha XR’s top choice.   

2. Ladder Whey Protein Powder

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Ladder’s whey protein is NSF-certified for sport, making it the ideal choice for athletes and purists. It contains a mix of fast digesting whey isolates and slow digesting casein to maximize protein synthesis, recovery and muscle growth. 

Ladder provides two delicious flavors, using only natural cocoa powder and vanilla extract, without the use of any artificial sweeteners, colors, and flavors. We would recommend getting one of each to keep the variety.

3. Battle Ready Fuel Whey Protein

Whey Protein

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Battle Ready Fuel Whey Protein is an all-around excellent product. Mainly because it’s pure. They use 90% whey isolate to give your body the nutrition it needs, without messing around with fillers or extras.

It also packs in a ton of benefits. It promotes lean muscle growth, absorbs quickly to feed your muscles fast, contains very small amounts of carbs, fats, and sugars, and packs in 28g of protein per serving.

It’s about as close as you can come to just pure protein — everything you need to be ‘battle ready’ when you hit the gym, the court, or the field!

Plus, it has a rich triple-chocolate flavor that helps it to actually taste great.

4.  MyProtein Impact Whey Protein

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The simple foil packet and design of MyProtein Impact Whey Protein is representative of the company’s overall philosophy.

The goal is to provide pure, high-quality supplements in a cost-effective way.

For this reason, it comes in a resealable bag instead of a protein tub.  It also only has two ingredients, whey protein isolate and soy lecithin, an emulsifying agent which helps the powder disperse better in solutions.

It includes no preservatives, but this should not be a big issue—protein isn’t a fertile ground for growing bacteria until it’s been mixed with water (the pure powder is just too dry).

The flavored varieties of MyProtein Impact Whey add only a couple additional ingredients; usually it’s a natural flavoring, the non-caloric sweetener sucralose, and sometimes a coloring agent.

5. Levels Nutrition Whey Protein

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Levels Nutrition has a reputation for carefully formulated, high-quality and well-tested supplements. It’s super-pure and has a high concentration of protein.

There are no added sugars, sweeteners, or preservatives.  Notably, the lack of soy lecithin is good news for people who can’t eat soy-containing foods—almost every other protein supplement includes soy lecithin.

6.  Jarrow Formulas Whey Protein

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Jarrow Formulas Whey Protein is a protein purist’s dream—the only two ingredients are whey protein and soy lecithin, which is used as an emulsifying agent.

If the bland, chalky taste of unflavored protein is not your cup of tea, try the flavored varieties; if you are a purist and don’t want any extras in your supplement, go for the unflavored variety.  Either way, it’s hard to go wrong with Jarrow Formulas Whey Protein Powder.

7.  Legion Whey +

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The black container and subdued labeling suggest that this whey protein supplement means business.

Its whey protein isolate, which comes from non-GMO sources, makes up 79% of the weight of each serving of Legion Whey +.

It’s flavored lightly with maltodextrin (a complex carbohydrate included in a very small amount for flavoring purposes; it also comes from a non-GMO source), plus the natural sugar substitute stevia leaf extract.

One attractive property about pure whey protein isolates, like Legion Whey +, is that they are almost completely lactose-free, so if you have mild lactose intolerance, you may still be able to use whey protein.

8.  MET-Rx Natural Whey Protein

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 MET-Rx Natural Whey is a protein powder that delivers whey-derived protein in two forms, protein isolate and protein concentrate.

The total protein content amounts to just under 70% by weight, which is slightly below average, but not outrageously so.

The rest of the ingredients just provide flavoring, sweetening, and stability.  Notably, this whey protein supplement is sweetened using both fructose and the natural sugar substitute stevia, so it is not sugar-free.

9.  Bodylogix Natural Whey Protein

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Bodylogix Whey Protein Isolate uses a whey protein blend, which includes whey protein isolate, whey protein concentrate, and whey protein peptides. As such, the protein content is quite high, with 88% of the product contents being protein by weight.

The major drawbacks to BodyLogix Natural Whey Protein are its use of a protein blend instead of pure isolate (though a pure isolate version is available), the numerous sugar substitutes, and a few excessive ingredients, like multiple emulsifiers.

Not all of these will matter to most people, so if a high protein content is what you are after, this is a good choice.

10.  Optimum Nutrition 100% Whey Gold Standard

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Optimum Nutrition is a big name when it comes to whey protein.  This powder-based supplement includes a blend of whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, and whey protein peptides.  It’s also arguably the best-tasting whey protein powder on the market.

One unique selling point of Optimum Nutrition’s whey protein offering is the inclusion of aminogen and lactase, a blend of enzymes that aid digestion of the protein powder.

Aminogen is a patented enzyme blend that is supposed to increase absorption of branched chain amino acids, while lactase is a well-known enzyme that helps you digest dairy products (including whey).

If you have mild lactose intolerance, you might still be able to tolerate a protein shake with Optimum Nutrition Whey Gold Standard on account of the lactase enzymes included.

11.  Body Fortress Super Advanced Whey Protein

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Many of the whey protein supplements on this list take a minimalist approach to their product.  Not so with Body Fortress—in addition to whey protein isolate, it includes a blend of several amino acids to boost recovery and adjust the relative ratios of the essential and nonessential amino acids present in the powder.

Whether this kind of maximalist strategy is right for you has to do with whether you believe a closely calibrated amino acid profile is going to be worth it for you.

Category winners

Best whey protein overall: Transparent Labs Grass-Fed Whey Protein

Transparent Labs combines highly purified whey protein with all-natural flavoring and stevia, which makes for a great-tasting and incredibly versatile all-around whey protein.

Best whey protein for bodybuilders: Battle Ready Fuel Whey Protein

With over 90% of this protein powder consisting of whey protein isolate, Battle Ready Fuel provides bodybuilding with the purest and most concentrated supply of building blocks for muscular hypertrophy. Plus, thanks to the natural cocoa flavoring, you won’t get tired of the taste. 

Best whey protein for women: Ladder Whey Protein Powder

Ladder distinguishes itself by providing great-tasting whey protein that’s bolstered by vitamins, minerals, and probiotics. It’s great for women who need a meal replacement shake, or a post-workout pick-me-up. 

Best tasting whey protein: Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Double Rich Chocolate

Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard wins wide accolades for its taste, which is a big factor if you’ll be using protein multiple times per day. Taste bud fatigue can be a real problem, but not with Optimum Nutrition. 

Best whey protein for weight loss: Ladder Whey Protein Powder

Ladder’s combination of rapid and slow-absorbing forms of protein mean it helps increase your metabolism and tamp down on hunger cravings for longer, making it easier to stick to your weight loss plan over the long-term. 

Best whey protein for men: Transparent Labs Grass-Fed Whey Protein

Transparent Labs is a great option for men, with its focus on providing pure whey protein isolate and its lack of added sugars. Whether your goal is cutting fat or boosting muscle mass, Transparent Labs is the perfect pick for men serious about their physique. 

Who should buy whey protein powder?

If you are just looking for a basic protein powder for fitness or health, and you don’t have any particular needs or dietary restrictions, whey protein powder is the choice for you.

Whey protein has an excellent amino acid profile, making it well-suited as both a protein for weight loss and a protein for high level athletic performance.

Whey protein is high-quality and low cost, so if you don’t need a protein that is vegan, or dairy-free, or paleo-friendly, whey protein should be your default option.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that whey protein is just for athletes, though. Whey protein powder has been successfully used to increase muscle mass in elderly people, and induce weight loss in people who are overweight or obese.

The versatility and flexibility of whey protein are one of its primary strengths, and almost all research on the generic effects of protein supplementation uses whey protein for this very reason.

How we ranked

The sheer number of whey protein products on the market is intimidating. To narrow them down, we only considered products that are 100% whey protein, not a mix of whey and other proteins.

We also eliminated protein products that were primarily designed as a meal replacement shake, as the focus of the ingredients in a product like this are going to be somewhat different than a proper whey protein powder.

After narrowing down the field, we focused closely on a balance between purity and taste. Highly pure whey protein powders, like MyProtein Impact Whey, are great from a purity and minimalist perspective, but the bland and chalky flavor can be off-putting.

If you’re trying to gain muscle and need to eat a lot of supplemental protein every day, a bad-tasting protein powder can serious limit your gains. So, we made sure to include good-tasting protein powders as well.

However, for protein powders that were flavored, we had a strong preference for those that used natural flavors and natural sweeteners like stevia as opposed to artificial sweeteners.

We downright eliminated anything that relied too heavily on sugar for flavoring, as the negative metabolic effects of sugar in your whey protein powder are too hard to ignore.

Finally, we analyzed the absolute protein content of the whey protein powders. This gave a slight advantage to unflavored formulations, because by virtue of their lack of alternative ingredients, they can pack in slightly more protein by weight.

Still, after sorting by quality, purity, and taste, our rankings contained a good balance of pure and unflavored whey protein powders, as well as great-tasting flavored formulations that don’t sacrifice much when it comes to quality, natural ingredients. Our research team thinks these are the best whey protein powders available right now.

Benefits

Whey is the watery part of milk that’s left over during the cheese-making process. It accounts for 20% of the protein, with the remainder found in casein, the fatty and more solid parts.

Before the value of whey protein was understood, this liquid was discarded. Processing transforms it into whey powder that can be added to shakes and smoothies and used in meal replacement products or protein bars. (7)

It’s not much in the flavor department, so products are usually enhanced with additives; reading labels will help you avoid getting a ton of sugar you don’t want.

Whey protein is a great way to increase protein intake by 25 to 30 grams daily, especially for body builders and athletes; it’s not a good choice if you’re lactose intolerant, and some people may find they have an allergy to whey. (8)

Whey protein provides the amino acids you need to build muscle. You’ve probably heard proteins are the building blocks of our bodies; it’s needed to make everything from molecules, enzymes and hormones to tendons, skin, organs, and muscle tissue.

The building blocks of proteins are amino acids. Our bodies make some of these amino acids, but the ones we can’t make, called essential amino acids, must come from food.

Some foods have only some of the essential amino acids, but whey powder has all of them, which makes it a superior choice for protein needs.

Whey powder is rich in Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA) like leucine and cysteine. (9) Leucine is vital for promoting growth, and it also increase levels of glutathione, the antioxidant made in cells. (10)

Human breast milk is even richer in whey than cow’s milk at 60% (11), providing a growing baby with plenty of raw materials.

Of the types of whey powder available, whey concentrate may be the best choice, depending on needs. It usually has the best flavor and runs at between 70% and 80% protein. It has the highest fat content as well as more milk sugar (lactose).

Isolate can be 90% or higher in protein content with less fat and lactose, but some of the beneficial nutrients in concentrate have been removed.

Hydrolyzed whey, or hydrolysate, is actually pre-digested and absorbed much faster than isolate; this can cause blood sugar spikes. (12)

Concentrate is the most popular product, but people who have trouble tolerating it, or those who need to keep carbs low and protein high, may want to try isolate, which is what was used in the studies we’ll refer to below.

Whey protein can increase muscle mass. By far the most common use of whey protein is by body builders and athletes, but it can help anyone build muscle and increase strength.

Because it’s so absorbed so quickly, it can be used as a protein source much faster than other types. (13) Whey protein stimulates muscle protein synthesis; leucine works at a genetic and molecular level. (14) It also increases the release of anabolic hormones like insulin that stimulate muscle growth. (15) Delivers protein and amino acids the body can use as building blocks for muscle mass.

The greatest amount of activity in building muscle occurs after a workout (16, 17).

Whey protein stimulates the production of more muscle than soy protein (19) , but when it was compared to casein, results showed whey performs better in the short term and casein better over the long term. (20, 21)

Using whey protein makes a dramatic difference if the diet is lacking in protein, but won’t have a great effect if adequate protein is already included. One study of elderly subjects adding whey protein to a diet that contained plenty of protein showed no changes over a three-month period of resistance training. (22)

Protein is the most satisfying of the macronutrients, and can boost metabolism, help reduce cravings and cut calorie consumption by more than 400 daily, promoting weight loss. (23, 24, 25)

One study showed that replacing other calories in the diet with whey protein triggered weight loss of about 8 pounds when combined with weight lifting. (26)

Whey protein is an excellent choice for anyone on a weight loss diet, because it protects muscle mass; when the numbers on the scale go down, you can be sure it’s fat you’re losing, not muscle. (27, 28)

Not only can whey protein help you build muscle, strength and a lean body, it also provides a range of other health benefits. Including it in your diet can improve circulation and lower blood pressure. (29) It may also drop cholesterol levels. (30)

Whey protein has been shown to reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes through improving blood sugar levels, and your chances of becoming obese fall dramatically. (31)

If you’re feeling stressed or depressed, whey protein decreases levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and jacks up serotonin levels in the brain, promoting mood elevation. (32)

Whey protein can assist with weight loss. Protein is not usually considered as a weight loss supplement, but whey protein exerts some significant effects on excess body fat when used as part of weight loss program.

This was demonstrated in a randomized controlled trial published in 2008 in the journal Nutrition & Metabolism (33). The study had two groups of subjects, both of which were randomly assigned and both of which completed a weight loss program.

One group additionally took a whey protein supplement during the weight loss program, while the other group took a placebo beverage that included the same amount of calories.

Since both groups reduced their caloric intake by 500 calories per day, they both lost weight, but the researchers were able to show that the group that was taking the whey protein drink lost more fat mass, and preserved more lean body mass. Results like these show that the number on the scale is only part of the story with weight loss.

When losing weight, you want to drop fat mass, but preserve lean body mass, and results from studies like this and others like it suggest that whey protein could be a very useful tool for achieving this objective.

Side effects

Since whey protein is derived naturally from dairy, it is extremely safe. The only people who might experience acute side effects from whey protein powder are people who have a dairy allergy, which could potentially be triggered by some of the molecules in whey protein.

Whey protein powder is low in lactose, but it is not entirely free from lactose, according to the Whey Protein Institute (34).

If even small amounts of lactose are a problem for you, or if you have a dairy allergy, you should consider one of the many types of vegan protein powders, like hemp protein or pea protein.

Another potential side effect of very large protein consumption for long periods of time is inhibition of calcium levels (35).

Because protein can increase calcium excretion, high protein diets have been connected with a greater risk of osteoporosis over long periods of time.

However, this is a risk that’s shared across all types of protein, and is not limited to whey protein in particular. Athletes supplementing with the recommended amounts of whey protein powder are very unlikely to experience significant calcium losses.

High intakes of protein are not recommended to people with kidney disease, since the kidneys have to work harder to digest protein compared to other macronutrient sources.

This recommendation has led to speculation over whether athletes taking high levels of protein could experience a decline in kidney health.

However, even research on healthy bodybuilders who take quite a lot of supplemental protein (nearly three grams per kilogram of body mass per day) has not uncovered any evidence that high levels of protein supplementation carries any risk of negative side effects in the kidneys in healthy athletes (36).

Recommended dose

Protein is an easy topic to research, and as a result, nutrition science researchers have come up with very specific recommendations for protein dosing for specific applications.

For endurance athletes, the current recommendations are 1.2 to 1.4 grams of protein per kg of body weight per day, while for strength athletes, protein intake should be at least 1.6 and potentially up to 2.0 grams per kg of body weight per day (37, 38).

These guidelines are not without their critics, however, and it should be noted that many bodybuilders elect to take up to 2.8 grams of protein per kg of body fat per day, without any apparent problems.

In contrast, when using protein for weight loss, the optimal amount seems to be around 50 grams, regardless of body size.

This is based on weight loss research which has found that supplementation with this amount of whey protein powder can generate thermogenesis and increase the amount of weight lost, especially when compared to isocaloric supplements (e.g. a carb-based drink with an equivalent amount of calories).

FAQ

Q: Is whey protein powder good for you?

A: Whey protein powder is a great source of amino acids and highly pure protein without much in the way of carbs or fat. If your protein needs are high, as they are for most athletes, whey protein powder is a good way to fulfill these needs.

Whey protein has even been studied as a way to help older adults with low muscle mass improve their strength and body composition, so don’t think that only athletes can benefit from whey protein powder.

Whey protein is also good for weight loss, because it provides your body with protein without extraneous calories. So, whey protein is beneficial on both fronts: athletes who are looking to add muscle mass, and people who are overweight or obese and want to drop body fat while preserving muscle mass.

Q: Is it safe to use whey protein powder?

A: For most people, whey protein is very safe to use. Even at the very high doses used by bodybuilders, whey protein is not associated with any negative health effects.

There are only two categories of people who should not use whey protein, and these are people who have dairy allergies or serious lactose intolerance, and people who have kidney disease. Since whey is derived from dairy, it makes sense that it could cause problems for people with a dairy allergy or an inability to process lactose in their body.

With regards to kidney problems, high levels of protein intake can stress the kidneys more than a low protein diet. This is not a problem for healthy people (as mentioned earlier, studies on bodybuilders find that their kidneys are perfectly healthy even with very high protein supplementation levels), but if you have renal disease, doctors recommend you limit your dietary protein intake.

Q: What does whey protein do for your body?

A: Whey protein delivers the amino acids that your body needs to rebuild and maintain muscle tissue. That’s why it’s so popular among weight lifters and bodybuilders, not to mention athletes of all types.

The amino acids in protein also require more energy expenditure by your body to break down, so they have a mild thermogenic effect compared to other types of macronutrients.

That, combined with the fact that whey protein increases your feelings of fullness (satiety), make it well-suited for weight loss, and you’ll find whey protein as the main ingredient in many meal replacement shakes.

Whey protein helps keep your overall calorie intake lower, while delivering the protein your body needs to maintain muscle mass even as you drop fat mass.

Q: What are the dangers of using whey protein?

A: Since it’s naturally derived from dairy, whey protein is quite safe. Unless you have severe lactose intolerance, a dairy allergy, or pre-existing kidney disease, whey protein poses no danger, even when taken at very high levels.

Some bodybuilders take up to three grams of whey protein per kilogram of body mass per day, but even intakes at this high magnitude have no detectable negative effects on, for example, kidney function.

In terms of safety versus efficacy, whey protein is one of the most desirable supplements out there, because it is both very effective and extremely safe.

Q: Is whey protein good for weight loss?

A: Yes, whey protein has been repeatedly used successfully as a way to enhance or maintain weight loss. While it might seem strange that taking a whey protein supplement, which contains a significant amount of calories, would help you lose body fat, there are some more subtle nutritional mechanisms going on under the hood.

First off, the complex molecular structure of the amino acids in whey protein mean that your body has to expend more energy to break them down compared to an equivalent amount of, say, carbohydrates.

Thus, whey protein exerts a thermogenic effect. On top of this effect, protein is also a very effective way to stimulate your body’s satiety response, which is the feeling of fullness that you get after a large meal. So, in this respect, whey protein acts as an appetite suppressant too.

Research on people engaged in weight loss programs has found that whey protein supplementation can increase the amount of fat loss and decrease the amount of lean body mass loss, which makes your weight loss program more effective in the context of overall body composition.

Q: Are there benefits to unflavored whey protein?

A: Unflavored whey protein powder is popular among people who are minimalists with regards to supplement design.

If you want 100% pure whey protein, with no sweeteners, flavoring agents, binders, or fillers, an unflavored whey protein powder is the way to go.

Unflavored whey protein is a good ingredient for a shake or a smoothie, but if you are just mixing up your protein powder with water, you’ll probably want something with some flavor to it. Hopefully, that flavor will come from something natural, like stevia and natural chocolate, versus synthetic flavors and artificial sweeteners.

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Recap

Researchers believe the high amounts of cysteine may be one of the reasons whey protein has so many health benefits. This essential amino acid stimulates production the cellular antioxidant glutathione (39, 40).

More is not necessarily better when it comes to protein, because your body can only utilize a certain amount. Most people should stick to the recommended dosage on package labels, which usually runs at 25 to 30 grams.

The range of bioactive compounds found in whey protein can help you build muscle and strength, reduce appetite and lose weight, as well as improving vital health markers like blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

For Alpha XR‘s #1 whey protein powder recommendation, click here.

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John Davis