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)
Among the potent biological agents in whey protein are substances that can help decrease blood pressure and blood sugar, and treat symptoms of cancer, HIV and depression. (4)
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's our #1 choice for a whey protein supplement:
1. True Recovery Smart Protein
Smart Protein comes from a smaller fitness shop out of California, but their premium protein is the best our panel has tested.
Super easy to digest, smooth flavor, and no sugars or additives.
“100% non-denatured native whey concentrate. Delicious vanilla taste and naturally sweetened with stevia.”
Perfect for the post-workout whey shake, 3 scoops gets you 45 g of protein.
2. Transparent Labs Grass-Fed Whey Protein
Transparent Labs is a solid choice 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.
Comes in Chocolate or Vanilla flavors – I would recommend getting one of each to keep the variety.
3. MyProtein Impact Whey Protein
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.
Independent lab testing has verified the protein content of MyProtein Impact Whey—77% of the supplement is protein by weight, which is about as good as a whey protein supplement can get.
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.
4. Do Vitamins WonderWhey
Do Vitamins has a reputation for carefully formulated, high-quality and well-tested supplements.
The WonderWhey, advertised with a superhero-caped cow on the container, lives up to this reputation admirably.
It contains 78% protein by weight, and the sole, singular ingredient is organic whey protein concentrate.
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.
Of course, its absence means you may have a harder time getting it to mix in well with your protein shakes or smoothies. Try using a whisk ball from a Blender Bottle, or shaking up the mixture extra vigorously. You may have to settle for some chunks in the solution.
Do Vitamins WonderWhey is one of the few whey protein supplements to carry LabDoor's “Tested for Sport” certification. This means it has been independently assayed for the presence of contaminants that would trigger a positive doping test.
These kinds of precautions aren't just for pro athletes anymore—local running races, weight lifting competitions, triathlons, and the NCAA all test for prohibited substances, and some unscrupulous supplement companies have been found selling supplements that are contaminated (intentionally or accidentally) with steroids or banned hormones. (5)
Having a Tested for Sport certification gives you peace of mind that your supplement is exactly what you paid for.
5. Jarrow Formulas Whey Protein
As a leading producer of a number of bodybuilding and strength-related supplements, it should be no surprise that Jarrow Formulas offers a whey protein supplement. Its best-selling variant is the unflavored version, which is a protein purist's dream.
The only two ingredients are whey protein and soy lecithin, which is used as an emulsifying agent—it helps the protein powder, which is not usually soluble in water, form a fine, suspended dispersion within a solution, whether that's milk, a smoothie, or straight tap water.
According to the nutrition facts, Jarrow Formulas Whey Protein is over 78% protein by weight. The absense of any artificial flavors or sweeteners makes it an attractive option for people who like to stick to natural foods, and the unflavored variant can be mixed with just about anything.
The flavored varieties add in fructose (which increases the sugar content from zero grams per serving to four grams per serving), natural flavoring agents, guar gum, a patented complex carbohydrate called Fibersol-2, and a natural non-caloric sweetener called Lo Han Guo.
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.
6. Legion Whey +
The black container and subdued labeling suggest that this whey protein supplement means business.
Its whey protein isolate, which comes from non-genetically modified 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.
For flavoring, it includes natural flavors, plus an emulsifier and a bit of tapioca starch, likely with similar emulsifying properties.
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.
The whey protein concentrates and whey protein isolate blends usually have higher lactose contents and are thus unusable for people who are lactose intolerant.
7. MET-Rx Natural Whey Protein
A well-selling and popular supplement, 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.
If you are on a low carb diet, a ketogenic diet, or any health approach that limits sugar intake, you should know that fully 15% of the content of MET-Rx Natural Whey is sugar.
This might seem trivial, but the absolute amount (five grams per 33 gram serving) is something to think about, as the American Heart Association sets the recommended maximum sugar consumption per day at 36 grams per day for men and 24 grams per day for women. (6)
If you have a protein shake after your workout and again before bed every day, this could quickly become a major source of added sugar in your diet.
8. Bodylogix Natural Whey Protein
Though its simple brown packaging might make you think that Bodylogix Whey Protein Isolate is a hyper-minimalist product, that isn't quite right. It uses a whey protein blend, which includes whey protein isolate, whey protein concentrate, and whey protein peptides.
This means it's unsuitable for people who are lactose intolerant, but others should do just fine with it. It also includes natural flavoring agents and the sugar alcohol erythritol and stevia as non-caloric sugar substitutes.
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.
9. Optimum Nutrition 100% Whey Gold Standard
As easily the number one seller on Amazon.com, Optimum Nutrition is a big name when it comes to whey protein. Their various sizes and flavors fill out many shelves and online stocking selections.
The powder-based supplement includes a blend of whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, and whey protein peptides. It also includes artificial flavoring to mask the chalky flavor of protein, which not all users enjoy.
In terms of pure protein content, this formulation was measured in independent lab testing as containing 74% protein by weight.
Optimum Nutrition Whey Gold Standard is sweetened with acesulfame potassium, a synthetic sweetener which has some controversy surrounding whether it is safe or not.
It's approved as a food additive by the United States Food and Drug Administration, but critics point to studies in mice that appear to show negative cognitive and health consequences after chronic exposure to dietary acesulfame potassium, so if that's something you are concerned about, you may want to look elsewhere for your whey protein needs.
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.
10. Body Fortress Super Advanced Whey Protein
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.
The formulation also includes taurine, which might stand out—the label notes that small crystalline clumps of taurine might be present in the powder, and not to worry about them.
Because of these extra ingredients, the actual protein content of the supplement powder is slightly lower than average—73% of the product is bound protein, by weight.
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. Body Fortress is more expensive per serving of protein than other supplements, so only choose it if the amino acid profile is worth the extra cost
11. Bulletproof Upgraded Whey Protein
If you follow dieting and nutrition, the name Bulletproof probably rings a bell for you. The company, founded by “Bulletproof Coffee” advocate Dave Asprey, has now branched out into other supplements.
As you might guess, this is no standard whey protein supplement. Bulletproof Whey Protein applies the same logic to this supplement as it does to its coffee—namely, that adding medium chain triglycerides (fats) to the supplement will kick-start your body's metabolism, giving you more energy and boosting your workout.
The actual fat content is not that high; one 14 gram serving only contains 1.5 grams of fat. This does lower the overall protein content of the supplement, though; according to the label and confirmed by independent lab testing, each serving of Bulletproof Whey Protein is only about 60% protein by weight.
The fact of the matter is that you will be paying extra, both because the protein content per serving is lower than the average whey protein supplement, and because you are paying for the specialized fat blend and the branding associated with Bulletproof products.
If this is what you are looking for—say, if you are on a very low carbohydrate diet and are a Bulletproof philosophy enthusiast, Bulletproof Whey Protein might be a good choice.
However, if you are just looking for a solid protein supplement for your next workout, there are probably better options out there.
12. Jay Robb's Whey Protein
The foil-package based protein powder made by weight loss and fitness guru Jay Robb has some flashy advertising and packaging, but in terms of substance, it does not really distinguish itself from the rest of the products on the market.
It is based around whey protein isolate, alongside natural flavoring and the non-caloric sweetener stevia for sweetness, and includes soy lecithin and xanthan gum as emulsifiers.
The inclusion of two emulsifying agents might make this protein powder a little easier to blend up in a solution, but that's hardly a reason to choose this over another supplement.
The protein content is good; just over 80% of the product's contents by weight is pure protein. However, this isn't substantially higher than many other products on the market.
The fact of the matter is that you will pay a premium for the Jay Robb branding, and given that this supplement doesn't have any other outstanding qualities, you'd be better off saving some money and going for a protein supplement that offers better value in terms of dollars per serving of protein.
Part 2: What is whey protein and how does it effect your body?
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)
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.
The Effect of Whey Protein on Strength and 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.
Here’s how it works:
- Because it’s so absorbed so quickly, it can be used as a protein source much faster than other types. (13)
- Stimulates muscle protein synthesis; leucine works at a genetic and molecular level. (14)
- 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), but the process is more dependent on total daily intake of protein. (18) As long as you’re getting the amount you need, take it whenever you like.
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)
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)
General Health Benefits
Not only can whey protein help you build muscle, strength and a lean body, it also provides a range of other health benefits.
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)
It may even support longevity. Laboratory studies show mice live longer when they eat whey protein. (39)
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. (40, 41)
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.
Summary: 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.