There was a time when bodybuilders and the elderly were just about the only people to use protein supplements. No more!
Now: There’s an ever-increasing selection of protein powders available not just in health-food stores but also on the shelves of most US supermarkets and drugstores.
So which products contain the highest-quality ingredients at the best prices? For four top picks (see below), Bottom Line Health spoke with Tod Cooperman, MD, president and founder of ConsumerLab.com, which identifies the best health and nutritional products through independent testing.
Why We Need Protein
Our bodies need protein to build and maintain our muscles, bones and skin. Protein also helps keep our energy levels high and promotes weight loss in those who want to drop unwanted pounds.
Protein is especially important as we grow older. With each decade after age 30, we lose as much as 3% to 5% of our muscle mass, leading to weakness that also increases our risk for falls and broken bones. A recent report suggests that people with pronounced muscle loss, a condition known as sarcopenia, face more than twice the risk for a fall-related fracture.
Adults should get 0.36 g of protein per pound, according to the recommended dietary allowance. For example, someone weighing 150 pounds would need to get 54 g of protein daily. But research published in 2019 in The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging found that 30% of men and 45% of women ages 51 to 60 failed to meet this basic threshold…and 37% of men and 48% of women fell short during their next decade of life.
While foods (such as meat, seafood, dairy, legumes and nuts) should be our main sources of this vital nutrient, more and more people are turning to protein powders and drinks to help them get adequate levels in their diets. Such products are not only convenient, but also are free of the saturated fat and cholesterol that are often found in protein-rich foods.
Caveat: Protein—whether it’s from food or a supplement—is not a miracle fix. Regular resistance exercise, such as lifting weights or using weight machines, is also necessary. As part of an overall fitness program, older adults should do strength training two to three times a week. Strength-training regimens may include squats, wall push-ups and exercises, such as biceps curls, that use hand weights.
The Changing Face Of Protein
The proteins found in powders and drinks are no longer your run-of-the-mill dairy-based products, derived from whey or casein. There’s a recent push for more plant-based sources, including pea, hemp, rice, soy or other nondairy ingredients, which work well for people who are lactose intolerant.
Important: Because high protein intake can impair kidney function in people with kidney disease, they should talk to their doctors about how much and what types of protein they should consume. Some doctors advise increasing overall fluid intake when consuming a high-protein diet or protein supplements to help protect the kidneys, but this is probably not necessary if you have normal kidney function. Before adding a protein supplement to your diet, check with your doctor if you have any concerns.
ConsumerLab.com approves protein supplements based on their quality, value, taste and mixability. The products below also did not exceed contamination limits for lead, cadmium, arsenic or mercury. Among the top low-sugar powders tested by ConsumerLab.com…
MyProtein Impact Whey Isolate
- Protein source: Whey.Price: 52 cents per 20 g of protein.
- Why it’s a top pick: Low in carbs and virtually fat-free, this whey isolate (it contains only 0.31 g of lactose per serving) has a slight powdered-milk taste and blends well into drinks. It provides 22 g of protein per serving and 12% of an adult’s daily value for calcium. It’s gluten-free.
NOW Sports Pea Protein, Natural Unflavored
- Protein source: Pea. Price: 37 cents per 20 g of protein.
- Why it’s a top pick: Mixing easily and smoothly into liquids, this product enhances the taste of vegetable smoothies and provides 24 g of protein per serving. At 330 mg of sodium per serving, it’s slightly higher in sodium than most protein powders but is gluten- and lactose-free.
Nutiva Organic Hemp Protein
- Protein source: Hemp. Price: $1.04 per 20 g of protein.
- Why it’s a top pick: With a bountiful 8 g of fiber per scoop—one of hemp’s big benefits—this unsweetened supplement also has naturally high levels of potassium, iron, magnesium and zinc. Its complex but pleasant vegetable flavor is offset by a somewhat gritty texture that makes it less suitable for mixing with plain water but terrific in a smoothie. This powder provides 15 g of protein per serving. It has no measurable lactose but is not gluten-free.
Garden of Life Sport Organic Plant-Based Protein, Vanilla
- Protein source: Mixed. Price: $1.35 per 20 g of protein.
- Why it’s a top pick: Primarily pea-based but also containing navy, lentil and garbanzo beans as well as cranberry protein, this powder mixes easily and evenly into water and other thin beverages. It provides 15 g of protein per serving and has a clean vegetable flavor with only a slight artificial-sugar sweetness despite its stevia content. This gluten-free powder has no measurable lactose.