What Should You Look For In A Protein Powder?

There are many things you need to consider when trying to choose what protein product will best suit your needs. I will go over those things and hopefully by the end you will be more confident and prepared to find one that's right for you!

It was a cold Thursday in October and I had just finished a brutal leg workout and was drinking my post-workout shake. I was in the dressing room, my locker was open and I was getting dressed, ready to leave. Suddenly an old friend approached and started a conversation. "Hello Mike" I said, "It is good to see you again."

As we caught up on old times Mike mentioned that he had a "question or two" to ask me about something he was thinking of buying. "It is so confusing" he said "I go into the stores and the websites and there are a million and one different powders, bars and drinks to choose from. I'm a beginner and I know almost nothing about these things. I know you're a writer and you have experience with these sorts of things.

I don't want to get scammed. Can you help me?" As always I indicated that I would be more than happy to help. "What sorts of things should I look for when I buy a protein powder?" he asked, "every time I go to the store the guy behind the counter tries to pawn off the "house brand" to me, and I want to know what to look for to make sure I don't get taken."

"Well Mike, there are many things you need to consider when trying to choose what protein product will best suit your needs. I will go over those things and hopefully by the end you will be more confident and prepared when trying to choose the one that's right for you." Mike smiled and knew that he was about to get the long and detailed version of the "straight-goods." Around the gym I had a reputation for being the guy to ask when it came to supplementation or training. "I am all ears" he said attentively.

I present to you the main points of that conversation so that you may, when selecting a protein product, know what to consider.

The main things of consideration when buying a protein powder are:

1. Value

Economically value is a referent term. It applies and refers to objects available for purchase. Naturally then, value is an expression of the benefits of a product (Quality), minus the drawbacks of the product, divided by the cost of the product. Put another way:

Value = Benefits (Quality) - Drawbacks / Cost per serving

Value is the sum statement about a products worth. What a product is able to do for you or not, are things considered. Then, one ponders the cost of the product based on having weighed the "pros and cons."

"Buying a protein is like buying a car: Different options for different price ranges."

Value is the expression of the idea "Am I getting my moneys worth?" Ultimately, all things considered, the final factor of cost analysis is determinative. Buying a protein is like buying a car: Different options for different price ranges. Concluding this article you will be able to determine the value of any protein product your looking at.

2. Quality

Quality is relative concept. Speaking specifically of protein, quality is a statement of products desirability relative to other available choices. Lets face it, not all protein powders are created equal. Some protein powders cause gastro-intestinal bloating, cramps, and flatulence. Yet still, some taste like plaster of Paris, are not very blendable, and are so thick that it makes you regurgitate.

The quality of a protein product is determined by the satisfaction of several requirements:
Yield, Amino Acid Profile (BCAA - EAA ratio), WPI:WPC Ratio, Filler Percentage, Taste, Ease of use, Blendability, Digestibility and results.

3. Yield

Yield refers to the percentage of protein per serving that is obtained. Mathematically it appears as follows:

(Grams Protein Per Serving x 100) / Serving Size In Grams

For example, say we had a protein powder that had a serving size of 100 grams total mass. Lets also assume that in that 100 g serving size 50 g was protein. This would be a yield of 50%. Therefore, when purchasing the product, you would be paying for 50% non-protein! Not a good deal. If you want protein you should pay for protein, not non-protein [some of which will be filler].

With a product like Optimum Nutrition's 100% Whey, for example, observe the calculation:

(22 Grams Protein Per Serving X 100) / 29.4 Grams Serving Size = 74.8%

Therefore, 75% of total mass is protein. This is an excellent yield, depending on the type of Whey protein fraction of which the product is predominantly composed.

With protein products it is impossible to have all protein. Some of the product will be composed of filler, and other non-protein mass. The main thing to be concerned with is the percentage of Whey in the serving. The other mass which will be non-protein mass may be filler or?

4. Amino Acid Profile

The amino acid profile of a protein powder is also important to consider. For example, with 100% Whey cited above, it has been shown that 75% of the total mass is protein. This represents an excellent yield. However, this means also that 25% of the total mass is not Protein. At this point, some may conclude that the product is "25% filler." This is not correct. Filler will be discussed later, but for now we are concerned with the Amino Acid profile, as this too contributes to the "non-protein mass" component of the product.

There are two classifications of Amino acids that you should look for when buying a protein product. They are BCAA and EAA. BCAA stands for Branch Chain Amino Acids, and EAA stands for Essential Amino Acids. Both are important.

Branch Chain Amino Acids act as nitrogen carriers, which assist muscles in synthesizing other amino acids required for anabolic effect [Transamination]. They also stimulate production of insulin that allows circulating blood sugar to be taken up by the muscle cells and used as an energy source. Further, during a fat-reduction cycle, Amino Acids function in an anti-catabolic manner, thus helping the body to spare lean muscle tissue.

Essential Amino Acids include Tryptophan, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Valine, Isoleucine and Leucine. Amino Acids will determine how "complete" or "incomplete" a protein is, because proteins are made of a combination of 20 Amino Acids. When considering the Amino Acids present in a protein product it is important to remember that there are 20 amino acids, and that they each perform different functions in the human body. Below is a list of each amino acid and their function.

Amino Acid Listing

Amino Acid Function
Alanine (Non-Essential) Energy source for muscle tissue
Strengthens the immune system by producing antibodies
Arginine (Non-Essential) Helps detoxify liver
Causes the pituitary gland to release growth hormone
Needed to combine proteins
Increases muscle massReduces body fat
Increase immune system strength
Aspartic Acid (Non-Essential) Shuttles toxic ammonia out of body
Cystine (Non-Essential) Antioxidant
Aids Protein Synthesis
Glutamic Acid (Non-Essential) Reduces cravings for sugar
Reduces Fatigue
Glutamine Increases Growth Hormone secreted by pituitary gland
Glycine (Non-Essential) Hormone Manufacturing
Hormone Manufacturing Aids digestion
Isoleucine (Essential) Raises energy levels
Leucine (Essential) Helps heal the muscle tissue
Lysine (Essential) Aids in growth
Needed for tissue repair
Produces antibodies, hormones and enzymes
Helps metabolize fats into energy
Maintains nitrogen balance
Methionine (Essential) Helps remove fatty substances from body
Helps digestion
Phenylalanine (Essential) Suppresses appetite
Produces the chemicals which control impulse transmission between nerve cells
Proline (Non-Essential) Needed for proper functioning of joints and tendons
Helps strengthen heart muscle
Serine (Non-Essential) Strengthens Immune System
Makes Antibodies
Threonine (Essential) Helps maintain protein balance in the body
Tryptophan (Essential) Releases growth hormone
Tyrosine (Non-Essential) Healthy functioning of Thyroid and Adrenal Glands
Valine (Essential) Muscle Coordination

Any protein powder worth buying will have all of the amino acids listed here, and in good concentration. The concentration of BCAA's to EAA's can be determined by using the following equation:

Total BCAA / Total EAA = x%

A good resultant would be something around 50-55%.

For more on BCAA's, click here!

5. WPI:WPC Ratio

Despite claims by supplement companies trying to sell overpriced products, proteins are proteins. However, proteins function differently based on the types you use and how those proteins are manufactured. For example, Whey protein can come in several forms. These forms can include:

These types of protein are distinguished by their differing molecule size, and subsequent digestibility in the gut. The smaller the molecule size the easier the protein is digested. Also, WPI has a higher BV (Biological Value) rating than WPC.

This would lead some persons [and supplement companies] to conclude that WPC is "filler" or "inferior" because its biological value is lower than WPI. If that premise is logical, then anything below WPC must be REALLY inferior...must be, by logical extension [to be scientific like the supplement companies] "really, really junky."

These so-called "junky" and "inferior" proteins would include egg protein, beef, chicken, peanut butter, pork, and every other viable protein sources. Yet, we know that these foods work wonders for adding mass, so how can the idea that WPC is inferior be correct? It is not. As Feliciano (2000) pointed out, a diet high in protein, regardless of the source, will yield similar results.

Having said that, when we examining a protein product it is important to find a combination of casein, whey and egg together. As outlined in Adding Mass in the Offseason, each protein performs a different function within the body. Here is a chart depicting the function of each type of protein.

Type Function(s)
Whey Fast-Acting
High Oxidization Rate
Casein Time Released
Maintains even amino acid level over time
Other [Egg, Animal, Soy] Combination of both characteristics

Many male bodybuilders shy away from soy, and I have even written against it in my article Adding Mass in the Off-season. However, the point in that article was to avoid it in high concentrations due to its content of phytoestrogens. Soy does possess isoflavones, which have positive effects on reducing incidences of benign prostate hypertrophy [prostatitus]. Because your body desires homeostasis and strives toward those ends, it is good to have variations, even among like proteins.

When considering buying a protein supplement, then, pay careful attention to the ingredients on the label and look for a combination of Whey, Casein, Egg and Soy. By doing this you will be "covering all of your bases" when it comes to protein!

6. Filler Percentage

As with any protein powder, some filler must be present. However, "some" can mean .002% or 99%. Some products lean toward the 99% range, while better ones are filtered and manufactured in a way so as to minimize filler.

It is not possible to have 100% WPI; that is a serving of protein with a yield of 100% where the serving size and the protein yielded are identical. Therefore, most filler is comprised of ash, moisture, etc. Filler can best be thought of as: Any substance that is non-protein or non-amino acid. Therefore, ingredients like cocoa, used in the flavoring process, would fall into this category. So would any fats or carbohydrates present in the mixture.

By its very presence filler must comprise even a small amount of the total mass of the product. However, if a product has a high yield percentage and en excellent BCAA to EAA ratio, it is mathematically evident that filler must constitute only a negligible percentage of the products overall mass.

7. Taste

With respect to taste, many protein powders are like clothing sizes. Although a manufacturer may make a "large" garment, another manufacturer will make a "large" garment, call it large, and it will be different in size. So it is with protein powders with respect to taste.

Often times, when venturing into stores, one will see a massive bucket of Whey protein that says something to the effect of "mouth watering taste!" However, after buying it and using the product, the only question is: Great taste compared to WHAT? Sometimes the product in question is so inedible that it tastes expired, or worse, contaminated.

Therefore, I recommend asking friends, family, and even fellow bodybuilders what products they have used, and which ones tasted at least tolerable. Its important to find a protein powder you can actually down. You don't want something that is chalky. You want something that is very appetizing when mixed with a beverage like 1% or 0% milk, or water.

If you miss a meal simply because your protein powder tastes like cat box droppings, you are unnecessarily sacrificing your muscle gains and throwing your nitrogen balance, and your hormonal balance, off kilter. This will mean that your muscle gains grind to a halt. And remember, you grow when you are out of the gym, and you grow only so much as you provide your body with what it needs to initiate muscular repair. So make sure you purchase something you can stand because in the long run your body will thank you many times over.

8. Ease Of Use

Ease of use is a measurement of two factors: Blendability, Digestibility. It is important to find a protein powder that will well with a blender, but one that does not REQUIRE the use of a blender to mix. For purposes of convenience you want your protein to mixes easily in a shaker bottle or in a cup by use of a spoon.

Some protein powders that I have used when I was short up for money were worse than my LEAST expectations. Alright I admit, for a cheap product I was not expecting WPI that tasted like a t-bone steak. But, I was also not expecting one step up from horse trough pickings. Unfortunately I would have preferred the horse droppings once I had tried the product.

Get a protein that is very easy to mix, does not stick to the side of your blender [like other products which you must use a knife to scrape off of the side of the blender receptacle]. This will ensure that you do not end up with a protein "shake" that you must CHEW when the protein clumps float on the liquids surface.

Regarding digestibility, it is important that you don't get a protein that will make you feel bloated and full. Often times powders are so crudely manufactured and the products so raw, that the gut has difficulty with absorption.

It is no fun when your 270 lbs feeling like you are 400 lbs and having painful stomach cramps just because your protein powder was made by some chump who was too cheap to make it properly and skimped out on the manufacturing process.

9. Results

Regardless of the "benefits" or "completeness" of a product, the ultimate and determinative question is: Does it work? Lets face it: We don't buy products because they have nice packaging, some picture of the latest GH using "phenom" or because they have fancy sounding names like Phenylalanine or Transamination. We buy them because we want one thing: Results.

So, my recommendation is ASK AROUND! Find out from others what brands work. THINK ABOUT IT! It is not always wise to trust "some guy" who is working at the supplement store. Why? Perhaps his boss thought the business could get a "good deal" by purchasing this protein powder "real cheap" so as to increase their profit margin. Perhaps more knowledgeable bodybuilders avoided this product and it has been collecting dust.

Then someone with hardly any knowledge walks in looking for a "supplement" and this employee has been told to "move product" so that the business does not lose money. All of a sudden you have a nice recipe where this shyster who works at the store cares more about the bottom line than your results. This is something you want to avoid at all costs.

So, my advice is go to the source. ASK your fellow bodybuilders and fitness athletes. We have been around long enough to know what to avoid. It does not take long to discover a scam. Save yourself the hassle and ask around when buying a product. You will ensure that you get the results you pay for.


When considering a protein powder purchase bodybuilders must consider several variables. They are: Yield, Amino Acid Profile (BCAA - EAA ratio), WPI:WPC Ratio, Filler Percentage, Taste, Ease of use, Blendability, Digestibility and results.

When these variables are considered a final determination on the products worth and value may be reached. By strictly adhering to the checklist outlined in this article bodybuilders may be assured that they are purchasing a sound product manufactured by reputable companies and that said products deliver on label claim.

[ What Do Our Forum Experts Look For In A Protein? ]

Reference List:

  1. Feliciano, J. (2000). Protein Wars 2000. Flex Magazine, 162.


The information provided in this publication is for educational and informational purposes only and does not serve as a replacement to care provided by your own personal health care team or physician. The author does not render or provide medical advice, and no individual should make any medical decisions or change their health behavior based on information provided here. Readers are encouraged to confirm the information contained herein with other sources. Readers and consumers should review the information in this publication carefully with their professional health care provider. The information in this or other publications authored by the writer is not intended to replace medical advice offered by physicians. Reliance on any information provided by the author is solely at your own risk. The author does not recommend or endorse any specific tests, products, medication, procedures, opinions, or other information that may be presented in the publication. The author does not control information, advertisements, content, and articles provided by discussed third-party information suppliers. Further, the author does not warrant or guarantee that the information contained in written publications, from him or any source is accurate or error-free. The author accepts no responsibility for materials contained in the publication that you may find offensive. You are solely responsible for viewing and/or using the material contained in the authored publications in compliance with the laws of your country of residence, and your personal conscience. The author will not be liable for any direct, indirect, consequential, special, exemplary, or other damages arising from the use of information contained in this or other publications.

Copyright: Clayton South, 2002 All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the copyright holder and author of this publication.