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The 5 best natural protein powders of 2021, backed by sports nutritionists

Natural protein powders are more sustainably made with low irritants and additives. We polled 3 RDs on the best options, including organic protein powder. ...

Table of Contents: Masthead Sticky

  • Natural protein powder should have no artificial ingredients and whole foods-based ingredients.
  • We tapped 3 sports nutritionists and tried many powders to determine the healthiest and tastiest picks.
  • Naked Whey is our top overall pick due to its short ingredient list, quality sourcing, and potency.
  • This piece was reviewed for accuracy by Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, a nutrition and wellness expert with a private practice based in New York City.

"In the context of an otherwise healthful diet, getting enough protein allows the body to grow, maintain, and repair tissues, hormones, and immune cells," Ryan Andrews, RD, CSCS, RYT, principal nutritionist and adviser for Precision Nutrition told Insider.

But if you're active, trying to gain muscle mass, or eating a plant-based diet, it can sometimes be hard to hit your daily protein with whole foods alone.

While 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day (e.g. 56/g/day for a 154 pound person) is adequate for most adults, that number nearly doubles (1.2 to 1.6g/kg, or 84-112g for the same person) to build muscle mass and properly recover as an athlete.

Let's be clear: The more nutrients you can consume from whole foods, the better. But supplementing with high-quality protein powder can help you reach those higher daily protein goals, easier.

However, there are still a lot of protein powders on the market using artificial sweeteners and other questionable ingredients. Others, meanwhile, aren't going through safety testing or disclosing results – some protein powders are adulterated (aka cut with cheaper fillers to reduce manufacturing cost, and not actually all protein).

While there isn't a set definition of what qualifies as a "natural" protein powder, the three sports nutritionists we interviewed for this piece generally agree a natural protein powder is different in that it doesn't have artificial ingredients, fillers, or irritants; goes through minimal processing; and was farmed and manufactured with a low environmental impact.

Overall, this makes for a less digestive-irritating, less questionable, more sustainable protein powder to add to your whole-food diet.

At the end of this guide, we go into more detail around what exactly defines a natural protein powder and what you should look for in a quality supplement. Otherwise, read on for the healthiest, best tasting natural protein powders.

The best natural protein powders of 2021

The best natural protein powder overall

A bottle of Naked Whey protein on a white background

Naked Whey Protein is third-party tested and has just one ingredient sourced from small dairy farms that mix well with any shake — and it’s tasty.

Pros: Flavorless (versatile in different shakes and recipes), only one ingredient, excellent ingredient sourcing

Cons: Dairy allergy/aversion prohibitive, only sold in large quantity

When it comes to a protein powder to help you build muscle mass, whey takes the top spot for those who aren’t lactose intolerant.

That’s because it has a much higher amount of leucine, a branched-chain amino acid shown to help jumpstart muscle protein synthesis, explains Pam Bede, RD, CSSD, LD, certified sports dietetics specialist and author of “Sweat.Eat.Repeat“. Plant protein has its own benefits, but when it specifically comes to building muscle, whey is best for the job.

While there are a lot of great whey powders on the market (we particularly love Garden of Life’s whey — see more in what else we recommend below), Insider Reviews fitness editor Rick Stella, alongside thousands of reviewers, loves Naked Whey Protein above all others for one main reason: In addition to not tasting chalky or artificial when added to a shake, the powder only has one ingredient — high-quality whey protein. And 30 grams per scoop at that.

Even though the natural additives you’ll find in other brands’ products (like stevia or erythritol) aren’t necessarily unhealthy, they may cause digestive distress for some. We love that Naked Whey is a formula that will not only agree with most people, but fully support their health goals (so long as they aren’t allergic or intolerant to whey).

What’s more, the brand practices conscious ingredient sourcing; they partner with small California dairy farms, whose cows are grass-fed year-round without hormones to then produce whey.

And at just over a dollar an ounce, it’s competitively priced.

The main downside is if you’re lactose intolerant or vegan, whey isn’t an option for you — in which case, we highly recommend our top plant-based protein pick.

The best organic protein powder

A bottle of Garden of Life Organic Whey Protein on a white background

Garden of Life Organic Whey Protein is the only Non-GMO Project-Verified Whey with impeccable ingredient standards, great taste, and RD approval.

Pros: Excellent sustainability, certified and approved by stringent testing boards, in the most effective form of protein

Cons: Dairy allergy prohibitive, some people don’t like stevia, erythritol can be a digestive irritant for some

Garden of Life has been a favorite among plant-based protein brands for years, so it was a big deal when they decided to get into whey protein. The brand continued its impeccable standards and its whey has become one of its most-loved products.

Garden of Life Organic Whey also happens to be Bede’s go-to brand for the best whey protein powder. It’s the only Non-GMO Project-verified whey on the market, according to the brand, and is certified organic. The cows at the small New Jersey farms are pasture-raised and grass-fed 300 days of the year (the other 65 days, they’re supplemented with certified-organic feed), and overall the farms “have much smaller carbon footprints than conventional farms” the brand says.

Plus, it tastes good.

The best natural plant-based protein powder

A tub of Vega Plant-Based Protein Powder in the peanut butter flavor on a white background

Vega Sport Plant-Based Protein Powder is the best tasting, most effective plant-based powder you can find, with a wide array of flavors and whopping 30 grams of protein.

Pros: Super high protein content (especially for plant-based), certified and approved by stringent testing boards, great taste

Cons: Some people don’t like stevia

Vega Sport Protein Powder is one of the most affordable, best tasting, highest quality natural protein powders available — and it’s plant-based. What’s more, one scoop offers 30 grams of the macro which is a rare high for a plant-based powder and great for vegans or lactose intolerant folks trying to build muscle.

While whey is ideal for supporting gym efforts, Bede says she reaches for plant-based protein to boost her overall daily protein count outside of muscle-building needs, adding that “research suggests diets rich in plant protein are more supportive of health and wellness.” (Find out more about plant-based vs. whey protein in our FAQs).

Vega uses four sources for the protein (pea, pumpkin seed, sunflower seed, and alfalfa) for an array of essential amino acids, and is fortified with ingredients like tart cherry, which may aid in recovery.

Vega stands out most, though, for the taste: Not only does the brand offer a wider-than-most selection of flavors (three for the plant-based, five with premium plant-based), but the taste is really smooth for all. Note that it does contain stevia.

The best natural casein protein powder

A tub of Naked Casein Protein Powder on a white background

Clean and simple, Naked Micellar Casein Protein Powder is best for before-bed shakes and a holdover before fasting periods.

Pros: Purity (only one ingredient, sourced from US farms), with zero additives

Cons: Dairy allergy prohibitive, unclear certifications/sustainability, only sold in large quantity

Naked makes the list again, for the same reasons its whey variety took the top spot: the quality formula. Its casein protein powder is cold-processed, meaning it’s never exposed to high temperatures, which the brand says enhances the bioavailability of the protein.

It’s also created with acid-free and bleach-free processing, maintaining a high standard of manufacturing to ensure a safe product. The unflavored option uses zero sugars or sweeteners, and has only one ingredient: micellar casein sourced from American farms.

Casein is a slow-digesting protein, which makes it a great pick for pre-bed protein, which studies have shown can help facilitate athletic recovery and prevent late-night hunger. It may also help stave off hunger for fasting periods for religious reasons or intermittent fasting.

The best customizable natural protein powder

A bag of Gainful Protein powder on a granite countertop

Gainful is a completely personalized protein blend to meet your specific goals while adhering to your dietary restrictions, and offers access to a registered dietitian.

Pros: Designed based on your goals, allergies, and preferences; meets your exact dietary needs; carbon-neutral; access to RD

Cons: Requires subscription, more expensive, some people don’t like stevia

If you have a hard time finding a protein powder that doesn’t mess with your gut, that has the right kind and amount of protein for you, and that tastes good with your go-to smoothie, consider trying a personalized powder for roughly the same price as other options.

Gainful creates a formula for you based on a 5-minute quiz assessing factors like dietary restrictions; frequency, type, and timing of exercise; age; gender; and weight goals. From there, Gainful creates a blend with different types and percentage breakdowns of protein and a unique recommended serving size specific to your needs.

The company doesn’t use any artificial flavorings, sweeteners, colorings, binders, fillers, thickening agents, or preservatives in its formulas. All formulas come unsweetened unless you choose a “flavor boost,” which would then be sweetened with organic stevia and monk fruit. (You get to choose two flavors with each delivery — I really liked the chocolate peanut butter.)

I also really love that ordering Gainful includes access to a registered dietitian, who is then available for 1:1 consultation whenever you need to advise on how often and when to consume your protein, provide guidance on weight management, and share tips on the best foods to incorporate into the rest of your diet to help meet health goals.

Gainful also told Insider they are currently in the process of publishing third-party lab results so consumers will have access to information on product safety, verification that products are free of heavy metals, etc. In the meantime, they do require their manufacturers to provide COAs for each ingredient, as well as their own QA testing documentation, and use non-GMO, organic ingredients for everything other than the whey and casein.

What else we considered

What else we recommend

Raw Organic Whey ($20/12oz): This is an unflavored, unsweetened, “straight-up” variety of organic whey (21g) from grass-fed cows in Iowa. This one is top quality but was edged out by our top overall pick. Its third-party verification is unclear, but all lab results are public.

Tone It Up Protein ($50/23.7oz): Tone It Up’s organic vegan protein powder is plant-based, allergen-free, has no artificial flavors or sweeteners (though does have gum additives for texture), and is certified organic, low-calorie, and non-GMO. It’s actually quite tasty and versatile (it works for a number of recipes and different uses), and widely available (Target, Amazon). However, it only offers 15 grams of protein per scoop, which is a little too low for our parameters

Aloha Organic Chocolate and Vanilla Protein Powder ($30/18.5oz): Aloha is a high-quality formula that offers 18 grams of plant-based protein. It’s also one of the only options under $35, and can be found at Target and Walmart. However, the taste is quite polarizing. Some of Insider’s editors love the way Aloha tastes, while others, including myself and Bede, don’t love the sweetened, coconut-ey palate, so take that as you will.

What we don’t recommend

MyProtein Impact Whey Isolate ($45/35oz): We love the 22 grams of whey offered here, but this formula contains sucralose and Acesulfame K, artificial sweeteners and artificial flavorings — so it’s not “all natural.”

Huel Complete Protein ($72/53.2oz): We tested and liked the flavor here and that it’s vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, contains all 27 essential vitamins and minerals, and is super affordable at price per ounce. However, the brand also uses sucralose, an artificial sweetener, so doesn’t make the cut for “all natural.”

What to look for in a natural protein powder

So now for the metrics — how to evaluate ‘natural’ protein powders, based on your needs, preferences, and tips from the pros.

  • 16-20 grams of protein, per serving, says Andrews. And make sure you look at the serving size, because 16 grams of protein in two scoops might be a chalkier taste than you can stand at a more concentrated formula in just one scoop.
  • The right source of protein for you. Plant-based or dairy-based? “The type of protein someone chooses can be based on digestibility, allergens, flavor, texture, etc; One is not necessarily better than the other, however, some protein powders will be higher in some vitamins and minerals than others,” explains Houston-based sports nutritionist Starla Garcia, RD. For a more thorough breakdown of which is best for your goals, check out our FAQs.
  • Low/no sugar or sweeteners. Added sugar — cane or otherwise — isn’t necessarily unhealthy, but it does add calories, can skew your macronutrient ratio, and put you over your daily added sugar targets. Generally stay under 5 grams of added sugar. And keep an eye out for sugar alcohols and inulin, Andrews points out, as they can lead to digestive disturbances in some folks.
  • No artificial ingredients. This includes artificial sweeteners (sucralose, AceK, saccharine, etc), flavors, and colors (artificial dyes).
  • No irritants. If you’re vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free, soy-free, or have any other dietary restrictions, look for labels accordingly. Keep in mind that sensitivities vary, and some people are intolerant to common, seemingly innocuous ingredients like stevia.
  • Sustainability practices. If this is an important value to you, check to see where the brand is growing or cultivating its protein source and how its producing, packaging, and distributing its product.
  • Third-party lab testing. Andrews says to look for GMP, USP, or NSF on the label, which are certifications the formula has been created in a safe facility, third-party tested to contain what it says it does, and approved by a set of curated standards. Garcia adds that she checks the brand she’s eyeing on Consumer Lab and LabDoor, sometimes also the Clean Label Project.
  • You want the best price per ounce without compromising quality.
  • At the end of all of this, you have to drink the stuff — so it should, at the very least, taste good.

FAQs

Collage of the best natural protein powders, including Gainful, Garden of Life, Naked Whey, and Vega 4x3

What’s the best kind of natural protein for muscle gain?

The best protein powder for building muscle mass is the same regardless of if it’s a natural formula: whey.

Plant-based protein is definitely valuable and has its own benefits. But research has shown that plant-based proteins have “lower anabolic potential” than dairy (i.e., you may not build muscle as easily with plant protein). This may be due to low leucine content, as Bede mentioned earlier, an amino acid crucial to stimulating muscle repair.

Besides egg white, you have two main animal proteins to choose from in powder: Casein, which makes up 80% of milk protein, and whey, which covers the other 20%.

A 2020 study in Nutrients found that whey significantly promoted muscle protein synthesis (MPS) better after exercise than soy or casein — a fact pretty much all experts are in agreement over.

But while whey is better for building muscle mass, casein has a slower absorption rate, which makes it a good pre-bed protein for both recovery and preventing late night hunger. Casein can also be used before fasting periods if you need to stay full for a long period of time. “I grab casein for slow-digesting protein that keeps the amino acid pool stocked for up to six hours,” Bede adds.

As for plant-based proteins, that same study in Nutrients showed soy beat casein for stimulating MPS. However, not everyone can tolerate soy and there is some debate over whether the processed form used in protein powders is the healthiest option for women. (Whole forms of soy, like tofu and edamame, aren’t problematic, our medical reviewer Samantha Cassety, RD, points out.)

Most experts agree a combination of different types (e.g. pea, brown rice, pumpkin seed, etc.) also works well to make sure you’re getting all the essential amino acids to stimulate MPS. But the Nutrients study authors note that you might need to just ingest larger quantities of plant proteins (40 g/day or higher) to reach similar muscle growth that you’d get from whey protein [at under 30g/day].


Is natural protein powder bad for you?

No, natural protein powder is not unhealthy. If anything, a truly sustainable, low-processed, additive-free protein powder is helpful.

However, Garcia points out that “natural” can be a marketing ploy since there’s no set definition, so you have to be diligent to make sure that you’re buying is actually of quality.

There can also be pitfalls to what seems to be a healthier choice, explains Andrews. “Most people equate ‘natural’ with something that comes straight from the earth without any manipulations,” he says. “While this might sound good in theory, there are many problems with this kind of thinking, as Mother Nature doesn’t always have our back (e.g., poison hemlock, poison mushrooms) and humans can benefit from certain types of processing and manipulations (e.g., shelled walnuts, hulled millet, protein powder).”


What are the benefits of natural protein powder?

The three experts we interviewed all gave different answers on what qualifies as a natural protein powder. But here’s what many of them agree matters the most, and what attributes are most beneficial:

  • No artificial ingredients, fillers, or irritants: Natural protein powders should be void of artificial, synthetically-derived ingredients. “When it comes to artificial sweeteners (sucralose, AceK, saccharine, etc), flavors, and colors (artificial dyes), research supports the safety of these ingredients, but many consumers are sensitive or intolerant, and many find that avoiding these ingredients leads to an overall better feels of health and potentially better outcomes,” Bede explains. (Check out this comprehensive list from The Center for Science in the Public Interest to see what all qualifies.) Bede also adds that the absence of soy, gluten, and dairy are only beneficial for those with allergies, intolerances, or dietary restrictions — so while the gluten-free/soy-free/dairy-free wording might look nice on the label, it really only applies to someone with an intolerance.
  • No heavy metals: A shockingly high number of protein powders contain toxic heavy metals — some estimates put it as high as 40% of some 134 powders on the market, though it’s unclear how much of that is just trace amounts. Third-party testing labels help “stack the odds in favor of better quality control measures,” Andrews says.
  • Minimal Processing: Keep in mind, protein powder is inherently a processed food, but the less processing it undergoes, the more of a positive sign that is that the company takes care to not add a bunch of fillers or additives (though Bede points out it probably doesn’t change the nutritional value much). Andrew says he prefers a plant-based protein “with the raw materials coming from sustainable farms.” For dairy, “aim for a product that is from 100-percent pastured cows,” he adds.
  • Sustainability and Ethics: 40% of consumers want to know their food was produced using an approach that lowers the impact on the environment, says that IFIC 2020 Health and Nutrition Survey. Andrews agrees, adding when people look for a natural protein powder, they want to know the product “offers some ethical synergy between supporting personal and planetary health.” This is hard to verify as a consumer, but you can check if the brand is a Certified B Corporation, Fair-Trade Certified, Rainforest Alliance Certified, Global Animal Partnership Rated, or Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW (A Greener World). The Animal Welfare Institute has a guide that weeds through which labeling claims are legit, and which are BS.

Our experts

  • Ryan Andrews, RD, CSCS, RYT, is a principal nutritionist and adviser for Precision Nutrition. He’s also an adjunct instructor at Purchase College in New York where he teaches on the confluence of nutrition, health, and sustainability.
  • Pam Bede, RD, CSSD, a certified sports dietetics specialist and author of “Eat.Repeat.” She is also an endurance nutrition coach and formerly the nutrition expert for the Runner’s World Marathon Challenge program.
  • Starla Garcia, RD, a Houston-based sports nutritionist and Olympic Trials marathoner.

This piece was reviewed for accuracy by Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, a nutrition and wellness expert with a private practice based in New York City.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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