Remember when choosing a protein powder was as simple as picking between chocolate or vanilla? Not anymore. Now there are all sorts of labels — from cookies and cream to strawberry, to the “slender blend” and “muscle bulking” — which can easily confuse anyone looking to start.

Protein powders can benefit anyone, not just athletes or bodybuilders. But how do you know which one is right for you? From the best time to take them to the best (and most delicious) ways to eat them, we’re here to help you find what’s right for you.

Protein powders are packaged in various forms and are made from both animal (milk, collagen, egg) and plant products (hemp, peas, soy). These concentrated powders provide a hefty dose of protein in one single serving.

You’ll often see protein powders marketed into these few subcategories:

  • protein concentrate: averages around 70 percent protein by weight, with the addition of carbs and fats
  • protein isolate: averages up to 95 percent pure protein
  • complete protein: contains all nine essential amino acids

These amino acids, which aren’t made by the human body, help the body with a variety of functions — from breaking down food, to repairing muscle and tissue. If the protein doesn’t contain all these amino acids, then it’s considered incomplete.

If you're wondering how protein powders are made, just look at the terminology on the label. If you see the term ‘hydrolysates’ protein, it means the manufacturer used water to create protein peptides. The industry standard for creating dairy-based protein is ‘ion-exchange’ proteins. ‘Microfiltration’ proteins use a process similar to reverse osmosis to remove contaminants.

So now you know the basics to protein powders. Let’s look at some of the most popular ones on the market.

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Okay with animal products?

Look at milk-based protein powders. Dairy-based protein powders have also been shown to , decrease , and . These powders include:

  • whey
  • casein
  • calcium caseinate
  • any other milk protein blend

As an animal byproduct that also contains lactose, they may not be suitable for everyone. These proteins are rich in , which promote both muscle growth and .

Between casein and whey protein, your body absorbs and digests casein much more slowly, so it’s an excellent protein to take before bed. Research shows that consuming casein protein before sleeping can and improve post-exercise recovery overnight.

Other than milk protein powders, there’s also egg-based powders.Eggs have long been celebrated for being a great source of complete protein. Like whey and casein, egg protein powder is rich in BCAAs crucial to muscle recovery.

What are the plant-based protein powders I need to know?

Hemp protein:Hypoallergenic hemp seeds are touted as superfoods due to their high levels of omega fatty acids, vitamins, iron, fiber, and . Research has shown that hemp can curb excess , aid in , and improve overall and blood pressure.

Soy protein: Soy is one of the most common and easily found plant-based proteins. This complete protein is one of the few plant proteins that comprise all of the essential amino acids. Soy has also been shown to improve the , boost brain function, and aid in overall heart health. But alas, there’s a catch: 94 percent of soy is genetically modified and soy has been linked to some harmful health effects including the potential to stimulate and . If you’re vegan and already eating a soy-heavy diet, you may want to avoid soy protein powders.

Rice protein: Besides protein, brown rice is a great source of fiber, complex carbs, and vitamins. This plant-based protein is hypoallergenic and easily absorbed and digested by the body. that rice protein can decrease fat mass, increase lean muscle mass, and aid in post-workout recovery just as effectively as whey protein can.

Pea protein: Pea protein is high in fiber and loaded with BCAAs. Studies have shown that this plant-based protein can and promote just as well as whey protein.

What are some lesser known protein powders?

While the above are some of the most commonly available and researched proteins, it’s not all of them. Cranberry, artichoke, quinoa, flax, alfalfa, and mixed plant protein powders are some other plant-based options, while collagen powders (made from animal hides or bones) are becoming a popular protein choice.

Picking a is important. Protein powder has its time and place, but they should never replace whole foods entirely. Pay attention to a non-GMO certification and read the ingredients. You get what you pay for when it comes to protein powders, which means cheaper option may be filled with fat and fillers. You may also notice a “score” on your protein powders. For example, your whey protein may read:

  • PER (3.2) — PER (protein efficiency ratio) measures protein quality by determining a protein's effect on growth. Anything over a 2.7 is considered an excellent source of protein.
  • BV (104) — BV (biological value) measures how well the body utilizes dietary protein. A score of 100 or above here is considered perfect.
  • NPU (92) — NPU (net protein utilization) is the ratio of amino acids supplied that are converted into proteins. This score measures the digestibility of a protein in addition to the ratio of essential amino acids, and anything above a 90 is considered excellent.
  • PDCAAS (1.00) — Finally, PDCAAS (protein digestibility corrected amino acid score) is the preferred current method for judging proteins. A top score of 1.0 is given to whey, casein, soy, and egg proteins.

These “scores” are a way that protein powders measure quality.

Protein powders aren’t just for heavy gym hitters. If you’re going vegan or vegetarian and concerned about complete protein sources, it’s one way to make sure you’re getting enough protein. The same goes for people who’re looking for weight loss support or need an extra boost in their daily caloric intake.

People who are incredibly active, such as teenagers who are growing and highly engaged in sports, or people who are training for a marathon, starting a new exercise regime, or looking to build muscle, may benefit from protein powders too.

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How much protein should you take?

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends the average person to consume 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.

So for people looking to up their intake, it depends on your goals. It’s recommended that those who exercise or engage in recreational sports should increase that to 1.1 to 1.4 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight. And endurance athletes, or those looking to build muscle mass, should increase it to 2.0 grams per kilogram per day.

What’s the best time to take protein powder?

When you take a protein powder depends on what your end goal is.

ForWhen to consume
energy30 to 45 minutes before a workout, particularly protein powders high in BCAAs.
faster post-workout recoveryas soon as possible after exercise and make sure to eat high-glycemic carbs (i.e. sweet potato) with your protein powder
maximizing muscle growthconsume a quality protein powder with carbs 45 minutes post-workout
maximum muscle recoverybefore bed, particularly , as it can boost muscle recovery while you sleep

Ways to take protein powder

Now you know how to get your protein fix in a smart, effective way beyond “add water and shake!”

Save this Smart Girl’s Guide to protein powders as a useful tool in your protein know-how, or share it with a workout buddy. And while you’re at it, check out our guide to probiotics for your brain.

Tiffany La Forge is a professional chef, recipe developer, and food writer who runs the blog Parsnips and Pastries. Her blog focuses on real food for a balanced life, seasonal recipes, and approachable health advice. When she's not in the kitchen, Tiffany enjoys yoga, hiking, traveling, organic gardening, and hanging out with her Corgi, Cocoa. Visit her at her blog or on Instagram.