It sounds healthy, but there's one concern people have been worried about.

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Protein powder isn't just for body builders. These days, you'll find a variety of protein powders at mainstream supermarkets, and they can be incorporated into a wide range of recipes far beyond your typical smoothie. As a sports and performance nutritionist, I'm frequently asked about protein powders, including if they're healthy, which type is best, and how to use them. Here are my thoughts on this popular category of products, including the pros, potential cons, and bottom-line tips.

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What exactly is protein powder?

There's no one standard formulation, but protein powders are generally made from one or more types of protein, isolated from a food and concentrated into a dried, finely powdered form. A protein powder can be made from either an animal source, including eggs and dairy-derived whey or casein protein, or a variety of plant sources. Plant-sourced protein can come from foods like split peas, soy, brown rice, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, and hemp.

The nutritional breakdown of protein powder

One serving of protein powder is about a quarter cup, which is typically a few scoops' worth of the scooper that's usually provided inside the package. That one serving can easily pack 20-25 grams of protein. Most of the powders are low in fat and carbs. To determine how a portion of powder fits into your daily protein needs, first assess your overall target for this key macronutrient.

The Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein for a healthy adult with a minimal physical activity level is currently 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (or 2.2 pounds) of body weight per day. For a 150-pound adult, that's about 55 grams of protein per day. However, protein needs may increase based on your activity level and age. For example, 1.4 to 2 grams per 2.2 pounds of body weight may be needed for building muscle mass due to strength training, and 1 to 1.2 grams per 2.2 pounds of body weight is recommended for those over the age of 65.

If your daily protein requirement is, say, 60 grams per day, one serving of protein powder can meet a solid one-third of your everyday goal. That's pretty significant.

Another way to assess the nutritional value of protein powder is to compare the amount of protein it provides to that of other protein-rich foods. One serving of most protein powders contains about the same amount of protein as a 3-ounce skinless chicken breast and a few grams more than a cup of cooked lentils.

With this in mind, the two best ways to use a protein powder are as an alternative to other protein-containing foods and as a way to boost the protein content of a dish that's typically low in protein. For example, a smoothie made with veggies and fruit lacks protein; and even a few tablespoons of almond butter only add about 6 grams. Blending in a powder can easily up the protein content to a more significant percentage of your daily needs, which transforms the drink into a meal replacement.

One possible concern about protein powder

A couple tests over the years analyzed whether contaminants, such as heavy metals, are found in protein powder. One such test was conducted by the Clean Label Project in 2018. Of the more than 130 protein powders tested, the group found that 75% of the examined products contained measurable levels of lead. This and other study findings appeared concerning, so a 2020 study published in Toxicology Reports looked into the potential health effects that may be tied to consuming protein powders. The researchers found that up to three daily servings of protein powder was not associated with an increased risk of non-cancerous health effects due to heavy metal exposure.

However, if you are still concerned about heavy metal exposure, you can certainly opt not to use protein powder at all. Or, choose one that is third-party tested for heavy metals, such as Naked Nutrition. You could also reach out to any brand to ask about testing or request a particular product's analysis, if you want more information.

What to look for when shopping for protein powder

I generally recommend opting for plain, unflavored, unsweetened protein powders. These products allow you to add your own sweetener, if needed, and flavor the powder yourself with all-natural seasonings. Plain powders are also more versatile because they can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. Plus, they're typically free from unwanted additives, like artificial flavors and sweeteners.

Check ingredients lists, and look for brands where the only ingredient is the protein itself, such as "pea protein isolate" or "sprouted brown rice protein." That said, some plain powders do add probiotic and/or enzyme blends. While not necessary, these additions may be beneficial, particularly if you don't consume them from other sources.

If you avoid dairy or are trying to consume a more plant-based diet, plant protein powders are a great option. Recent research from JAMA Internal Medicine found that a higher intake of plant protein, as compared to animal protein, is linked to a lower risk of death from all causes, particularly heart disease, the number one killer of both men and women in the US.

And in case you're wondering, plant powders are just as effective at building muscle. A 2019 study published in the journal Sports found that pea protein produced results on par with whey protein for muscle strength, performance, body composition, and muscular adaptations following eight weeks of high-intensity training.

How to use protein powder

Protein powder is more versatile than you might think. It blends well into smoothies, but you can also add it to oatmeal or overnight oats, pancakes, breakfast cookies, and energy balls and bars. A protein powder can also be blended into soups (I add it to vegan butternut squash soup), hummus, plant burger patties, and pizza crust.

If your meal is a bit light on protein and you want to pump up the protein content of your dessert, you can incorporate protein powder into chia pudding, homemade ice cream or frozen pops, brownies, and DIY peanut butter cups.

So is protein powder healthy?

The goal isn't to add protein to everything you eat. Rather, it's to meet (and not exceed) your daily protein needs. As for whether protein powders are a healthy way to do that, a simple-ingredient, plant-based option certainly can be—especially if it's been tested for contaminants.

Of course, whole, naturally nutrient-rich foods should always be the default. In these unprocessed foods, protein is bundled with fiber and a wide range of other nutrients and bioactive compounds. But in combination with other whole foods, a protein powder can offer a simple and convenient way to help you meet your daily protein target. These products may also help you cut back on meat and dairy and enjoy more nicely balanced plant-based meals.

Here are my five favorite protein powders:

  • Naked Rice Organic Brown Rice Protein Powder: Sprouted brown rice protein is an easy-to-digest, gut-friendly option. Plus, brown rice isn't a common trigger of allergies or food sensitivities. This fine powder is a good match for a wide variety of recipes, with no gritty or chalky texture. Two scoops pack 25 grams of plant protein, with just 4 grams of carb and less than a gram of fat. ($22; amazon.com)
  • NOW Sports Organic Pea Protein Protein Powder: Pea protein is rich in branched-chain amino acids—including leucine, which triggers muscle protein synthesis—so it's a great choice for athletes and active people. Two scoops provide 15 grams of protein, with no net carbs and just 1 gram of fat. ($22; amazon.com)
  • Garden of Life Raw Organic Protein Powder: This blend of plant proteins includes pea, sprouted brown rice, gluten-free whole grains, seeds, and beans, bundled with probiotics and enzymes that may help enhance digestive health. In addition to 22 grams of protein, one serving also packs a significant amount of the daily target for key nutrients, including selenium, vitamin D, iron, and zinc. ($34; amazon.com)
  • simplyFUEL Chickpea Protein Powder: I love that the only single ingredient in this dietitian-created powder is chickpea protein. One serving provides 20 grams of protein, with an impressive 5 grams of fiber (18% of the daily target), along with 30% of the daily value for iron, and 15% for potassium. ($40; amazon.com)
  • Sprout Living Simple Pumpkin Seed Protein Powder: Seeds are a nutrient-rich, allergen-friendly newcomer to the protein powder market. This cold-pressed pumpkin seed powder provides 20 grams of protein, 30% of the daily value for iron and 12% for potassium, along with 3 grams of anti-inflammatory fat and only 1 gram of net carbs. ($24; amazon.com)

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.

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