14 Best Protein Powders for Young Athletes
While there is no shortcut to optimizing recovery from training and we always recommend a food-first approach to sports nutrition, protein powder for young athletes is a practical option to quickly meet protein needs on your busiest days. Supplement safety is critical though, and if you’re spending the money, you want to be sure you have an option that provides enough quality protein with helpful ingredients. In this article, we’re sharing the best protein powder for young athletes with tips for supplement safety, saving money, and more.
Protein Needs for Student Athletes
On top of muscle recovery and growth, protein has many important jobs in the body. While it contains energy, we’d rather have carbohydrate and fat provide the body with fuel, and let protein focus on providing structure and metabolic support. It also builds and maintains all of our organ tissues, makes up the framework of our bones, and creates compounds like immune proteins, hormones, and enzymes to protect the body and regulate metabolism.
While some people do over-consume protein, student-athletes who aren’t paying attention may not get enough or may not be eating adequate amounts at the right times. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend that both endurance and strength athletes consume 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight. For example, a 160 lb athlete needs anywhere from 80-128 grams of protein per day.
Rather than focus on what to get in total, and risk wasting time counting all day long, it may be better to follow recommendations for protein at each meal and snack. Spreading protein intake throughout the day allows your body to get enough consistently so there is always a supply of the building blocks of protein for your body to support continuous repair. Also, make sure to consume adequate protein post-workout to optimize recovery by replenishing depleted nutrients and electrolytes. Most student-athletes should aim for 0.3-0.4 g/kg of their weight in protein – about 0.14 – 0.18 grams per pound – four to five times per day. This would be 22-29 grams for a 160-pound athlete and 35-45 grams 5 times per day for a 250-pound athlete. Even if you choose the best protein powder for young athletes, your portion size may differ from your teammates, and the amount you get the rest of the day matters, too.
Are Protein Supplements Safe for Student Athletes?
Protein powders are considered supplements that are not well regulated for the safety, purity, or potency of ingredients or for the effectiveness of claims on their product or website. This means that a product can be marketed before it has any proof that it is safe and the product can make claims that are not supported by scientific research. Some products may contain what they advertise on the label but some can be contaminated with anabolic steroids, prescription drugs, or heavy metals.
Selecting a product that is third-party tested is the best way to ensure the accuracy of ingredients stated on the label. Third-party testing programs include Informed Choice Certified, NSF Certified for Sport, and BSCG certified (though we tend to prefer Informed Sport and NSF). These programs test specifically for banned substances as well as masking agents. For protein powders regulated as food products, Certified Organic is another good quality testing measure to ensure you are not getting a product that could contain anabolic steroids or prescription drugs. If you have a food product, look at the back of the package and see if it has a nutrition facts label (it’s regulated as a food product by the FDA) or a supplement facts label (it’s considered a supplement and not well regulated by the FDA).
What Should Athletes Look for in a Protein Powder?
The best protein powders for young athletes are ones that are third-party tested by a program listed above to ensure they do not contain banned substances that can affect your eligibility to compete. Look for a protein powder that contains adequate protein to help optimize muscle recovery and growth and carbohydrates to help replenish energy stores. It’s best to choose a product that offers at least 20 grams of protein per serving (or scoop) to ensure you are obtaining an adequate amount for your needs.
As student-athletes, you need carbohydrates (even in the form of sugar), especially before and after workouts to quickly replace muscle energy stores and support the ability of protein to work or repair. So we recommend protein powders that don’t market low-carb claims and contain carbohydrates from whole food sources versus artificial additives, which can cause GI distress in some athletes. While more natural alternative sweeteners such as stevia and monk fruit are often recommended, there may be a limited amount your body is able to handle versus what is provided in a serving. It’s important to determine your personal tolerance to the various sweeteners.
14 Sports Dietitian Approved Protein Powders
1 – Orgain Simple Plant Protein Powder
Orgain’s Simple Plant Protein Powder wins our award for the best value per dollar. For $22 you get 15 servings which amount to the lowest dollar per serving compared to any of the other protein powders on our list. You not only get 20 grams of protein but also 11 grams of carbohydrate which (as mentioned above) is important for recovery as it helps refuel energy stores. It uses real coconut sugar versus non-nutritive sweeteners which provide great taste without giving any potential GI issues that non-nutritive sweeteners can cause. In one serving, you get about 6.2 mg of iron or 35% of your daily value (the amount of a nutrient that is recommended for a non-athlete adult to consume each day). Consuming a powder with iron is an added benefit for female athletes since it may help reduce the chances they need to spend extra money on iron supplements.
- 20g protein
- 6.2mg iron → 35% daily value
- Price → $22.09 for 15 servings ($1.47/serving)
2 – Thorne Whey Protein Isolate
Thorne’s whey protein isolate powder is another great option in terms of price per value. At just $1.83 per serving you get 21 grams of whey protein powder and 30 servings. It also provides 21 grams of whey protein and comes in chocolate and vanilla flavors. And an added bonus – all of our 1-1 clients have access to 30% of Thorne products.
- 21g whey protein
- Price → $55 for 30 servings ($1.83/serving)
3 – Ladder Plant Protein
We love this brand in part because it’s supported by Abbie Smith-Ryan, Ph.D., a leading researcher in female performance nutrition. One serving contains 21 grams of pea protein, and tart cherry for recovery. We also love it because you can select the number of servings you want to purchase. So if spending $60-$90 on a package of protein powder isn’t possible for you, you can choose 4 or 15 servings instead to help fit it into your budget. Know that you are getting your money’s worth though with the larger servings. At $1.99 per serving, this protein powder is definitely friendly to your wallet.
- 21g protein from pea sources
- 6mg iron → 33% of the daily value
- Price → $59.95 for 30 servings ($1.99/serving)
4 – Orgain Organic Protein & Superfoods Plant-Based Protein
Orgain’s Organic Protein & Superfoods product derives its protein from pea, brown rice, and chia seed blend. It provides 21 grams of protein as well as 20 grams of carbohydrate which are needed to help you replenish your energy stores post-workout. The superfood blend of tart cherry, turmeric, beets, and more can add antioxidants to your diet, which are powerful plant compounds that may help aid in recovery. It also contains a high iron content, about 8 mg or 45% of your daily value which is an added benefit for female athletes as mentioned previously. Try one of Orgain’s unique flavors such as creamy chocolate fudge and vanilla bean.
- 21g organic plant protein
- 8mg of iron → 45% of the daily value
- Price → $39.99 for 18 servings ($2.22/serving)
5 – Biosteel Plant-Based
Biosteel’s plant-based protein is derived from a blend of brown rice, pea, and pumpkin seeds. Blends are helpful with plant-based protein as they can enhance the amount of essential amino acids offered. This one provides 21 grams of protein and ties for 2nd place when it comes to price per serving. We even love the fun flavors it has of the cinnamon bun and blueberry copper. If you ever get bored of the traditional vanilla and chocolate flavors, this will give you options.
- 21g protein from a blend of brown rice, pea, and pumpkin seed
- 5mg of iron → 27% of the daily value
- Price → $49.99 for 25 servings ($1.99/serving)
6 – Whole Foods Market Whey Protein Isolate
If you want to get your protein powder during your grocery trips, Whole Foods Market offers its own Grass-Fed Whey Protein Isolate. Price-wise, it falls in line with Biosteel and Ladder’s protein powders but offers a few more grams of protein per serving. It comes in unflavored and chocolate flavors. To save on costs, take advantage of Whole Foods’ supplement sales throughout the year. At 25-33% off, it that can be a good time to stock up on this brand, Garden of Life, Orgain, or Vega proteins.
- 25g protein
- Price → $29.99 for 15 servings ($1.99/serving)
7 – Klean Isolate Natural Protein
Another economical option is Klean’s whey protein powder which provides 20 grams of protein. It doesn’t contain any artificial sweeteners or flavors and is sweetened with stevia leaf and monk fruit extract. Flavors include chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and unflavored. The unflavored option works well if you want to add it to a variety of foods such as oatmeals, smoothies, and baked goods, or pair it with different sweeteners or flavors.
- 20g protein (whey)
- Price → $42.60 for 20 servings ($2.13/serving)
8 – Ladder Whey Protein
See #2 above on why we love this brand. This version of Ladder’s protein powder contains 26 grams of whey protein isolate to help support muscle growth and tart cherry for recovery. We know the price tag of $64.95 is not always feasible for student-athletes, but Ladder also sells small serving sizes at a lower price. They even offer various servings types such as bags with a scoop, on-the-go packets, or samplers in case you want to try out the chocolate and vanilla flavors before you commit.
- 26g protein
- Price → $64.95 for 30 servings ($2.16/serving)
9 – NOW Sports Soy Protein Isolate Protein Powder
NOW Sports protein powder is another more affordable option that provides 25 grams of protein and 9 grams of carbohydrate. Soy protein is considered the highest quality of all plant proteins, meaning it contains adequate amounts of essential amino acids. It also contains a high iron content of 5 mg or 30% of your daily value. Flavors include creamy chocolate, creamy vanilla, and unflavored. Use code “KELLYNOW” for 20% off NOW products.
- 25g soy protein
- 5mg of iron → 30% of the daily value
- Price → $44.99 for 20 servings ($2.24/serving)
10 – Momentous Essential Protein – Plant-Based
Momentous’ plant-based option clocks in 20 grams of protein derived from a 70:30 blend of pea and rice sources. It also includes 10 grams of carbohydrate, and 5-7 mg of iron to help you reach 28-39% of your daily needs. We like this product for its simple ingredients and unique flavor of vanilla chai, in case you want to switch things up.
- 20g protein
- 5-7mg iron → 28-39% DV
- Price → $49.95 for 20 servings ($2.49/serving)
11 – Biosteel Whey Protein Isolate
Biosteel’s Whey Protein Isolate offers 28 grams of protein which is on the higher end compared to other protein powders. Its whey isolate comes from grass-fed whey cattle to provide high-quality protein and you can choose from flavors like chocolate or vanilla.
- 28g whey protein
- Price $59.99 for 24 servings ($2.49/serving)
12 – Garden of Life Sport Organic Plant-Based Protein
Garden of Life derives its plant-based protein from a variety of sprouted, gluten-free grains and seeds. Similar to Orgain, this contains a recovery blend that includes small amounts of tart cherry, turmeric, glutamine, and glutamic acid – these compounds may help to decrease post-exercise recovery time when taken in larger doses. The flavor profile of both vanilla and chocolate tastes delicious whether paired with fruit in a smoothie or in a shaker bottle with water.
- 30g organic plant-based protein (vegan)
- Price → $47.99 for 28.4 oz or 19 servings ($2.52/serving)
13 – Momentous Grass Fed Whey Isolate
While on the higher end of price when it comes to whey protein powders, Momentous’ whey undergoes a cold and micro-processing filtration to help preserve its amino acid profile and sources its whey from grass-fed Irish cows to develop a high-quality whey protein. The company has a goal of full transparency and accountability when it comes to its production process. One bag of protein powder provides 20 grams of protein and comes in unflavored, chocolate, and vanilla.
- 20g whey protein
- Price → $64.95 for 24 servings ($2.70/serving)
14 – Vega Sport Protein
Vega is one of the best-tasting protein powders available. This plant-based protein provides 30 grams of protein and tart cherry powder – tart cherry juice and extract have been shown in research to support muscle recovery. On top of providing standard flavors such as vanilla and chocolate, it also comes in peanut butter, making this the perfect protein powder if you’re looking to switch up the flavor.
- 30g plant-based protein
- Price → $39.79 for 21.1 oz or 14 servings ($2.84/serving)
Best Protein Powder FAQ
What’s the difference between plant-based and whey protein powders?
Whey protein powders contain whey which is a key protein in cow’s milk shown in abundant research to maximally stimulate muscle protein repair and growth versus other single source proteins. This is due to the quantity of essential amino acids, especially one called leucine. Plant-based protein powders can contain a variety of plant sources of protein including soy, pea, hemp, chia or brown rice. These plant-based powders may include only one source of plant protein , or a blend in order to increase the quantity of certain amino acids. While both provide protein, the amount of protein in plant-based versions may vary and can often come at a higher cost. If choosing a plant-based powder, be sure it contains at least 20 grams of protein per serving (or scoop) so you are obtaining an adequate amount for your needs and getting the best value. We recommend soy or pea protein if you want a single source plant protein. Soy has long been known as the most effective alternative to whey, while pea has some recent research showing it may have similar effects of whey as well.
What are the most affordable protein powders for college athletes?
The most affordable protein powders that are currently on the market are priced under $2 per serving. Orgain Simple Plant Protein Powder, Thorne Whey Protein Isolate, Ladder Plant Protein, Biosteel Plant-Based Protein, and Whole Foods Whey Protein Isolate all meet these criteria and is why we added them to the top of our list.
There are also other ways to save! Most companies offer a 10-25% discount on your first purchase if you buy direct online. Opt-in to the “subscribe and save” options to obtain a discount on recurring orders. Take advantage of discounts provided by our sports RD’s such as using code “KELLYNOW” for 20% off NOW products. Take advantage of Whole Foods’ supplement sales throughout the year. At 25-33% off, it can be a good time to stock up on this brand, Garden of Life, Orgain, or Vega proteins. Orgain is also sold at cost clubs such as BJs and Costco.
When is the best time to take protein powder?
While we always encourage student-athletes to take a food-first approach to nutrition, meaning consuming protein from whole food sources as much as possible, we know protein powders can be helpful for busy days. After a tough training session or competition, it’s best to take in protein as soon as possible, but no longer than 2 hours after physical activity stops. Remember, adequate carbohydrate consumption post-workout is important to refuel energy stores and leave protein available for its other crucial roles in recovery. You can mix with milk if you had carbs before and during training, aren’t participating in an endurance sport, and have a full meal coming up within 2 hours. If not, mix with juice or make a post-workout recovery smoothie.
What type of sweetener should I look for in a protein powder?
Artificial sweeteners such as sucralose and acesulfame potassium can often be found in protein powders, especially those that are whey-based. Artificial sweeteners can may cause GI distress in some athletes, so we recommend protein powders that derive their carbohydrate sources from more natural sources such as real sugar, stevia and monk fruit. Note that even with the “natural” sugar-free sweeteners, there may be a limited amount your body is able to handle versus what is provided in a serving. It’s important to listen to your body and determine your personal tolerance to various sweeteners.
What are the best allergen-free protein powders?
If you have a food allergy, it’s important to double-check the ingredients list before consuming any protein powder. All of the protein powders listed above are labeled as gluten-free. Orgain’s Simple Plant and Protein & Superfoods, NOW Sports Soy Protein Isolate, and Garden of Life’s Sport Organic protein powders are labeled as dairy-free. For those looking for soy-free options, Orgain Simple Plant, Thorne Whey Protein Isolate, Ladder Whey & Plant Protein, Biosteel Whey & Plant Protein, and Garden of Life’s Sport Organic are labeled as soy-free.
Need help assessing your personal needs or determining the best fueling pattern for you? Check out our resources and services.