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Cheap Vs Expensive Whey Protein Powders: The Pros and Cons

The foods you consume are made up of three macronutrients: Carbs, fats and protein. This is, of course, understating things – carbohydrates may be “simple” or “complex”; fat can be saturated or mono or poly-unsaturated; protein can be classified as “complete” or “incomplete”. And then there’s a whole, hidden world of micronutrients – vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, antioxidants and more.

Fascinating as these things are, today we’re going to focus on protein – more specifically, on the pros and cons of using cheap protein powders.

Why protein is so Important

Protein is an essential macronutrient. It abounds in both the plant and animal world. You can find it in fish, meat, eggs, milk – and for the truly adventurous, insects. It’s also abundant in legumes, nuts, seeds and even seaweed.

Your body uses dietary protein to build muscle and other tissues, create new cells, manufacture neurotransmitters and produce enzymes, which play myriad biological roles. In short, you need protein to live.

Exactly how much protein an individual requires is determined by a number of factors – age, gender, weight, overall health and physical activity all play a role. As a general rule, men require more protein than women, and the more physically active a person is – particularly if they’re weight training to increase lean muscle mass – the greater their requirement.

Supplementing with Cheap Protein Powder

Protein powder has two primary advantages – it’s convenient, and less filling than whole food. The former means it takes much less time to add a scoop or two of powder to water, milk or juice, or blend it into a smoothie than it does to prepare a meal – perfect for busy people on the run. The latter makes it easy to supplement your diet with extra protein, allowing you to hit your daily requirement goals, while avoiding the discomfort of overeating.

Pros of Using Cheap Protein Powders

You can buy cheap things or splurge on the best. In either case, there’s a trade-off, and protein powders are no exception. Let’s start by exploring all the good reasons to buy an inexpensive protein supplement:

Cost Savings

This is the most obvious benefit. The price difference between an expensive “premium” protein powder and its cheaper counterpart can be significant. Over a single purchase, it may not matter, but if you buy a tub every month, it really adds up. Consider how much supplemental protein you consume over a year and calculate how much you can save by choosing a cheaper brand.

Here’s where things can get a little tricky, though. I’ve seen very expensive, heavily branded supplements made with very cheap raw ingredients. In this case it would make no sense to buy the expensive option because you would just be paying for the name when a cheaper option with the same ingredients is available at half the price.

Here’s a real life example of what I mean, without naming any brand names.

Product AProduct B
Price: £80
Serving: x2 scoops (70g)
Protein per serving: 49g
Primary ingredient: Whey concentrate
Serving per container: 30
Price: £30
Serving: x2 scoops (50g)
Protein per serving: 42g
Primary ingredient: Whey Concentrate
Serving per container: 50

Now, these are real products I’m talking about here. Product A costs a whopping £80 for just 30, 49g protein shakes. Compare that to product B and you’ll get 50, 42g protein shakes for £30. With Product B you get 20 more protein shakes at less than half the price!

Let’s compare the cost between these over a year:

Product A = £960 yearly
Product B = £210 yearly
Saving: £750 yearly

Just doing a little research into buying your next protein powder could save you hundreds a year.

My point here is READ THE INGREDIENTS before buying your next protein powder. Product A that I mentioned above has a fucking awesome looking label and a strong supplement brand name. But it’s the nutritional profile and ingredients label that will give the true picture.

Please bear in mind, supplement companies have one goal – to make money. They’ll go to great lengths to make you buy their products. These big companies put a ton of money into branding and marketing, with cool sounding names, fancy packaging, and sponsored pro bodybuilders promoting their latest supplements.

Choose your protein powder by checking and comparing the ingredients and nutritional profile, not by how cool the packaging looks.

Container volume

Have you ever noticed that more expensive things are often sold in smaller packages? The same can often be said for protein powder – pricey, high quality proteins are often packaged in small containers or re-sealable pouches.

On the other hand, less expensive protein powder is often available in large tubs, sometimes weighing several or more kilograms. This often translates as cost savings – buying in bulk means spending less money for more protein – and it’s simply more convenient to dip a scoop into a large, wide-mouth container. It also means fewer trips to the shop, or less frequent online purchases, saving money on travel or shipping expenses.

Cons of Cheap Protein Powder

taking HMB in shake

There’s low cost protein powders which are a good budget option, and then there’s super cheap garbage.

Like we mentioned earlier, there’s always a trade-off. Buying a very cheap low quality protein powder may save you time and money, but let’s take a look at what you might sacrifice by taking the cheapest option out there.

Undesirable ingredients

There are exceptions, but as a general rule, food products and supplements – protein powder could fall into either of those categories – that cost more are of a higher quality. Cheap protein powders may contain questionable ingredients which serve no practical purpose, pose a potential risk to your health or have been added solely to create the illusion of quantity, quality or both.

For example, cheaper protein may contain refined sugar or artificial sweeteners, as well as synthetic colours and flavours. You might also find ingredients like locust bean gum, guar gum or carrageenan, all of which are used as thickening agents that can alter the texture and appearance of a poorer-quality protein supplement. All three have been linked to gastrointestinal disturbances.

Poor quality raw ingredients

If the end-product is cheap, you can be quite sure that what went into it was cheap, too. For example, less-costly whey protein may come from the milk of cows raised in a crowded, contaminated, large-scale industrial setting, receiving a less-than-ideal diet and high doses of antibiotics or other drugs.

Conversely, a higher-priced alternative may be made from the milk of healthier, small-herd, pastured cattle. In fact, you can now buy whey protein made from the milk of organic grass fed cattle.

Cheap soy protein may be made from conventionally grown, genetically modified soybeans, whereas a costlier alternative may be produced from organically grown soybeans, free of pesticides and herbicides, and sustainably grown. Of course, these aren’t hard and fast rules – it always pays to read the label.

Quality of whey protein powder

Both example products I mentioned above primarily contain whey concentrate, which is the lowest quality and cheapest form of whey powder. It’s still a very good supplemental source of protein but you’ll typically find the cheaper shakes contain concentrate, some of the higher quality powders will contain a mix of whey concentrate and isolate. The best powders will contain pure whey isolate and/or hydrolysate, which are the most expensive and contain the most protein.

Check out our complete guide to whey protein powders for more in depth information on the different types of whey powders.

Low protein content

You can’t blindly assume that all protein powders contain the same quantity of protein per serving. As an example, most high quality whey powder contains at least 70 – 90% protein – but a cheap whey may contain as little as 30 – 40%. That means more carbs and fat, the possible addition of filler ingredients (like lecithin, and the aforementioned thickening agents)

…and the fact that the money you thought you were saving by spending less is being wasted on an inferior product.

In the end, whether or not you buy cheap protein powder comes down to carefully weighing the benefits and drawbacks, and checking the ingredients and nutrition info. Saving money is great – but not at the cost of sacrificing all quality.