The Criteria

Of course, there are many ways to define “best”. ?Digestibility, availability, taste, price, the list is endless. ?But to my mind, the two things that really stand out are price and caloric content. ?Now, caloric content is a little confusing. ?After all, protein always has 4 calories per gram, right? ?The thing is though, whole food sources of protein come packaged up with different quantities of carbs and fats, which add varying amounts of calories to your diet along with the protein. ?So I think it’s useful to examine various protein sources to find out not only which are the most cost efficient, but also which ones are the most calorie efficient.

My Methods

So I decided to compare several different commonly available protein sources in terms of average or typical prices, and equalize the calorie content in terms of a 100g portion, to make the math easier. ?I didn’t do this in a terribly scientific way; all I did as a few quick Google searches to find typical retail prices for different items in the American food market. ?Calorie data is from an equally quick lookup in the MyFitnessPal database.

Of course, there will be lots of regional variation in this data, and the specifics on brands and types I chose in MFP will cause the calorie numbers to vary a bit, but I think it’s adequate for a rough outline.

The Data

  • Cost data is from average retail prices in USD from July 2012.
  • Protein/100g is how many grams of protein you get from a 100g portion of the food item.
  • Cal/100g Serving is the total calorie content in a 100g portion.
  • Cal/100g Protein is the total calorie content from however much of that food is needed to deliver 100g of protein.
  • Score is a weighted combination of price efficiency and calorie efficiency. ?So cheap foods with low calories score high, and vice versa.
? Cost/100g ? Protein/100g ? Cal/100g Serving ? Cal/100g protein ? Score
Whey Protein ?$?????? 2.86 ? 78.95 ? 103 ? 130 ? 472%
Boneless Chicken ?$?????? 0.72 ? 31.00 ? 165 ? 532 ? 181%
Beef (Sirloin) ?$?????? 1.00 ? 32.00 ? 193 ? 603 ? 118%
Lean Pork ?$?????? 0.88 ? 30.00 ? 216 ? 720 ? 105%
Whole Eggs ?$?????? 0.27 ? 13.00 ? 147 ? 1131 ? 93%
Cheddar Cheese ?$?????? 0.39 ? 25.00 ? 403 ? 1612 ? 89%
Tuna – canned ?$?????? 1.46 ? 24.00 ? 116 ? 483 ? 76%
Egg Whites (carton) ?$?????? 1.02 ? 11.11 ? 47 ? 423 ? 57%
Salmon – canned ?$?????? 2.46 ? 19.00 ? 130 ? 684 ? 25%
Other Beans ?$?????? 0.32 ? 5.00 ? 82 ? 1640 ? 21%
Soy (endamame) ?$?????? 1.32 ? 12.00 ? 150 ? 1250 ? 16%

My Interpretation

Everyone’s goals are different. ?If shelf life is important, it’s hard to beat canned tuna. ?If you’re very price conscious, chicken is the way to go, especially if you can find it on sale or buy in bulk.

But if you’re the average calorie-conscious dieter looking for a cost effective source of protein that won’t blow your calorie budget or drive up your grocery bill, whey protein powder is a clear winner. ?Whey is the purest form of protein in terms of having little to no added calories, but it’s also relatively easy to combine with other whole foods in shakes and smoothies, giving you a lot of flexibility.