When you walk into your local supplement shop, you’ll likely come face-to-face with an endless selection of supplements — namely, protein powders. The colorful shelves and assorted tubs can be overwhelming, even for advanced bodybuilders who have been lifting weights for a long time.
Before you make a panic purchase or fall prey to the sales pitch of the employee behind the desk, you should probably have a working knowledge of the various types of protein powder. Believe it or not, not all protein is cut from the same cow. Knowing the difference can help you make an informed purchase, or even reach your lifting goals a little quicker.
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What is Protein Powder?
Protein powder is what it sounds like, powdered protein. Protein is an essential macronutrient that is vital for countless physiological functions and is found in muscle, bone, skin, hair, and pretty much every other tissue in your body. Protein is also made up of amino acids which serve important regulatory and repair functions themselves.
Like it or not, you need to consume protein in your diet, not only to support the various structures above, but also to help grow muscle. If you were to skip out on your protein intake, all that hard work you do in the gym would likely be for nothing. A protein powder supplement can help you hit the right amount of protein quickly and conveniently.
Types of Protein Powder
There are plenty of options out there, but most options originate from some familiar foods such as dairy, eggs, and plant sources. However, not all protein powder is the same. Some are derived from higher-quality sources, while others may have particularly rigid production standards. Being an informed consumer is essential to picking the best option for yourself.
Whey protein, a dairy product derived from cow’s milk, is probably the most common type of protein you will see, and for good reason. Whey is generally regarded as the highest-quality protein source due to its favorable amino acid content and easy absorption. It can sometimes be added to food products, but you’ll commonly see it on its own as a powder supplement.
Whey is also a “complete” protein, meaning it contains all nine of the essential amino acids you need for healthy bodily function. Further, whey also comes with a high concentration of the essential acid leucine. (1) The high leucine content contributes to whey’s efficacy as a means of building muscle.
Further, whey also boasts a high PDCAAS score, a scale that measures the digestibility and utilization of a protein source. (2)
There are several subtypes of whey protein. Whey concentrate is generally regarded as the lowest-quality option due to its limited refinement process. Concentrates contain up to 80% pure protein by weight, but some products tend to run even lower. The remainder of the nutritional composition is made up of carbohydrates and fat.
This contributes to a higher caloric content, which can be detrimental if you’re looking for a powder that doesn’t mess with your nutritional plan overall. However, most concentrates don’t come with enough extra calories that you should worry too much over it.
For a product to be considered a whey isolate, it needs to contain at minimum 90% protein by weight. This extensive refinement and concentrated purity makes whey isolate the de-facto protein powder source for most athletes. Isolates will also come with a lower caloric content than most other options.
Further, a reduced amount of carbohydrate also makes whey isolate relatively low in lactose, which can be a lifesaver if you’ve got dietary restrictions. As a caveat, isolate’s extensive processing does make it a bit more expensive than some of its cousins.
Whey protein hydrolysate is another variation of whey protein where the product has been treated with either heat, enzymes, or acids to “pre-digest” the product by breaking some of the peptide bonds. This results in a product that is very rapidly digested and typically easily tolerated by most athletes.
Whey protein hydrolysate has been shown to be as effective as traditional whey protein, and in some instances even more effective at stimulating muscle protein synthesis in animal testing. (3) Hydrolysate is often going to be the most expensive option on the market and will be a little bit harder to come by.
Casein is the other type of protein found in cow’s milk and is typically used for making cheese. It has been widely used by bodybuilders before bedtime for its slow digestive properties. Casein curdles in the stomach’s acidic environment, causing it to digest much slower than whey protein. (4)
The idea behind bodybuilders taking casein protein before bed is to have a slow release of amino acids throughout the night when they would otherwise go through a long fasting period.
Believe it or not, you can actually get a good bit of protein without ever touching a whey product. Plant-based protein powders are generally considered of lower quality, since they are “incomplete,” missing out on at least some of the nine essential aminos. Many plant-based products also have a lower PDCAAS score, indicative of poorer digestibility.
However, they can be a wonderful option if you have a dairy intolerance or other dietary contraindication. When selecting a plant-based powder, you’ll want one that contains different protein sources, such as both pea and rice, or a pure soy protein, which is one of the only complete plant sources.
Egg-based protein powders are usually more obscure than the other more mainstream options. Egg powders are also more expensive than whey, but if you can find an egg product, it might be a suitable option if you have a milk allergy or simply want to sample a new product for fun.
Do You Need Protein Powder?
The simple answer is no. You can get all the protein your body requires through the foods you consume. If your meal plan is on point, with hearty doses of whole-food options, you don’t technically need to pick up a whey product ever. Some of the best whole-food protein sources include:
Protein powder really shines in the arena of convenience. Simply adding powder to a shaker bottle and mixing it up with water is way less time-consuming than cooking and cleaning from scratch. Therefore, you’ll commonly see most physique enthusiasts and strength athletes include protein powders to make their lives easier outside the gym. There are some populations who will benefit from dosing protein more than others.
As a Bodybuilder
Bodybuilders undoubtedly come to mind when you think of a protein powder loyalist. If you’re a dedicated gymgoer trying to bulk up your physique, you’ll probably need more protein than most people. Therefore, having easy access to high-quality dietary protein from a powder supplement can be invaluable.
Moreover, most powders are very compatible with your nutritional plan and fit neatly into your macronutrient goals, making them a great plug-and-play option. You can get loads of pure protein while avoiding unwanted calories from carbs or fat.
Protein Intake Calculator
As a Powerlifter
Even powerlifters tend to need more protein than the average Joe. Now, a dedicated powerlifter may not need to worry over every individual gram of carbohydrate or fat the way a bodybuilder during contest prep would, but protein is equally important for recovery as it is for hypertrophy. Protein powders are therefore a practical addition to any strength athlete’s supplement cabinet.
As a bonus, the controlled and precise dosing in protein powders can help you hit your caloric targets if you’re trying to cut weight to enter a specific weight class. The more control you have over your nutrition, the better.
As an Athlete
Traditional track, field, or court athletes are likely to have more muscle mass and much higher physical activity levels than the population at large. As a consequence, you’ll probably also have more robust nutritional needs, whether you have a ball in your hand or cleats on your feet.
Regardless of your sport of choice, the purity of your protein sourcing is paramount. Some supplements slip through the cracks with banned ingredients that could tarnish your reputation or prohibit you from entering a competition. If you compete in structured or professional athletics, it is absolutely essential that any supplement you take be third-party tested for safety and purity by a qualified healthcare professional or dietitian.
As a Beginner
One of the first things many beginners do when they decide they want to start lifting weights is go out and buy a protein powder. This is not as necessary as you may think, and also ratchets up the monetary buy-in when you begin your fitness journey. While protein powders are certainly helpful for new lifters, you might instead opt to work on your whole-food nutritional habits in lieu of getting a supplement from day one.
With that being said, it can be challenging to meet your protein target if you’re not used to eating a lot of food. In such cases, supplementing your intake with a powder can be an effective approach to ensuring you hit your macronutrient targets — provided that you still consume a majority of your total protein from whole foods.
What to Consider Before Buying Protein Powder
It goes without saying that not all protein powders are created equal. Some are going to be of higher quality, provide a better value, or straight-up taste better than others. The product you end up going with depends on a couple of key factors.
Unfortunately, some protein powders don’t always contain the full amount of protein listed on the label. Moreover, there are occasional incidences of “amino spiking,” a practice that involves adding cheaper amino acids to the nutritional profile to artificially inflate the values on the label.
Broadly speaking, dietary supplements aren’t as tightly-regulated as the pharmaceutical industry. This means that the occasional purity issue does occur from time to time. You as a consumer can sidestep many of these quality issues by ensuring that you purchase a product that has been third-party tested.
Products that have undergone third-party testing by organizations like the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) or Informed Choice & Banned Substance Control Group (BCSG) will display the logo of the organization on the canister somewhere.
Ideally, you want a protein powder that contains all of the essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. You also want it to be from an easily-digestible source and to contain a good amount of leucine. Along with this, you should consider the total calorie content of the product and look for a powder that gives you a good amount of protein without the extra fluff.
The price of the product is as relevant as any other factor, especially if you’re on a budget. Opting for a whey isolate is a smart choice from a nutritional perspective, but may bruise your wallet more than the other options. If dollar value is of high importance to you, you may want to look towards a whey concentrate. You’ll still get high-quality protein, but it won’t break the bank as much.
No supplement is necessary, but some are worth their weight and more. If you’re a lifting addict or just into fitness, you probably need more protein powder than most. Having a reliable supplement at your disposal can make your dietary planning more than a little easier.
With less time spent worrying about your meals, you can focus more on what matters — your training. The right protein powder will do a lot of the legwork for you behind the scenes so you can give your all in in the weight room and hit your goals. Like any purchase, make sure you do your research and are buying a product that is both relevant and practical. With this guide at your side, you shouldn’t have any problems at all.
- Gorissen, S., Crombag, J., Senden, J., Waterval, W., Bierau, J., Verdijk, L. B., & van Loon, L. (2018). Protein content and amino acid composition of commercially available plant-based protein isolates. Amino acids, 50(12), 1685–1695.
- Hoffman, J. R., & Falvo, M. J. (2004). Protein – Which is Best?. Journal of sports science & medicine, 3(3), 118–130.
- Nakayama, K., Tagawa, R., Saito, Y. et al. Effects of whey protein hydrolysate ingestion on post-exercise muscle protein synthesis compared with intact whey protein in rats. Nutr Metab (Lond) 16, 90 (2019).
- Trommelen, J., Weijzen, M., van Kranenburg, J., Ganzevles, R. A., Beelen, M., Verdijk, L. B., & van Loon, L. (2020). Casein Protein Processing Strongly Modulates Post-Prandial Plasma Amino Acid Responses In Vivo in Humans. Nutrients, 12(8), 2299.
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