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All About Protein Powders

The 7 Best Types of Protein Powder

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Protein powders are very popular among health-conscious people. There are numerous types of protein powder made from a wide variety of sources. As there are so many options, it can be difficult to determine which will provide optimal results. Here are 7 of the best types of protein powder. Share on Pinterest

What Are Protein Powders? Protein powders are concentrated sources of protein from animal or plant foods, such as dairy, eggs, rice or peas. There are three common forms: Protein concentrates:

Produced by extracting protein from whole food using heat and acid or enzymes.

These typically supply 60–80% protein, with the remaining 20–40% composed of

fat and carbs.

Produced by extracting protein from whole food using heat and acid or enzymes. These typically supply 60–80% protein, with the remaining 20–40% composed of fat and carbs. Protein isolates: An

additional filtering process removes more fat and carbs, further concentrating

the protein. Protein isolate powders contain about 90–95% protein.

An additional filtering process removes more fat and carbs, further concentrating the protein. Protein isolate powders contain about 90–95% protein. Protein hydrolysates:

Produced by further heating with acid or enzymes — which breaks the bonds

between amino acids — hydrolysates are absorbed more quickly by your body and

muscles. Hydrolysates appear to raise insulin levels more than other forms — at least in the case of whey protein. This can enhance your muscle growth following exercise ( 1 ). Some powders are also fortified with vitamins and minerals, especially calcium. However, not everyone benefits from these powders. If your diet is already rich in high-quality protein, you likely won’t see much difference in your quality of life by adding protein powder. However, athletes and people who regularly lift weights may find that taking protein powder helps maximize muscle gain and fat loss. Protein powders can also aid individuals who struggle to meet protein needs with food alone, such as people who are ill, older adults and some vegetarians or vegans. Summary

Protein powders come from a variety of

sources and are available in several formulations. People use them to increase muscle mass, improve overall body composition

and help meet their protein needs.

1. Whey Protein Whey protein comes from milk. It is the liquid that separates from the curds during the cheesemaking process. It’s high in protein but also harbors lactose, a milk sugar that many people have difficulty digesting. While whey protein concentrate retains some lactose, the isolate version contains very little because most of this milk sugar is lost during processing. Whey digests quickly and is rich in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). Leucine, one of these BCAAs, plays a major role in promoting muscle growth and recovery after resistance and endurance exercise ( 2 , 3 ). When amino acids are digested and absorbed into your bloodstream, they become available for muscle protein synthesis (MPS), or the creation of new muscle. Studies reveal that whey protein can help build and maintain muscle mass, assist athletes with recovery from heavy exercise and increase muscle strength in response to strength training ( 4 , 5 , 6 , 7 , 8 , 9 ). One study in young men showed that whey protein increased MPS 31% more than soy protein and 132% more than casein protein following resistance exercise ( 9 ). However, a recent 10-week study found that postmenopausal women had a similar response to resistance training whether they took whey protein or a placebo ( 10 ). Other studies in normal-weight, overweight and obese individuals suggest that whey protein may improve body composition by decreasing fat mass and increasing lean mass ( 11 , 12 , 13 ). What’s more, whey protein seems to reduce appetite at least as much as other types of protein ( 14 , 15 , 16 , 17 , 18 ). One study gave lean men four different types of liquid protein meals on different days. The whey-protein meals led to the largest decrease in appetite and the greatest reduction in calorie intake at the next meal ( 18 ). Some studies suggest that whey protein may also reduce inflammation and improve certain heart health markers in overweight and obese people ( 19 , 20 , 21 ). Summary

Whey protein is quickly digested, providing a

rapid rise in amino acids that may help increase muscle mass and strength. It

may also reduce appetite and promote fat loss.

2. Casein Protein Like whey, casein is a protein found in milk. However, casein is digested and absorbed much more slowly. Casein forms a gel when it interacts with stomach acid, slowing down stomach emptying and delaying your bloodstream’s absorption of amino acids. This results in a gradual, steadier exposure of your muscles to amino acids, reducing the rate of muscle protein breakdown (22). Research indicates that casein is more effective at increasing MPS and strength than soy and wheat protein — but less than whey protein ( 5 , 6 , 23 , 24 , 25 , 26 ). However, one study in overweight men suggests that when calories are restricted, casein may have an edge over whey in improving body composition during resistance training ( 27 ). Summary

Casein is a slow-digesting dairy protein that

may reduce muscle protein breakdown and promote muscle mass growth and fat loss

during calorie restriction.

3. Egg Protein Eggs are an excellent source of high-quality protein. Of all whole foods, eggs have the highest protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS). This score is a measure of a protein’s quality and digestibility ( 28 ). Eggs are also one of the best foods for decreasing appetite and helping you stay full for longer ( 29 , 30 ). However, egg protein powders are typically made from egg whites rather than whole eggs. Although the protein quality remains excellent, you may experience less fullness because the high-fat yolks have been removed. Like all animal products, eggs are a complete protein source. That means they provide all nine essential amino acids that your body can’t make itself. What’s more, egg protein is second only to whey as the highest source of leucine, the BCAA that plays the largest role in muscle health (31). Keep in mind that egg-white protein hasn’t been studied as much as whey or casein. In one study, it demonstrated less potential to reduce appetite than casein or pea protein when consumed before a meal ( 32 ). In another, female athletes taking egg-white protein experienced similar gains in lean mass and muscle strength as those supplementing with carbs ( 33 ). Egg-white protein could be a good choice for people with dairy allergies who prefer a supplement based on animal protein. Summary

Egg-white protein is high in quality and

easily digested — though it may not keep you feeling as full as other protein

powders.

4. Pea Protein Pea protein powder is especially popular among vegetarians, vegans and people with allergies or sensitivities to dairy or eggs. It’s made from the yellow split pea, a high-fiber legume that boasts all but one of the essential amino acids. Pea protein is also particularly rich in BCAAs. A rat study noted that pea protein is absorbed slower than whey protein but faster than casein. Its ability to trigger the release of several fullness hormones may be comparable to that of dairy protein ( 34 ). In a 12-week study in 161 men doing resistance training, those who took 1.8 ounces (50 grams) of pea protein daily experienced similar increases in muscle thickness as those who consumed the same amount of whey protein daily ( 35 ). In addition, a study revealed that humans and rats with high blood pressure experienced a decrease in these elevated levels when they took pea protein supplements ( 36 ). Though pea protein powder shows promise, more high-quality research is needed to confirm these results. Summary

While studies are limited, pea protein may

promote fullness and increase muscle growth as effectively as animal-based

proteins.

5. Hemp Protein Hemp protein powder is another plant-based supplement that is gaining popularity. Although hemp is related to marijuana, it only contains trace amounts of the psychoactive component THC. Hemp is rich in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and several essential amino acids. However, it is not considered a complete protein because it has very low levels of the amino acids lysine and leucine. While very little research exists on hemp protein, it appears to be a well-digested plant protein source ( 37 ). Summary

Hemp

protein is high in omega-3s and seems to be easily digested. However, it is low

in the essential amino acids lysine and leucine.

6. Brown Rice Protein Protein powders made from brown rice have been around for some time, but they are generally considered inferior to whey protein for building muscle. Although rice protein contains all of the essential amino acids, it is too low in lysine to be a complete protein. There isn’t a lot of research on rice protein powder, but one study compared the effects of rice and whey powders in fit, young men. The eight-week study demonstrated that taking 1.7 ounces (48 grams) of rice or whey protein daily resulted in similar changes in body composition, muscle strength and recovery ( 38 ). However, more research on brown rice protein is needed. Summary

Early research on brown rice protein powder

suggests it may have beneficial effects on body composition. However, it is low

in the essential amino acid lysine.

7. Mixed Plant Proteins Some protein powders contain a blend of plant sources to provide your body with all the essential amino acids. Two or more of the following proteins are usually combined: Brown rice

Pea

Hemp

Alfalfa

Chia seeds

Flax seeds

Artichoke

Quinoa Due in part to their high fiber content, plant proteins tend to digest slower than animal proteins. Although this may not pose a problem for many people, it can limit the amino acids your body can use immediately after exercise. One small study provided resistance-trained young men with 2.1 ounces (60 grams) of whey protein, a pea-rice protein blend or a pea-rice blend with supplemental enzymes to accelerate digestion ( 39 ). The enzyme-supplemented powder was comparable to whey protein in terms of the speed at which amino acids appeared in the blood. Shop now at Amazon Summary

Several protein powders comprise a mixture of

plant proteins. Adding enzymes to these plant-protein mixtures may increase

their digestion and absorption.

How protein powder is made

If you’re interested in keeping in shape you may already be including protein powder in your diet. But did you know that not all protein powders are created equal? Some are more concentrated, some contain more essential amino acids than others, some will make you feel fuller for longer, and some will be suitable for vegans. And that’s just for starters.

Read on for our complete guide to protein powders; where they come from, how they are made, and what they are good for. Once you’ve decided if it's right for your health goals, check out our guide to the best protein powders and the best vegan protein powders on the market.

What is protein powder?

Protein powder is a supplement that is now commonly used by professional athletes and people who are serious about training, to help them maintain the correct protein intake. Muscle is built from protein, so people looking to gain muscle size and/or strength will often aim to include more protein in their diet.

There are 20 amino acids that form the building blocks of muscle protein - nine essential and 11 non-essential. Within the essential amino acids are the three branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) - leucine, isoleucine and valine, which are particularly important for muscle building. Some protein powders contain all of them, and others don’t. Generally, animal sources of protein will be ‘complete’, containing all the essential amino acids, while plant sources are usually not complete.

Where do different types of protein powder come from?

Whey and casein

Whey and casein protein powders are two different types that are both made from pasteurised milk. Enzymes are added to make the milk curdle. The solid part is then separated out and used to make cheese or casein, leaving the liquid whey behind, which may be spray dried. It takes about 200 litres of milk to produce 1kg of whey protein powder and the same amount of milk can also produce about 6kg of casein protein powder.

Whey protein is digested quickly, while casein protein is slower to be absorbed by your body.

Both whey and casein contain all nine essential amino acids. Whey protein is often found in the best protein bars too.

Egg

Made from dehydrated egg whites, egg protein powder is a good option for people who have an issue with dairy protein powders like whey and casein and contains all nine essential amino acids.

Soy

Although soy is a plant product - classified as a legume - it also contains all nine essential amino acids and is considered to be a complete protein. However, soy is a crop that has gained a reputation for being heavily sprayed with pesticides in some countries, so you may prefer to look for an organic soy protein powder.

Pea

Made from yellow split peas (not green peas, as the name might make you think!), pea protein contains high levels of branched-chain amino acids and should make you feel nicely full, just like animal-derived protein powders.

(Image credit: Getty)

Brown rice

Brown rice protein is a plant-based option but is low in lysine so, although it contains all nine essential amino acids, it’s not viewed as a complete protein. However, it’s a good option for people with dietary sensitivities, who are allergic to dairy, eggs or legumes.

Hemp

Like brown rice protein, hemp is viewed as an incomplete protein due to its low levels of lysine and leucine. However, it’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids (popularly derived from oily fish), while still being from a non-animal source.

How are different types of protein powder made?

How a protein powder is manufactured has a direct effect on how much protein it actually contains - another case of not all protein products being made equal.

Protein concentrate

These types of protein powders are made up of 60-80% protein, with the rest coming from fats and carbohydrates. Heat and acid are used to extract the protein from whole foods.

Protein isolate

Protein isolate powders have a higher percentage of protein in them than protein concentrate - typically 90-95%. They are made from protein concentrate that has been filtered to remove most of the fats and carbohydrates. These are a good option to mix up one of the best protein shakers after a workout.

Protein hydrolysates

Protein hydrolysates undergo yet another layer of processing by heating them with acid, or by adding enzymes, which helps them to be absorbed more quickly into your bloodstream.

Do different types of protein powder have any benefits over others?

Sports dietician Claire Fudge, of Fourth Discipline Nutrition, works with elite level athletes to ensure their nutrition is optimal at all times. She says different types of protein powder could be used for different things, with whey protein, which is quickly absorbed, being a good option for people training early in the morning who might then struggle to fit in breakfast for another couple of hours.

“For some of our endurance athletes we’re using casein,” she says. “With casein, it’s actually a slow release protein, so you would often use casein - 30 to 40g - before you go to bed. It helps to prevent the breakdown of muscle overnight. It’s like a slow drip feed.”

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Fudge says the rise in plant-based eating has led to an increasing demand for plant-based protein powders too. Because proteins from single plant sources often don’t contain the complete range of branched-chain amino acids, she recommends vegans and other athletes who don’t want to use animal sources to choose a plant protein powder that combines several different sources.

“All the different plants bring their different benefits - it’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle,” she adds.

What to look out for with protein powder ingredients

When choosing a protein powder, check the label to see whether it’s a concentrate, isolate or hydrolysate. This will impact both how quickly the protein is absorbed, and how ‘pure’ a protein source it is, as protein concentrate can be less than two-thirds protein.

Fudge generally recommends an isolate to her clients. This is because it’s usually cheaper than a hydrolysate and still low in lactose if opting for a whey version, because of how it has been processed.

“Isolate sits in the middle in terms of expense,” she says. “But you get a better quality of protein and it’s also low in lactose, so if you have a lactose intolerance it’s a really good way to still get plenty [of protein] in, and get your calcium.”

You may also want to consider whether the ingredients come from organic sources, and, if you are looking at plant-based options, ensure that all essential amino acids are included in the mixture.

All About Protein Powders

Protein powders can be helpful if you aren’t getting enough protein from whole food, or if you want the convenience and portability of a protein source that won’t spoil easily.

How are protein powders made? What’s the difference between types? Read on to find out.

What are protein powders?

Protein powders are dietary supplements that contain a high percentage of protein.

This protein is derived from a variety of different food sources, including:

Rice

Egg

Milk

Pea

Hemp

Soy

Cranberry

Artichoke

Along with protein, many manufacturers fortify their products with vitamins, minerals, greens (dehydrated vegetable or other plant products), additional fats, grains, fibre, and/or thickeners. These latter types of products usually contain appreciable amounts of carbohydrates and fat; they’re often considered meal replacement powders (MRPs) instead of straight protein.

Most protein powders are a highly processed food supplement. They must be refined so they don’t taste like garbage and have a long, stable shelf life.

Processing methods

Although protein powders come directly from whole food sources, they’re not whole foods themselves.

They’re created by extracting the protein component of the food, through a variety of processing methods.

Different protein sources require different processing techniques. For instance, as you might imagine, getting rice protein from starch-dense rice takes some maneuvering.

Here are some typical processing methods.

Protein concentrates

Concentration is a high heat drying process and acid extraction to lessen the whole food source into a concentrated protein powder. It’s reasonably priced.

During the processing other impurities can be concentrated with the protein (e.g., lactose, fat, cholesterol).

Concentrates end up being about 60 – 70 percent protein by weight.

A protein concentrate

Another place you’ll find concentrated protein

Protein isolates

With isolated protein, the idea is to separate out a majority of the protein from the original food. This is accomplished through an alcohol wash, water wash, or ionization technique.

Each method has a different cost. Water is the least expensive and ionization is the most expensive.

After the isolate is created it goes through a filtration process. At this point, virtually everything but the protein has been eliminated. Minimal carbohydrate, fat, fibre and phytochemicals are left.

Isolated protein is about 90 – 95 percent protein by weight.

A protein isolate

Another place you’ll find isolated protein

Protein hydrolysates (hydrolyzed)

Hydrolyzed protein is created by adding water to protein polymers and breaking them into miniature groups of protein called peptides. The groups will range in size from 2 to 5 amino acids.

This is done to enhance absorption. Hydrolysis is essentially pre-digestion.

Hydrolyzed protein is expensive to produce.

Hydrolyzed protein

Another place you’ll find hydrolyzed protein

Ion-exchange protein

Ions are atoms or molecules containing charge-bearing groups.

Ion exchanging separates protein molecules from other fractions in the food by taking advantage of electrical charges. This is the industry standard for milk protein processing.

An ion exchange protein

Microfiltration, cross microfiltration, ultrafiltration

These are powerful filtration processes that remove contaminants from the concentrated protein component by passage through a membrane. They are similar to the reverse osmosis processes used in water purification.

A protein processed by microfiltration

Why would I want to use a protein powder?

Regardless of your individual goals, it’s important to get enough protein. Protein can help you manage your weight and body composition as well as enhance muscle growth, immune function and exercise recovery. (See All About Protein.)

Protein powders can be helpful if you aren’t getting enough protein from whole food, or if you want the convenience and portability of a protein source that won’t spoil easily.

After all, it’s a lot easier to stick a protein powder package in your gym bag than a chicken breast, and protein powder makes a better fruit smoothie than, say, a steak.

With data from numerous studies demonstrating the importance of protein for both body composition and health, dietary supplements providing protein are some of the most popular supplements available.

What you should know

Most protein powders have strengths and weaknesses.

Rice protein – Hypo-allergenic, gluten-free, neutral taste, economical. 100% plant-based. May be derived from genetically modified rice.

Egg protein – Fat-free, concentrated amounts of essential amino acids. May upset stomach.

Milk protein (includes whey, casein, calcium caseinate, and milk protein blends) – May enhance immunity, high in BCAAs, contains lactose, highly studied. May cause digestive upset or other symptoms in people sensitive to whey, casein, and/or lactose.

Pea protein – No saturated fat or cholesterol, highly digestible, hypo-allergenic, economical. Rich in lysine, arginine and glutamine. 100% plant-based.

Hemp protein – Provides omega-3 fats, most forms provide fibre, free of trypsin inhibitors, can get in raw form, high in arginine and histidine. 100% plant-based.

Soy protein – May have benefits for cardiovascular disease, contains some anti-nutrients, may be derived from genetically modified soy. 100% plant-based.

Cranberry protein – Can maintain antioxidants through processing. Derived from recovered cranberry seeds. Contains omega-3 fats. 100% plant-based.

Artichoke protein – Source of inulin (a prebiotic). Rich in BCAAs. 100% plant based.

Protein quality

Proteins can be classified by their quality. Protein quality is determined by the following methods.

Protein efficiency ratio (PER) is based on the weight gain of a test subject (rats) divided by the intake of a particular food protein during the test period. Previous data was influenced by methionine content. This method determines protein needed for growth and not maintenance.

Net protein utilization (NPU) is the ratio of amino acids converted to proteins to the ratio of amino acids supplied. Another way to think of it is the amount of protein that a food makes available to your body based on digestibility and the amino acid composition. This test is influenced by the essential amino acids in the body and limiting amino acids in the food.

Biological value (BV) is a measure of the proportion of absorbed protein from a food that becomes incorporated into the proteins of the body. Think of it as how well the protein can be used for synthesizing new proteins. Nitrogen retention is monitored. BV does not take into account how the protein is digested and absorbed. It can be altered by recent dietary intake and food preparation.

Protein digestibility corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) is a method based on the amino acid requirements of young children. It takes into consideration digestibility of the protein. This is a recently developed measure and preferred for determining the quality of protein.

Summary and recommendations

Consider what you hope to accomplish when using a protein powder before making your selection.

Establish digestibility before choosing a protein source. (You may have to experiment.)

The method in which the protein powder is used will also influence your selection (e.g., shakes, puddings, bars, pancakes, etc).

You get what you pay for. By choosing a “cheap” protein powder, you’re likely to get higher amounts of lactose, fat, fillers, and so on not removed during the isolation process.

If you regularly use protein powders, rotating sources every 2-4 weeks may be a helpful guard against building intolerances.

Most protein powders appear to have similar exercise recovery properties. The amino acid content is comparable between sources as well.

Extra credit

A bag of sugar is empty calories because it’s been stripped of everything but carbohydrates. What does this make a bag of protein powder?

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References

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Eric Carter

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