Choosing the right protein powder
Brand. Flavour. Protein type. Added benefits. Additives in general. What does it all mean when it comes to selecting a protein powder? Selecting a protein powder is somewhat of a personal choice, and the one that’s right for you will depend on your budget, your goals, and other preferences and values you may have. Let’s break it down.
One of the major distinctions between protein powders is the type of protein. We can generally place these in two main categories: plant-based proteins, and milk-based proteins. There are other animal proteins that are not derived from milk available (for example, egg white protein or bone-broth protein), but most non-plant-based proteins on the market are a form of whey or casein protein.
Whey and casein are the two types of protein that are found in cow’s milk, making up 80% and 20% respectively. They are both high quality proteins that can be effectively digested and utilized by your body and contain all essential amino acids. When they are processed as a powder for protein supplements, a standard serving size typically supplies around 20-25g of protein, and a small amount of carbohydrate and fat.
The main difference between whey and casein is in their rate of absorption. Whey is a fast-digesting protein, and this makes it particularly suitable for consuming post-workout to kickstart the recovery process and provide fuel for your muscles after hard training. Casein, on the other hand, digests much more slowly. This can be beneficial for helping you to stay full for longer, and for providing a steady release of amino acids overnight if you take casein prior to sleep. Whey protein also contains more branched chain amino acids than casein (notably leucine), which may give it a more important role in the muscle building process.
Whey protein is also available in two different forms – whey protein concentrate, and whey protein isolate. Whey protein concentrate is the more typical or standard form of whey available. It has a good nutritional profile, is comparatively cheaper, and it is well suited to the goals of most people. In contrast, whey isolate has been processed further to provide a higher protein content and reduced carbohydrate and fat levels. In this sense, whey isolate provides the “purest” protein, and it is the fastest digesting of the milk-based proteins. Because of these features, isolate protein is sometimes preferred by those who are following strict dietary guidelines, and as it is effectively lactose free, it may also suit those who have sensitivities or allergies.
On the other side of the spectrum, plant-based proteins have become increasingly popular, and they are also now available in many varieties from various plant-based sources. Plant-based proteins of course appeal to those who follow a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, but they can also be a good choice for many other people depending on your preferences and what other features of a protein powder are important to you. Plant-based protein powders have many of the same benefits as those derived from milk and are often made with natural ingredients and fewer artificial additives (for example, artificial sweeteners). Plant-based proteins can be more expensive, however, and it’s important to remember that they are not always complete proteins (containing all essential amino acids), so if you use them in the context of a vegan diet where this may be important, you should select a plant-based protein that has a comprehensive amino acid profile. Some of the most common plant-based proteins are listed below:
Pea protein – pea protein is one of the best plant-based protein choices. It is made by extracting protein from yellow peas, and it has a complete amino acid profile (all nine essential amino acids). It is also highly digestible and non-allergenic, making it a good choice for anyone with dietary restrictions. Its protein content is high, and it is rich in iron as well as the amino acids lysine, arginine, and glutamine.
Brown rice protein – brown rice protein is another common plant-based protein source. Like pea protein, it is non-allergenic, so it suits those who may be intolerant to dairy or gluten, as well as those following a vegan lifestyle. It does not contain the amino acid lysine, which means that it does not provide a complete amino acid profile. The texture of brown rice protein may sometimes be grittier than other plant-based sources, which can make it more suitable for mixing into a smoothie for example than drinking as a shake, unless the brown-rice protein is included as part of a plant-based protein blend.
Soy protein – soy protein is derived from soybeans, and it has both a high protein content and complete amino acid profile, providing most of the same benefits as whey protein. For some people, however, soy may be an allergen.
Hemp protein – hemp protein is a newer addition to the market and is extracted from hemp seeds. Hemp is a complete protein containing all nine essential amino acids; however, it is low in several critical amino acids including lysine. Advantages of hemp include the high fibre content and high percentage of healthy omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids, but its overall protein content based on dry weight is less than pea protein and the amino acid profile of pea protein is superior. Hemp protein can also have an earthy taste, which may be unpleasant for some people and require it to be mixed with stronger tasting foods or beverages.
It is also common to find blended plant-based proteins that contain more than one of the above plant-based protein sources, in addition to other ingredients. This can be a bonus, as you are more likely to have a protein with a complete amino acid profile and benefit from the unique advantages that each plant-based source offers.
What else is in my protein powder?
As well as the primary protein source, most protein supplements also contain a few additional ingredients.
Added probiotics and digestive enzymes - some protein powders add prebiotics and probiotics and may include enzymes that assist with digestion. These can make the protein powder easier to break down and contribute to good gut health, so you experience fewer unwanted digestive symptoms such as bloating.
Added superfoods – particularly in plant-based proteins, you may find added “superfood’ ingredients. These can bump up the nutritional profile of your protein powder and provide extra health benefits.
Added collagen – some protein blends contain added collagen. Collagen is also protein-rich and offers additional benefits for the health of your bones, joints, hair, skin, and nails.
Added fats – healthy fats are also sometimes found as an addition to protein powders. These can include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, or medium chain triglycerides (MCTs).
Added thermogenic ingredients – some protein powders are designed to assist with weight management, including added ingredients that enhance your ability to burn fat, for example coffee bean extract, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) or L-carnitine. These may be labelled as “lean” or “ripped” proteins and can suit the goals that some people have. However, particularly if you are sensitive to caffeine, it can pay to double check the ingredients of these protein types.
Sweeteners – most protein powders include a sweetener of some kind. If you prefer to keep your supplements natural, look out for the type of sweetener used. Natural sweeteners are usually stevia (steviol glycosides) or preferably, monk fruit extract or thaumatin. The most common artificial sweetener used is sucralose. For those protein powders that use sugar as a sweetener, less than 5g per serving is best.
Colours, flavours, and thickeners – if it is important to you to keep things natural, look out for the addition of artificial colours and flavours, and various thickening agents. Thickening agents include ingredients such as dextrin and gums.
Phew! That’s a lot of information to take in. If you’ve made it this far (or if you’ve skipped to the end), here’s a checklist:
- Do you prefer a milk-based or plant-based protein?
- Do you have any ethical preferences or allergies that might make one type of protein more suitable?
- What is your budget? Typically, whey protein is the most cost effective.
- Is it important to you to have an all-natural supplement? Check your protein powder for artificial colours, flavours, sweeteners, and added thickeners.
- Do you follow a vegan lifestyle? Choose a complete source of plant-based protein. Protein made from golden peas is a good option.
- What flavours do you enjoy? A classic vanilla or chocolate protein can be a versatile choice, or some protein powders come in a range of flavours if you like to drink them with just water or milk or milk alternatives.
- Is texture important to you? Milk-based protein powders typically have a smoother texture, however plant-based proteins have also improved hugely in recent years.
- Do you want to level up your protein with added health benefits? Look for blends that contain ingredients such as superfoods, healthy fats, or collagen.