As most of us know, protein is king in the health and fitness world. It helps preserve lean muscle mass, stimulates muscle protein synthesis, and promotes satiety.
Because it can be challenging to meet our daily needs for this vital macronutrient, many choose to increase their daily protein intake using protein powder supplements.
But this is where it can get sticky…
There are so many different types of protein powder on the market today. How do we know which one will get the job done best?
The good news is that — in this article — we’ve done the heavy lifting for you.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll be giving you the rundown on the different types of protein powder and how each can benefit you depending on your lifestyle and fitness goals.
- The main animal-derived protein powders are whey, collagen, casein, and egg white protein powder.
- The primary plant-based protein powders are brown rice, pea protein, and soy protein powder.
- Whey protein powder is superior to other types of protein powder because it has a complete amino acid profile and digests much faster.
- Plant-based protein powders containing a blend of plant protein sources have a more complete amino acid profile than single plant protein sources.
- Although research remains mixed, many athletes choose to avoid soy protein supplements because some studies suggest that it may lower testosterone levels.
TYPES OF PROTEIN
Before we get into the details, let’s quickly review what protein powder is.
Protein powders are powdered forms of protein that are derived from plants, eggs, or milk.
During the processing phase, the protein source is usually stripped of fats, carbs, and some other naturally occurring components. Depending on the brand, additional vitamins and minerals, sweeteners, or other ingredients may be added.
The three primary forms of protein powders are:
Protein concentrates are the least processed out of the three.
Concentrates are made by extracting protein from foods such as eggs, milk, or plants using enzymes or heat and acid.
The end product supplies around 60-80% protein and 20-40% carbs and fat.
Whey protein concentrate also tends to have more lactose than whey protein isolate and whey protein hydrolysate.
Protein isolates take the processing one step further and remove additional carbs and fat.
After additional processing, protein isolates have a higher protein concentration and less lactose, carbs, and fat.
The end product is composed of 90-95% protein, with the remaining 5-10% being made up of fats and carbs.
Protein hydrolysates are made by exposing protein isolates or concentrates to enzymes that break down bonds between amino acids.
Hydrolysates are the fastest absorbed of all protein powders. For example, whey protein hydrolysate is a pre-digested form of whey that contains around 99% protein.
CON: It is usually far more expensive than concentrates and isolates.
TYPES OF PROTEIN POWDERS
- Animal Based
There are two main types of protein powders: animal-based and plant-based.
Although both certainly have their own benefits and may fit better with certain lifestyles, animal-based protein powders are superior to plant-based protein powders.
This is because animal-based protein powders are complete proteins. They provide all nine essential amino acids the body needs to stimulate tissue growth and repair.
Moreover, scientific studies suggest animal protein, especially whey protein, is more effective at stimulating muscle protein synthesis after exercise than other protein powders.
Whey protein powder promotes muscle growth, increases lean mass, decreases body fat, and improves recovery after strength training.
It comes from the liquid part of milk that separates during cheese production. After the liquid is collected, the whey protein is isolated and dried to form a powder.
It is highly digestible and high in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are known for their ability to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and reduce muscle breakdown.
Learn More: Whey Protein VS. Plant Protein
Collagen is a type of protein that provides structure to our bodies. It is primarily found in the skin, tendons, connective tissue, cartilage, and bones of mammals.
Collagen protein powder is made by extracting collagen from animals such as chickens, cows, fish, and eggshell membranes using hydrolysis.
Hydrolysis breaks down collagen so that the body can easily absorb it. Despite collagen having many important benefits in the body, it is an incomplete protein and cannot build muscle as effectively as whey protein.
According to research, supplementing with collagen protein can:
- Improve joint mobility
- Decrease joint pain
- Improve skin elasticity
- Support gut health
- Prevent bone Loss
Researchers also suggest that collagen peptides stimulate muscle growth following resistance training and promote muscle protein synthesis.
Like whey protein, casein proteins are derived from milk and are complete proteins. The main difference between casein and whey protein is how your body absorbs them. Casein is absorbed much slower than whey.
Casein is considered anti-catabolic (muscle-sparing) because it provides a constant flow of amino acids to prevent muscle protein breakdown.
Athletes often take it before bed to prevent muscle breakdown and promote recovery while they sleep.
EGG WHITE PROTEIN
As its name implies, egg protein is derived from eggs.
It is typically made from dehydrated egg whites that have been processed into a fine powdery substance.
Because it is made from egg white, it has an excellent protein quality and is very low in fat.
Although it is a high-quality complete protein, it still contains fewer BCAAs than whey protein. Whey is also typically absorbed slightly faster than egg white protein.
While egg white protein hasn’t been studied as much as other protein supplements, one study suggests it can increase lean mass and muscle strength in a way similar to carbohydrates in female athletes.
Egg white protein may be a good dairy-free alternative to whey protein if you are allergic to milk protein.
Plant-based protein powders are generally considered inferior to animal-based protein because they lack essential amino acids and take longer to digest.
Studies show that when several plant-based proteins are combined, the amino acid profile increases, which could make up for the decreased ability of single plant proteins to effectively build skeletal muscle.
Additionally, plant-based protein powders are environmentally friendly. They also serve as an excellent alternative for individuals who follow a plant-based or vegan diet, are lactose intolerant, or are simply trying to decrease their intake of animal-based products.
Pea protein is made from extracting protein from peas, usually yellow split peas. Pea protein powder has a distinctively smooth, creamy texture.
Although pea protein contains all nine essential amino acids necessary to be classified as a complete protein, it is low in methionine.
Many companies combine pea protein with methionine or other plant-based proteins like rice or hemp protein high in methionine to provide a more complete amino acid profile.
Studies suggest that pea protein is a good alternative to whey protein powder for building muscle and improving strength.
Learn More: Pea Protein VS. Whey
BROWN RICE PROTEIN
Brown rice protein is a popular substitute for whey protein. It contains all essential amino acids required to be considered a complete protein except lysine.
It is produced through a process that separates the protein and carbohydrates. The protein is then isolated, resulting in brown rice protein powder.
Although we need more research, one study published in Nutrition Journal suggests that brown rice protein may improve lean body mass, enhance skeletal muscle growth, decrease body fat, and increase strength and power in a way similar to that of whey protein.
Brown rice marries perfectly with pea protein to create a more balanced amino acid profile.
Soy protein powders are one of the most popular plant-based protein supplements because they are considered a complete protein.
Soy protein powder is produced through a process known as “acid-washing.” Basically, this involves saturating soybeans in acid or alcohol to remove fiber and sugar. From there, it undergoes additional processing to create a fine powder that is around 90-95% protein.
Although soy protein is still inferior to whey protein, studies suggest it is effective at building muscle mass when combined with strength training.
Soy protein supplements are controversial in the world of sports nutrition. This is because it contains compounds called phytoestrogens.
Phytoestrogens may lower testosterone levels in men, making it more challenging to gain muscle mass.
One older study found that men who consumed soy protein isolate for 54 days had decreased testosterone levels.
Until we have more solid research, it may be good to steer clear of soy protein supplements to avoid compromising your hard work at the gym.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
DO YOU NEED PROTEIN?
Protein is a vital component of any diet because your body needs protein to build and repair muscles and coordinate normal bodily functions.
Without adequate protein, you may be prone to fractures, lose muscle mass, and experience a decreased metabolism.
You may also be subject to brittle skin, hair, nails, decreased immunity, and fatigue.
WHAT DOES PROTEIN POWDER DO?
Protein powders are concentrated sources of protein that have been extracted from animals or plants.
They help support individuals who find it difficult to hit their daily protein targets.
Athletes also often benefit from a high-quality protein powder supplement because it can help enhance fat loss while increasing lean muscle mass.
WHAT IS THE BEST PROTEIN POWDER?
If you are an athlete with no dietary restrictions, whey protein is the best choice for building and maintaining lean muscle mass while supporting fat loss.
However, if you are lactose intolerant or follow a vegan lifestyle, you will benefit from a plant-based protein powder.
It’s important to choose a protein powder that contains a blend of pea and rice protein to form a superior amino acid profile compared to the individual protein source alone.
WHEN TO TAKE PROTEIN POWDER?
Protein powder can be taken at any time of the day. However, many athletes looking to build muscle find it beneficial to take a protein supplement following their workout.
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, athletes focused on building muscle mass should consume protein supplements within two hours of working out.
The society also recommends casein protein supplementation before bed to increase muscle protein synthesis and metabolic rate throughout the night.
Additionally, protein powder supplements can be used as a quick in-between meal snack to promote satiety and weight loss.
Be sure to evenly space your protein intake throughout the day because your body can only absorb a limited amount of protein in one sitting.
HOW MUCH PROTEIN DO I NEED?
The amount of protein you need varies depending on several factors. For example, a physically active person will require significantly more protein than a sedentary person.
Generally speaking, sedentary adults need a minimum of 0.36 grams of protein per pound (0.8 grams per kilogram) of body weight.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, endurance athletes need at least 0.5 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight (1.2-2.0 grams per kilogram) to promote muscle growth and recovery.
Protein is an integral component of any diet. It is even more important for athletes and fitness enthusiasts looking to improve their body composition. Despite many protein powders being available today, only a few are proven to maximize your muscle-building potential.
However, don’t completely disregard plant-based protein supplements. While they are a little slower to digest, if you choose a high quality supplement (ahem, our Plant Protein!) that combines brown rice protein and pea protein it will have a balanced amino acid composition to aid in muscle gains and recovery.