The last decade has seen the protein powder market explode. Hundreds, if not thousands, of powdered protein products vie for your consumer dollar. Sorting out the whey from the casein and deciding which is best for your body is easier when you're equipped with information.
To that end, we examined the main types of protein powder and the pros and cons of each. Let's begin with one of the most popular; whey-based protein powder.
The Main Protein Powder Types
Whey is a dairy byproduct that's high in protein but contains lactose, a type of milk sugar that some people don't tolerate well. During the cheesemaking process, liquids separate from curds, and it's that liquid that whey protein products are made from.
Because whey protein is easily digested and laden with plenty of branded-chain amino acids (BCAAs), it's a popular choice for athletes and gym junkies. One of the BCAAs, Leucine, is excellent for muscle recovery post resistance training. That's because amino acids aid muscle protein synthesis (MPS), which is a fancy way of saying they help you grown new muscle tissue.
There's plenty of research on whey protein, particularly in a sports context. Above and beyond MPS, whey protein can help maintain muscles, expedite the recovery process after rigorous exercise, and promote lean body mass (2). This latter benefit means whey protein is also useful as a weight-loss supplement when used correctly.
The Difference Between Whey Protein Isolate and Whey Protein Concentrate
The difference between whey protein isolate and protein concentrate is related to processing. Whey isolate is more processed, resulting in a higher protein content with fewer carbs, fat, and lactose. Because the manufacturing method is complex, whey isolate is pricier than whey concentrate.
Some customers get great results with whey concentrate, but for people who prefer isolate, concentrate is a "no whey."
Like whey, casein (or β-casein type A1 and A2) is a protein that is found in milk. Unlike whey though, casein is slowly digested and absorbed, which means it has a different application in a purely sports context.
When casein interacts with stomach acid, it forms a gel, this slows the digestive process and delays the absorption of amino acids into the bloodstream. One benefit of this is that your muscles receive a slow and steady exposure to the amino acids (5). For that reason, many people take casein protein powder before bedtime so that overnight, the body's recovery process is boosted.
Studies show that casein is better at increasing MPS than wheat and soy protein, but is not as effective as whey.
Much like whole eggs, egg protein powder is an exemplary source of high-quality protein, ideal for muscle mass maintenance and muscle growth. Eggs also boast the highest PDCAAS score of all whole foods, which indicates both their digestibility and protein quality.
In their whole form, eggs are one of the best foods available for keeping you satiated for longer. But in protein powder form, they may not perform as well because most egg protein powders are made with the egg whites and not the yolks. Stripping the majority of the fat out decreases your feeling of fullness.
Egg protein powder is also very high in leucine, in fact, it comes second only to whey. Egg protein powder is a top choice for people who like animal-based sources of protein but cannot tolerate dairy products.Anecdotal evidence suggests that egg protein in powder form can lead to noxious flatulence if overconsumed. Something to bear in mind before taking it to the eggstreme.
Pea protein powder is plant-based, making it particularly especially among vegans, vegetarians, and people with dairy or egg allergies. Pea protein powder boasts impressive BCAA credentials, but it is not a complete protein. Most often, this powder protein is made from yellow split peas.
Studies show that pea is absorbed faster than casein but slower than whey protein. It also tells your body to release fullness hormones, keeping you feeling sated. Additionally, animal and human trials indicate that pea protein can decrease blood pressure levels (9).
Although it sometimes gets a bad rap in sports-centric circles as it isn't "complete," this plant-based protein powder confers many benefits, and it is often cheaper than dairy-based products.
Hemp protein is growing in popularity, and with good reason. It contains all nine BCAAs, is easily digested, is and packed full of gut-friendly fiber. Hemp is also a great source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Although it contains all nine BCAAa, hemp is not considered complete as its lysine and leucine levels are low.
Hemp protein powder comes from the hemp plant, which is related to marijuana, the plant used to create cannabis products. Despite its lineage, hemp is not a drug and nor is its protein powder form as it contains very minuscule traces of THC, the psychoactive in cannabis.
Because we are still discovering hemp's capabilities as a protein source, less literature exists on hemp protein powders than other types.
Brown Rice Protein
One thing to love about rice protein powder is its environmental credentials, as its produced from brown rice, there is no emissions toll involved in shelling the rice, plus the infrastructure to grow rice is already in place, meaning there should be no additional land clearing to create paddies. Additionally, plant-based products generally have smaller carbon footprints than animal-based goods.
Environmental benefits aside, rice protein powder is affordable, readily available, and some studies suggest it is nearly as effective as whey in terms of muscle development and maintenance. A slow-release protein, rice should keep you feeling full for longer periods.
While not as easily digested as pea and hemp proteins, powder rice protein is suitable for most individuals.
The protein in protein powders is made from the protein found in plant or animal products. Soy protein powder is made from soy protein, for example, while whey protein powder is made from the protein found in milk. As such, the types of protein are dependant on the original food source.
There's no universal answer to this question as different types of protein powder may suit you better than others. We all differ in our physiology, physicality, and how well we tolerate different proteins. Read more about the types above and try to decide which one suits you best. If you know you can't handle dairy, for example, stick with egg or plant-based proteins, powders exist for all dietary needs, so you're sure to find the best one for your body.
Food for Thought
That concludes our round-up of the main protein powder types on the market today. Hopefully, you've got the protein-powder scoop and know which ones suit you and your fitness and goals best.
To learn more about protein powders, including some moving and shaking delivery companies, take a look at our guides here.
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2. Volek, J. S. et al. (2013). Whey protein supplementation during resistance training augments lean body mass. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 32(2), 122–135. https://doi.org/10.1080/07315724.2013.793580.
3. Bedtime protein for bigger gains? Here's the scoop. ScienceDaily. (2020). Retrieved 27 October 2020, from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/03/190306081832.htm.
4. He, M. et al. Effects of cow’s milk beta-casein variants on symptoms of milk intolerance in Chinese adults: a multicentre, randomised controlled study. Nutr J 16, 72 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12937-017-0275-0.
5. Boirie, Y. et al. (1997). Slow and fast dietary proteins differently modulate postprandial protein accretion. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, 94(26), 14930-14935. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.94.26.14930.
6. Asking for a Friend: Is There a Fix for "Protein Farts"?. Shape. (2020). Retrieved 27 October 2020, from https://www.shape.com/healthy-eating/diet-tips/help-protein-powder-makes-my-farts-stink.
7. Babault, N. et al. (2015). Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: a double-blind, randomized, Placebo-controlled clinical trial vs. Whey protein. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 12(1), 3. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-014-0064-5.
8. Gout | Arthritis | CDC. Cdc.gov. (2020). Retrieved 27 October 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/gout.html.
9. Li, H. et al. (2011). Blood pressure lowering effect of a pea protein hydrolysate in hypertensive rats and humans. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 59(18), 9854–9860. https://doi.org/10.1021/jf201911p.
10. Kapoor, R., & Huang, Y. S. (2006). Gamma linolenic acid: an antiinflammatory omega-6 fatty acid. Current pharmaceutical biotechnology, 7(6), 531–534. https://doi.org/10.2174/138920106779116874.
11. Joy JM. et al. The effects of 8 weeks of whey or rice protein supplementation on body composition and exercise performance. Nutr J. 2013 Jun 20;12:86. https://doi.org/10.1186/147528911286.
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