Protein Powder 101 (+ Is Whey, Hemp or Soy Protein the Best?)
You can think of protein as the building blocks for all of your body’s cells. Protein is made of amino acids that are essential to survival, such as maintaining your organs in working condition, healthy skin (also an organ), muscles and tendons. Protein also works to make hormones, neurotransmitters and enzymes. Unfortunately, many people either don’t get enough protein, or get too much of the wrong kind of protein.
A typical American might get 15% of their daily calories from protein. While for some people, this might be enough, many nutritionists believe that is actually quite low. Of course this depends on the type of life you lead (how active you are, your stress level, how much you exercise, etc), but it also depends on whether you want to lose weight (a high protein diet has been shown to support weight loss (1), if you experience blood sugar disregulation (chronically high or many spikes and dips), or if you have a metabolic disorder, like diabetes. You’ll also need to take into account if you are an athlete and/or train hard, and what your stress levels are like. Lots to think about!
Protein will help you lose body fat and is crucial for gaining muscle, healing from injuries and workouts, and has also been proven to lower blood pressure (2).
Of course, upping your protein intake is often easier said than done, and this is where a high quality protein powder can come into play. However, if you’ve ever scanned the protein powder aisle at your local health food store or GNC, you know there are seemingly endless options to choose from, and this can feel overwhelming. The truth is, many are of sub-par quality, and you’ll also need to choose one that best fits your personal nutrition and fitness needs.
Remember, nothing replaces whole foods in the diet, so avoid meeting all of your protein needs from protein powder. However, they can be extremely helpful at times, so read on to learn more about what types of protein powders to choose, and which to avoid.
Concentrate vs. Isolate vs. Hydrolysates
Before getting into whey, soy, hemp, etc, let’s define some of the protein powder lingo you’ll find on most all types.
Protein concentrates are made by extracting protein from whole foods through a process of heat and acid. They typically contain between 60-80% protein, and the rest comes from carbs and fat.
Protein isolates go through yet another filtering process than the concentrates, which removes most of the fat and carb content, making them more “pure” protein (usually around 90%, if not more). Isolates will be a good option for those using protein shakes just before or during a workout.
This type of protein powder is even further processed via heat and acid in order to break down the amino acids in the protein, making them more rapidly absorbed by the body. These tend to raise insulin levels more than other types of powders.
Other types of powders might include ones that are a protein/greens powder, and/or are fortified with micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). These are often a good option if you are using your protein powder as an occasional meal replacement drink.
Now, let’s get into the main types of protein powder available:
Types of Protein Powder
Whey protein powder comes from milk; specifically, the liquid that separates from the curds during the cheese-making process. While it does contain small amounts of lactose, many people that are mildly lactose intolerant will do fine with whey, particularly if it is a whey protein isolate, which will have almost no lactose content.
Whey is a very easily digested protein and is rich in BCAAs (branched chain amino acids), which have been shown to promote muscle growth and increased endurance (3). It seems to be the best protein powder option for decreasing overall appetite, and has been shown to support muscle growth and endurance, along with decreasing inflammation.
If possible, opt for a grass fed whey protein powder, such as this one. If not (and this goes for any protein powder), opt for a brand that has the fewest ingredients possible (the less chemicals and additives, the better). If you are lactose intolerant or have a daily allergy, proceed with caution.
This can really get confusing, as casein is another milk protein that is digested at a much slower rate than whey. This results in a slower and steadier influx of amino acids into the bloodstream than with whey.
While this reaction might be great for use as a meal replacement or just general use, studies have shown that casein is less effective than whey at increasing muscle growth, but more effective than soy (4). However, casein could be better than whey at affecting body composition as part of a calorie restricted diet.
Pea protein powder is an excellent hypoallergenic option (good for people with food sensitivities or allergies, or those that don’t do dairy). It is usually made from yellow split pea, which is a fairly high fiber and protein legume. Pea protein has been shown to increase satiety (fullness) just about as well as a dairy based protein powder, therefore being effective in weight loss.
Pea protein has also been shown to equally support muscle growth as much as whey, and also might decrease your blood pressure, although further studies are needed (5).
Further research is needed to determine how great of an option hemp protein is when compared to others, but it has become a fairly popular choice for vegans and vegetarians. It is not a complete protein (as it is missing the essential amino acids leucine and lysine), but it is packed full of heart healthy omega 3 fatty acids. It is also well digested by the body, but should be a second choice to a powder that contains all essential amino acids, like whey or casein.
Soy is the most heavily processed of all the protein powders, and many people have soy sensitivities or allergies (hidden or known). You might be interested to know that soy protein was not originally made for human consumption, instead it was produced to be used for paper coatings and as a pigment binder (6). Nowadays, soy protein is found in a myriad of food products like salad dressings, frozen foods and baby formulas.
Soy protein should be avoided, as it is high in phytoestrogens, which mimic estrogen in the body and can lead to estrogen dominance, a serious and rapidly growing hormonal condition (especially among women).
Brown rice protein powder is another popular option, and even better is sprouted brown rice protein powder. Whey is still a superior choice in terms of its amino acid content (brown rice protein is not considered a complete protein), but the verdict is still out as to whether brown rice protein is equally or less effective than dairy based powders. For those with auto-immune conditions and/or those who are highly sensitive to gluten, brown rice protein could potentially cause GI problems over time.
Which Protein Powder is Best?
The answer to which protein powder is best really depends on what your personal nutritional and fitness goals and needs are. If you are vegan, vegetarian or have a dairy sensitivity that does not allow you to choose whey or casein, opt for pea, hemp or brown rice, with pea protein being your number one option.
If your goal is to gain muscle, whey isolate should be your first choice, and whey concentrate your second (concentrate is usually cheaper than isolate, but has slightly less protein content). If you can find grass fed, even better.
For weight loss, opt for either a casein or whey, as these have been shown above all others to reduce appetite and supporting fat loss.
(Read this next: 4 Really Good Reasons to Eat a High Protein Diet)
Remember, your first choice should always be whole foods for protein (high quality meats, moderate/occasional whole fat dairy and some grains and beans), but a good protein powder can help you get your protein intake to where it needs to be, especially if your protein needs are higher than average.