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Going down the dietary supplement aisle can be overwhelming. We took away the headache, compiled this comprehensive list of the eight best types of protein powder, and explain which powders are best for different purposes.
When you exercise, you want to get the best out of your workout. Consuming protein powders post-workout is an extremely popular way to build muscle and lose weight.
But there are so many options. Have an iron deficiency? You should avoid soy. Vegan? Whey, egg-based, or bone broth proteins are out. And you can’t take whey protein if you have severe lactose intolerance.
Protein powders are made from several different sources. We help you understand the pros and cons of the many types of protein powders.
What are protein powders?
Protein powders are dietary supplements that contain concentrated sources of protein extracted from sources like dairy, eggs, rice, or even peas.
We’re all trying to squeeze as many benefits out of our workouts as possible. There are great pre-workout supplements for extra energy boosts and post-workout protein powders can expedite muscle mass, all while decreasing fat mass.
You can use protein powders as a meal replacement and even to combat protein deficiency.
The amount of protein found in each serving depends on the type of powder supplement. Three common types of protein powders are protein concentrates, isolates, and hydrolysates:
- Protein concentrates are proteins that have been extracted and processed, using specific enzymes or acids. Concentrates are usually 60-80 percent protein by weight. The rest is typically composed of fat and carbohydrates (carbs).
- Protein isolates are more processed than concentrates. This additional filtering brings the protein count up to about 90 percent, by weight.
- Protein hydrolysates are put through hydrolysis, which turns proteins in peptides. This simply means the molecular chain length is shortened. This process makes the amino acids easier for your body to absorb.
The most beneficial amino acids in protein powders are called branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs. Whey and pea proteins are the richest in BCAAs.
Protein powders are typically dissolved in drinks or smoothies. Most unflavored protein powders are nearly tasteless but can leave a slight aftertaste. Many remedy this with low-carb artificial sweeteners, like stevia or erythritol. Some brands flavor their protein powders with vanilla, chocolate, or peanut butter, which mixes well with milk products.
Protein concentrates are usually the least expensive products and arguably the most popular, although isolates and hydrolysates are more efficiently absorbed into your system.
8 Types of Proteins
There are eight common types of protein powder. Each can be found in a variety of brands that add helpful ingredients like creatine, probiotics, and digestive enzymes for maximum effectiveness.
1. Whey Protein
Whey is the liquid element of dairy that separates from curds when turning milk into cheese or yogurt. Whey is very high in protein and an important ingredient in many protein blends and high-protein treats.
If that sounds familiar, you might recognize it from your childhood. “Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey.” It seems Little Miss Muffet had her daily protein intake under control!
Whey protein powder promotes muscle protein synthesis. This means your muscles are encouraged to grow when you consume whey. Most protein powders promote muscle growth, but many agree that whey does it best. It’s also supported by more research than other protein powders.
Whey protein has even been shown to suppress appetite, promoting excess loss of body weight.
Though whey is a great source of protein, it also contains small amounts of lactose. Many people today struggle with digesting lactose — the primary carbohydrate found in milk. But if you don’t have a lactose intolerance, whey protein may be the right choice for you.
Whey protein powders come in two different forms:
First, we’ll talk about the simpler-to-make whey protein concentrate.
Liquid whey is collected and its protein content is concentrated. Through industrial processing, this whey concentrate averages 70% protein by weight.
Whey concentrate is considered inferior to whey isolate in some ways. It contains less protein, but more grams of carbs, fat, and lactose.
However, whey concentrate is less expensive.
Though whey concentrate contains up to one gram of lactose for every 30 calories of the concentrate, this is considered within the tolerable range for those dealing with mild lactose intolerance.
The second of the two types is whey protein isolate.
Further processing removes more of the fat and carbohydrate content from liquid whey. By the end, whey isolate is about 90% protein by weight.
Whey isolate contains very few carbs, very little lactose, and essentially no fat. One scoop of whey isolate can contain 23 grams of protein, which is more than enough for an after-workout muscle recovery smoothie.
While being more expensive, because it is more heavily processed, whey isolate is a more efficient protein powder than whey concentrate.
2. Casein Protein Powder
Casein is a protein in milk, just like whey. But casein is digested more slowly, which can actually have unique advantages.
Because casein forms a gel when introduced to stomach acid, it slows stomach emptying. Therefore, your body absorbs the amino acids more gradually.
This gradual absorption reduces the breakdown of muscle proteins. This ensures your muscles get an extra boost, compared to most other proteins.
One study suggests casein protein may have a slight advantage over whey protein when it comes to lean mass gains (muscle with very little fat). The subjects in this study engaged in anaerobic resistance training.
3. Egg Protein
A cooked egg is the number one whole food when it comes to how much protein you can digest. It stands to reason that egg protein powder is pretty powerful stuff.
Eggs are a complete protein source, containing all essential amino acids. This property definitely transfers over to egg protein powder.
One of these amino acids is leucine, which has the most to do with muscle growth. Egg is second only to whey in its leucine levels and is also known to help you stay fuller longer, suppressing your appetite and promoting healthy weight loss.
Since egg protein powders can be made from egg whites, some do not possess this appetite suppressant characteristic. However, animal studies indicate egg white protein powder may have some weight loss benefits.
Feeling worn out? Egg white protein powder has also been shown to fight fatigue and oxidative stress.
This source of protein is an excellent dairy-free alternative to whey and casein proteins. Egg naturally supports muscle health, and it contains all the essential amino acids, making it a complete protein.
4. Pea Protein
Even high-quality grass-fed whey protein isn’t right for everyone. For vegans or those with certain allergies, pea protein powder is an excellent alternative to eggs or milk-based proteins.
Pea protein is most often derived from the yellow split pea. This is a legume high in grams of fiber, containing eight out of nine of the essential amino acids for protein synthesis. It sometimes gets a bit of flack for missing one amino acid, but if you’re eating a diet high in overall protein, having a complete protein powder isn’t always necessary when looking for the best protein powder.
Importantly, pea protein helps you stay full for longer. Animal studies also show pea protein absorbs into the bloodstream faster than casein, but slower than whey.
Pea protein also seems to lower blood pressure in people struggling with high blood pressure (hypertension).
As far as muscles are concerned, pea protein increases muscle thickness as much as the best whey protein. Pea protein can be a worthy, plant-based alternative to whey.
5. Soy Protein
Easy to digest and quick to blend into your favorite drink, soy protein powder is another plant-based alternative to eggs or milk-based protein. Although often thought to be an excellent way to avoid meat or dairy products, soy is a controversial food.
Soy may be eaten plain or turned into different food items, like tofu or soy milk. Soy protein contains very little fat and no dietary cholesterol, but it is high in some dietary minerals, such as iron, manganese, and copper.
But there are some possible disadvantages and risks to soy protein:
- Thyroid dysfunction, which affects your hormone production
- Reduction in iron absorption because soy is so high in iron
- Increased estrogen levels, which can throw hormones out of balance for men and women
- Exposure to GMOs, as soy products are almost always genetically modified organisms
Soy protein also possesses some health benefits.
Like all these protein powders, soy protein promotes muscle building. It is not as potent as whey protein, however, a combination of soy with other proteins has shown positive results — greater than the sum of its parts.
Soy has been shown to decrease bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL) and increase good cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein, or HDL).
Preliminary studies have shown some promise soy’s ability to prevent certain cancers, such as cancers of the breast or prostate. Interestingly, some claim that GMOs increase the risk for other cancers overall, but this hasn’t been sufficiently proven. When in doubt, look for a non-GMO protein powder.
Soy protein can be a uniquely beneficial plant-based protein powder. It is for each individual to decide whether the potential goods outweigh the potential bads.
6. Brown Rice Protein
Also simply called rice protein, brown rice protein powder has been used for many years — longer than most other protein powders.
Despite brown rice protein’s historical longevity, it is a weaker protein powder.
It isn’t considered a “complete protein”, because rice protein doesn’t have sufficient lysine levels. Lysine is an amino acid vital to your body’s natural protein synthesis.
One promising study shows brown rice protein yields similar muscle growth to whey protein. However, many agree whey is a more potent muscle builder. Brown rice protein is most effective as an ingredient in a protein blend.
Many people forget that rice is, in fact, gluten-free, which is great news for those dealing with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity seeking a plant-based protein powder.
7. Hemp Protein
Research has only begun to come in on hemp protein powder’s true potential, despite the hemp industry’s long history.
Very easy to digest, hemp protein is related to marijuana but contains none or only trace amounts of the psychoactive compound, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Rich in essential amino acids, hemp also contains high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, a well-researched nutrient that promotes:
However, similar to brown rice protein, hemp is low in the amino acids leucine and lysine — both vital to the body’s natural production of protein. It is not considered a “complete protein”.
Though hemp has some unique benefits, its use as a protein powder is not as effective as other protein sources, like whey or pea protein. If you’re looking to add hemp protein to your workout regimen, consider cycling it out with a more complete protein with better muscle-building benefits, like casein or whey.
8. Vegan Protein Blend
There are some plant-based protein powders that combine high-protein sources to create the ultimate vegan protein powder.
These blends are often made of two or more of the following protein-heavy ingredients:
- Brown rice
- Chia seeds
- Flax seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
These plant-based sources of high-quality protein are also high in fiber. The high fiber content means essential amino acids will absorb slower into your system.
If you use a vegan blend post-exercise, you may want to give a little extra time for the blend to work. Consider consuming a vegan protein blend near the end of the workout, instead of after you’re finished.
Though a vegan blend may take more time to fully absorb, studies indicate amino acids are more highly concentrated when that absorption finally happens.
Best Protein Powder for Women
Although bulking up on muscle mass is often associated with men, many women look for protein powders to improve their exercise output.
Whey protein isolate is the preferred protein supplement for women. Whey suppresses appetite, increases lean muscle mass, and reduces muscle fatigue in physically active women.
Best Protein Powder for Men
Whether looking to lose fat or promote muscle growth, whey protein isolate is also the number one choice for men looking for protein powder.
Blending whey into a low-carb protein shake is a surefire way to get your protein levels up. If you have a sensitivity to lactose, though, you may want to consider another option.
Best Protein Powder for Lactose Intolerance
Egg protein contains no lactose, but still possesses muscle building, bodyweight reducing, and appetite suppressing properties.
As long as you are not a vegan, egg white protein powder is the best choice for people looking for protein supplements with no stomach-wrenching traces of milk sugars. (Let’s be honest, nobody wants to celebrate an intense workout by rushing to the restroom!)
Best Vegan Protein Powder
Whey, casein, and eggs are all non-options according to traditional vegan standards. For those avoiding animal byproducts, pea protein is the highest quality protein powder.
A vegan blend that includes pea protein is also a great choice for physically active vegans, or vegans looking to supplement their dietary protein.
Best Protein Powder for Weight Loss
Egg protein and whey isolate both have studies to back up their weight loss properties.
Whereas most protein powders promote reduced fat mass, egg and whey proteins also suppress your appetite and make you feel fuller for longer.
Best Protein Powder for Muscle Gain
Whey protein isolate is widely accepted to be the most potent protein powder. Whey is a friend to all bodybuilders. Its main benefit is bulking muscles.
All protein powders help with muscle growth, but whey has been shown time and time again to outperform every other protein powder in this respect.
- Protein powders are a dietary supplement often used post-workout to promote muscle mass.
- Most studies agree whey protein isolate is the most effective protein powder. But it is non-vegan, contains some lactose, and can be expensive.
- Other protein powders possess unique benefits. For instance, pea protein lowers blood pressure, soy protein lowers cholesterol, and hemp protein contributes to immune and heart health.
- Whey protein isolate is the best protein powder for men and women. Whey also shows the best overall results for muscle gain.
- Egg protein and whey protein are the best protein powders to achieve your weight loss goals.
- People with dairy allergies should aim for egg white protein, or pea protein.
- A vegans’ best option for protein is either pea protein or a vegan-friendly protein blend.