How to choose the best protein powder

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Have you ever wondered what protein powder should I really be buying? When you visit supplement stores they can be very overwhelming, there’s so much choice!

These days due to the marketing power of the paleo concept and the trend to eat organic there are so many different types of protein on the market. If you told me a few years ago there would be “grass fed protein” I would have laughed at you, but now there is.

There has been a huge market shift to use; natural, raw and whole food, used on food packaging to lure in trendy shoppers who have a new interest in health but don’t know what they’re looking for.

Protein powders are, by definition, processed foods. They’re made from protein derived sources such as peas, hemp, soy or milk. There is an extraction process that removes the protein molecules from the whole food product. Techniques like; enzyme treatment, heating and drying are used to create these products. During this process some of the nutrients found in the original whole food are lost.

New plant based sources of protein aren’t healthier or better for you. They’re simply alternative solutions for niche groups who might find them useful. For example, those who are vegan, vegetarian, require lactose free products or have digestion problems. I would argue however, that if you are not spending 5 days a week at the gym performing high intensity weight sessions to build muscle, then you don’t need to use protein power.

Protein powder is energy dense and processed food. When you over consume protein you will gain body fat if you are not using that energy. Not exactly what I would call necessary if you are trying to drop a few pounds. For most people it’s better to concentrate on naturally lean protein sources of food that is naturally rich-in-protein such as; eggs, milk, yogurt, chicken, fish, meat, pork and vegetarian alternatives like legumes and beans.

Whole food sources of protein will provide you with a range of minerals and vitamins such as; B12, zinc, iron, iodine and omega-3, which a protein powder will not.

There are a number of factors you need to consider before choosing the right protein powder. The type, cost, absorption rate and other functional ingredients it contains. I’m not a fan of protein powders than contain anything other than just pure whey. For example a lot of brands place additional creatine into the mix. The doses are too small to have an ergogenic effect and it reduces the quality of your protein. Protein whey is expensive, creatine is cheap. When you add creatine to the mix it bumps up your protein content without giving you protein. So essentially you pay for cheap creatine that is not going to help you build muscle in those doses.

Another big issues is that protein powder derived from plant based sources are actually a very poor quality protein. Protein is made up of 20 amino acids, which are responsible for building and repairing muscle. Branched chain amino acids (BCAA) are nine essential amino acids that the body can only get from food; the remaining can be produced by your body. Vegetarian sources of protein are not always complete proteins like animal products are. This means if you by plant based protein it’s not complete and the absorption rates are also poor.

Ultimately, one protein powder is not better than the other, as it depends on how and why you want to use them and your individual needs. Use the following information to find out which one is best for you, just note I’ve included the average price of products. Prices will vary depending on the brand.

Hemp protein – Cost $5.99/100g

Hemp protein is fairly new on the market and the research into its effectiveness is scarce. The protein is derived from the hemp seed and does not contain any hallucinogenic properties. It is considered a complete protein containing a similar amino acid profile to soy protein, however with higher levels of arginine.

Hemp protein is not a pure source of protein typically containing fibre, fats and carbohydrates. It has a lower quantity of protein, resulting in only 11g of protein per 25g scoop. This is much lower than other sources of protein.This is suitable for vegan and vegetarian athletes and those with lactose intolerance.

Pea protein isolate – $2.50/100g

Pea protein is made from yellow split peas. It has all the BCAA’s required for muscle growth. It is lower in the amino acids methionine than whey protein, but has higher amounts of glutamine and arginine than whey protein. This product tends to have a chalky taste and not easily mixed in liquid.This product is suitable for vegan and vegetarian athletes as well as those who are lactose intolerant. This product is not suitable for athletes with irritable bowel syndrome following a low FODMAP diet. This is best used in a combination with other plant-based proteins such as hemp and soy, or making a protein shake with soy milk.

Soy protein isolate – $1.90/100g

This protein is the only complete plant-based protein. It contains all 20 amino acids, but amino acid leucine levels are much lower compared to cows milk derived protein sources.

It is a suitable option for vegan and vegetarian athletes. One 25g scoop of soy protein will give you 23g of protein. It’s also great for athletes who are allergic to dairy proteins and lactose. If you are allergic to soy, this product is not suitable for you.

Casein protein – $5.55/100g

Slow release protein made from cows milk. It is a complete protein containing all the 20 amino acids needed. Cows milk is made from a combination of both casein and whey protein. Casein is used typically as a night–time supplement, but is also useful pre-training for slow release of protein throughout your workout. Best taken added with milk to get both a whey, carbohydrate and casein mix for optimal recovery and muscle growth.

Protein Whey- $3.99/100g

Fast release protein made from cows milk. It, like casein, is also a complete protein. This is the most popular protein powder. It is fast releasing for quick recovery. Can be used pre and post training. It has the highest amount of amino acid leucine, which is the signalling protein for muscle repair and growth. Only 25g (1 scoop) of whey protein gives you 17g of pure protein and the needed 2.5g of leucine required to start muscle protein synthesis.

Best taken added with milk to get both whey, carbohydrate (lactose) and casein mix for optimal recovery and muscle growth.

Whey protein concentrate: is the cheapest form of whey protein because its not pure whey. Products that list whey concentrate as their main ingredient can contain as little as 25% protein to higher amounts at 89%. It’s a cheaper quality product. This type of product can contain lactose, fat, minerals and moisture.

Whey protein isolate (WPI); This product typically contains 90-95% protein [1], it’s considered the purest form of whey protein. It contains little to no lactose or fat. Great for those who are lactose intolerant. This is the best form of protein for muscle building. This is because protein is easily digested and hits the muscles for repair quickly.

Whey protein hydrolysate (WPH); This is a protein that has undergone further processing, treated with a second round of enzymes to make it easier and faster to absorb. This is the type of protein used in baby formulas and in hospitals for people with digestion problems. For the purposes of building muscle you don’t need to go this far with protein quality. It’s more expensive and hard to get.

  1. Falvo, J.R.H.a.M.J., Which protein is best? Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 2004. 3: p. 118-130.
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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the tips for choosing a protein supplement. I didn’t know that products that add creatine in their protein actually dilute the effects. I will definitely look for products that only contain whey protein.

    • Hi Ridley,

      Yes adding Creatine to protein whey is a bit of a marketing gimmick. I always encourage my clients to buy the supplements separately. This is so you know what you are paying for and can control the dose.

      Thanks for your comment 🙂

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