On this blog we’ve discussed at length the importance of protein. Not only is protein one of the building blocks for building muscle and maintaining healthy skin, hair and nails, it can also be important for those interested in weight loss.
But on the modern nutritional supplement market, there are more different kinds of protein powders to choose from than ever before. A mix of clever marketing campaigns and advancing technology has allowed manufacturers to use dozens of sources to create protein powders to be used in meal replacement shakes and other recipes.
In many cases, the various protein sources for protein powder available are simply different – they aren’t better or worse. However, there are specific concerns involved with certain variations that may be important for those with other health conditions or dietary restrictions.
This article will provide an overview of seven of the most common types of protein powder, across two categories: animal protein and plant protein.
The most common types of protein powders come from animal milk – typically from a cow, although sheep’s milk can be used to create milk protein supplements as well.
Whey protein powder
Whey is a dairy-derived supplement that’s undoubtedly the most widely-available protein powder on the market and a classic choice for bodybuilders and athletes. It’s relatively inexpensive, comes in many different popular flavors (especially chocolate and vanilla), and is easily mixed into a variety of different kinds of beverages. Most people use whey protein concentrate by dissolving it into some kind of milk or water. There is also a variety of whey called whey protein isolate, which involves an extra filtering step that removes more fat, cholesterol and lactose from whey.
Whey is a fast-digesting protein, meaning it’s often used as a post-workout shake by those who want to deliver protein to their body quickly for recovery and muscle growth. As a complete protein, it also contains all of the branched-chain amino acids needed for the body to function properly, including ones it cannot create on its own, known as essential amino acids.
It's also worth noting that in some cases, high protein diets that consist of large amounts of animal protein can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and other health problems. This is especially true of red meat – a 2012 study found consistent consumption of red meat was associated with higher risk of cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer.
Casein is another type of dairy protein source. It’s similar to whey in some regards – both are made from milk particles and typically come in a fine, powdered form. However, casein is a slow-digesting protein – it moves through the body’s digestive system more slowly than whey, due to the latter’s higher leucine content.
Medical research indicates that fast-digesting protein powders like whey may be better for elderly people. On the other hand, slow-digesting protein powders are often preferable as a supplement overnight or as a morning meal. A casein protein shake as a meal replacement before work may help keep you more full than another kind, for example.
Egg white protein
Eggs can be a valuable source of high-quality protein as well as vitamins and healthy fats needed for the body to function. But due to their cholesterol, fat content and animal-derived origins, many people choose to abstain from eating eggs.
Egg white protein powder can give you many of the same benefits of eating eggs without the potential negative factors described above. More than half of the protein found in a whole egg comes from egg whites, which also tend to be easier for the body to digest than the yolk. Egg white protein powder is a much less common form of protein supplement than casein or whey, but is still increasing in its popularity.
Plant-based protein powder
Plant-based protein supplements are becoming more popular in tandem with vegetarian and vegan eating styles. While there are many different plants that contain some protein content, below are the most common kinds of plant protein powders you will find on the shelves of your local stores or online.
Pea protein powder
Unlike whey or casein protein, which are both derived from dairy, pea protein powder is made from yellow split peas and does not contain any dairy. Similar to whey, pea protein supplies all of the essential amino acids, with the exception of methionine. As one of the gluten-free sources of protein on this list, it's also a great option for people who are sensitive or allergic to dairy.
While pea protein is not as slow-digesting as casein, it is absorbed more slowly than whey proteins. Pea protein is an optimal choice for post-workout recovery, especially for those with whey allergies. Finally, certain studies have shown that pea protein is even more satiating than whey. In a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine, a clinical trial found that pea protein contributed to increases in muscle thickness at a similar rate as whey protein.
Soy protein powder
Soy is the basis of many popular plant-based foods, including tofu and tempeh. Soy protein powder is another common option for those who are lactose intolerant or prefer not to consume animal products.
However, there are questions about the effectiveness of soy protein powder when it comes to building muscle. One study found that whey protein supplements did a better job than soy at stimulating muscle protein synthesis in young men.
Also, certain types of soy protein powders can be heavily processed and altered. Numbers from the USDA indicate that 90% of the soybeans in America are produced using genetic engineering (GE). If you’re going to look for soy protein powder, try to find it from a reputable manufacturer that doesn’t use harmful additives.
Brown rice protein powder
Rice protein is another common form of protein powder. There are many different varieties of rice, but since brown rice tends to have the most protein, it’s most frequently used for rice protein powder.
Unlike whey and casein protein, brown rice is not a complete protein – it does not contain all the essential amino acids the body needs to function properly. Whey is usually considered to be superior to rice protein for muscle building, although a randomized clinical trial from 2013 indicated comparable effects on body composition between the two types after resistance training.
Hemp protein powder
The last few years has seen a huge increase in the popularity of hemp-derived products including hemp seed oil and cannabidiol (CBD). The same plant can also be used as a source of protein – hemp protein powder comes from pressing and processing hemp seeds into a fine powder.
For those who are looking at different types of protein powder from plants, hemp is a great choice. Research indicates that hemp protein powder contains a protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) equal to or greater than proteins from other grains and nuts. It also has several omega-3 fatty acids that are valuable for proper brain function. This makes hemp a great form of protein supplementation for those who are sensitive to dairy or animal-based protein products.
Conclusion: Which is the best protein powder for you?
As arguably the most-discussed macronutrient in the world of health and fitness (save maybe for carbohydrates), you won’t find any lack of options when it comes to protein. The protein sources on this list are a small sample of the many different protein powders available. Within each type of protein powder mentioned here, there are also different sub-varieties.
The best way to decide the kind of protein powder best for your specific needs is to reach out to a dietitian or other type of health professional. They will help you design a diet that gives you enough protein from the sources that are best for your body and a regular plan for resistance exercise that can keep you healthy. Other than that, you will want to ensure you incorporate dietary proteins in the right volume each day, along with carbs and fats from healthy sources including both whole foods and supplements. Most people choose a specific number of grams of protein, carbs and fats they want to consume every day.
Finally, make sure to source your protein powder from a trustworthy provider that offers full transparency on their ingredients and manufacturing process. Whether you're looking to build muscle mass, reduce your bodyweight, or perform better in a sport or competition, managing your protein intake is key. With the right protein powder supplement, you can reach your fitness goals in a way that fits into your dietary preferences, tastes, and lifestyle.