How to Pick the Best Protein Powder

How to Pick the Best Protein Powder

Choosing the best protein powder for your goals has never been more difficult. With a constant influx of new companies entering the market bringing new products, new protein blends, and new flavors, deciding your own personal “best” protein powder seems like a maddening exercise in futility.

Besides, is there even such a thing as a “best” protein powder?

Sure, the bodybuilding magazines and social media ads will tout one protein as superior to all the others, but what’s the unbiased, God’s honest truth?

In this article, we’re going to put aside the hype, hoopla, and marketing jargon, and help you better understand the various types of protein powders available as well as which one is the best for YOU!

Let’s start at the top.

Do I need protein to build muscle, lose fat, insert other random fitness goal?

Despite what the supplement companies, retail stores, and gym bros tell you, no. You do not need protein powder to reach your goals. Regardless if you want to build muscle, lose fat, or attain new feats of strength and athleticism, consuming your protein from a flavored powder is not a requirement...consuming adequate daily protein is, however.

And furthermore, assuming you’re focused on getting protein from high-quality food sources, such as meat, seafood, dairy, eggs, seeds, nuts, grains, and legumes, then protein powder is absolutely unnecessary.

That being said, protein powders do offer several unique advantages over food:

  • They don’t require refrigeration.
  • They’re cost-efficient in terms of price per gram of protein compared to other whole food protein sources, making it ideal when dealing with a tight budget.
  • They’re convenient and nice for those times when you don’t have time to cook a meal or not in the mood for food.
  • They’re perfect high-protein, on-the-go snacks.
  • They’re idle for times when you know you need to get in those essential muscle-building calories, but the thought of another bite of chicken breast is nauseating.
  • Since they can be low carb and low fat, protein powders can fit into even the most stringent nutrition plans and diets, making them ideal for weight loss.
  • They’re versatile. Protein powders don’t just have to be consumed in shake form. They can be incorporated into smoothies, pancakes, muffins, cookies, bars, puddings, and breads.

Taking all of these factors in consideration, while you can argue that protein powders aren’t necessary to build muscle or lose fat, they certainly can help and are worth using.

What is the Best Protein Powder for Building Muscle and Losing Fat?

Let’s get thing one straight from the get-go…

There is no such thing as the best protein powder for everyone for any scenario.

Some people do well with dairy-based protein powders (such as whey protein or casein), while others are sensitive to lactose (a sugar in milk) and need to buy non-dairy protein powder alternatives (pea protein, brown rice protein, soy, egg, etc.)

The real key to finding the best protein powder, is to find the best one for your preferences, needs, and desires.

So, with that, let’s compare the different protein powder and help you decide which protein is right for you.

The Best Protein Powders to Buy

Whey Protein

Without question, whey protein is far and away the most popular option for those purchasing their powdered tub o’ gains.

It’s tasty, cost-effective (generally), and high in leucine -- the essential amino acid that stimulates mTOR, the pathway that triggers muscle protein synthesis.

But, what exactly is whey protein?

Whey is one of two proteins naturally-occurring in milk. It accounts for 20% of the protein in milk, with casein comprising the other 80%.

We’ve covered the history of whey protein powder in great detail before, but the short of it is that for the longest time, whey was viewed as a useless byproduct of the cheese making process.

After coming to the realization that whey was high in protein, and rich in muscle building branched-chain amino acids, manufacturers began to “recycle” their former waste product into the delicious powder that you know and love today.

By employing various types of processing, filtration, and isolation processes, food manufacturers created three main whey protein variants that you will encounter in your search for the best protein powder.

The main difference between the various types of whey comes down to their quality or “grade.” By “grade”, we mean how much protein each variation of whey protein contains by mass. The higher the grade of whey protein, the more protein you’ll get in each serving compared to carbohydrates, lactose, and milk fat.

Here’s a breakdown of the different types of whey proteins you’re likely to encounter during your quest to find the best protein powder:

Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC)

Whey protein concentrate is the least refined form of whey and also offers the greatest variance in terms of protein content as it can range anywhere from 25 to 89% whey protein by mass. [1]

However, knowing the exact grade of whey concentrate in your given protein can be a bit tricky as manufacturers are not required to list which grade their using. A few companies, such as MTS Nutrition do, but for the most part, you’re just likely to find “Whey protein concentrate” listed on the supplement facts panel of your tub.

Theoretically speaking, this leaves open the possibility that you purchase the exact same protein powder at two different times of the year and get two very different quality products. The first tub you purchase could use WPC-80, then over the course of the year the manufacturer decides to save a few bucks and replace WPC-80 with the cheaper WPC-70.

The consumer is none the wiser as they probably won’t check the supplement facts panel to see if any of the macronutrient numbers have changed. Though they might get an “indirect” notification by way of increased bloating, GI distress, or flatulence due to the increased lactose content of cheaper concentrates.

And here presents the inherent problem with whey concentrate -- the wide variance in quality. You could purchase a product that uses WPC-80 or you could get on that uses WPC-35. There’s no way to really know unless the supplement company has gone the extra mile and listed the grade of concentrate they are using.

Despite the wide variance in concentrate quality and grade, that doesn’t mean they are a poor or even inferior choice for your whey protein needs.

Whey concentrates offer the best value in terms of cost, nutritional value, and protein content. Concentrates also retain higher amounts of beneficial fractions such as lactoferrin and ɑ-lactalbumin. However, you also typically get higher amounts of calories, carbohydrates, lactose, and fat than you will in the other forms of whey protein.

If you are lactose sensitive, concentrates may give you some slight bloating or GI distress due to the increased amount of lactose concentrate contains compared to the following two forms of whey protein. If you are lactose intolerant, then either of the next two options might be up your alley if you want whey protein.

Whey Protein Isolate (WPI)

The “purest” form of whey, isolates by definition must contain a minimum of 90% protein by mass. This yields a powder with an incredibly high amount of protein with trace amounts of carbohydrates, lactose and milk fat.

This makes whey protein isolate an ideal choice for those with lactose sensitivities. [2] However, the tradeoff with isolates is that some of the healthier compounds found in concentrates, including the immune-boosting immunoglobulins, are lost during the manufacturing process. Additionally, due to the decreased levels of fat and carbohydrates, isolates tend to not have as appealing of a “mouthfeel”, texture, or thickness as whey concentrate.

Still, if it’s protein you’re after and don’t want to deal with the variability of whey concentrate, isolates are the way to go. Just realize that whey protein isolate will be more expensive than whey protein concentrate on a gram-per-gram basis.

Whey Protein Hydrolysate

Hydrolyzed whey protein (whey hydrolysate) is the most processed form of whey there is. Here, whey protein is predigested via hydrolysis -- a process where chemical enzymes partially breakdown the peptide bonds linking the various proteins together. This results in a protein powder that is extremely fast digesting.

Hydrolysates also contain virtually no carbohydrates, fats, or lactose making it the go-to choice for those who are extremely lactose intolerant.

However, due to the extra processing they undergo, hydrolysates are also the most costly of the whey protein family. Another unfortunate side effect from arising from hydrolysis is the distinct “off”, chemical-like flavor that hydrolyzed whey proteins have due to the enzymes used to predigest them.

Many gym bros will advocate for consuming hydrolysates during training or immediately post workout due to the protein’s rapid-digesting properties. The logic behind using hydrolysates intra or post workout is that since the protein is digested and absorbed so quickly, the bloodstream will be flooded with essential amino acids faster than what you would get with either whey or casein.

However, looking at a few studies that compare whey protein and hydrolyzed whey to casein, the difference in digestion and lean mass gains is negligible at best. [6,7]

Basically, there’s not really any valid reason to purchase hydrolyzed whey. They taste like crap. They’re expensive, and if you’re completely lactose intolerant you can find other options on the market, such as pea protein or egg-based proteins.

Whey Protein Blends

Whey protein isn’t just sold separately as either concentrate only, isolate only, or hydrolysate only options. They also come in whey-only blends.

Here, companies mix together various ratios of concentrate, isolate, and/or hydrolysate to create a protein powder that is higher in protein than your typical run-of-the-mill whey protein concentrate, while at the same time having fewer carbohydrates and fats that a concentrate-only powder would.

The benefit of including some whey protein concentrate in the blend is it helps provide a thicker texture and better “mouth feel” than pure isolate or hydrolysate powders, which tend to feel thinner in the mouth and less satisfying.

One other thing regarding protein blends, is that they aren’t relegated to just combinations of whey protein. In your search for the best protein powder, you’ll encounter all sorts of protein blends comprised of varying amounts of whey (all three kinds), casein, milk, egg, beef protein, and/or plant-based protein sources.

The advantage blends provide is that by combining different protein sources together, you get a mix of slow, intermediate, and fast digesting proteins. This helps provide a more sustained release of amino acids into the bloodstream, due to the different digestion rates of the proteins, and it also helps to keep you more satiated. This also means protein blends might help you avoid snacking and stay on track with your diet.

Benefits of Whey Protein

Whey protein has been extensively researched. In addition to its immune-boosting properties, several meta-analyses indicate that whey protein supplements significantly increase muscle size and strength when used in combination with resistance training. [3,4,5,6]

Whey protein may also help support fat loss as well as several studies noted that it promotes feelings of fullness, which limits hunger and helps you eat less throughout the day. [7,8]

Casein Protein

The slow-digesting counterpart to the whey protein’s lightning fast digestion is casein protein. It accounts for the remaining 80% of protein in milk.

For decades, personal trainers and gym bros around the world have mandated pre-bed casein shakes and/or cottage cheese (due to its high casein content) to keep the body “anabolic” during sleep.

The reason for the “casein before bed” recommendation is that casein is incredibly slow-digesting. So slow in fact, that research has shown casein protein can provide a steady supply of amino acids to your muscles for up to 7 hours![9,10]

Whey vs Casein Post Workout

Whey protein is often viewed as the best protein powder post workout due to its rapid digestion; however research has shown that casein protein is just as effective as (and possibly more so than) whey for increasing muscle mass and reducing body fat. [11]

Basically, if you just finished training and come to find out that your tub of whey protein powder is empty, don’t panic and think you’ll lose your gains or miss out on the “anabolic window.” Drinking casein protein will do just fine, as will a whole foods meal.

Another thing to keep in mind is that casein protein mixes up considerably thicker than whey protein when using the same amount of water. Therefore, if the thought of a thick, sludge-like shake doesn’t sound too appealing post workout, you can either add more water, or opt for a whey protein shake.

Milk Protein

So far, we’ve covered the two protein components of milk individually, but you can also find them together if you choose to purchase a milk protein powder.

Milk protein powder naturally contains both whey and casein and is usually encountered in protein blends as opposed to milk isolate-only powders.

The advantage to using milk protein is that it provides a “best of both worlds” approach to protein since it includes both whey and casein. This makes for a protein that has a medium length digestion time that fits right in between that of whey only or casein only powders.

Milk protein powder also tends to have a thicker texture and more satisfying “mouthfeel” compared to whey isolates or hydrolysates, again due to the fact that it includes a mixture of thick and thin-mixing proteins in whey and casein. And, just like whey protein and casein protein, milk protein powder is a complete protein source that provides all nine essential amino acids needed for protein synthesis.

Egg White Protein

Eggs are typically regarded as nature’s “perfect” protein due to the fact that they score a perfect 100 on the biological value ranking scale. What this means is that the protein contained in eggs (particularly the whites) is highly bioavailable and efficiently used by your body. [1] Basically, except for whey protein, which has a biological value of 104, egg white protein is about as “best” as you can get when it comes to sourcing protein.

Egg protein powders are created by dehydrating, pulverizing, and processing egg whites, then grinding it into a fine powder. They can be used just like whey protein in shakes or smoothies, though the “eggy” flavor might be a challenge for some. However, given that egg protein is lactose-free, it’s ideal for those with dairy intolerances.

Due to the fact that pure egg white protein powders have an “eggy” taste, they’re usually found blends and not sold in high amounts on their own.

Pea Protein

Peas, really?!

Yes, protein powder actually can be made from peas, and it’s a surprisingly good protein at that (at least in terms of its amino acid profile).

You see, the vast majority of plant-based proteins are lacking or deficient in one or more of the essential amino acids, making them an “incomplete” protein and not the best option for a protein powder. Due to this, multiple plant proteins are blended together (think beans and rice) in order to fill in the amino acid gaps present in each plant protein, and thus create a complete protein.

Pea protein, however, doesn’t suffer from this problem as it is a complete protein. Therefore, if you’re a vegan, allergic to dairy, and or turned off by the thought of egg protein, pea protein is a great option to get all of the essential amino acids your body needs to build and repair muscle protein.

And, if you think that plant-based proteins are inferior to their animal-based counterparts, you might want to reconsider that opinion!

Research has shown that when compared to whey protein, pea protein was found to be just as effective as whey for building muscle. [12] Additionally, pea protein has been noted to lead to greater feelings of fullness than whey protein shakes, rivaling the satiety of casein proteins. [13]

Furthermore, pea proteins also have been noted to support cardiovascular health due to some research indicated supplementing with it can help lower cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as blood pressure. [14,15]

The “downside” to pea protein powder is that it suffers from the same problem as all plant protein powders -- the earthy texture and grass-like taste.

For this reason, pea protein powder is typically blended with other plant proteins to mask the “unique” flavor and texture.

Soy Protein

Before the advent of pea protein, the top dog in the dairy-alternative protein powder market was soy protein. Just like pea protein, soy protein is a complete protein that contains all of the essential amino acids needed for protein synthesis.

However, soy protein fell out of favor, particularly with men, due to the belief that consuming soy would lead to increased estrogen levels and gynecomastia, a.k.a. man boobs. [16] This myth arose due to the fact that the active ingredients in soy (isoflavones) are phytoestrogens – plant-based compounds that act similar to estrogen.

However, recent studies note that most of the “soy makes man boobs” fears were unfounded as consuming soy does not negatively affect hormone levels or serum testosterone. Research has noted soy protein does support muscle growth and strength development, though. [17,18]

And, similar to the cardiovascular-promoting properties of pea protein powder, soy protein also has been noted to support heart health. [19] And, soy touts a Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) score of 100, meaning it’s on the same playing field with whey and egg proteins! [20]

Other Plant-Based Proteins

The push to adopt a more plant-based (or plant-forward) diet has never been greater with the continued rise in cases of obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. As such, more and more people are reducing their consumption of animal products and increasing their intake of all things plant-based.

Above, we discussed two of the “better” plant-based protein powder options in pea protein and soy protein; however, there are several more that you’re likely to come across when searching for your own best protein powder.

Other plant-based proteins include:

  • Brown Rice Protein
  • Hemp Protein
  • Quinoa
  • Alfalfa
  • Chia

As we mentioned during the pea protein powder discussion, virtually all plant protein powders have a chalky or dirt-like taste and texture. This makes for a rather unpleasant mouthfeel and drinking experience.

And, while plant protein can be formulated to provide a complete amino acid profile, don’t make the mistake of thinking plant proteins can’t compete with animal protein powders in terms of taste or texture. It’s just not going to happen.

Yes, plant protein powders can be just as effective as animal-based ones for fulfilling your protein requirements, but they’re not going to taste nearly as good.

Factors to Consider When Searching for the Best Protein Powder

Despite the fact that we said there is no such thing as a “best protein powder”, there are several things you do want to keep in mind when searching for the one the best suits your needs:

Is the protein a “complete” protein?

Up top when discussing animal vs plant proteins we talked about complete vs incomplete proteins. Animal-based proteins (whey, casein, milk, egg, beef, etc.) are all complete proteins that provide all of the essential amino acids required by the body to construct protein. Plant proteins have to be combined to create a complete protein due to the fact that plant proteins individually tend to be lacking in one or more of the essential amino acids.

So, does it matter whether or not your purchase a complete protein for your protein powder?

In an isolated case, complete proteins are better than incomplete proteins for building and repairing muscle. However, life is not an isolated lab case.

With the understanding that you’re eating a well-balanced diet and consuming a wide variety of protein sources throughout the day, having a protein powder that is “incomplete” probably won’t affect things in the long run.

However, with the vast amount of complete plant-based protein options, there really is no point in purchasing an incomplete protein powder. After all, you’re purchasing a protein powder to optimize your protein intake. So, shouldn’t you want to get the best one that you can afford?

Is the protein spiked?

Protein spiking, also known as “amino spiking” or “nitrogen spiking,” is a technique used by supplement companies to “cheat the system” and save money by including less protein than what's listed on the label.

Nitrogen is used as measuring tool to assess the protein content of a protein powder due to the fact that protein is made of amino acids, and every amino acid contains nitrogen. Therefore, measuring the nitrogen content of a protein powder could indicate the amount of protein it contains.

However, where this method of testing falls apart is that it assumes companies are including ONLY whole protein sources (whey, casein, etc.) in their protein powder. Unfortunately, many protein powders contain "extra" free form amino acids, such as L-Glutamine, taurine, glycine, and branched-chain amino acids.

While you might think this is a good thing, the added aminos aren’t really adding any big benefit to your protein powder. They are, however, artificially inflating the protein per serving listed due to their nitrogen groups. In other words, while a product may list that you get 30 grams of protein per serving, in reality, you may only be getting 20-25 grams. Yet, you’re none the wiser.

So, how do you identify amino spiking?

Take a look at the ingredients list. If you see a bunch of free-form amino acids (taurine, glycine, creatine, leucine, glutamine, etc) listed following the complete protein sources, then there is a pretty good chance your protein is spiked, and that you are getting ripped off.

Can you tolerate dairy?

If your sensitive to dairy or outright lactose intolerant, then it won’t matter how magical, gluten-free, or grass-fed your whey protein powder is. You need to find a protein powder that you enjoy drinking and won’t tear you a new one every time you drink it.

If you do handle dairy well, or decide to use some kind of digestive enzyme so as to improve your lactose tolerance, then you’d hard-pressed to find a more affordable, more tasty, or better bang for your supplement buck protein than whey protein.

Add to that the fact that whey is naturally high in mTOR-stimulating BCAA (especially leucine), and you’ve got about as “best” of a protein powder as you could hope to find.

Are you vegan?

If you’re vegan, then that eliminates a vast majority of the options (whey, casein, milk, egg, beef) in contention for best protein powder. To find something comparable in terms of getting a complete amino acid profile, you will need to either find a pea protein powder (which contains all the essential amino acids) or vegan protein blend consisting of a mix of brown rice, quinoa, soy, chia, hemp and other plant-based options.

How to Choose the Best Protein Powder

There’s really no secret to finding the “best” protein powder on the market, simply due to the fact that there is no such thing as the best protein powder for every person all the time.

That being said, if you can tolerate dairy, you’d be hard pressed to find a tastier, more affordable, or superior option for supporting muscle growth and fat loss than whey protein or whey-based protein blends.

However, if you can’t tolerate dairy, or if you follow a vegan diet, plant-based proteins such as pea protein, soy protein, or plant-based blends are your only options.

Truth be told, if anyone tells you that you need a protein powder to build muscle or lose fat, they’re dead wrong. There is nothing magical about protein powder. If it helps you get in enough protein and stay on track with your diet and physique goals, then sure it’s “magical”. But, all protein powder is, is a quick and easy way to get in protein.

If you can satisfy all your protein requirements by cooking and eating whole foods, then protein powder is not needed. But, there’s nothing quite like that delicious post workout shake or late night bowl of progurt. And you can’t really get either of those without protein powder.

References

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2) Geiser M. (2003) The wonders of whey protein. NSCA’s Performance Training Journal 2, 13-15

3) Davies RW , et al. "The Effect of Whey Protein Supplementation on the Temporal Recovery of Muscle Function Following Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29462923

4) Morton RW , et al. "A Systematic Review, Meta-analysis and Meta-regression of the Effect of Protein Supplementation on Resistance Training-induced Gains in Muscle Mass... - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28698222

5) Pasiakos SM , et al. "The Effects of Protein Supplements on Muscle Mass, Strength, and Aerobic and Anaerobic Power in Healthy Adults: a Systematic Review. - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25169440.

6) Miller PE , et al. "Effects of Whey Protein and Resistance Exercise on Body Composition: a Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24724774.

7) Dudgeon WD , et al. "Effect of Whey Protein in Conjunction With a Caloric-Restricted Diet and Resistance Training. - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28415067.

8) Mollahosseini M , et al. "Effect of Whey Protein Supplementation on Long and Short Term Appetite: A Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29072167

9) Boirie Y , et al. "Slow and Fast Dietary Proteins Differently Modulate Postprandial Protein Accretion. - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9405716.

10) Phillips SM , et al. "The Role of Milk- and Soy-based Protein in Support of Muscle Protein Synthesis and Muscle Protein Accretion in Young and Elderly Persons. - PubMed - NCBI." National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20368372.

11) Demling RH, DeSanti L. Effect of a hypocaloric diet, increased protein intake and resistance training on lean mass gains and fat mass loss in overweight police officers. Ann Nutr Metab. 2000;44(1):21-29. doi:10.1159/000012817.

12) [Babault et al; “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; 2015

13) Abou-Samra, Rania et al.; Effect of Different Protein Sources on Satiation and Short-Term Satiety When Consumed as a Starter; Nutrition Journal; December 2011

14) Rigamonti, E., Parolini, C., Marchesi, M., Diani, E., Brambilla, S., Sirtori, C. R. and Chiesa, G; “Hypolipidemic effect of dietary pea proteins: Impact on genes regulating hepatic lipid metabolism”; Molecular Nutrition and Food Research; 54: S24–S30

15) Li, H; “Blood pressure lowering effect of a pea protein hydrolysate in hypertensive rats and humans”; Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry; September 2011; 59(18):9854-60

16) Jorge Martinez, Jack Lewi; “An Unusual Case of Gynecomastia Associated with Soy Product Consumption”; Endocrine Practice; May 2008; Vol. 14, No. 4, pp. 415-418

17) Joseph W. Hartman, David Bruinsma, Amy Fullerton, Jenn G. Perco, Randa Lawrence, Jason E. Tang, Sarah B. Wilkinson, Stuart M. Phillips.(2004). The Effect of Differing Post Exercise Macronutrient Consumption on Resistance Training-Induced Adaptations in Novices; Department of Kinesiology, McMaster University

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