If we were given a brownie for every time that this question was asked, we would have to be airlifted out of bed just to see the sun rise!
This question is vague and requires more than a few sentences to answer. There are many types of protein powders, all with different properties depending on your tolerances and goals. Not all protein powders are equal and not all will be digestible for you.
So we have written this short but detailed article to help arm you with a bit of knowledge, so that the next time you walk into a supplement store, the shop assistant doesn’t get away with saying “Yes! This is the special one. It will make you lose weight” or “This is the best one on the market for growing quick lean muscle, Arnold Schwarzenegger used something just like this”. Meh!
Before we dive right in let’s just remind a few people of what exactly protein powders are.
Protein powders are concentrated forms of protein, sourced from animal or plant based foods such as dairy, eggs, beef, peas, rice or spirulina (to name a few).
The 3 most common forms of protein powders are:
The powder is produced by extracting protein from the whole food/source via heat and acid or enzymes. They typically contain around 70-80% protein, with the remaining calories coming from carbs and fats.
Similar to concentrates these powders are extracted using heat and acid or enzymes, but for a longer and more intensive period. This process pre-breaks the bonds between amino acids, allowing the body/muscles to absorb the powder more quickly.
These powders go through a further filtering process that removes any additional fats or carbs, thus creating a more concentrated protein. These powders typically contain 90-95% protein and in some instances claims of 100% protein are made.
We are going to look at the most popular protein powder types:
1. Whey Protein
Whey derives from milk and is a fast digesting protein that is rich in Branched-Chain Amino Acids. BCAA’s play a vital role in muscle growth and recovery (1).
Whey is the liquid that separates when milk curdles and contains high amounts lactose. Making it unsuitable for those that suffer with lactose intolerance. However, Whey Isolate contains very little to no lactose due to its filtration process.
2. Casein Protein
Casein Protein is also derived from milk. However, casein takes longer to digest, slowing the stomach down from emptying and delaying the absorption of amino acids into the bloodstream. This reduces the rate of muscle protein breakdown.
Casein is ultimately best taken at night or before bed and has proven to be effective in attaining lean muscle growth when on a hypocaloric diet (low calorie diet) combined with resistance training (2).
3. Egg Protein
Egg protein powders are typically made from egg whites instead of whole eggs. Eggs are an excellent source of complete protein and have the highest protein digestibility out of all whole foods (3). In addition, they are the second largest source of the BCAA Leucine which is responsible for overall muscle health (4).
4. Hemp Protein
Hemp protein powder is plant based, rich in omega-3 fatty acids and contains essential amino acids. Due to it’s low level of the amino acids leucine and lysine, it is not considered a complete protein. However, of all plant proteins, hemp is easily digestible.
5. Pea Protein
Pea protein is another plant based protein that is relatively new, it has high amounts of branched-chain amino acids and is very popular among vegetarians, vegans and those with intolerances to dairy and eggs.
A controlled study between two groups of men found that pea protein when compared to whey protein offered similar results in muscle growth over a 12 week period (5).
6. Rice Protein
Although not a complete protein, Rice protein contains all of the essential amino acids. It is harder to digest than hemp protein, but provides similar results to pea protein.
An 8-week study found that rice protein compared with whey, provided similar results in body composition, muscle growth, strength and recovery (6).
The use of protein powder is not essential to achieving your fitness goals, however, they do provide high quality protein conveniently. It is not easy for many people to eat their necessary intake of protein consistently, mainly due to daily commitments such as work. A protein shake is cost effective, quick and easy to digest.