In recent times, there has been an exponential rise in the popularity of protein powders amongst health-conscious people. There are many different types of protein powders available on the market today that are made from a variety of sources. With the overload of options, it becomes challenging to select which protein powder is the best for your individual needs.
Here’s everything you need to know about protein powders, along with a guide to the 7 best types of protein powder you should consider adding to your diet.
What are Protein Powders?
Protein powders are the concentrated forms of protein taken from a variety of animal or plant foods, including eggs, dairy, peas, or rice. There are three common types of protein powder, including:
- Protein isolates: This type of protein powder undergoes an additional filtering process that removes more carbohydrates and fats, which concentrates the protein even further. Protein isolate powders contain nearly 90 to 95 percent protein.1
- Protein concentrates: This type of protein powder is produced by extracting protein from whole foods using acid and heat, or enzymes. Protein concentrates can supply almost 60 to 80 percent protein, while the remaining 20 to 40 percent is made up of carbohydrates and fats.2
- Protein hydrolysates: This type of protein powder is produced by additionally heating with enzymes or acid. This breaks down the bonds between the amino acids. Protein hydrolysates get absorbed more quickly into the muscles and body.3
Protein hydrolysates, however, appear to increase insulin levels more as compared to the other forms of protein powders, at least as observed in the case of whey protein. This is believed to boost your muscle growth after exercise.4
Some protein powders are also fortified with additional vitamins and minerals such as calcium. However, the important thing to keep in mind that not everyone benefits from taking protein powders. If you already have a lot of high-quality proteins in your diet, it unlikely that you will notice any significant difference in the quality of your life by adding protein powder.
Nevertheless, athletes and people who do strenuous exercise and regularly lift weight can benefit from taking protein powder as it helps maximize their muscle gain while also boosting fat loss.
Protein powders can also help people who are not getting sufficient protein from their food sources, such as older adults, some vegans or vegetarians, or people who are ill.
7 Best Types of Protein Powder
Here are the 7 best types of protein powders.
1. Whey Protein
Whey protein is one of the most common types of protein powder available in the market. It is also one of the most widely used protein powders.
Whey protein is derived from milk, and it is the liquid that separates from curds in the cheese-making process. Whey is not only high in protein content, but it is also rich in lactose, which is a milk sugar that some people have difficulty digesting.
Even though whey protein concentrate has some amount of lactose, the isolate protein version of whey protein has very little lactose because most of it gets lost during processing.
Whey protein is rich in several branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), leucine being one of the major ones. Leucine plays a critical role in promoting muscle growth and in aiding the recovery of the muscles after endurance and resistance exercises.5, 6
Whey is easily digested by the body and absorbed into the bloodstream. When amino acids like leucine get absorbed into the bloodstream, they become available for the process of muscle protein synthesis (MPS), a process that creates new muscle in the body.
Studies have shown that whey protein powder can help build and maintain muscle mass, increase muscle strength in response to strength training, and also help athletes recover from heavy exercise.7, 8, 9
For example, a study carried out in young men showed that whey protein helps increase MPS by 31% more as compared to soy protein and 132 percent more in comparison to casein protein after doing resistance exercise.10
However, a ten-week study done in 2015 discovered that post-menopausal women experienced a similar response when doing resistance training, regardless of whether they took a placebo or whey protein.11
Other studies that were done in participants who were of normal weight, overweight, and obese, found that whey protein can help improve the body composition by increasing lean mass and reducing fat mass.12, 13
A 2010 study gave lean men four different types of meals made up of only liquid protein on different days. The whey protein meals were found to have resulted in the largest decrease in appetite and also gave the highest decrease in calorie intake during the next meal.16
2. Egg Protein Powder
We all know that eggs are one of the best sources of high-quality protein. Of all the whole foods, eggs have been shown to have the highest protein digestibility corrected amino acid score or PDCAAS. PDCAAS is a score that measures a protein’s digestibility and overall quality.19
When it comes to egg protein powders, though, it is essential to realize that these protein powders are only made from egg whites instead of the entire egg. So although the protein quality still remains excellent, you may not experience the same fullness since the powder does not contain high-fat yolks.
Just like all animal products, eggs are a complete source of protein. This means that they provide all the nine essential amino acids that your body does not manufacture naturally. These nine essential amino acids include:22
Furthermore, egg protein is known to be second only to whey protein as being the highest source of leucine, which is the BCAA that is associated with playing a very important role in muscle health.23
However, it is necessary to note that egg white protein has not been studied as extensively as whey protein or casein protein.
In a 2011 study, it was found that egg white protein had lesser potential to decrease appetite than pea or casein protein when taken just before a meal.24
In another study on female athletes, taking egg white protein demonstrated similar muscle strength and lean mass as experienced by those who were supplementing only with carbohydrates.25
Egg white protein could be the perfect choice for people who have dairy allergies and those who prefer to take a supplement that is based on animal protein.
3. Casein Protein Powder
Similar to whey protein, casein is also a protein found in milk. However, unlike whey, casein gets digested and absorbed much more slowly by the body. Casein forms a gel when it comes in contact with the stomach acid, which slows down the emptying of the stomach, and also delays the absorption of amino acids into the bloodstream. This results in a steadier and more gradual exposure of the muscles to amino acids, which in turn reduces the rate of muscle protein breakdown.26
However, one study that was carried out in overweight men showed that once the calories were restricted, casein protein might have more of a benefit over whey protein in improving the body’s composition when undergoing resistance training.29
4. Hemp Protein Powder
Hemp protein powder has been steadily gaining popularity in recent years as the many benefits of hemp become known. Although hemp is related to marijuana, it only contains minute amounts of the psychoactive component THC.
On the other hand, hemp is a potent source of many beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and many essential amino acids. Nevertheless, it is still not considered to be a complete protein because it contains very low levels of the amino acids leucine and lysine.
At the same time, there is very little research that is currently available on hemp protein powder, though it appears to be well digested by the body.30
5. Pea Protein Powder
Pea protein powder has gained popularity in recent years, especially amongst vegans, vegetarians, and people who have allergies or sensitivities to eggs or dairy.
Pea protein is manufactured from the yellow split pea, which is a legume that is rich in fiber and contains all but one of the nine essential amino acids. Pea protein is also very rich in BCAAs.
An animal study carried out on rats found that the absorption rate of pea protein is slower than whey protein but faster than casein protein. Furthermore, pea protein’s ability to trigger the release of numerous fullness hormones is equally comparable to that of dairy proteins.31
In a 2015 study done on 161 men doing resistance training over a period of 12 weeks found that the participants who were given 50 grams (1.8 ounces) of pea protein powder every day experienced similar enhancements in muscle thickness as compared to those who consumed the same amount of whey protein every day for the same period of time.32
Additionally, another research revealed that rats and humans with high blood pressure experienced a significant reduction in these elevated levels of blood pressure when they were given supplements of pea protein.33
So even though pea protein powder has shown much promise, there is still a need for conducting more high-quality and long-term research to confirm these positive results.
6. Brown Rice Protein Powder
Protein powders manufactured from brown rice have been in the market for quite some time now, but they are usually considered to be inferior in quality when compared to whey protein for muscle building.
Although rice protein also contains all the essential amino acids, it has a significantly less amount of lysine in order to be considered as a complete protein.
At the same time, there is also a lack of research on rice protein powder, though one study did compare the effects of rice protein and whey protein powders in young men who were in good health. This was an eight-week study that looked at the impact of taking 48 grams (1.7 ounces) of rice or whey protein every day and the changes it brought about in muscle strength and recovery and body composition.34
Nevertheless, there is still a need for more research on brown rice protein powder.
7. Mixed Plant Protein Powder
There are some protein powders in the market that are made from a blend of different plant sources to give you all the essential amino acids that the body needs. In these protein powders, two or more of the following proteins are typically combined to make the blend:
- Brown rice
- Chia seeds
- Flax seeds
Since these plant proteins have significantly higher fiber content, they are slower to digest than animal proteins. While this is not usually a problem for most people, but it can restrict the amino acids that your body has access to use immediately after exercising.
A small study carried out in 2015 provided resistance training to young men by giving them 60 grams (2.1 ounces) of whey protein, a pea-rice protein blend, or a pea-rice protein blend, along with supplemental enzymes to accelerate the rate of digestion.35 The supplemental enzyme powder was very similar to whey protein in terms of the speed at which the amino acids appeared in the bloodstream, ready to be used immediately after exercise.
Which Protein Powders Are The Best Out Of These?
Although all the protein powders discussed here provide different concentrations of protein, some types are considered to be more effective at giving the body what it needs based on individual needs.
For example, let us consider the best protein powder for muscle gain. Research has time and again confirmed the ability of whey protein to boost muscle mass and aid in recovery. But, while whey protein concentrate is less expensive as compared to whey isolate, it also contains a lesser amount of protein by weight.
Similarly, when it comes to weight loss, whey protein, casein protein, or a combination of these two protein powders are usually considered to be the best protein powder for losing fat and for feeling full for a longer time.
For vegans and vegetarians, taking a high-quality protein powder that either contains only a single plant protein or mixed plant proteins will be the best option.
There is no doubt that protein powders can deliver high-quality protein in a convenient and concentrated form. However, it is not necessary that everyone needs to takes protein powder supplements. These are considered to be ideal for those who do strength training or for individuals who are unable to meet their protein requirements through diet alone.
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- Rowlands, D.S., Nelson, A.R., Phillips, S.M., Faulkner, J.A., Clarke, J., Burd, N.A., Moore, D. and Stellingwerff, T., 2015. Protein-leucine fed dose effects on muscle protein synthesis after endurance exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 47(3), pp.547-555.
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