How to pick your protein powder: The Top Protein Powder
Protein is undoubtedly the king of all macronutrients. Consistent daily consumption of this macro helps you improve your long-term performance, whether that’s for strength, size, or speed. However, considering the sheer amount of food that it implies, it is oftentimes easier to rely on a high-quality protein powder to reach your daily requirements.
Nowadays, due to the sheer variety of protein powders available, it can feel quite confusing to navigate the protein marketplace. In this article, I want to equip you with enough knowledge to sift through the nonsense and select the right products for you. Let’s start with the basics.
What is protein?
Dietary protein is a vital organic compound that provides human beings with a supply of nitrogen and amino acids. Proteins include twenty different amino acids that we can split between eight essential amino acids and twelve inessential amino acids. Despite the name, both groups are quite important to your survival and good health. The main difference between the two subgroups is that essential amino acids cannot be produced directly by your body and you need to consume them from dietary sources.
When it comes to training and protein powders specifically, the three most important amino acids you should remember are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Whenever you intend to buy a protein powder, you should check the leucine content per scoop. It is arguably more important than the protein content, and each scoop should contain at least 2.5 grams of leucine. Otherwise, muscle protein synthesis may not get triggered and that protein will not be used for muscle-related purposes.
Protein powder sources.
We can distinguish protein powders by their source since powders can be obtained from animal or vegan sources. Vegan protein powders are growing in popularity and, as the name indicates, are derived from non-animal products, including hemp, peas, rice, soy, etc.
On the other hand, animal proteins are much more common and widely utilized, and they include any protein powder that is derived from animal goods. For instance, beef, eggs, and of course milk. One of the reasons for their popularity is that animal goods have a higher digestibility rate than vegan alternatives.
In the research, they assess digestibility by checking your nitrogen absorption rate. If you consume 100 grams of protein and absorb 90, then that type of protein has an absorption rate of 90%. On the other hand, if you only absorb 70 grams, then obviously it has an absorption rate of only 70%, making it an inferior protein source.
Typically, animal products (including powders) of any type tend to have a digestibility rate of at least 90%. On the other hand, vegan powders hover between 70-80% depending on the source (hemp and soy being high performers, while rice and peas don’t do as well).
That being said, all you have to do to solve the digestibility and absorption issue is to increase your protein intake. If a single scoop of an animal-derived protein powder is enough to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, you’ll need 1.5-2 scoops of a rice protein to get roughly the same effect.
Popular Protein Powder Types
Arguably the best protein powder in the market, whey is derived from milk and boasts impressive digestibility as well as the highest leucine content of all protein powders. Usually, you can expect roughly 25% of BCAA content per scoop.
Whey is also a fast-digesting protein, meaning that once you drink it, you can expect it to hit your bloodstream within 15-30 minutes (if you are in a fasted state), reaching the peak concentration of amino acids around the 45 minutes mark. This speed makes whey an excellent option to provide your muscles with the essential amino acids they need as quickly as possible when they need it most. For example, around workouts and when you break a fast (in the morning or noon if you practice intermittent fasting).
Casein Protein is a slow-digesting protein that is also derived from milk. It’s also very well digested and has a high leucine content, albeit slightly lower relative to whey. An average casein scoop contains roughly 20% BCAAs.
Unlike whey, casein has a different texture and is much thicker. When you drink it, it will form a clot-like shape in your stomach and will get digested very slowly. It can take anywhere from 3 to 5 hours to digest, supplying your body with amino acids for that entire duration and up to 7 hours.
Although it is still unclear which digestion speed is more beneficial, there are some clear advantages to a slower speed. For instance, by providing you with such a steady supply of amino acids, muscle protein breakdown is completely blunted for that duration. This fact makes casein a great choice for prolonged periods when you don’t intend to eat or simply can’t (before going to sleep, or if you have a busy day at work).
Soy Protein Powders.
Soy powders are among the more popular vegan protein powders. They are fast-digesting proteins that have been used for several decades now. Typically they come with added amino acids to increase their quality and solve the absorption issues mentioned earlier.
As for the health concerns relating to phytoestrogen consumption in males, they seem to be overblown and are not a cause for concern. It’s fair to think of soy-based powders as the vegan equivalent of whey.
Hemp Protein Powders
As the name indicates, this protein powder is derived from hemp seeds, and it boasts an impressive absorption rate compared to other vegan protein powders. However, it contains less protein powder per scoop and is more costly than the alternatives. Overall, it’s a good option if you are a vegan and soy consumption still worries you.
Egg protein powders
If you are lactose intolerant and can't digest whey or casein, then egg-derived protein powders are an excellent option. Their absorption rate is excellent, second only to whey or casein, and they contain a high enough amino acid profile and plenty of protein per scoop. Keep in mind that this may not be the case for "egg whites only" powders. These types of powders tend to act as casein and are slow digesting.
Beef protein powders.
Honestly, I wouldn’t advise picking a beef powder unless you are lactose intolerant and can’t find egg powders. Although beef powders are still more interesting than vegan powders, they are subpar compared to milk or egg-derived powders. They have significantly lower absorption rates and leucine content than whey or casein, and they aren't cheaper either.
Now that you are quite familiar with the different protein sources, let’s move on to what “type” of powder they can be.
Types of protein powder
Once you settle on your preferred protein source, you still have to pick a specific processing type. Protein powders can be processed differently, which can change their digestion speed and protein content. Using processing as a measuring stick, we can classify them as concentrates, isolates, and hydrolysates.
Concentrates: This type is the least processed and is also the most affordable. Concentrates tend to contain less protein per scoop than the alternatives (80%) and more carbohydrates and fats.
Isolates: This type is arguably the best, they are slightly more processed and contain more protein per scoop (90-95%) and fewer carbohydrates and fats. They tend to be easier to digest as they contain less lactose; however, they are also more expensive than concentrates.
Hydrolysates: This last type is the most processed one and is substantially more expensive than the other two alternatives. Hydrolysates are artificially “pre-digested” proteins which makes them very quick to digest. Once ingested, it takes them as little as 20 minutes to hit your bloodstream. However, whether that faster digestion speed is worth the doubling in price is highly questionable. Furthermore, they don’t provide you with more leucine or protein per scoop.
For most individuals, a high-quality whey protein concentrate is the best option. Its affordability combined with its high bioavailability, high leucine content, and high protein content makes it the best bang for your buck product. Amongst the many products out there I would encourage you to check out the 100% Whey Protein from Icon Nutrition. It is one of the best options available in the marketplace. It is locally made from hormone-free Irish cows that are grass-fed year-round, yielding more BCAAs per scoop.
For lactose-intolerant individuals, I would strongly recommend a high-quality whole egg protein concentrate. Finally, for vegans, you should aim for an isolate such as a soy isolate. Since they contain a bit more protein and leucine per scoop, they can help you overcome the lower absorbability issue.