There are SO many protein powders out there these days. But how do you know which one is the best for you? Let's break down the different types of protein you'll find and what to look for when choosing a brand. The goal of these guidelines is to help you navigate the crazy world of protein powders from a nutrition standpoint.
Do you need to use protein powder?
Protein powder is not something you need to include in your diet for adequate protein intake. However, it can be a quick an easy way to add more calories and protein to your diet. Whether you're looking for quick fueling options when your schedule gets busy or you have high nutrient needs during an intense training cycle (hi marathon season 👋🏻) protein powder can be a useful supplement.
The key is to include protein throughout the day, through various food sources. Protein powder is considered a supplement because it is meant to be a supplement to your diet; it should not be your sole source of protein. That being said, there are many different types of protein powders that can help meet your needs.
What is whey protein?
Whey and casein are the 2 proteins that milk is comprised of. Both of them can be separated during the process of cheese making. Whey protein is a complete protein, meaning it contains all of the essential amino acids that your body cannot make on its own. It is also high in the amino acid leucine, which has been shown to contribute to muscle protein synthesis. Whey protein is know to be absorbed and digested quickly, meaning your body can utilize it faster. Casein has a similar amino acid profile as whey, but it is digested slower. Despite their similarities, research has shown whey protein is more beneficial to muscle and strength building than casein.
When you look at the ingredients list for whey protein powder, you may see "whey protein concentrate", "whey protein isolate" or "whey protein hydrolysate". Whey protein concentrate is the least processed of the 3, so it contains more fat and lactose. Therefore, it is the most likely to cause GI distress if you have a lactose sensitivity. Whey protein isolate is 80-90% protein; some people with lactose sensitivity may find it tolerable due to the low amount of lactose in this product. Whey protein hydrolysate is whey protein isolate that has been processed even further to breakdown some of the bonds, making it even easier to digest.
What about plant-based protein?
Whether you are lactose intolerant, vegan, or just prefer plant-based products, there are still plenty of great options for you! The most common plant based protein powders come from soy, hemp, pea and rice. The number one thing to consider when picking a plant based protein powder is the source(s) of protein. Ideally, you should have more than one type of protein in a plant based protein powder. This is because of the amino acid composition. While animal proteins contain all 9 essential amino acids, most plant proteins do not.
Each plant based protein comes with its own benefits, which is why it would be useful to have a protein powder with multiple different types. Soy protein is a complete protein, although it has less leucine than whey. Pea, hemp, rice and other sources of plant proteins are not complete proteins, so they are best when paired with at least one other type. However, pea protein is more quickly absorbed and utilized by the body than other plant proteins. The nutrient profiles of plant protein sources do provide other benefits as well. Depending on the food they come from, they can be good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, antioxidants or fiber. All in all, each source of plant protein has its pros and cons, so the best option is to find a protein powder that includes a few.
How do you pick the right one?
There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing a protein powder that is right for you: taste, texture, ingredients, third party testing, the list goes on. Finding a protein powder that is best tailored to your needs is something that a Registered Dietitian can help with. However, if you're just looking to try some out, there are a few main things to pay attention to:
1. Third party testing: Third party testing is a form of quality control. Since protein powder is a part of the supplement industry, the regulations for it are not the most thorough, meaning what is advertised on the packaging may not be exactly true. Third party testing is when a lab, outside of the supplement company, tests the product accuracy (does the label match the product) and to see if there are any unwanted substances in the product such as heavy metals, mold, or bacteria. This is the best way to ensure that the product you chose is safe and accurate. How do you know if a product is third party tested? Look for labels such as NSF, USP, BSCG, or ConsumerLab, for trustworthy third party testing. *note: NSF certified products should be safe for NCAA athletes, but be sure the check with an RD or team staff member
2. Ingredients: A lot of protein powders include additional ingredients outside of the protein, flavor and a potential shelf stabilizer. These can include probiotics, prebiotics, caffeine, digestive enzymes, herbs, etc. They are added with a purpose, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but that purpose may not be necessary for you. Added ingredients, as well as some sweeteners, may also contribute to GI distress if you have any sensitivities or prior GI troubles. Be sure to check the nutrition label for ingredients before purchasing a new protein powder.