Choosing a protein powder can be overwhelming. There are many types, flavors, and kinds of proteins that attack different goals. A protein powder for someone who’s looking to lose fat and weight is going to be different than for someone who’s looking to build muscle and gain weight.
In this complete guide to choosing a protein powder, we’ll go over the different types of protein powders, how processing has pros and cons, and how other ingredients can make a difference. In addition, your goals are important in deciding which protein to choose. Third party certifications give you confidence in the ingredients, but the most important factor is choosing a powder that tastes great.
Protein Powder Types
Protein shakes are a great option for those you need a fast, easy, convenient way to get protein in their diet. There are many different types of protein powder and each type has different benefits and drawbacks. Understanding the different types can help you to make an informed decision about what’s the best option for your diet and allergies.
Whey protein is the most common type of protein. It contains essential amino acids that your body needs and helps to boost energy. It’s easily digested and comes in multiple types.
Whey concentrate contains 70-80% protein and contains enough lactose and fat to give it the best flavor. Whey isolate is 90% protein or higher that contains less lactose and fat. Whey hydrolysate or hydrolyzed whey is absorbed and digested faster, but it can cause insulin to spike more than isolate or concentrate.
Casein is a dairy protein that digests much slower than whey. This slow digestion period helps it keep you fuller for longer and helps reduce muscle breakdown. Casein is a catalyst for fat loss and muscle growth.
Dairy proteins like whey and casein are generally accepted as the most effective and most easily digested. However, lactose intolerance can be a big issue and dairy proteins are known to come with side effects like bloating, gas, and cramps. Many fitness fans are vegan, which makes plant-based protein a great option.
Egg protein is released at a slower pace than whey, making it a good option for the morning to support you throughout the day. It is not vegan, but it is lactose free, making it a good alternative to whey and casein proteins. It digests slower than whey but faster than casein for a medium length of muscle synthesis.
Soy protein is a vegan option for protein, coming from the soybean plant. Soy is a complete protein, which means it contains all of the essential amino acids your body needs. It’s also been shown to help support healthy cholesterol levels. Soy generally considered less effective than whey protein, but it’s a great option for plant-based protein.
Brown rice protein is vegan and gluten-free. Brown rice contains about 80% protein. It contains all nine essential amino acids, but it is low in the amino acid lysine. It’s hypoallergenic, making it great for those with dairy, soy, or egg allergies, and it’s less likely to cause side effects like bloating and gas. It’s great for losing weight and boosting metabolism.
Pea protein, another form of vegan protein, is highly digestible and hypoallergenic. It’s high in iron that is known to support fat loss and weight loss. Pea protein contains all nine essential amino acids that your body needs, but it’s low in the amino acid methionine. It’s also a great source of BCAAs that help support heart health, energy, and muscle growth.
Hemp protein is another form of plant protein. Hemp is an earthy flavor that contains all nine essential amino acids, making it a complete protein, but it is low in the amino acid lysine. It’s a moderately digestible protein that is more digestible when cold-pressed. It’s rich in antioxidants that make it a great nutritional support.
Protein Processing Types
Concentrate is protein that is created by using high heat and acid or enzymes. It generally contains 70-80% protein, and the rest is made up of carbohydrates and fats.
Protein isolates are filtered to “isolate” the protein and reduce the carbs and fats. Isolates are 90% or more protein. They are digest faster than concentrates. Since the carbs and fats are reduced by filtering, this can be a great type of protein for losing weight by limiting fat and carbs.
Protein hydrolysates are processed with heat, enzymes, or acid that breaks apart protein into smaller peptides. Theoretically, this makes the protein easier to digest and absorb. They tend to contain less lactose because they’re broken down, so they can have less bloating and gas.
Other ingredients can make or break a protein powder. When you’re looking for your powder, the protein should be listed as the first ingredient (example: whey). You might also find other supplemental ingredients like BCAAs, omega fatty acids, probiotics, or creatine. These are often added for convenience, so that you need to purchase less products overall.
You’ll also find sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, cane sugar, sucralose, or aspartame. Looking in the ingredients will tell you if there are “diet” sweeteners that won’t show up in the nutrition panel under sugar. Flavoring includes natural or artificial flavors. This can be hard to really read when the label is only required to show “flavoring,” but it’s good to be aware of them. Allergens including egg, milk, soy, and peanuts will be labelled.
Thickening agents like dextrin, psyllium husk, and xanthan gum give the protein shakes the thick and creamy texture that you want. Small amounts are safe to eat and normal to see on ingredient labels. Anti-clumping agents avoid gloopy, crumbly shakes, and emulsifiers mix everything together nicely to give you a creamy, smooth shake. Just make sure the emulsifiers listed don’t include trans fats.
Building Muscle versus Losing Weight
If you’re looking to build muscle, whey and casein will give you the support you need. These proteins will help you to fuel your workout, keep your muscles stimulated, and ease your recovery. Since casein digests over a longer period of time, it’s a good one to take before bed to give yourself an added boost overnight.
If you’re looking to lose weight, make sure your protein powders have no added sugars and skip the added BCAAs that promote muscle growth and weight gain. Those with diabetes should also avoid added sugars and low carb protein sources. Using water or skim milk will help cut down on the extra fats and calories that come from making a shake with full fat milk.
Protein powders can also be used for replacing meals – and why there are protein powders called meal replacement shakes. It’s important that you add nutrients to your shakes. Certain meal replacement shakes have added nutrients, like antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Adding vegetables like kale and spinach and fruits like bananas and blueberries can help boost your typical protein shake into a great meal replacement.
Third-Party Testing & Seals
There are multiple third-party testing organizations that test for contaminations and label accuracies. They also test to make sure the supplements are clean and safe for athletes who face stricter regulations.
The NSF International Certified for Sport seal means that products do not contain any of the 280 substances that are banned by the major sports organizations, that the product inside matches the labels, that there are no unsafe levels of contaminants, and that the product is manufactured at a registered and audited for quality and safety.
The Informed Sport Certification means that the products have gone through a strict certification process. The brand is assessed for quality and safety standards, including raw materials and staff training, and the product is sent out for quality testing to check for contaminations and banned substances. After the brand passes the quality testing, each batch of product is tested before it can go into retail with the seal.
An alternative to Informed Sport is Informed Choice. Informed Choice brands go through the same strict testing, but instead of testing every batch, these brands are blind tested on a monthly basis. Informed Choice is a great option for those who do not want to use banned substances but are not subject to the strict testing that athletes are.
While third party testing can make your protein powders more expensive, you can rest easy knowing that your products are free from harmful or banned substances. Determining your priorities will help you to decide whether a third party tested protein powder is the right choice for you.
Taste & Texture
It’s really important to remember that while there are plenty of mechanical things to think about, including working with your diet and allergens, liking the taste and texture of the protein powder you pick is essential.
Check the texture of the protein powders you try. Many brands offer samples or smaller sizes for you to try. Chalky protein powders can be balanced out by using creamier milk or milk-alternatives instead of water. For texture, the more processed powders tend to be smoother, making isolates and hydrolysates better than concentrates.
In terms of flavoring, plant-based proteins tend to be more bitter. This means that they can often be flavored with more sweeteners, so be sure to check the label for sugar and sugar alternatives. Flavors can either make a protein powder taste better or make it taste artificial and overwhelming. If you’re sensitive to artificial flavoring, there are a ton of natural and unflavored options out there.
Picking a protein powder that works for your lifestyle and goals will give you an edge over the competition. When looking for the perfect powder for you, look at the type of protein powder that works with your diet and allergies. The processing of the protein powder affects the amount of protein, carbs, and fats, as well as the texture. Third-party testing can give you a sense of security and confidence that your protein powder is clean and tested. Coming in with this knowledge, you can make a great, informed decision about the best protein powder for you.