Protein labels are chock-full of information, and deciphering what all that type means can seem daunting. Add to that the confusion about what kind of protein is best and when to take it, and we understand how even the most savvy gym-goer can get a bit flummoxed.
Don’t panic — wheeling through the technical verbiage is simpler than you think, and a little bit of awareness of the makeup of the various types of protein powder can make everything come into focus. Follow this guide with a tub of your favorite protein on hand for quick comparison, and then stride confidently into your local Vitamin Shoppe, ready to purchase the proper protein for you.
5: The number of pounds lost by men and women drinking two whey protein shakes per day for 12 weeks, without dieting or exercising.
31: The percent more effective whey protein was at boosting muscle protein synthesis immediately following exercise than soy protein.
122: The percent more effective whey protein was at boosting muscle protein synthesis immediately following exercise than casein protein.
11: The average number of pounds gained by male bodybuilders supplementing with whey protein while following a 10-week weight-training program.
0: The number of detrimental effects that soy phytoestrogens (isoflavones) had on male subjects who consumed a soy protein shake twice a day for 12 weeks. In fact, they gained the same amount of muscle mass as those who consumed whey protein and showed no change in hormone levels.
25: The percentage of increase in muscle growth by subjects taking a whey-protein-blend shake before and after workouts for 14 weeks. Those consuming a carbohydrate-based drink saw no change in muscle mass.
With protein labels boasting so many sub-types of whey, casein, egg and even soy, rice and hemp, how’s one to choose? Here’s how to navigate through different varieties and roll in on the tub that best suits your goals — and budget.
Concentrate: The cheapest form of most proteins, a concentrate is created by pushing the protein source (milk, whey, etc.) through a filter that allows water, vitamins and minerals to plunge through. The proteins, which are too big to pass through the filter, are collected for further processing that usually involves evaporation and a drying process. It yields 70 to 80 percent protein, with the rest being carbs and fat.
Isolate: A form of protein that’s more pure than concentrate, an isolate is processed through longer filtering or ion exchange (a chemical process that involves separating proteins based on their electrical charge). It packs 90 to 94 percent protein and contains small amounts of lactose and virtually no fat, making it faster digesting and easier to mix.
Hydrolysate, or hydrolyzed protein: The most expensive form of most proteins, a hydrolysate has been broken down and divided into smaller fractions than concentrate or isolate. It requires virtually no further breakdown by the enzymes in the stomach and therefore is digested and absorbed into the bloodstream more quickly than even fast-digesting isolate.
Micellar: It is a protein that’s made by separating the casein portion of milk from lactose, fat and whey through a low-temperature filtration process. Micellar is undenatured, meaning the protein isn’t altered or damaged during processing, so it’s more readily digested and absorbed into the bloodstream. On the other hand, nonmicellar (casein) protein is exposed to physical and chemical processes (i.e., heat) that cause damage to the protein’s structure.
Whey Protein: Touted as the gold standard of proteins, whey makes up 20 percent of the protein content of cow’s milk. Whey is a fast-digesting protein, meaning it quickly floods the bloodstream with amino acids, usually within 45 minutes of ingestion. This makes it a good protein to consume for speedy recovery and repair of muscle tissue, before and following workouts. Your best bet is to choose whey protein isolate or hydrolysate, the fastest-digesting varieties available.
Casein Protein: Casein makes up 80 percent of the protein content of cow’s milk. Known as a time-released protein, it forms a gel in the gut. This means it’s digested more slowly than whey, so it’s ideal for providing muscles with a steady stream of amino acids for a longer period (up to seven hours) — such as between meals and while you sleep. Stick with micellar casein, which is the slowest-digesting form of casein.
Goat-Milk Protein: Like the protein from cow milk, the two major proteins in goat milk are casein and whey. The casein in goat milk forms a softer curd (the clumps that are formed by the action of your stomach acid on the protein) than cow milk casein, which makes the protein more easily and rapidly digestible. It also contains lower levels of the crampy allergenic alpha s1-casein, so it offers a gut-friendlier option. It packs 65 percent protein, is minimally processed, and is antibiotic- and hormone-free.
Egg Protein: Before whey and casein, gym-goers consumed egg-white protein (aka egg albumen) by the boatloads. That’s because egg-white protein yields a nutrient-rich source of high-quality protein, and it’s virtually devoid of carbs and fat. It’s absorbed by the body at a rate somewhere between fast-digesting whey protein and slow-digesting casein, so it’s safe to crack open a tub at pretty much any time of the day.
Hemp Protein: Hemp contains two major protein components — edestin (65 percent of hemp protein) and albumin (35 percent of hemp protein). It’s made by first extracting the oil from the hemp seed and then cold milling (grinding) the seed to separate the protein. The resultant protein powder supplies only about 50 percent protein; however, it’s rich in branched-chain amino acids, arginine, essential fatty acids and fiber. The fiber content (about 8 grams per serving) and fats slow digestion of the protein, allowing the amino acids to hang around in your bloodstream for longer, so it’s a good protein choice for between meals and while you sleep.
Soy Protein: Unlike most other plant-based proteins, soy protein is a complete protein that yields all nine of the essential amino acids your body needs for muscle growth. It’s derived from defatted soy flakes that go through a water- or alcohol-extraction process to pull out the carbs, and then it’s dried and ground to produce soy protein powder. The result is a fast-digesting protein — almost as fast as whey — that drives amino aids into the bloodstream and muscles quickly, making it ideal for before and after workouts. Soy protein also contains a lot of arginine and glutamine (more than whey or casein), which enhance recovery and help keep your muscles locked in building mode.
Rice Protein: There’s more to a heap of brown rice than a side of slow-digesting carbs for your 6 ounces of clucker. After a specialized process that treats brown rice with enzymes to separate its carbs from protein, this fibrous little grain boasts roughly 70 percent protein in powder form. It also contains about four times more arginine than whey. Take it before your workout and you’ll get a nice boost of pump-inducing nitric oxide, as well as glutamine. And it’s free of gluten, wheat, egg, milk and soy, making it ideal for vegans and those with food allergies.
Animal proteins like meat, fish, poultry, milk, cheese and eggs are complete proteins. That means they supply adequate amounts of all the essential amino acids your body needs for muscle growth and repair.
Incomplete protein sources include grains, nuts, seeds and vegetables. They supply low protein or only some of the essential amino acids your body needs for muscle growth and repair.
The Truth About Protein
Myth: Protein powders are just as good as whole foods.
Truth: Guzzling your daily protein intake is certainly easier than chewing it, but whole food swags an array of nutrients and amino acids that most powders do not. As a rule of thumb, most of your protein should come from whole-food sources such as meat, fish, poultry and eggs. Getting your entire daily protein intake from whole food is not recommended, though. For optimal muscle gains, consume protein powders first thing upon waking, before and after workouts, and times when convenience is crucial.
Myth: Plant-based proteins don’t build muscle.
Truth: Kicking the beef jerky doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be scrawny. Although plant-based sources of protein are generally far less concentrated in essential amino acids than animal sources, it is possible to get complete proteins from plant-based foods. Combining nuts, legumes and grains can provide a hefty dose of protein, but you’ll need to consume 20 to 25 percent more to reap the same benefits as animal-derived sources. To ensure you’re getting an adequate amount of protein, it’s best to also supplement with plant-based protein powders.
Myth: One gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day is enough.
Truth: A gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day is the most common recommendation. However, there is some variation, depending on your body type and goals. If you’re blessed — or cursed — with a speedy metabolism that prevents you from building muscle, you’re likely burning a lot of that protein for fuel. In that case, you’ll want to bump up your daily protein intake to 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight per day. So for a 180-pound male, that’s 270 grams of protein per day.
Myth: Too much protein is harmful to your kidneys.
Truth: There’s absolutely zero scientific research showing that downing beefy amounts of protein causes damage to kidneys in healthy adults.
With so many protein powders to choose from, it’s hard to know which ones are right for you — and when and how much to take. Here’s the scoop on how to get the most from this powerful muscle builder: