At first glance, protein supplementation is a no-brainer. Drink a shake or two every day to ensure that you’re getting enough of the essential macronutrient in your diet.
Well, that ends the moment you open up an online shop or go to your local supplement store. You’ll be met with thousands of options for various protein supplements.
Not only are there multiple types and sub-types of protein supplements, but there are also other factors you need to consider like who the manufacturer is, what the protein per serving size is and what the quality of the protein is (the amino acid profile).
Most people give up and go for the one with the best price or the one that’s been said to have great taste. And not that this is bad, but there’s a better way to go about it. In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know to make an informed decision.
Protein Supplement Types
Let’s begin with the most popular option on the market.
Whey is the type of protein powder that most athletes and strength trainees go for because it is relatively inexpensive, the amino acid profile is (generally) good, protein per serving is high, and the taste is pretty good overall.
Whey protein has three distinct forms - isolate, concentrate, and hydrolysate.
Whey isolate, as its name suggests, is the purest form and has a protein concentration of 90+% ( 1 ). Isolate is also more difficult and more costly to manufacture, thus costs more for the customer.
Whey concentrate is the least processed of the three and thus the easiest and cheapest for manufacture, making it a cheaper option for the customer. Depending on the make, whey concentrate can range from as little as 25% to as much as 89% in protein contents ( 1 ). Concentrate also contains some lactose (10-55%) and fat (2-10%).
Whey hydrolysate is a form of protein powder that has gone through a process called hydrolysis where longer amino acid chains are broken down into shorter ones (mostly di- and tripeptides) for faster digestion ( 2 , 3 ).
Hydrolysate can be made from different whey powders with varying quality levels, and it’s the process of hydrolysis that distinguishes it, not the quality of the source material.
Of the three, hydrolysate is the most complex and expensive one to manufacture, thus making it the most costly option for the customer.
You’ve probably heard of casein before, as it is widely spread on the market today. Casein is a protein in milk that aids the production of cheese.
Thanks to the slow digestion rate, casein has a unique ability to promote protein deposition after eating by inhibiting protein breakdown without excessively raising amino acid concentrations ( 6 ).
Plus, research suggests that casein provides a more gradual rise in plasma amino acid concentration leading to more of it being used for tissue repair and growth, rather than oxidation ( 1 ).
Egg protein is the less popular cousin of casein and whey, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. As you’ve probably guessed it, egg protein is derived from eggs. This is thanks to a process of separating the yolk and dehydrating the egg white.
What’s impressive about egg protein is the fact that it has all nine essential amino acids, as well as the nine non-essential ones. Further, egg protein has the highest biological value (a measure of protein quality and how efficiently the body can use it for growth and repair) ( 7 , 8 ).
Egg protein also digests slowly and delivers much of the same benefits as casein protein does ( 9 ). Also, because it’s made of the egg white, this type of protein has virtually no carbs or fats in it.
There are multiple plant proteins available on the market today, mainly rice, pea, hemp, and soy.
Prevailing wisdom claims that plant proteins are inferior to animal protein because they are incomplete. This is a myth and research has shown that plant protein is just as complete as its animal counterpart ( 10 ).
- Rice protein has a high biological value of about 74-80%, depending on where you get your numbers from ( 11 ).
- Additionally, it has an excellent amino acid profile that rivals whey and soy ( 12 ).
- One study compared the effects of rice and whey protein on body composition and athletic performance. Over a period of eight weeks, no significant differences were found ( 13 ).
- Similarly to rice, pea protein also has a high biological value ( 14 , 15 ). Further, pea protein is abundant in the amino acid leucine and goes exceptionally well in combination with rice protein.
- A combination often referred to as ‘vegan whey.’ This is because the two proteins have amino acid profiles that complement each other.
- Hemp protein is quite nutritious. It’s rich in omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, and it has high doses of certain vitamins and minerals. Hemp is also a complete protein that contains eighteen amino acids, including some quantity of the nine essential ones ( 16 , 17 ).
- There is a debate on the quality of hemp protein since it’s low in the essential amino acid lysine, but if you’re not getting all of your protein from hemp, you’ll be okay.
- The issue with hemp is that protein per serving ranges between 30 and 50%, making it a better option for whole food supplementation, rather than protein supplementation.
- Soy protein is a controversial topic, and there’s a lot of mixed research on its effects. For instance, some research suggests that soy consumption decreases sperm count in men ( 18 ).
- Another study suggests that soy doesn’t affect sperm quality ( 19 ).
- It appears that certain genetic predispositions could lead to this difference in results ( 20 ).
- Until we have more research on the matter, my suggestion would be to either supplement with soy protein sparingly or switch it for another alternative.
Which Type is Best for You?
No protein powder is inherently superior or worse than the others. Except, maybe, hemp with its lower protein concentration, and somewhat controversial amino acid profile. But which protein powder you go with will largely depend on what you’re looking for.
If you’re interested in muscle growth, casein or egg protein would be great options to consume before bed to ensure a steady stream of amino acids through the night. They are also good if you tend to practice intermittent fasting and go for long periods without food.
If you mainly consume protein powder after working out, a pure whey powder (maybe even hydrolysate) would be a good idea to kick-start the recovery process, as it digests more quickly and raises amino acid plasma concentrations faster.
If your goal is fat loss and you’re saving as many calories as you can, whey isolate will provide you with more protein for every serving without the added carbs and fats.
If you are allergic to dairy or can’t tolerate it well, egg protein powder is a worthwhile alternative to go for.
If you’re vegan but still want some sweet gains, combining rice and pea protein powders is a great way to make yourself some vegan whey. As we discussed earlier, these two types of protein have complimentary amino acid profiles.
And, finally, if you’re just a regular person who doesn’t necessarily care about muscle growth, but wants to get enough protein and stay healthy, hemp protein is a great option to go for. It’s chock-full of vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids. Plus it tastes great and mixes well.
You may not fit into any of the above categories, and that’s okay. You have the roadmap you need to pick what’s best for you. All you need to do is use your best judgment.
Does Protein Timing Matter?
Most of us have an irrational love for the complex, but it doesn’t have to be this way. For the majority of people, training consistently, eating enough calories, and getting enough protein is going to be more than enough to see significant progress.
For the more dedicated folks who pass the above requirements with flying colors, protein timing could deliver a tiny bit of extra gains.
A paper by Brad Schoenfeld and Alan Aragon from 2013 looked at the ‘anabolic window’ ( 21 ). They suggested the following:
- Those of us who train fasted in the morning should go for a post-workout meal to prevent protein breakdown.
- Some research suggests that even small quantities of protein consumed before a workout can provide enough amino acids and limit the need for the ‘mandatory’ post-workout meal.
- But, if you tend to eat four to six hours before training, it’s a good idea to get a balanced meal with at least 25-30 grams of protein post-workout.
Schoenfeld and Aragon both recommend some protein intake before and after training, to be on the safe side.
And to be clear:
Protein timing is yet to be fully understood. Taking some precautions is okay. But when these precautions start to border neurotic behavior, it’s time to take a step back and rethink our actions.