These days it seems like there are hundreds of protein shakes and nutritional drinks available on the market, made from a variety of different types of protein in a variety of flavors. It can be very difficult for the average consumer to figure to figure out which is best or if you should drink them at all. How can you make a decision, when it is so confusing? And what is actually worth your money? Here is breakdown of the main types of protein powder and how they should be used.
Whey protein powder
Whey protein is usually the most common basis for protein powders. Whey is a dietary supplement that is derived from the liquid remaining after milk is curdled into cheese. Whey protein powders come in 3 main forms: whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, and whey protein hydrolysate. Concentrates are generally just dried whey and have more fat and carbohydrates, and less protein than other forms. The whey protein isolate has the highest protein content, about 90% protein. The hydrolysate form is a predigested form of protein which can be less allergenic and easier to tolerate for people with digestive issues, but is generally more expensive.
The research regarding the benefits of whey for building muscle have had mixed results. Some studies have shown that muscles repair was faster after a workout when subjects were given rapidly absorbed whey protein, when compared with other types of protein supplements. Other studies have shown no benefit to muscle building after consuming a whey containing supplement. Since the research has mixed results, it is difficult to determine if whey protein is the ideal protein source for people wanting to build muscle.
Whey protein, since it is derived from milk, contains lactose and should be avoided by those that are lactose intolerant or have milk allergies. Whey protein supplements can cause significant digestive issues, especially when consumed in high quantities. If you are concerned about digestive issues, look for an unsweetened whey protein or find a supplement in hydrolysate (predigested) form that may be easier to tolerate.
Casein Protein Powder
Casein is another type of protein found in milk. Unlike whey protein, it is slower to digest therefore it has not been shown to be effective in helping with muscle repair after exercise. But, when you need extended energy (for an extended period of exercise or fasting), due to its slow release, a casein supplement may be your best bet. But, casein is also not appropriate for people with milk allergies and some supplements may also contain lactose.
Pea Protein Powder
Pea protein is a plant-based protein sourced from yellow peas. It is fat and cholesterol free, since it is sourced from a plant. It is also not derived from dairy, therefore it is safe for people with milk allergies or lactose intolerance. It does not cause digestive distress in the way that whey or casein can. But, it can be low in one particular amino acid, cysteine, meaning it does not provide 100% of the necessary amino acids in the correct quantities, the way animal-protein based powder does.
Soy Protein Powder
Soy beans are the only vegetable source that contain 100% of the essential amino acids and are considered a complete protein. It has also been shown to be just as efficient for muscle repair as whey protein. Soy protein contains isoflavones, compounds that have been shown to reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease. But, isolfavones act similarly to estrogen in the body and have the potential to skew hormone levels. This may be especially dangerous for women who have had estrogen-positive breast cancer.
Other protein powder options include hemp, brown rice protein, and other vegan protein powder blends. These usually are great for vegans or vegetarians, but may not contain 100% of the necessary amino acids required for human health.
Keep in mind when you’re choosing a powder:
It is important to keep in mind a few things when shopping for a protein powder. First, the person who works at a nutrition retail store may have been given some basic information regarding the products on the shelf, but they are not a Medical Doctor or Registered Dietitian. They do not know your medical history and are not legally allowed to make claims that their products can cure or prevent any type of illness. Second, identify why you are using the product. Do you want to add some protein to a breakfast smoothie? Do you need extra calories because you have a medical condition that is causing you to lose weight? Are you trying to lose weight and want a calorie controlled meal? This can help you narrow down which product is most appropriate for you. But, keep in mind protein shakes will never be better for you than real, fresh, healthy food. Have realistic expectations of what this product might do for you. Lastly, keep it simple. A product with a ton of additives, artificial sweeteners, or chemicals can have unforeseen side effects, especially if you don’t know how it will react with your body.