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Protein Powders: Everything You Need to Know in 5 Minutes

First off, apologies from being “offline” from the blog for much of the summer, but I’ve been working pretty crazy hours on a couple of other projects (which you’ll hear much more about in the weeks to come).

Anyway, I thought to re-start my blogging efforts, I’d throw together a very short summary of all things protein powders.

Protein powders still seem to be shrouded in mystery for many people and I’ve heard all kinds of claims associated with them: protein powders are a bad for your kidneys (most definitely not), protein powders are a processed food (true) and all processed foods are bad (incorrect), protein powders are dangerous for kids (not unless they trip over a tub and break a wrist), and so on and so forth.

Let’s look at the question of “processed” because that’s where a lot of people cognitively struggle with protein powders. Yes, all protein powders are a processed food (let’s be honest, our ancestors never hunted tubs of protein in antiquity), however, they still rank fairly high on my “foods to build a diet around” recommendations.

Why is this?

Simple: our food supply has changed dramatically in the past 100-150 years and it’s unrealistic to expect we return to a time where everyone eats solely pasture-raised meat that was butchered by hand, eats copious amount of fresh fish caught in pollution-free waters and consumes fruits and vegetables that have never seen a pesticide, nor have traveled further than 50 miles.

Of course, if you are able to eat this way then by all means continue doing so… it’s just unrealistic to expect the 400+ million people living in North America to all be able to do it.

Given that this is our new reality, I’m quite happy to recommend people incorporate protein powders, omega-3 fish capsules and vegetables and fruits flown to us from far away lands as part of a healthy diets because let’s be honest, for the vast majority of people, incorporating “processed” foods like protein powders into their daily routine represents a quantum leap forward in terms of their diet quality.

And you know me, I’m a diet quality guy. Of course, getting 100% of your dietary protein from powders isn’t wise (as a general rule, whole foods are better), but a scoop or two or protein can be a boon to most people’s diets.

So now that that’s out of the way, let’s start looking at type of protein powders you may see on the shelves. I won’t go into specific brands (as there are thousands) but rather provide my thoughts on the different types of protein powders that exist.


Animal Proteins

Whey
Whey protein (one of the dairy proteins) has the highest leucine content of any protein powder, making it the most powerful stimulator of protein synthesis of all the proteins.

Concentrates
Whey concentrate is considered less “pure” and contains less protein per scoop (often containing higher amounts of carbohydrates and fat as well). That being said, it undergoes the least amount of processing of any whey protein and retains the largest number of bioactive subfractions, which have a variety of health benefits.

Some individuals do struggle to digest whey concentrates, so before buying a huge tub, test your individual tolerance to a particular brand. Many people find that finding a brand that includes supplemental digestive enzymes (look for things like Aminogen or Proteases on the label) significantly improves digestibility.

Isolates
A pure whey protein, containing over 90% protein per scoop. Whey isolate is digested rapidly, making it a popular choice for protein powders ingested immediately post-workout.

Due to the processing techniques required (cold filtered is best), whey isolates do tend to be more expensive, however, they also produce less gastrointestinal distress than do concentrates.

Hydrolysates
Any hydrolyzed protein is digested and absorbed extremely rapidly. However, pure hydrolyzed whey is quite bitter so you’ll need to add a fair amount of sweetener and overall, hydrolyzed proteins are more expensive. As a result, I don’t recommend going this route unless you have the money or absolutely can’t digest concentrates or isolates.

Blends
Typically a mix of concentrate/isolate, these proteins often offer the benefits of both types. Considering most of us aren’t elite athletes training 2-3x/day, the absolute speed of nutrient absorption is a minor concern, so we’d be better off choosing a blended whey protein.

These proteins tend to be quite affordable (~$50/5 lbs, which is 75 x 25 g servings) and can be found in a variety of flavours.

Casein

Casein (the other dairy protein) is digested very slowly. This lengthy speed of digestion makes casein a subpar choice for spiking protein synthesis, however, it does make it strongly anti-catabolic (which means it is great at preventing protein breakdown).

Casein-based powders tend to be superior choices for hunger managements and as pre-bedtime options with cottage cheese being a food naturally high in casein.

Several people do have dairy allergies though, particularly to casein, so if you are someone who does not tolerate dairy well, you are best to look into alternate sources.

You’ll often see “micellar” casein listed on a label. This tells you that your protein will form a “micelle” (a tiny ball) when mixed with liquid. Because of this tendency to ‘clump’, 100% pure casein powders are best mixed with a blender and not by hand.

Egg white protein

Egg white protein is one animal-sourced protein that is incredibly easy to digest making it suitable for many diets. Some people find the taste a little bland/salty though.

Pasteurized egg whites in the carton (available online here or at your nearest grocery store… Costco has 3 x 500 ml for under $5) are another easy way to incorporate more egg protein into your diet.

Vegetarian proteins

When it comes to vegan proteins, one (minor) concern is that they are not as bio-available as animal proteins. However, given that North Americans generally eat quite a bit of protein, this isn’t the end of the world.

Blended Vegetable Protein

Given that by default, most vegetable proteins are incomplete (missing one of more of the essential amino acids), you’ll often find a mix of vegetable proteins in a protein blend.vega

One of the products my vegetarian athletes have used in the past and enjoyed is VEGA. As a plus, it tends to taste better than other vegetarian proteins

 

Soy

Soy protein is naturally the most “complete” of all vegetable proteins (meaning it contains all the essential amino acids). However, there are conflicting reports on soy’s ability to provoke negative hormonal impacts in certain individuals. For this reason, I tend to not recommend frequent usage of soy as a primary source of protein.

When it comes to soy products in general, I don’t recommend ingesting large amounts of refined soy products like soy protein, soy milk, soy burgers, soy cheese… etc. However, fermented soy products (tempeh, miso, some tofu and natural soy like edamame) are a valuable addition to any diet.

Pea protein

Pea protein is a fairly innocuous protein that I generally recommend ahead of soy (for the aforementioned reason). It’s inexpensive, tastes ok and isn’t overly allergenic. It’s got a nutty taste to it.

Pea protein is also a really great protein to use in baking as it doesn’t have the same “turn into a leathery boot  upon cooking” feature that whey does.

Hemp

Hemp protein is another great product. However, in contrast to the proteins listed above, it’s not a pure protein source (it contains some fat, fiber and carbs), which renders it a little less versatile for certain recipes.

Hemp also is pretty gritty, so it won’t mix crystal clear in a shake. However, like pea protein, it does work well in oatmeal, muffins and pancake type recipes.

As an added bonus, a serving of hemp protein provides a modest amount of vegetable-based omega-3s (not quite as awesome as the animal sources ones, but still pretty damn good for you). So for anyone who doesn’t eat fish (or is allergic to it), finding a way to get more plant-based omega-3s is always wise.

Brown Rice protein

The best feature of brown rice protein is that it ranks pretty low on the allergenic scale, however, it doesn’t taste all that great.


Protein Wrap Up

All protein powders (and protein sources in general) have their pros and cons. The key is to find one that fits with your overall dietary approach (animal vs. vegetables), doesn’t provoke allergies, and fits your budget/taste preferences. For best results, try to rotate between a couple of different types/brands just to err on the safe side when it comes to avoiding the development of any potential allergies.

So there you have it, a very quick rundown of what to look for in your protein supplement.

The great news is that you can pretty much grab whey protein anywhere you go. But you can often find better deals by looking around online.

Two of my favourite online retailers are:

Till next time, train hard and eat clean!

In the interests of full disclosure, the links to bodybuilding.com are affiliate links and should you choose to purchase products through them, I will receive a small commission. If you prefer to purchase your protein elsewhere, that is also cool.

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Comments

Phiherner says:

Hi Graeme, great post. I was speaking with the owner of Chii hemp products earlier this year. He gave me some advice about Hemp protein. Apparently Hemp pro with 50% protein content is produced using a mechanical process and is extremely pure; but Hemp pro with 70% protein requires a chemical process which may not be as healthy for consumers. Have you heard anything about this?
Also I have used a pumpkin seed protein. I like the nutty flavour and it has a really good amino acid profile. What is you opinion?

Anonymous says:

Hey Phil,

I haven’t heard that about hemp protein, but will definitely look into it. But the differences in preparation techniques sounds plausible for sure.

I personally haven’t tried pumpkin seed protein yet, but looking at its amino acid profile, it does look intriguing. Would you say it has a texture/mixability similar to hemp… or more like a pea or rice protein?

Philip Herner says:

It has a mixablility similar to hemp. It has a courser grain size than pea and rice protein. I don’t see a lot of pea pro, I am interested in trying it.

Tfchar says:

Like anything, it’s about using the protein appriately to gain the real benefits.  After a heavy weightlifting workout a WPI Protein shake is aweosme for getting protein into you system quickly to kickstart recovery.  But I totally agree, people everywhere have far too much of it!

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