With so many brands of protein powder on the market it can be difficult to determine what option to choose. From whey to casein to plant protein, here are some simple tips to help you learn how to choose the best protein powder for your goals.
Whether your goal is to build muscle, lose weight, or support your overall health, protein powder is a great supplement to include in a healthy diet. While whey protein is often touted as the optimal choice, the best protein powder to choose depends on the individual and their personal health goals. In fact, whey, casein, egg, beef, and plant protein powders can all be good options when chosen with care.
Table of contents
- Types of Protein Powder
- Concentrate vs. Isolate vs. Hydrolysate
- Whey vs. Casein Protein Powder
- Egg and Beef Protein Powder
- Plant-Based Protein Powder
- Protein Quality of Protein Powders
- Who needs protein powder?
- Is all protein powder safe?
- Benefits of Protein Powder
- Cons of Protein Powder
- How to Choose the Best Protein Powder for You
- Protein Powder FAQs
- The Bottom Line
Types of Protein Powder
The most common and popular types of protein powder are:
Whey Protein Powder: Whey is a protein found in milk and is the liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained during the cheesemaking process. Liquid whey is then pasteurized, and the protein is concentrated and isolated to make whey protein powder (1).
Casein Protein Powder: Like whey, casein is found in milk and is a natural by-product of cheesemaking. After curdling the milk, the separated solids are skimmed and dehydrated to create casein protein powder (2).
Egg White Protein Powder: Eggs are a great source of high-quality protein, most of which is found in the white. Egg white protein is made from dried egg whites that are turned into a powder.
Beef Protein Powder: Meat is a great source of protein and certain cuts of beef can be used to make protein powder. Beef protein is made by boiling beef to create a liquid containing protein and amino acids, which is skimmed and then dried to produce protein powder.
Soy Protein Powder: Soy protein is made from soybeans. Defatted soybean flakes are washed, to remove the sugars and fiber, and then then dehydrated and powdered (3).
Brown Rice Protein Powder: Brown rice protein is made by treating brown rice with an enzyme that causes the protein and carbohydrates to separate, and the resulting protein is turned into a powder.
Hemp Protein Powder: Hemp protein is made from hemp seeds, which are relative to the cannabis plant. Hemp protein powder is made by grinding whole hemp seed meal that has had the oil removed.
Pea Protein Powder: Made from split yellow peas, pea protein is a popular vegetarian protein option. Pea protein is from pea flour which is prepared by dry milling of dehulled peas (4).
Mixed Plant Protein Powder: Some plant-based protein powders come in a mixed format where a combination of two or more plant protein sources, such as grains, beans, lentils, nuts, and/or seeds, are combined to make a powder with a more complete amino acid profile.
Concentrate vs. Isolate vs. Hydrolysate
- Protein Concentrates: These are produced by extracting the protein from animal or plant-based foods by using high heat and acid or enzymes. Protein concentrates are the least processed sources of protein powder and typically contain 70% to 80% protein, with the remaining 30% to 40% from carbohydrates and fat. If you don’t mind the additional calories from carbohydrates and fat, this is a good option.
- Protein Isolates: These are produced with an additional filtration process, which further reduces the carbohydrate and fat content, increasing the protein content. Protein isolates typically contain 90% to 95% protein. If you prefer fewer calories from carbohydrates and fat, this is a good option.
- Protein Hydrolysate: These are produced by further processing with heat, enzymes, or acid to break down the bonds between amino acids into shorter peptide chains. Protein hydrolysate contains more than 90% protein, is more quickly and easily digested and absorbed, and contains the least amount of lactose.
Whey vs. Casein Protein Powder
Whey and casein are two forms of protein found in milk, making up 20% and 80% of the protein in milk respectively (9). Both whey and casein proteins are high-quality complete animal protein sources that are highly bioavailable, however, they do have distinct differences and benefits.
Whey protein digests quickly and is rich in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), leucine, isoleucine, and valine. The fast absorption of amino acids from whey protein, namely leucine, helps to make them more quickly available for muscle protein synthesis (10, 11). This makes whey protein a great protein powder to use as part of a post-workout snack.
Casein protein takes much longer to digest than whey protein. Casein protein forms a gel when it interacts with stomach acid, which slows down stomach emptying and, therefore, delays the bloodstream’s absorption of amino acids. This slow release of amino acids makes casein protein a great protein powder to use before long-term fasting periods, making it a great late-night snack before going to sleep (12, 13).
Whey protein is the most well-studied form of protein powder and comes in whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, and hydrolyzed whey formats, while you’ll mostly find casein in isolate micellar casein and hydrolyzed casein formats.
Egg and Beef Protein Powder
While egg and beef protein powders are less popular, more expensive, don’t mix well in a protein shake, and – quite frankly – don’t taste great, they are good alternatives for individuals who cannot consume milk-based or plant-based protein powders for dietary and allergy reasons.
Plant-Based Protein Powder
Whether you’re on a plant-based diet or can’t consume milk-based protein powder for dietary reasons, plant-based protein powder is a good alternative option. That said, it is important to note that most plant-based protein sources are considered “incomplete” protein sources as they do not contain all 9 essential amino acids or do not contain them in the optimal ratios. If looking to use a plant-based protein powder, it is best to opt for a blend that contains a mix of plant-protein sources that creates a complete source of protein.
Protein Quality of Protein Powders
One of the most important aspects of protein powders is the quality of the protein they contain. Not all sources of protein are complete sources of protein nor are they equally as bioavailable.
Protein is made up of amino acids, which are essential for human life. In total, there are 20 amino acids, 9 of which are considered essential amino acids (EAAs), as cannot be produced by the body, and must be consumed through the diet. A “complete” protein is one that contains all 9 essential amino acids, and a subset of essential amino acids (EAAs), known as branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), are essential for muscle protein synthesis, making them particularly beneficial in protein powder.
The Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) and Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS) are scales used by scientists to assess the bioavailability of protein sources (16, 17, 18). Overall, animal-based protein powders, including whey and casein, are more bioavailable than plant protein powders, including soy, pea, and rice.
|Whey Protein Isolate||1.00||1.09|
|Whey Protein Concentrate||1.00||0.97|
|Soy Protein Isolate||1.00||0.91|
|Rice Protein Concentrate||0.42||0.37|
Who needs protein powder?
Not everyone needs protein powder. The use of protein powder depends on the individual and their goals, and protein powders can be used for short periods of time to support short-term needs and goals.
Athletes or individuals with performance goals. While protein needs will vary by sport, power and strength athletes have higher protein needs. Athletes can benefit from supplementing with a protein powder can help to ensure adequate intake, which has been shown to enhance recovery, muscle protein synthesis, and performance (19).
Individuals with body composition goals. Optimal protein intake is higher for individuals for weight loss or fat loss goals, as protein can help to support muscle growth, reduce the loss of lean muscle mass, and increase satiety levels, making the use of protein powder beneficial.
Vegetarians and vegans. Individuals who follow a restricted diet are more prone to not meet their daily protein requirement, making protein powder a great supplement to support their daily protein intake. Moreover, consuming a protein powder on a vegetarian or vegan diet can help to ensure you are consuming an adequate balance of all amino acids.
Individuals who struggle to meet their protein intake. For general health, it is best to seek your daily protein needs from whole foods. However, if someone is struggling to meet their daily protein needs or just starting out on their nutrition journey, protein supplements can be very helpful.
Individuals with issues swallowing or chewing. Be it a short-term issue such as dental surgery or a long-term health issue, if you are unable to swallow or chew food, mixing protein powders into shakes or smoothies is a great way to support your protein need in a liquid format.
Is all protein powder safe?
No, the FDA does not regulate protein powders so you must use caution when choosing protein powders. Unfortunately, protein powders often contain hidden ingredients and dangerous contaminants. In 2018, the Clean Label Project, a nonprofit focused on health and transparency in labeling, released a large report exposing toxins in many brands of protein powder (20). Researchers of the study screened 134 of the top-selling protein powders for toxins and found that many contained heavy metals and BPA. For this reason, it is best to opt for a protein powder that has been third-party tested and shown to only contain the ingredients in the amounts it has listed on its label.
Benefits of Protein Powder
- Supports Adequate Intake: Using a protein powder can help to ensure you are consuming adequate protein and reaching your optimal daily protein needs.
- Convenience: Protein powder is easy to transport making it a great on-the-go no-cook protein source that does not require refrigeration.
- Versatile: Protein powder is a highly versatile ingredient that can be used in shakes, smoothies, oatmeal, yogurt, baked goods, homemade protein bars, and more.
- Inexpensive: Compared to many cuts of chicken, beef, or fish, protein powder is often cheaper per gram of protein.
Cons of Protein Powder
- Heavy Metals: In recent years, several brands of protein powder have tested positive for heavy metals, cadmium, arsenic, mercury, and lead being the most prevalent.
- Sweeteners: Most protein powders contain some form of artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohol to make them more palatable. While artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols are generally regarded as safe to consume in moderate amounts, they can cause digestive issues for some.
- Fillers: Additional ingredients, such as maltodextrin, carageen, cornstarch, psyllium fiber, flavorings, preservatives, and dyes. Although not necessarily harmful, they are commonly used by cheaper brands to dilute the quality of the product and increase profits. Plus, they can cause gastric distress for some.
- Not Essential: Protein powders are a supplement to a good diet, not a solution for a poor diet. For optimal health, it is best to seek all or most of your protein from whole foods and only supplement with protein powder as needed.
How to Choose the Best Protein Powder for You
- Pick the source you digest best. While whey protein powder is the most well-research and has been shown to be the most effective in many cases, the best source of protein powder is the source that you digest the best. Whey, casein, egg, beef, soy, and plant-based protein powders can all be good options, as long as they are easily digested, and you feel good consuming them.
- Pick one with a complete amino acid profile. If choosing a plant-based protein powder, it is best to opt for one that is a complete protein made from a mixture of plant protein sources to ensure you are consuming the optimal ratio of all essential amino acids.
- Look for minimal ingredients. Learn how to read food labels and opt for protein powders with minimal ingredients, such as protein source, flavoring, and sweetener, without unnecessary fillers and additives.
- Look for minimal added sugar. Read the nutrition facts label and opt for a protein powder with little to no added sugar. There are many protein powder brands on the market that contain less than 1 gram of sugar per serving.
- Look for 20+ grams of protein per serving. A high-quality protein powder will generally contain 22-26 or more grams of protein per serving and provide 90 to 120 calories per serving.
- Look for third-party testing. Unfortunately, protein powders are not regulated by the FDA, therefore, it is beneficial to opt for protein powders that have been third-party tested to ensure that it contains all the ingredients in the amounts listed on the label.
- Opt for a sport-certified protein powder, if needed. Athletes who undergo drug testing are required to consume protein powders that have been tested and do not contain any banned substances. Protein powders that have been tested for use in sports will be labeled with NSF Certified for Sport or Informed-Sport logos on the label. Even if you are not a competitive athlete, opting for sport-certified protein powders will help to ensure you are consuming a high-quality product that is third-party tested.
Protein Powder FAQs
There is no known safety limit for protein powder. With that said, it’s important to keep in mind that protein powder is a supplement and should be used as a supplement to a healthy diet. It is recommended to consume most of your protein intake from whole food and use protein powder only as needed.
The best time to consume protein powder depends on the individual and their goals. To supplement protein intake for general health or to reach optimal protein intake, protein powder can effectively be consumed at any time during the day. When using protein to support muscle growth, some research has shown that consuming protein post-workout can help to improve recovery. Generally speaking, if you are consuming adequate protein and reaching your daily protein target, you can consume protein powder at any time during the day, be it in your morning smoothie, post-workout shake, or as part of a late-night snack.
All types of protein powder, whey, casein, egg, beef, or plant-based, can support a goal of weight loss if the individual is in a calorie deficit.
The most critical dietary factor for muscle gain is the consumption of adequate protein, ideally 1.6 to 2.2 g/kg (0.7 to 1.0 g/lb) of dietary protein per day. If consuming adequate protein, in conjunction with adequate calorie and resistance training, an individual can gain muscle by consuming any type of protein powder.
Women can consume whey, casein, egg, beef, soy, and plant protein powders safely. The best protein powder for a woman is the type they digest the best.
The best protein powder for diabetics is one that is low in sugar content. Diabetics can consume dairy, animal, or plant-based protein powders as long as the sugar content is low. It is recommended that diabetics work with a doctor or registered dietician before consuming protein powder.
The best vegan protein powder is a mixed plant protein powder. Not all plant proteins are complete proteins, therefore, it is best to opt for protein powder with a mixture of plant proteins to ensure you are consuming the most optimal ratio of all essential amino acids.
The Bottom Line
Protein powder is a supplement that can help to support optimal protein intake in a convenient and relatively inexpensive way. Protein powders can be found in whey casein, egg, beef, and plant-based forms. To choose the best protein powder for you, opt for a source that you digest well, read the label and choose a protein powder with minimal added sugars and additives, and opt for a brand that is third-party tested whenever possible.