Start shopping for protein supplements and you’ll quickly find there seem to be infinite types of protein powder. Understanding which is best is not so easy. We break down protein powder nutrition facts to help you get some clarity.
People turn to protein powder for many reasons. Some live busy lives and find it easier to drink a meal replacement shake than to cook a meal from scratch. Others are supplementing to meet their minimum daily protein needs or to maximize their protein intake for greater, faster muscle growth.
The truth is, most people could use more protein than they get through meals alone, especially if they’re working out. To build muscle, a healthy male needs at least 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Eat a typical diet, and that protein is delivered alongside plenty of carbohydrates and fats. Get your protein from vegetables and it comes packaged in even more carbs. So, if you want to meet your protein goals without overeating, you supplement.
Protein powder is the most common protein supplement out there. The different types of protein powders seem endless. In this guide, we’ll offer clarity regarding protein sources and methods of isolation, and how protein powder nutrition facts differ among each type.
Types of Protein Powder
The first thing you’ll notice about different types of protein powder is that they vary based on the source of protein. Animal-based protein powders isolate protein from animal sources. These include whey, casein, egg, and sometimes amino acid proteins. Plant-based protein powders typically include soy, rice, hemp or pea proteins.
The other variable in protein powders is how the protein is isolated. The most common methods of protein isolation include the following:
- Concentrates isolate protein from food using acid, enzymes or heat.
- Isolates use similar methods, but extract more fat and carbs for a greater percentage of protein.
- Hydrolysates break the bonds between amino acids to make proteins more digestible and more quickly absorbed by muscle.
- Fermentation is a newer means of isolating protein for consumption in a powder, and it may be the best one yet.
Combine the variables of protein source plus the method of isolation and it seems like there are endless types of protein powder. For example, pick up a tub of whey protein powder and you’ll also see it may be whey concentrate, whey isolate, or whey hydrolysate.
So, let’s break down what that all means when it comes to what makes each type of protein powder different, and which protein powder is best.
Whey protein is perhaps the most common type of protein powder. It’s a milk-based protein, so if you’re lactose intolerant, use it with caution. Whey protein, however, has long been the go-to for bodybuilders and others who supplement to speed recovery or build muscle. One study comparing whey hydrolysate to soy and casein found it had a much greater effect (up to 122% greater) on muscle growth.1
Whey concentrate tends to have the least amount of protein per scoop, whereas whey isolate must be at least 90% protein, hence it’s generally more expensive. When shopping for any protein powder, reading the nutrition label is a must as added flavors and sweeteners can contribute carbohydrates and calories that you just don’t need, reducing the percent protein per scoop.
Casein protein is also derived from milk. It is more slowly digested than whey, which is why most people take it before bed for a release of amino acids overnight. While some studies deem it effective at muscle building, comparison studies tend to rate whey as more efficient.2
Casein protein commonly comes in one of two forms. Micellar casein is most popular, while casein hydrolysate is ‘predigested’ and more readily absorbed.
Like every other animal-based protein, eggs are a complete protein source, meaning they provide all the essential amino acids your body needs, not only to build muscle but to function. Yet while eggs themselves have a naturally balanced protein-to-fat profile, most egg-based protein powders are made from the whites only.
Egg protein is not as popular as whey or casein, nor has it been studied widely. It’s a good choice for those who want a complete, animal-based protein, but prefer their protein not to come from a dairy product.
Soy Protein Powder
Plant based protein powders are often incomplete, meaning they don’t provide all eight essential amino acids (EAAs) in sufficient amounts. Soy offers up all the EAAs, but they aren’t used by the body as effectively as animal based EAAs are.3Commonly sold as soy protein isolate, this protein powder is primarily used for meal replacement shakes, sports drinks and energy bars.
Soy offers nutrients such as iron, calcium and potassium, but has also been criticized for the presence of antinutrients such as tannins, phytates and oxalates.4 Soy protein powder is one of the most highly processed forms of soy, so purchasing an organic, high quality brand is recommended.
(Brown) Rice Protein
Rice protein does contain all EAAs, but at quantities which disqualify it from being labeled as a complete protein source. It’s especially low in lysine, which is necessary for tissue repair and growth.
Some say rice protein is naturally sweeter than other proteins, which may be why it’s commonly found in flavored shake mixes. Primarily, people opt for rice protein powder or other plant-based proteins because they’re vegan friendly.
Like rice, hemp has all the EAAs, but is considered an incomplete protein source. It is very low in both lysine and leucine. It also has less protein per weight than rice or soy-based powders. On the plus side, hemp is rich in essential omega-3 fatty acids.
Hemp based protein powder has a naturally nutty taste. The vegan protein is increasingly growing in popularity and no, it won’t make you fail a drug test.
Pea protein powder is most commonly made from the yellow split pea. Like the other plant-based proteins on our list, it contains all the EAAs, but is very low in one – methionine.
Pea protein is slowly absorbed, but not as slowly as casein. Popular in meal replacement shake, a study in rats found it induces satiety just as much as dairy-based proteins.5
Because most plant based proteins are incomplete, they are often mixed together so all EAAs are well represented. For example, soy protein is often mixed with pea, rice or hemp protein powder in an attempt to improve the amino acid profile.
Some people may also mix their whey or casein protein with a plant based protein for added flavor. Nutritionally, there’s little benefit to doing so.
If consuming a complete EAA profile in the exact ratio your body needs for muscle synthesis is important to you, you can opt for an EAA protein powder. EAA protein powders have been proven far more effective than BCAA powders, which contain just 3 of the 8 essential amino acids needed for muscle synthesis.
EAA supplements are an effective means of meeting minimum protein requirements without the added calories.6 The best EAA protein powders, such as Fortagen, provide the amino acids your body needs in the exact ratio the body uses, in an easily digestible powder.
Protein Powder FAQs
How long does protein powder last?
Because protein powder is a supplement, there’s no requirement to put an expiration date on it. But protein powder doesn’t last forever. Whey protein powder has a shelf life of up to 19 months if it’s stored in a cool, dry place. 7 Older protein powder might not harm you, but it may not have the same high protein content as it did when it was fresh.
Can protein powder go bad?
Yes. Animal based protein powder can go bad after about 2 years, or sooner if it’s been exposed to heat. It will smell bad, much like milk that has gone sour. The powder itself might also clump together, change color, or just taste awful.
How many scoops of protein powder?
Follow the instructions on the label when it comes to measuring out scoops of protein powder. More is not necessarily better. Side effects of taking too much can include bloating, gas or upset stomach. There’s little risk of ingesting too much protein.
Can you buy protein powder with EBT?
Whether or not you can use Electronic Benefit Transfer (SNAP or food stamps) to buy protein powder depends on how the brand is labeled. If the protein powder is labeled as a supplement, it’s a no. If it’s labeled as food or meal replacement, then yes you can. You’ll know the difference because food items have a nutrition label, whereas supplements have a supplement label or no label at all.
Can you bring protein powder on a plane?
Protein powder is great for traveling, as it can be hard to meet your protein needs when on the road or in a new place. If you want to skip carrying a large tub, pack your protein in a ziplock bag. According to the TSA website in the US, protein powder must be placed in a separate bin for screening if you’re carrying more than 12 ounces.
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