I have gotten a few questions about how to choose a protein powder, and which one is the “best one.” It can be extremely confusing with all of the different brands, flavors, types, and they all make grand claims like “Gain Muscle!” “Fat Burner!” “Increased Performance!” So in this article I will take you through some of the basics of protein powders to help you choose the right one for you.
Concentrate vs. Isolate vs. Hydrolysate
When looking at the ingredients list on many protein powders, you will often see a combination of concentrate and isolate or even some marketed as a pure isolate (always make sure to check the ingredients list!). These terms can be confusing but they are simply used to classify types of protein that are used in these supplements.
Concentrate: This classification usually contains about 70-80% protein, depending on the degree of removal of non-protein parts such as fat and lactose.
Isolate: This just means that more of the non-protein parts have been removed and is usually up to 90% protein on a gram per gram basis. If it states it has been micro filtered, this is just a type of processing it has been through. Micro filtered generally means a higher quality with very little fat and lactose.
Hydrolysate: These are also referred to as hydrolyzed protein and simply means it contains proteins that have already been partially digested or broken down.
Common Types of Protein
Whey: This is definitely the most popular. Whey is great for promoting muscle growth and it is digested and absorbed faster than other proteins making it ideal for pre and post workout.
Casein: This is a very slow digesting protein and can take more than six hours to digest fully. Because of this, it is great for continuing amino acid delivery to the muscle making it perfect to have between meals or right before bed. However, it does have lower muscle building effect compared to whey.
Milk (sometimes found in protein blends or in premade protein drinks): This is great for post workout, as it contains all of the essential amino acids in a natural ratio compared to casein and whey, which help stimulate muscle growth.
Egg (e.g. powdered egg protein/whites): This is great too as it contains all the essential amino acids and is the perfect alternative for those who have milk allergies. Even if you do not have a milk allergy, egg protein is often more easily digested so you are less likely to feel bloated.
Pea: The perfect option for anyone who is vegetarian, vegan, or is allergic to eggs and milk (bummer). This is the best plant based option as it is the most easily digested plant protein and is higher in branch chain amino acids (BCAAs).
With all that it should make a bit more sense when looking at all the different types of powders out there. However, lots of popular powders will use a blend. It is usually a combination of whey concentrate, whey isolate, milk, and casein. Blends can be great as you often gain the benefits of different types within one powder.
If you are sensitive to milk products but still willing to try whey, casein, or milk protein, make sure you check the ingredients for lactase or some other type of digestive enzyme. Often it will say “digestive enzyme complex” somewhere on the tub. Lactase is an enzyme that helps to break down milk products, leaving you feeling less bloated.
Last but often most important is flavor! As someone who has tried many brands and everything from a cheap blend to expensive micro filtered isolates, flavor is very important. You have to like what you are drinking otherwise you won’t use it and that tub of protein will have been a waste of money. Just because something is high quality does not mean it’s going to taste better. Now of course that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try high quality proteins! The message here is you have to find what works for you, something that makes your stomach happy and something that you can drink regularly and enjoy.
My current favorite flavor is Optimum Nutrition’s Protein Energy in Cinnamon Bun. Its probably the best tasting protein I’ve every had and the Protein Energy series has caffeine in it so bonus!