What to Consider When Choosing a Protein Powder (Plus Our 5 Top Picks!)

Consider your goals and dietary preferences when picking out a protein powder.
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While it's best to try and get your protein from food (rather than from supplements and powders), sometimes we fall short in our diets due to hectic, on-the-go schedules or intense training sessions. In those cases, protein powder can help to boost your protein consumption to the correct level.

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If you're searching for a high-quality protein powder and struggling to decipher the difference between the overwhelming number of options on the market, it's a good idea to do research and read the labels.

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Some higher-quality protein powders deliver all the nutrients you need and help your muscles to recover from exercise or simply help you boost your daily protein intake, while others lack quality, purity and even taste.

Read on to learn what to look for when purchasing a protein powder, and to see some suggestions of high quality protein powders.

Protein Powders We Love

Whey Protein

Whey is the watery liquid extracted from milk as a result of cheese manufacturing. (Remember curds and whey?) According to Sports Nutrition: A Practice Manual for Professionals, whey is a high quality protein based on its protein digestibility corrected amino acid score.

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In other words, whey contains very high concentrations of essential amino acids, which are indispensable when it comes to stimulating muscle protein synthesis. Whey is also rapidly digested but because the uptake of whey is so quick, it shouldn't be your only protein source.

Whey Protein Concentrate vs. Isolate vs. Hydrolysates

Whey protein is available in the following forms:

  • Whey protein concentrate:​ approximately 80 percent of calories come from protein, although the amount of protein can vary from 25 to 89 percent
  • Whey protein isolate:​ greater than 90 percent of the calories come from protein
  • Whey protein hydrolysates:​ greater than 90 percent of the calories come from protein

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Whey protein isolate has a higher protein content and lower lactose content compared to whey protein concentrate. And protein concentrates are generally less "pure" than isolates, in that they have more carbohydrates and non-protein components than isolates do.

This doesn't mean concentrates are of lesser quality or value. In some instances, athletes need carbs in addition to protein to help with recovering from a hard workout.

Hydrolyzed Protein

Hydrolyzed protein (or protein hydrolysate) is a protein that has been subjected to the process of hydrolysis and thus broken down into small chains known as peptides and individual amino acids. Typically, more than 90 percent of the calories come from protein.

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This type of protein is considered to be easily absorbed and also denatured (i.e., the protein's natural structure is altered). Because it is denatured, it may be considered hypoallergenic or else reduces the risk of allergic reactions. Hydrolyzed whey protein can often be found in infant formulas, sports nutrition products and medical nutrition products.

Bottom line: While hydrolyzed protein is rapidly digested, so is intact whey protein and unless you have a medical need (such as a compromised digestive tract), there's little need for a hydrolyzed-only protein and it may not be worth the additional cost.

Casein Protein

Like whey, casein comes from milk, but is found in the semisolid form commonly referred to as curds. But unlike whey, casein is slowly digested and raises plasma amino acid levels in a more gradual and sustained way versus whey protein.

It's better at stimulating longer-term protein synthesis and reducing muscle protein breakdown. Like whey, casein offers many nutritional advantages. And it's often found in protein supplements that use blends of protein rather than found on its own.

Egg White Protein

Just as egg whites reign as one of the top foods for leaning out and building muscle, egg white protein powders are a high quality powder supplement source and a great option for anyone avoiding dairy, soy or gluten.

The taste may be more difficult to swallow compared to other protein sources but flavored powders or mixing with fruits or vegetables in a smoothie typically masks the egg taste.

Vegan Protein Sources: Soy, Pea, Rice and Flax

One of the few vegetable-based sources of complete protein (that is, containing all essential amino acids), soy protein is not digested quickly or slowly; it's right in the middle. It's also lactose and gluten-free for those with intolerances or sensitivities. If you're concerned about GMOs, opt for an organic or non-GMO soy protein powder option.

Pea protein is another good source of the amino acid arginine and consumers can often find pea protein, rice protein and hemp protein in vegetarian or vegan protein supplements. Look for a blend of these or others including flaxseeds, quinoa, millet and lentils, which will provide a more complete profile of vitamins, fats and proteins as well as a boost of fiber.

Bottom line: Soy is a complete protein that is easy to digest. Other plant sources from grains, beans and seeds also make a great choice for vegetarian and vegan athletes looking to boost their protein intake.

How to Choose the Protein Powder That’s Best for You

Still confused as to which one is best for you? Abbott Nutrition senior research scientist and dietitian Steve Hertzler, PhD, notes that in his experience, people spend way too much time worrying about hydrolysates versus intact protein, casein versus whey, concentrates versus isolates and peptides versus intact protein.

For people with a healthy intestine (which includes the vast majority of protein supplement users), these issues are of minor importance. Rather than focusing on the exact type of protein, Hertzler says, consumers should instead focus on eating 15 to 45 grams of high quality protein every three or four hours and selecting one that fits your lifestyle diet and exercise activity.

Hertzler notes that there simply is not enough science to say that a particular athlete in one sport should consume one kind of protein, while another athlete in a different sport should consume another.

Don't grab the protein powder that simply provides the most grams of protein for your buck, as the quality of protein powders varies greatly. Start with the ingredients first — if it's a long laundry list you can you probably do better to choose another. There are more products popping up in the market these days with less fillers and additives.

Another tip that Hertzler offers: Look for a protein that is tested for purity and quality (so you'll know that you're getting what you expect based on the label and ingredients and that there are no additives or other surprises). Consumers can look for a product that is checked for banned substances and has label claims verified via a National Science Foundation type of certification.

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