Protein is the “it” macronutrient right now. Wherever you look, you’ll find pills and powders proclaiming a high protein content and promising strength gains. But with no regulation for supplements and a wide variety of protein types out there, it can be overwhelming to figure out what will work best for you, your lifestyle, and your goals.
In the guide below, we break down the way proteins are classified, the different types of proteins available, and how to pick the best one for your needs. Let’s get jacked!
There are two key classifications that you’ll find on protein supplement labels. If you’ve ever been confused by a container of protein powder, read on for some clarification.
Protein Concentrate and Protein Isolate
The terms protein concentrate and protein isolate refer to how much of the product is made up of protein. All protein powders start out as one thing (milk, peas, soy, etc.) and are stripped of most of their carbohydrates and fats to create a supplement that’s mostly protein. Products labeled protein concentrate are 70 to 85 percent pure protein, with the remaining 15 to 30 percent being carbohydrates and fats. Protein isolate uses additional processing to further refine and “isolate” the protein, creating a product that is up to 95 percent protein.
Complete and Incomplete Proteins
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you’ll also want to look for complete proteins. Complete proteins, like meat, soy, or eggs, contain all nine essential amino acids, which are necessary to build muscle, while incomplete proteins, like black beans, do not. Incomplete proteins are often paired with other ingredients to create complete proteins. You’ll often find vegan protein powders that list multiple types of vegetable or seed-based protein, which come together to create a complete protein.
Which Protein Supplement Is Right For Me?
When considering which protein supplement is right for you, you’ll want to consider your current eating habits, lifestyle, goals, and any food allergies or intolerances. Below, we’ve broken down the most popular protein supplement types on shelves today and how to decide if they’ll work for you.
As with anything, there are good products and there are bad products. Make sure to read your nutrition labels and ditch products with more than 3 grams of fat or 10 grams of carbohydrate per serving, or powders that have tons of artificial ingredients.
The most popular type of protein supplement is whey. Whey protein is derived from milk and is a result of the process of turning milk into cheese. Whey protein is easily accessible, affordable, and has been shown in studies to promote lean muscle growth, especially when consumed after a workout. Because it’s derived from dairy, whey protein isn’t suitable for vegans and, while there isn’t a lot of lactose in whey protein, it can cause gastrointestinal distress in those with severe forms of lactose intolerance.
Is Whey Protein Right for You? Yes, if you eat dairy, don’t suffer from lactose-related stomach problems, and need something affordable and accessible. Whey protein isn’t best for vegans and those with lactose-sensitive stomachs.
Casein is another dairy-based protein, but it’s derived directly from liquid milk, unlike whey, which is a byproduct of the milk-to-cheese process. Slow absorption is what makes casein different than whey protein. Casein protein digests slowly over 4-6 hours, making it an ideal option for a pre-bed snack or a meal replacement shake. Due to its slow absorption time, it isn’t recommended for post-workout. Casein protein also tends to be more expensive than whey protein, making it best as a once-in-a-while option.
Is Casein Protein Right for You? If you’re looking for a meal replacement or overnight snack and have some expendable income, casein can be a good option. If you’re prioritizing your spending or need quick-acting protein for post workout replenishing, skip it.
Quick Facts: Whey-Casein Blends
Blended proteins take whey protein and casein protein and blend it together. This can be a great option for those looking for quick-absorbing protein and longer lasting amino acid release. This type of protein has been shown to work well for breakfast — the whey delivers quick amino acids to muscles, while the casein provides slow-releasing protein for the rest of the day.
Egg protein is made by separating the yolks and the whites of eggs and dehydrating the egg whites. While egg protein is a great source of protein and minerals, it’s also one of the most expensive proteins available.
Is Egg Protein Right for Me? If you have expendable income and don’t have any egg allergies, give egg protein a try.
As one of the only plant-based proteins with all nine essential amino acids, soy is a common protein used for vegans and vegetarians. To make soy protein, soy beans are dried out and ground into a flour and then undergo a process to isolate the protein. Soy, however, is also nearly always genetically modified and can also impact hormone levels. With the levels of soy in most foods, it’s easy to overdo it.
Is Soy Protein Right for You? Yes, if you’re a vegetarian or vegan looking for a complete protein, but do your homework to ensure it’s non-GMO. If you have underlying hormonal issues (estrogen issues in particular), talk to a doctor before increasing your soy intake.
Plant-Based Protein Powders (Pea Protein, Hemp Protein, Rice Protein, Pumpkin Seed Protein, etc.)
Most seeds and grains contain protein. Protein powders made from ingredients like pumpkin seeds, peas, hemp, and rice undergo an isolation process similar to whey, isolating the protein within each of them. Many of these plant-based proteins are not complete proteins on their own, so they’re often combined with other plant proteins to make them complete. Even the few that are technically complete (like pea and hemp protein) are still somewhat low on a few amino acids and shouldn’t be the sole source of protein intake.
Is Plant-Based Protein Right for You? Yes, if you are vegan or vegetarian and want to bolster your protein intake. Be sure to vary your protein sources and read labels to ensure protein is free of additives.
Mass or weight gainers are exactly what they sound like — a product designed for those who want to gain weight. Typically theyare very high in carbohydrates (think 200+ grams) and utilize whey protein to deliver over 50 grams of protein per scoop. This mix of nutrients means one serving usually clocks in at around 1200 calories, so these are best for those who have a really tough time gaining weight.
Is a Mass Gainer Right for You? Yes, if you’re looking to put on weight and muscle and are having difficulty getting all your calories from food. If you’re looking to lose weight or lean out, a mass gainer is likely not the best choice.
Once you’ve identified the protein source that aligns best with your lifestyle and goals, be discerning as you choose a product. Be a vigilant label-reader and do some digging before committing to a specific product. Look at the macronutrient breakdown (no more than 3 grams of fat and 10 grams of carbohydrate per serving and at least 15 grams of protein) and the ingredients to screen for additives, thickeners, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners.
Also remember that the amount of protein you’ll need depends on many factors – age, activity level, gender – and whether or not you need a protein supplement at all is something you’ll need to experiment with. Protein supplements are meant to supplement your life, so still aim to get most of your protein from whole foods and use protein supplements as needed.