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I don’t know a single person who hasn’t got a tub of protein powder somewhere in their cupboard. The supplements industry is flooded with companies claiming their products are superior and will give you the body of a god. But which protein powder is superior, and which protein powder should you be using?
Firstly, do we actually need protein powders?
This is an argument which I don’t think will ever go away. On one side we have the Paul Chek’s of the world who believe we should only be consuming natural, pure, organically grown and un-modified produce. On the other end of the spectrum we have the Charles Poliquin’s of the world who believes in a healthy balance of real food but uses supplements to maximise his results. Both take a very different approach to training, but both get exceptional results. Let’s go on the assumption you want to use protein powders, you will need to know which one is right for you.
Protein powders are more convenient than high-protein foods like meats, fish, eggs and dairy. It isn’t always easy to consume a high protein meal but knocking up a shake only takes seconds. Protein powders also work out far less expensive than foods containing the same levels of protein. Another really useful benefit of having protein powder around is the ability to add it to recipes to boost its protein content. Even adding it into your morning cereal bumps up the protein content by around 30g. But the reason most people use protein powders is as a post workout knowing the absorption rate is far quicker than throwing back a piece of meat.
Types of Protein Powder
There are 2 main types of protein powder. We have the more common animal sources such as milk proteins like whey and casein, and we then have slightly newer beef and egg proteins. The other types of proteins often found are vegetable source proteins which include soy, rice, pea, hemp and sprouted grain proteins.
Nutritionally speaking, animal proteins are superior to vegetable proteins, as well as taste better which makes them more popular. The most popular animal protein is whey protein and the most popular vegetable protein is pea, but rice and soy are also very well used. Most people using vegetable protein powders do so as part of a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.
Whey protein comes in two varieties, whey concentrates and whey isolate.
Whey Concentrate is the most economical per gram and has a low lactose level that is well tolerated by most lactose-sensitive people. This protein goes through a filtering process but not an in depth one, giving us an end product of around 70-80% per 1g. It does still contain a degree of fat so not the most superior if being used for a post workout.
Whey Isolate is virtually fat-free for those wishing to eliminate as much fat from their diet as possible. This makes it great as a post workout as fat slows down absorption rates. This protein has gone through an in-depth filtering process which gives the end product 90-96% protein per gram. It is also typically lactose free making it lower fat and lower lactose than Whey Concentrate. Having less fat makes whey isolate a thinner constancy than concentrate but does usually taste better.
Whey protein is derived from milk. The protein portion of whole milk consists of 20% whey protein and 80% casein protein. Whey is by far the most popular type of protein used in protein powders. For most people, it’s the best all-around choice in terms of taste (it’s one of the best-tasting), quality (it’s the highest) and cost (it’s the most economical). Another unique benefit of whey protein, and one that is often overlooked, is that it enhances the immune system in several ways.
Whey Hydrolysate is very similar to isolate, but the difference is it has been partially digested to make absorption quicker. This comes with a slightly higher price point but if you can afford it it’s worth the extra pennies.
Whey products are generally a mixture of the types of whey as they all vary drastically in cost. Just because a label says its Whey Isolate does not mean all of it is isolates. Always read the labels to get an understanding of exactly what’s inside.
Casein or Whey Protein
Like whey protein, casein protein is another milk protein derivative. The key difference between whey and casein is the absorption rates. Whey Protein is absorbed in the digestive system quickly, whereas Casein is absorbed slowly and can take 6-8 hours making it a better choice before bedtime. But don’t be fooled into thinking protein before bed is the only thing needed to spare muscle tissue. Taste wise they are both similar and both are tasteless when unflavoured or sweetened.
Egg white protein was the most popular type of protein supplement for many years before milk proteins surpassed its popularity due to their better taste and lower cost. We all remember the Rocky film when Stallone necked a cup of raw eggs! Luckily the industry has evolved since then.
Like milk proteins, egg white is also naturally very low in fat and carbs. Egg white protein is cholesterol-free and an excellent choice for those who wish to avoid dairy products.
Among the vegetable source proteins, soy protein, rice protein and pea protein are by far the most popular. Soy and hemp protein are unique among vegetable protein sources in that they supply all 9 essential amino acids (in adults). They are derived from a variety of sources, including peas, hemp, sprouts, and grains and seeds like brown rice, quinoa, millet, spirulina, chia and more. They’re rich in vitamins and minerals, and often provide antioxidants, amino acids, fibre and more. Plant proteins are typically suitable for vegetarian or vegan diets and are also well tolerated by lactose-sensitive individuals.
Soy has extra benefits as the isoflavones in it provide antioxidant benefits, heart health benefits and is often used by women transitioning through menopause. Although Soy has all these great benefits it doesn’t taste great. Even when flavoured or sweetened it can still be hard to swallow.
Beef protein has become extremely popular for those looking for a non-dairy, non-plant protein. Body builders have been consuming beef for years as it contains higher levels of creatine as well as the B vitamins. The beef protein does not taste meaty as it’s only the protein used not the actual flesh. Beef protein can be a little harder to digest if you have a sensitive stomach but in general people get along well with it.
Types of Flavours and Sweeteners Used
Manufacturers have hundreds of options to choose from when flavouring and sweetening their protein powder products. Your flavouring choices fall into 3 categories:
1. No flavours or sweeteners
2. Artificial or a combination of artificial and natural
3. Only natural flavours and sweeteners.
All of the artificial flavours and sweeteners in protein powders have been approved for use in food products by all the relevant regulatory agencies. Artificial flavours and sweeteners have many advantages over their natural alternatives. They give the formulators more options, flexibility and control over the taste of the product. They cost less, smaller quantities are needed, and they have greater stability once inside the final product.
While most people use protein powders containing a combination of natural and artificial flavours and sweeteners, some still prefer naturally flavoured and sweetened products as they feel the artificial affect their insulin spike.
There aren’t huge differences in protein powders when comparing similar products with similar ingredients. It is easy to compare prices on protein powders that just contain one type of protein. The difficulty arises when comparing products that are blends of protein types. Some proteins are more expensive than others and without knowing the proportions of each type in the mixture, a comparison is hard to make. Some companies add other nutrients like amino acids or digestive enzymes to their protein, making price comparisons even harder.
The main issue arises when manufacturers describe their unique mixture of protein types as a proprietary blend. The ingredient list will show the types of protein proportionately, from most to least, but won’t provide the exact amount of each type. Manufacturers also use propriety blends to hide added sugars.
If you are trying a protein for the first time, buy the smallest size possible. Normally taster packets can bur purchased containing single servings. You can generally get these free if you ask. Once you’ve found a product you like buy the largest tub they have as this will work out cheaper value for money. A 1kg tub of protein may seem like a lot but will typically contain only 30 servings or so. If you use the product every day, that’s a month. Shop around but remember you generally get what you pay for.
Carbs in Protein Powders
I am not getting into whether we require carbs after we train as this is case specific and no single person is the same. What I will say is this -carbohydrates are cheap. Do not waste your money on a protein powder which contains a tone of carbs. If you would like carbs in your post workout shake eat some fruit or throw them in your shake. Many companies sell powdered carbs such as waxy maize starch, maltodextrin, dextrose, and many more. Find out which carb is best for you and put a few scoops in your shake.
As with most things in life, you get what you pay for. Saying this, it’s also advisable to read the labels fully before buying anything and in my opinion avoid a protein powder containing propriety blends. Its protein which you are buying so its protein which should make up 90% or more of the ingredients. If you find a protein powder which seems to be amazing but is far cheaper than like for like brands be careful.