Protein powders are concentrated sources of protein from animal or plant foods, such as dairy, eggs, rice or peas. Protein powders are very popular among health-conscious people. There are numerous types of protein powder made from a wide variety of sources. As there are so many options, it can be difficult to determine which will provide optimal results.
There are three common forms: Protein concentrates: Produced by extracting protein from whole food using heat and acid or enzymes. These typically supply 60–80% protein, with the remaining 20–40% composed of fat and carbs. Protein isolates: An additional filtering process removes more fat and carbs, further concentrating the protein. Protein isolate powders contain about 90–95% protein. Protein hydrolysates: Produced by further heating with acid or enzymes — which breaks the bonds between amino acids — hydrolysates are absorbed more quickly by your body and muscles.
1. Whey Protein
Whey protein comes from milk. It is the liquid that separates from the curds during the cheesemaking process. It’s high in protein but also harbors lactose, a milk sugar that many people have difficulty digesting. While whey protein concentrate retains some lactose, the isolate version contains very little because most of this milk sugar is lost during processing. Whey digests quickly and is rich in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). Leucine, one of these BCAAs, plays a major role in promoting muscle growth and recovery after resistance and endurance exercise.
2. Casein Protein
Like whey, casein is a protein found in milk. However, casein is digested and absorbed much more slowly. Casein forms a gel when it interacts with stomach acid, slowing down stomach emptying and delaying your bloodstream’s absorption of amino acids. This results in a gradual, steadier exposure of your muscles to amino acids, reducing the rate of muscle protein breakdown. Research indicates that casein is more effective at increasing MPS and strength than soy and wheat protein — but less than whey protein.
3. Egg Protein
Eggs are an excellent source of high-quality protein. Of all whole foods, eggs have the highest protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS). This score is a measure of a protein’s quality and digestibility. Eggs are also one of the best foods for decreasing appetite and helping you stay full for longer. However, egg protein powders are typically made from egg whites rather than whole eggs. Although the protein quality remains excellent, you may experience less fullness because the high-fat yolks have been removed. Like all animal products, eggs are a complete protein source. That means they provide all nine essential amino acids that your body can’t make itself.
4. Pea Protein
Pea protein powder is especially popular among vegetarians, vegans and people with allergies or sensitivities to dairy or eggs. It’s made from the yellow split pea, a high-fiber legume that boasts all but one of the essential amino acids. Pea protein is also particularly rich in BCAAs. A rat study noted that pea protein is absorbed slower than whey protein but faster than casein. Its ability to trigger the release of several fullness hormones may be comparable to that of dairy protein. In a 12-week study in 161 men doing resistance training, those who took 1.8 ounces (50 grams) of pea protein daily experienced similar increases in muscle thickness as those who consumed the same amount of whey protein daily.
5. Hemp Protein
Hemp protein powder is another plant-based supplement that is gaining popularity. Although hemp is related to marijuana, it only contains trace amounts of the psychoactive component THC. Hemp is rich in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and several essential amino acids. However, it is not considered a complete protein because it has very low levels of the amino acids lysine and leucine.