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The Top 4 Different Types of Protein Powder Explained

If you were to walk into a health food/supplement store right now, you will likely be faced with a barrage of fitness supplements, including protein powders. The colorful tubs can be quite overwhelming- even if you’re an advanced bodybuilder that has been lifting for a long time.

However, before you make an impulse purchase or you fall victim to the sales pitch of the associate in the store, you need to have an understanding of the different types of protein powder. It’s important to note that not all protein is created equal. By knowing and understanding the difference, you can make an educated decision and maybe even reach your fitness goals quicker.

In this article, we’ll break down the various types of protein powder so you can understand them better. Then, we’ll explain who needs protein powder and things you need to consider before making a purchase. Taking the time to learn this before you visit the health food store, you will be able to choose just what you need without the influence of anyone else.

What is Protein Powder?

Protein powder is exactly what it sounds like- a powdered version of protein. We know that protein is a vital macronutrient that is required for a variety of physiological functions and is found in hair, muscle, skin, bone, and basically every other tissue in the human body. It is made up of amino acids, which are necessary for regulation and repairing on their own.

Whether you like it or not, you need protein in your diet- not only to provide support to the structures mentioned above, but also to facilitate the growth of muscle. If you don’t consume protein, all of the work you do at the gym would be in vain. Ideally, you should be getting the protein you need through your diet- but in case you’re not, a protein powder can help you conveniently and quickly hit your recommended daily intake of protein.

4 Main Types of Protein Powder

When it comes to protein powder, there are plenty of different options, but most are sourced from foods we are familiar with, including dairy, plant, and eggs. That being said, it’s important to note that not all protein powder is created equal. Some come from high-quality sources, while others have strict production standards. The best way to choose the right option for you is to be an informed consumer.

That is why we are going to explain 4 main types of protein powder below: whey, casein, plant-based, and egg proteins.

Whey Protein

Whey protein is the most common type of protein you will encounter. It is a dairy protein sourced from cow’s milk. According to the experts, due to the amino acid content and the fact that it is absorbed so easily, whey is considered the highest quality protein type on the market. You will sometimes find it added to food products, but most commonly it is seen as a powder.

Whey is also considered a “complete” protein because it contains all 9 of the essential amino acids that your body needs to function properly. Additionally, it has high levels of leucine, which is why it’s so effective for building muscle.

Furthermore, whey also has a high PDCAAS score, which is a scale measuring the digestibility and utilization of a protein source. There are three types of whey protein:

  • Whey concentrate
  • Whey isolate
  • Whey hydrolysate

We will explore each one of these below:

Whey Concentrate

Whey concentrate is one of the three types of whey protein. It is typically considered the lowest quality because of the limited refinement process. A whey concentrate contains up to 80% pure protein by weight. However, you may encounter products that contain even less than that. The rest of the nutritional composition of whey concentrate is fat and carbs.

This means that whey concentrate is higher in calories than others, which can be bad if you are seeking a supplement that doesn’t affect your nutritional plan. That being said, there is typically not enough additional calories that it has too much of an effect.

Whey Isolate

The second type of whey protein we’ll look at is whey isolate. In order for a whey protein product to be an isolate, it must contain at least 90% protein by weight. Whey isolate undergoes an extensive refinement process, which increases the purity, making it the go-to for most athletes. Additionally, whey protein isolates are typically lower in calories than most other options.

Due to the lower carb count, it’s also lower in lactose, which is a great thing if you have dietary restrictions. The primary drawback to whey protein isolate is the fact that the extensive processing means that it’s a bit more expensive than most of the other options on the market.

Whey Hydrolysate

The third type of whey protein we’ll explore is whey hydrolysate. This form of whey protein has been treated with heat and/or enzymes/acids to break up the peptide bonds. This is the reason it is often referred to as a “predigested” form of whey protein. This allows your body to digest and absorb it quickly, and it’s usually well-tolerated by most athletes.

According to research, whey protein hydrolysate is just as effective as regular whey protein, and in some cases, it’s better at stimulating muscle protein synthesis in animal testing. Most of the time, whey protein hydrolysate is the most expensive option on the market and is a bit harder to find.

Casein

Casein is another dairy-based protein. It is found in cow’s milk and is the part that is used for making cheese. For a long time, bodybuilders have used it before going to bed due to the fact that it digests slowly. The acidic environment of the stomach causes casein protein to turn into a gel, which significantly slows down the digestive process.

The thought process behind bodybuilders consuming casein before going to bed is for the amino acids to be slowly released overnight when they would typically be going through a fasting period.

Plant-Based Proteins

The third type of protein we’ll look at is plant-based proteins. Though you may not realize it, you can get a decent amount of protein without consuming dairy-based products. Most plant-based proteins are though of as lower quality because they don’t have all 9 of the essential amino acids. Also, the PDCAAS score is typically lower on plant-based proteins, which indicates they do not digest as well.

That being said, they can actually be a great option if you have dietary restrictions or cannot tolerate dairy. When you are choosing a plant-based protein powder, you want to choose a product that contains pure soy or a blend of pea and rice. Pure soy proteins are one of the only plant-based options that is considered a complete protein.

Egg Protein

The fourth and final type of protein powder we’ll look at here is egg protein. This is a more obscure protein powder. Typically, these are more expensive than others, but if you can find one, it’s a good option for those who want to try something new or who prefer an animal-based protein source but have an allergy to milk.

Who Really Needs Protein Powder?

To be perfectly honest, no one really needs protein powder because it is possible to get everything your body needs through the foods in your diet. As long as you are consuming plenty of whole foods, you should be fine. When it comes to whole food sources, some of the best options include:

  • Dairy
  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Soy
  • Eggs

Of course, protein powder is a lot more convenient than sitting down for a meal. Simply add some protein powder to a shaker bottle with water or milk and shake it up. This is so much easier than taking the time to prepare and cook a meal and then clean up after.

This is why so many people choose to use protein powder. There are a few groups of people who will benefit more than others from using protein powders. We’ll take a look at those below:

Bodybuilders

If you’re like most people, when you think of protein powders, your mind automatically goes to bodybuilders. After all, they dedicate themselves to going to the gym to bulk up and therefore, have higher protein needs than most people. This is why it is invaluable for them to have access to a high-quality protein powder.

The best part is, most of the protein powders fit into the standard nutritional plan for bodybuilders, helping them meet their macronutrient goals. Whey protein isolate is the most common option because it provides them with pure protein without the fat and carbs.

Powerlifters

Another group that needs more protein than the average person are powerlifters. A powerlifter doesn’t necessarily need to stress over each and every gram of carbs or fat they consume the way bodybuilders do when prepping for a contest- but protein is equally important for both hypertrophy and recovery. Therefore, it just makes sense for protein powders to be part of a powerlifter’s repertoire of supplements.

In addition, the precise dosing of protein powders help you reach your caloric goals if you’re working to lose weight to get into a specific weight class. After all, the more you can control your nutrition, the better off you will be.

Athletes

Athletes who regularly engage in sports will have more muscle mass and be more physically active than the average population. This means that they will have more nutritional needs. No matter what sports an athlete engages in, the purity of their protein source is critical. There are some supplements on the market that are made with banned substances that could affect their overall reputation as well as their ability to compete in some competitions.

Therefore, if an athlete is going to use a protein powder- or any other supplement for that matter- it’s important to ensure that it has been third-party tested for quality, purity, and potency by a qualified dietitian, healthcare professional, or organization.

Beginners

When someone decides they want to get started lifting weights, most of the time, they go out and buy protein powder. First of all, it’s important to note that it may not really be necessary, and it also increases the cost of your initial investment into your fitness journey. While it’s true that protein powders may be helpful, you may just want to work on your diet instead.

However, if you’re not used to eating a lot, you may find it difficult to meet these new protein goals. If this is the case, supplementing with protein powder can help ensure that you hit those targets- as long as most of your total protein consumption comes from whole foods.

Things to Think about Before Purchasing a Protein Powder

As we mentioned, it’s important to keep in mind that not all protein powders are made the same. There are some that are higher quality, a better value, or just taste better. The protein supplement that you end up with will depend on a few factors. We’ll look at these below:

Purity

Unfortunately, since protein powders are not regulated by the FDA, some of them don’t contain what they say they do. In other cases, there are some that are guilty of “amino spiking”, which is a practice where the company adds cheaper amino acids to the nutritional profile to make it seem like there’s more in them than there really is.

Dietary supplements are not regulated like the pharmaceutical industry, which means there will be purity issues that arise from time to time. As a consumer, you can get around these issues by making sure that you choose a product that has been third-party tested.

If a product has undergone third-party testing by organizations such as Informed Choice, Banned Substance Control Group (BCSG) or National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), you will see the logo on the package somewhere.

Nutritional Profile

When you are choosing a protein powder, you want one that is a complete protein- meaning it contains all 9 of the essential amino acids. Additionally, you want it to be easy to digest and contain a high amount of leucine. Additionally, you’ll want to look at the total calories in the product. Finally, make sure that the powder you choose provides you with the protein you need without anything extra.

Pricing

Of course, pricing is also important- especially if you are on a strict budget. From a nutritional perspective, whey protein isolate is best, but it will be much more expensive than some of the other options. If cost is a major issue for you, it may be best for you to consider a whey protein concentrate. The quality is still decent- but it won’t break your budget.

Conclusion

While it is true that a protein powder may not be necessary- it may be worth it to add it to your routine. If you’re physically active, you will have higher protein needs than someone who is sedentary. Plus, if you have a supplement you can count on, it makes life a lot easier when it comes to meal planning.

After all, the less you have to stress about meals, the more you can focus on what really matters- your training. The right protein powder will do a lot of the work for you so that you can give it all you got in the gym and on the field, meeting your goals.

Just like anything else, when you are shopping for a protein powder, make sure that you do your research and buy a product that is practical and relevant. Since you are now armed with this information, it should be a lot easier.

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References

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“Certified Dietary Supplements | Informed Choice.” Choice.wetestyoutrust.com, choice.wetestyoutrust.com/.

Gunnars, Kris. “Protein Intake – How Much Protein Should You Eat per Day?” Healthline, 2018, www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-much-protein-per-day.

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“The Beginner’s Guide to the Gym.” BarBend, 9 Jan. 2022, barbend.com/beginners-guide-to-the-gym/. Accessed 24 Apr. 2022.

“The Definitive Guide to Bodybuilding Meal Prep.” BarBend, 24 Sept. 2021, barbend.com/bodybuilding-meal-prep/. Accessed 24 Apr. 2022.

“The Muscle-Building Amino Acid Your Body Needs.” Dr. Axe, draxe.com/nutrition/leucine/.

“The Public Health and Safety Organization.” NSF International, www.nsf.org/.

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“Third-Party Testing: What Is It and Why Is It Necessary for Your Products?” Sawgrass Nutra Labs, 30 Dec. 2019, sawgrassnutralabs.com/blog/third-party-testing-what-is-it-and-why-is-it-necessary-for-your-products/.

Trommelen, Jorn, et al. “Casein Protein Processing Strongly Modulates Post-Prandial Plasma Amino Acid Responses in Vivo in Humans.” Nutrients, vol. 12, no. 8, 31 July 2020, p. 2299, 10.3390/nu12082299. Accessed 17 Dec. 2020.

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Disclaimer:

Please understand that any advice or guidelines revealed here are not even remotely substitutes for sound medical or financial advice from a licensed healthcare provider or certified financial advisor. Make sure to consult with a professional physician or financial consultant before making any purchasing decision if you use medications or have concerns following the review details shared above. Individual results may vary and are not guaranteed as the statements regarding these products have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration or Health Canada. The efficacy of these products has not been confirmed by FDA, or Health Canada approved research. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease and do not provide any kind of get-rich money scheme. Reviewer is not responsible for pricing inaccuracies. Check product sales page for final prices.

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