The protein powder/supplements aisle in your local grocery store and online can be overwhelming with options.
From casein to soy to whey, there are literally HUNDREDS of powders to choose from. Add to that the instagram influencers and so-called-nutrition-experts saying “use this one, don’t use that one” or “you’re just paying for expensive pee” and it can be SO confusing!
Let’s start with the most obvious question – are protein supplements okay to use?
The answer is an astounding YES!
Protein supplements can be a very easy way to get additional protein in before, during, and after training in a gentle to digest, convenient manner.
But the key with this is that using a protein powder should be SUPPLEMENTING your nutrition – it’s not a replacement for your chicken or tofu, but rather using in addition to whole food sources.
Ideally you’re consuming 70-80% of your daily protein needs by eating meat, dairy, eggs, seafood, edamame, beans, tofu, nuts, and seeds (the style of eating you prefer to hit your protein targets). Then you use a protein powder when you need something quick and easy.
Now let’s talk about the different options out there, and why you might pick one over the other.
We’re going to discuss the most popular and most researched – whey, casein, egg, hemp, pea, and soy.
Whey, casein, and egg are animal based. Whey is arguably the most popular and most researched protein powder. Studies show it being the most effective for muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
The downside to choosing this powder is milk/dairy sensitivity, leading to things like excessing gas and bloating. If you ARE sensitive to whey, you can try diluting it (rather than 8oz of water try 16oz), consuming with papaya enzyme to aid in digestion, or simply drink with solid food.
Whey is also very fast digesting (one of the reasons it’s so effective for MPS). Studies show when you drink when protein, the liquid passes so quickly through your digestive track your body might not be able to “grab” it all before it’s made its way out of the small intestine. You can slow this process down by eating a small amount of food (like a banana) with your protein shake.
Whey protein comes from the cheese making process (it’s made from adding enzymes to whole milk that separates the milk in to two parts – curds (which end up as cheese) and whey (which USED to be thrown away until in the 1930s Eugene Shiff, a Pharmacist, developed a method of turning the whey into the first whey protein safe for human consumption).
Casein protein is whey’s big sister (whole milk is 80% casein 20% whey). Casein is slower to digest, which is often why it will be suggested as a protein to add to your prebed routine. Casein can also be problematic for individuals sensitive to milk, however less so because of its digestion time.
If you’re lactose intolerant, egg protein can be an excellent alternative to whey and casein.
Eggs are the most bioavailable protein source of all common proteins we humans eat. For every egg you consume, your body has access to anywhere from 91-100% of the amino acids in the eggs. This compared to 79% bioavailability for chicken, and 80% in steak.
The downsides to this protein source can be cost (you’re looking at $50-$60 for 20 servings versus $20-$40 for whey) as well as the taste that comes with it!
In summary so far, whey is the most studied and shows the best results for growing new muscle, but can hard for some people to digest, and to make sure you digest it all you should consume with food. Casein is slower to digest but is good for recovering during sleep. Egg is the most bioavailable and a great alternative for those sensitive to dairy but costly and doesn’t outperform whey in MPS.
Now on to the plant protein supplements.
For this discussion we are talking about pea, soy, and hemp because they are the most common AND are complete protein sources, meaning they contain all 9 essential amino acids.
Individuals may choose plant based because they can’t digest the animal protein sources or prefer to live a more plant based lifestyle.
Like the animal protein powders, we could go deep in to the weeds on these options from a sustainability and health standpoint. Each powder could be a blog post (or 5) in and of itself. But for this post we will just stick to the basics and if you’re interested you can go down the rabbit holes of learning more about each one!
For plant based options, Soy protein has been around the longest and is the most studied protein powder of the plant based (albeit often used in comparison to other supplements).
The research on soy suggests it can be beneficial in supporting recovery from training, however there are a few things to be noted with this option.
First, consumers must understand that these supplements we’re discussing are not whole foods, which mean our bodies may use these isolated substances different then if we were to consume them in their unprocessed state (soy protein powder versus edamame – aka the soybean).
Studies show the isoflavones in soy mimic estrogen in the body – which can be good if you’re trying to boost estrogen, but bad it you’re estrogen dominant. Therefor, consuming soy products on a regular basis should be done with caution and consumers should be aware of their hormone status before consuming anything that could negatively impact hormone balance.
Studies indicate pea protein isolate contains more of the essential amino acids needed to make new muscle compared to soy and hemp. In a randomized control study it’s been shown to be almost as effective as whey on muscle recovery. Pea protein tends to have a distinct chalky and or “earthy” taste. It’s a great option for plant based consumers who are sensitive to soy.
And then there’s hemp. Hemp seeds have been consumed by civilizations for thousands of years. Dating back to 2800BC in China, hemp seeds abound with all 9 essential amino acids, omega 3 fatty acids, as well as vitamins and minerals. It can be a good alternative to animal based protein powders. But like pea protein, it comes with it’s own unique taste.
Out of the three plant based options it also tends to be the most pricey. It has the highest bioavailability of the three we’ve discussed yet has the lowest amount of protein compared to soy and pea. This means consumers would need to eat more to meet protein needs.
And there we have it.
For best results, studies suggest combining two or more of the plant based options will bring the amino acid levels up to that of animal based protein powders. This in turn provides higher amounts of the most important amino acids for recovery and muscle growth.
At the end of the day consumers need to weigh convenience, sensitivity to the products, belief systems regarding plant versus animal based, as well as taste and cost to decide which supplement will serve them best. There is no “right” protein powder, but rather what protein powder is right for YOU!