Types of Protein Powders: Navigating the World of Whey, Vegan Blends

Some people, including athletes, vegans, and older adults, may need to use protein supplements to increase their daily protein intake. With numerous options available, like whey, casein, egg white, beef, soy, pea, and others, selecting the most suitable one can be a challenging decision. Delve deeper to understand the various types of protein powders and make an informed choice that aligns with your dietary needs and preferences.

Introduction to protein and protein powders

Protein, a macronutrient, is critical in physiology, including muscle synthesis, hormone and enzyme production, immune support, and cell repair. Animal and some plant foods are traditional sources of dietary protein intake.

Protein supplements are concentrated proteins generally sold in powder form. It can be a convenient and efficient way to increase daily protein intake for some individuals, such as athletes, gym-goers, vegans, vegetarians, older adults, and people with medical conditions.

Is whey protein the gold standard?

Bovine milk has two major proteins: whey (70–80%) and casein (20–30%). Whey protein contains all essential amino acids that improve the bioavailability of protein.

Protein quality can be assessed with protein digestibility corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS), which considers the essential amino acids quantity and digestibility of protein for humans. The highest score is 1, which represents a high-quality protein source.

Milk-derived whey protein isolate, milk-derived casein, egg white powder, and soy protein isolate have the highest PDCAAS scores.

While whey protein spikes plasma amino acid levels, casein provides a moderate increase sustained for longer at around seven hours after the meal. Therefore, the digestibility of whey and casein differs, affecting their uses for different purposes. Although evidence is inconclusive, some studies suggest that whey protein enhances muscle synthesis more than casein.

The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommended protein supplements containing both whey and casein to increase digestibility, muscle growth, and repair by providing both rapid and prolonged effects of whey and casein.

Isolate vs. concentrate vs. hydrolysate: understanding the differences

The main forms of whey protein include whey concentrate, whey isolates, and whey hydrolysate.

  • Whey concentrate. Whey concentrate has lower lactose than whey powder. However, it has a higher fat and lactose composition than whey isolate. Whey concentrate is low-cost compared to other whey alternatives.
  • Whey isolate. Whey isolate contains more than 90% of protein, which makes it the purest protein source. Fat and lactose are removed in whey protein isolate.
  • Whey hydrolysate. It claims faster absorption because it's hydrolyzed (protein is broken down into small peptides, which make it predigested). Whey hydrolysate costs more and tastes bitter, but it can be less allergic than other whey protein types.

How about vegan protein options?

Vegan protein supplements are gaining popularity due to increased interest in plant-based nutrition. Although most vegan protein sources have lower biological value, they're a great alternative for vegan and vegetarian people.

Soy protein has a PDCAAS score of 1, indicating a high-quality protein source. Soy protein supplements are lactose-free, which makes them an alternative for lactose-intolerant individuals. Soy protein has soy concentrate and isolates, too. Soy isolate has the highest protein, about 90%, followed by soy concentrate at 70%; however, soy concentrate has higher digestibility.

A meta-analysis investigated the effects of animal versus soy protein on muscle mass gain and strength. Results concluded that taking soy or whey protein after resistance training significantly increased muscle strength.

Other vegan supplements include hemp, chickpea, pea, and rice, among others. Their biological value is lower than soy protein. Mixing these protein supplements can increase protein biological value; for example, a pea and rice protein mix can reach a higher PDCAAS score.

How do you choose and read protein powder labels?

Many brands and types of protein supplements are available. After deciding the type of protein supplements (such as animal origin, plant origin, concentrate, or isolate), reading labels can help you buy the best product that matches your expectations. In the label, you can see:

  • Third-party testing. The manufacturers are responsible for the safety and labeling of the products before they're marketed. Therefore, you can't always be sure if the labeling is correct or if the product is safe to consume. Luckily, products with third-party testing ensure that the labeling is accurate and the product does not contain harmful ingredients, and banned products in the case of sports supplements. NSF Certified for Sport is recognized by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). The certification ensures the product is safe and pure.
  • Expiration date. Check the expiration date to buy a product that is fresh and safe to consume.
  • Nutritional value. You can check protein supplements' macro and micronutrient profiles by looking at nutrition fact labels. Then you can decide on the one that matches your needs.
  • Ingredients. Protein supplements can contain other ingredients such as additives, sweeteners, and flavors. By checking the ingredients, you can buy the product with minimal additives.
  • Allergen information. Check the label for allergen warnings if you're allergic to any food or food component.
  • Serving size and instruction. Checking serving size and instructions allows you to use the product appropriately to maximize benefits and ensure safety.

Making the right choice for your fitness goals

It's important to carefully evaluate the need for protein supplements. Although protein powders are a convenient source of protein supplements, taking protein from foods is the primary goal because foods contain many other essential nutrients rather than protein. Your dietitian can help you assess your daily protein requirements and how you can achieve them with or without supplementation.

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