I am often asked about what type of protein to buy and what the difference is between them. In reality the best protein is one you will drink but that being said you want the cleanest, purest and depending on your requirements either a fast or slow digesting protein. If the protein tastes good, mixes well and is not chalky or granular then you have the beginnings of a protein that you can integrate into your regular nutritional habits. Once you narrow down the range of powders you think you can live with then the different attributes that enhance quality should govern your choice as a high quality protein that tastes bad and blends poorly will not be a good choice for long-term consistent consumption.
The short answer is often to look for a Hydrolyzed Whey Protein Isolate with a small ingredient list made up of mainly amino acids, nutrients and possibly a sweetener, as amino acids by nature are bitter. I don’t like artificial sweeteners in general but this is one place where some dispensation has to be given to find something that you can live with. Past that you don’t want to see a bunch of chemical names you can’t identify. Proteins that are in a more digestible form reduce the potential for bloating and other intestinal issues.
That all being considered, there are many choices and some may be considered better than others but in fact some are just different or may achieve a different purpose.
It should be noted that supplementation isn't always required for a healthy lifestyle but can play a role in filling in the gaps where a potential deficiency may occur. In the case of a heavily trained athlete or a lifestyle client without adequate nourishment, it can play an important role in recovery and progression.
There are 3 main things one must consider in all supplements:
- Does the supplement contain what the ingredient list says it contains and nothing more or less?
- Do the active ingredients required for a beneficial health affect, digest properly and at the right time?
- Does the supplement contain any toxin levels that are beyond the regulated tolerable amounts for beneficial health?
If a supplement fails any one of the three tests above, that it is reason enough for disqualification as a beneficial supplement as the potential detrimental affects to your health outweigh the potential good.
Some Protein Definitions:
Proteins are made up of chains of amino acid molecules. Amino acid molecules are the molecular building blocks your body requires for may uses including building tissue, hormones, enzymes, structural proteins, transport proteins, and antibodies. Whole proteins are broken down into amino acids in your intestinal tract. Whole food proteins like meat break down very slowly. Proteins that have been broken down into their separate amino acids will digest much faster than proteins consumed in their natural state as in a whole food.
It had been previously accepted theory that there were times where the speed of amino acids entry into the blood stream is important for recovery or hypertrophy as opposed to the majority of the time in which normal protein digestion in the form of whole foods is adequately beneficial for your health. Protein timing or post work-out was thought to be one of those times in which you have a 30-60 minute window of opportunity to maximize protein and glucose uptake into the muscle tissue for recovery. Subsequent research has proven that the overall adequate intake of total protein was more important in strength gains and hypertrophy. It should not be construed that a properly formed recovery drink or meal doesn't promote energy uptake and immune system response as these are different mechanisms that must be studied separately. Research has shown beneficial affects to overall recovery mechanisms when specific nutrients are taken soon after a workout session.
Schoenfeld, B.J., Aragon, A.A. & Krieger, J.W. The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 10, 53 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-10-53
That being said, post-workout is a time in which a predigested protein in the form of amino acids will speed the entry of protein into the blood system, but its required timing is in question. If your protein drink contains glucose and other nutrients required for recovery, the immediate digestion of a protein recovery drink will not have any detrimental affects to the athlete and as part of an overall approach to recovery can be a positive addition. Note that whole foods during the first 30-60 minutes post workout can take up to 2-4 hours to digest and enter the bloodstream causing stomach ache or bloating in some individuals. Experimentation is needed here to understand each individuals ability to digest macronutrients before and after a workout.
Proteins typically come in 2 different predigested types, animal and vegetable. Animal protein is typically considered better molecularly due to certain qualities we will discuss below but the reality is that this is a personal and financial choice as vegetable proteins can be successfully used to fuel post-workout recovery if you know what to look for and what to do.
The best type of protein powder post-workout is whey protein due to its molecular makeup and speed of entry into the blood stream. Compared to the other proteins on the market, whey is one of the fastest digesting proteins.
Milk protein is made up of 80% Casein proteins and 20% Whey proteins. Whey is preferred due to the large amounts of branched-chain amino acids as well as the full spectrum of amino acids making up the building blocks you need to build muscle but due to the the level of allergens found in both may predetermine a preferred choice.
Whey is a dairy protein that is a by-product of the cheese making process. In its original form, whey contains significant amounts of fat and lactose. Lactose is a milk sugar, which many people cannot digest due to a lack of production of an enzyme called lactase. During the production of whey protein supplements, these components are filtered and processed to remove most of the lactose and fat.
The ingredients label on the back of your whey protein supplement will tell you how the protein has been manufactured using microfiltration or “ion exchange”.
These are methods of separating the fat and lactose from the protein. The result is a concentrated protein available in one of several grades: concentrate, isolate or hydrolysates. Each of these protein types and grades has unique properties and tastes as well as speed of entry into the blood system. (concentrate = fast, isolate = faster, hydrolyzed = fastest).
Let’s examine the differences between these protein types. The filtration processes and remainder molecules along with speed of digestion distinguish the difference between the processes.
Protein concentrates are created by a filtration process allowing water, minerals and other organic materials to pass through the filter. The remaining proteins, which can’t pass through the filter, are used to create the protein powder. This process yields a protein powder that is 70-85% protein and up to 5% lactose. If you have lactose intolerance you will have difficulties if you consume large amounts of whey protein concentrate.
The next level up in the purification process is a technique called ion-exchange or cross-flow microfiltration. These proteins are made up of very low amounts of carbohydrates and fat and are almost pure protein. Individuals with lactose intolerance should not have trouble with whey protein isolates. A reputable whey protein isolate should certify their products as lactose free or supplemented with lactase to make milk sugars digestible.
When protein isolate particles are broken down further into smaller pieces the result is Hydrolyzed Protein. This allows for faster digestion and helps enable your muscles to start recovery more quickly.
The primary difference between isolate and concentrate is that the isolate is the purest form of protein. Whey isolate usually contains between 90-94% protein while whey concentrate has a protein ratio of around 70-85%.
A couple of notes regarding plant vs. animal proteins….
Most individuals believe that the usability or bioavailability of protein is a question of animal versus vegetable source. Although animal protein is “more complete” (see below) than many vegetable proteins, it does not automatically make it better.
Molecularly, protein is made up of 20 Amino Acids. Most proteins are large molecules that may contain several hundred to many thousand amino acids arranged in branches and chains. 8 Amino Acids are essential in adults and an extra one is essential in children. This means that our bodies can make all the amino acids it needs except for these 8 essential amino acids. As such, we have to get them through our diet. If we don’t we will starve and eventually die. Some animals can make all the amino acids they need to form proteins, we can’t.
As such, for a long time, it was thought that getting a “complete” profile of proteins in your foods is important. However, research has proven that the intestinal tract maintains a similar ratio of essential amino acids through the mixing of endogenous and dietary protein. So although an incomplete amino profile is found in the proteins in lots of foods like vegetables and grains, the body can compensate for this shortfall providing you are consuming an adequate whole food diet with enough calories to fuel the body's energy needs. Meats, eggs and dairy are complete proteins and have a complete amino acid profile. If you don’t eat meat then you can get your minimum required proteins from a compliment of vegetables, legumes, nuts and grains.
As a side note, the effects of not eating a full compliment of various foods can leave you protein malnourished as is the case when we think we are helping to feed the world by sending massive amounts of rice to third world countries. Rice is a primary staple but yet is an incomplete protein, which essentially does not stop starvation, but only delays the deterioration of the body. For a period of time the body will compensate with endogenous proteins but eventually the catabolic state will run out. You will see evidence of this when you see pictures of starving children in third world countries that have a big huge belly and skinny legs and arms. These kids have Kwashiorkor’s Disease which is a form of childhood protein-energy malnutrition. It is thought to be caused by insufficient protein consumption but with sufficient calorie intake.
The same applies with the extended long-term consumption of animal vs. vegetable protein sources as vegetables lack heme iron and Vit B-12. Fortification of these nutrients may be necessary on an all vegan protein diet. Specialized dietary considerations should be referred out to a qualified medical practitioner or licensed dietician when in question or limited by state regulatory environment.
As for bioavailability, pretty much everything could be compared to meat in general which has a biological value of about 70. This rating takes into consideration many factors including the body’s ability to digest the protein and its relative completeness of Amino Acid profile including the BCCA’s that it contains.
Although bioavailability is important, there are other factors that should be considered first. Allergies and digestive problems such as gas, bloating, and constipation are common issues that individuals experience with different types of proteins. This process is really one of trial and error. It doesn’t matter how “complete” or “bioavailable” a protein is for the general population if you can’t eat it.
As for bioavailability, Whey protein supplementation by far exceeds all other forms of protein supplementation. It has long passed milk based protein supplements, egg proteins, and soy proteins which are all inferior. By inferior I mean less bioavailable but not necessarily bad, just inferior. Whey protein has an extremely high biological value ranging from 90-100 for whey concentrate and from 100-150 for whey isolate. It’s also high in the branch chain amino acids and is quickly absorbed by the human body. The down side is it is highly allergenic often causing extra mucous, constipation, or bloating.
Rice protein has a biological value of between 70-80. It is very bioavailable although not as high as Whey. Rice protein tends to be chalky in texture and has an unpleasant bland flavor when not mixed or combined properly. Usually rice protein will be combined with pea protein to improve both amino acid profiles, textures and flavors.
Hemp seed protein also has good bioavailability and is very hypoallergenic. In addition it has many other very good nutrients but although the proteins in hemp (edestin and albumin) are great immune builders, they are less effective as muscle builders.
In combination, rice protein and yellow pea protein offer a Protein Efficiency Ratio that begins to rival dairy and egg — but without their potential to promote allergic reactions. In addition, the texture of pea protein helps smooth out the “chalkiness” of rice protein. Like rice protein, it is hypoallergenic and easily digested.
Side by side comparisons
Now that you have a little bit of background here is an analysis of 2 proteins, Whey and Vegetable based. Note that the price I used on the Optimum Nutrition is the price we have purchased it for recently online. Pricing in retail stores can be up to 50% higher. As such in all likelihood you will pay much more at the local health food store.
Animal vs Vegetable Protein
Product Size in Ounces
Cost for approximately 1lbs / 1.22lbs
$22 - 1 lbs
$32 - 1.22 lbs
Servings pre container
Grams of Protein per Serving
Cost per 1 gram of Protein
|Serving||1 Scoop||1 Scoop|
|Product Size in Ounces||16||22|
|Servings pre container||14||15|
|Grams of Protein per Serving||24||22|
|Cost per 1 gram of Protein||0.0655||0.0970|
Amino Acid Profile in mg
|Essential Amino Acids (EAA)|
|Isoleucine (5) (6)||1680||958|
|Leucine (4) (5)||2640||1760|
|Conditionally Essential Amino Acids (CEAAs)|
|Glutamine & Precursors||4450||4132|
|Nonessential Amino Acids (NEAAs)|
1. If the diet is deficient in phenylalanine, tyrosine will be required as well.
2. Essential/Required for children, but not for adults
3. Although the body manufactures its own histidine, it is fairly easy for natural supplies to run short.
4. Leucine is the only dietary amino acid that has the capacity to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
5. Part of the Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAA) accounting for 35% of the essential amino acids in
muscle proteins and 40% of the preformed amino acids required by mammals. These three amino acids (BCAA) are special in that they are metabolized in the muscle as opposed to the liver.
The greater their presence in a protein, the higher the protein’s bioavailability.