There are a variety of protein powders on the market today that serve a range of purposes for people seeking unique health benefits. Some protein powders are excellent for building muscle, while others are better for weight loss. Some are suitable for people with dietary restrictions who need supplements to meet their protein needs. Older individuals, those with illnesses, vegans, and vegetarians all may require supplementation. Most sources of protein powder are vegan-friendly, though there are a few that consist of animal products.
Types of Protein Powder
Typically, protein powder comes in three forms: hydrolysates, concentrates, and isolates. Protein hydrolysates are the product of hydrolysis; the breakdown of the bonds between the amino acids that make up protein, caused by acids and enzymes, creates this form. Because the amino acids are smaller, the body can absorb hydrolysates more quickly. The production of protein concentrates uses heat and acids to extract protein from actual food. Protein concentrates are typically between 60 to 80 percent protein, with the rest being fats and carbs. Isolates have a similar production process, though there is an additional filtering step to remove a large portion of the fats and carbs, allowing for a product that is almost purely protein.
The most common protein powder is whey protein. Whey is the liquid that remains during cheese production after the milk has been curdled and strained. One of the benefits of whey is its high levels of branched-chain amino acids. Leucine promotes muscle growth and recovery, making whey protein ideal for muscle building, though some physicians also recommend it for weight loss. Whey is an animal product and it contains lactose, meaning that vegans and those with milk allergies should look to another protein powder.
Like whey protein, casein comes from milk. However, the body digests and absorbs casein much more slowly. Because casein is hydrophobic, it forms a gel-like substance in the stomach. The gel is able to slowly release amino acids into the stomach and bloodstream, providing nutrition for several hours after consumption. Typically, casein protein is better at building muscle than other protein powders, with the exception of whey protein powder. However, researchers of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital found in one study that if a person is on a diet that restricts caloric intake, casein protein powder may edge out whey.
Many people know that eggs are high in protein and excel at satiating appetites. The production of egg protein powders strains out the yolks to provide a product that is purely egg white. Egg protein has the second highest-levels of leucine available in protein powders, with only whey containing more. This makes egg protein powders ideal for people with milk allergies who still wish to build muscle mass.
The animal-product protein powders are excellent nutrient providers because they contain all nine essential amino acids the body can’t produce. However, a few plants also contain these amino acids. Many vegans and vegetarians eat soybean products for this reason. Soy protein powder contains these amino acids in a vegan form. Additionally, soy products may reduce the risk of cancer. However, soy protein does contain isoflavones which contain estrogen and affect hormone levels. There is not enough research to quantify the adverse effects of the isoflavones. Many physicians state that individuals should avoid excess soy consumption if this is a concern, though protein powders and occasional soy consumption are not an issue in most cases.
An alternative to soy protein powder is hemp powder. Hemp seeds contain high protein levels and are rich in the essential amino acids. The body easily digests hemp protein powder, so individuals with stomach issues may prefer it. Hemp protein is high in fat and may not be the ideal powder for weight loss.
The yellow split pea has high fiber and protein and contains all but one of the essential amino acids, making it a healthy option for everyone wishing to avoid animal products or hemp. French researchers at INSERM found that men who took pea protein daily had similar increases in muscle thickness as those who used whey protein. However, the body digests whey faster than pea protein powder, though casein takes longer to digest than pea protein.
Brown rice protein powders have been available for many years, though they slightly pale in comparison to whey protein powders. Though rice protein has all of the essential amino acids, it has low levels of lysine. Without a high level of lysine, the body cannot quickly produce proteins on its own. However, as long as there is another source of protein in the diet, rice protein is a viable option. There is not much research available regarding the role of rice protein, though it appears that rice and whey are comparable in terms of muscle strength and recovery.
There are many protein powder options that combine two or more different protein sources. Vegan and vegetarian options generally combine rice, pea, hemp, chia seeds, flax seeds, quinoa, or alfalfa. These mixed plant proteins typically digest slowly. Other powder options combine whey with high-carb ingredients and proteins. Due to their level of carbs, these protein mixes are ideal for weight gain. However, weight gain powders may contain additives and artificial sweeteners the body will store as fat if it doesn’t use them to recover after exercise.
Dangers of Protein
Though protein powders have numerous benefits, they can also have drawbacks. Some physicians recommend only using protein powders in a few instances and with supervision. In their opinion, there is not enough research on the long-term effects of high-protein intake. Additionally, the Clean Label Project found that some brands of protein powder contained high levels of contaminants with links to cancer and disease. They recommend always checking what a brand of powder contains before using it.