“If you want to build muscle faster, you should get some protein powder.”
That’s the first bit of supplement advice I ever got.
And it’s wrong.
Protein powder doesn’t directly help you build muscle faster.
Eating enough protein does, but you don’t need powders to get there. Whole foods alone can give you everything you need.
Protein powder doesn’t help you lose fat faster, either. A high-protein diet does, regardless of whether it includes protein supplements or not.
Why, then, are protein supplements so popular? And which are best for what and why?
Well, that’s what we’re going to discuss in this article. And by the end, you’ll know whether you should be taking a protein supplement or not and which best suits your needs.
Let’s get to it.
- Do You Need a Protein Powder?
- The Best Types of Protein Powders
- The Best Types of Whey Protein Powder
- The Best Casein Protein Powder
- The Best Egg Protein Powder
- The Best Plant Protein Powders
- The Scoop on Hemp Protein
- Is There a Best Protein Powder for Weight Loss?
- The Bottom Line on the Best Protein Powders
- What do you think are the best protein powders? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
Table of Contents
You already know that protein powder per se doesn’t help you build muscle or lose fat faster.
Protein powders are often overhyped by supplement companies but they do have a legitimate value and use.
You see, you have plenty of high-quality foods to choose from to get your protein such as meat, seafood, dairy, eggs, legumes, and certain grains and seeds.
That said, attempting to get all the protein you need from food alone presents several challenges:
- It can make balancing your macronutrient intake tricky.
- It can be quite time consuming (shopping, prepping, cooking, cleaning up, etc.).
- Lugging around pre-made meals can be inconvenient.
- Eating large amounts of a small variety of high-protein foods can get old, fast.
Enter the protein powder, which is…
- Perfect for fast-and-easy snacking.
- Often preferable to having to eat another meal.
- Usually low in carbs and fat, which is great for meal planning purposes.
- Quite affordable in terms of price per gram of protein.
These are the main reasons why protein powders are the most popular types of supplements out there.
If you’re like me, and most people, you’ll find that dieting is just more enjoyable with a protein powder, and that’s why I recommend and sell them.
If you’re having trouble deciding on a protein powder, you’re not alone.
There are just too many options and sales pitches.
For example, should you go with whey? Casein? Soy? Egg? Rice? Hemp? Pea? Something else altogether?
Then there are the “little” things that are supposed to make certain protein powders better or worse than others like…
- Additional amino acids and digestive enzymes.
- Simple carbs like dextrose and sucrose.
- Artificial sweeteners.
- Other strange chemicals that we can’t hope to pronounce.
Well, let’s start with some simple criteria that we can judge protein powders by.
Personally, I would only consider buying a protein powder that has a good macronutrient profile (high in protein and low in carbs and fats) and a minimal amount of artificial ingredients and that tastes good and mixes well and is reasonably priced.
I’d rather not “waste” carbs and fats on powders when I could get them all from tasty foods.
And while artificial sweeteners may not be as harmful as some people claim, studies have shown that they may indeed cause harmful effects in the body. Until further research is done, I think it’s smartest to limit our consumption.
So, let’s see how the most popular types of protein powders measure up against that yardstick.
When it comes to protein supplements, whey protein is the king of the mountain.
It’s by far the number one bestseller in the space and it’s particularly popular among athletes and weightlifters…and for good reason.
Whey protein powders give you a high amount of protein per dollar, they generally taste pretty good, and their amino acid profile is particularly good for people trying to improve their body composition (more on that in a second).
What exactly is whey, though?
What is Whey Protein?
Whey is a semi-clear, liquid byproduct of cheese production. After curdling and straining milk, whey is left over.
Here’s what it looks like in its raw form:
Whey used to be considered a worthless byproduct of dairy processing but eventually its high protein content was discovered.
(And now we know it’s one of the two types of protein contained in milk, with casein being the other.)
Scientists also discovered that whey is particularly rich in the amino acid leucine, which plays a vital role in stimulating protein synthesis.
Well, when sport supplement companies caught on to this research, the whey protein supplement was born.
Why Are There Different Types of Whey Protein?
The three forms of whey protein sold are whey concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate.
Whey concentrate is the least processed form and cheapest to manufacture, and it contains some fat and lactose.
Whey concentrates range from 35 – 80% protein by weight, depending on quality.
Whey isolate is a form of whey protein that’s further processed to remove the fat and lactose.
Whey isolates are 90%+ protein by weight and as they cost more to manufacture than whey concentrates, they cost more for consumers too.
Whey hydrolysate is form of whey protein that has been “hydrolyzed,” which is a process that breaks down amino acid chains into smaller “chunks” for easier digestion.
A whey hydrolysate can be created from everything from the lowest quality whey concentrate to the highest quality whey isolate. The process of hydrolysis is what distinguishes it as a hydrolysate, not the inherent quality of the protein itself.
Most whey hydrolysates on the market are made from pure whey isolate or a blend of isolate and concentrate.
As you can guess, whey hydrolysate is the most expensive of the three options.
Which Type of Whey Protein Powder Should You Buy?
Supplement marketers often tell us that we will see better results with whey isolate or hydrolysate than concentrate, but there’s insufficient evidence to support these claims.
That said, choosing the cheapest whey you can find, which will always be a concentrate, isn’t always a good idea, either.
A high-quality whey concentrate is somewhere around 80% protein by weight, but inferior concentrates can be as little as 30%.
And if a protein is only 30% protein by weight, what comprises the remaining 70%?
Well, unfortunately we can only wonder, as adulteration (the addition of fillers like maltodextrin and flour) is startlingly rampant in this industry.
One of the benefits of choosing a pure whey isolate powder is you know that you’re getting something very close to pure protein with minimal additives.
Another significant benefit is the removal of lactose, which means better digestibility and fewer upset stomachs.
You should also know that the old “you get what you pay for” saw is particularly true with whey protein powders.
I can tell you firsthand that producing a top-drawer whey protein powder isn’t cheap and if you’re paying less than $12 to 15 per pound, you’re probably buying junk.
Every day I get calls and emails from overseas suppliers of whey with shockingly low prices, and if I didn’t care about the quality of my products, I could double or even triple my margins by using one of them.
On the other hand, just because a whey protein is expensive doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worth it.
A common ploy used by disreputable supplement companies is starting with a low-quality concentrate, adding small amounts of isolate and hydrolysate to create an expensive “blend,” and then calling attention to the isolate and hydrolysate in the marketing and packaging.
A good way to protect yourself as a consumer is to check ingredient lists and serving sizes and amounts of protein per serving before buying.
Ingredients are listed in descending order according to predominance by weight. That means that there’s more of the first ingredient than the second, more of the second than the third, and so forth.
So, when you’re considering buying a whey protein powder, look at the order in which the ingredients are listed and and the amount of protein per scoop relative to the scoop size.
If a product has maltodextrin (a filler), or any other ingredient, listed before the protein powder, don’t buy it.
That means there’s more maltodextrin, creatine, or other fillers in it than protein powder.
If a scoop is 40 grams but there is only 22 grams of protein per serving, don’t buy it unless you know that the other 18 grams are made up of stuff you want. In many cases it’s not.
A worthy whey protein powder is easy to spot:
- Whey concentrate, isolate, or hydrolysate are listed as the first ingredients.
- The scoop size is relatively close to the amount of actual protein per scoop (it’ll never match because there are sweetener, flavoring, and excipients in every serving).
My Favorite Whey Protein Powder
My favorite type of whey protein is whey isolate.
It doesn’t upset my stomach like some whey concentrates and I like the fact that it’s basically pure protein and little else.
And that’s why, when it came time to create my own protein powder, I chose 100% whey protein isolate. I also use 100% natural sweeteners and flavoring.
Click here to learn more about my whey protein:
As you know, casein is another form of protein found in milk. The curds that form as milk coagulates are casein.
Casein protein is digested slower than whey, which results is a slower, steadier release of amino acids into the blood.
There’s an ongoing debate about whether whey or casein is better for muscle building purposes, but here’s what most reputable experts agree on:
- Whey’s rapid digestion and abundance of leucine makes it an ideal choice for post-workout nutrition.
- Casein is good for general supplementation needs and is just as good as whey for muscle building purposes.
- Casein may or may not be as good post-workout as whey–the jury’s still out on this one.
- You can speed up muscle recovery by having 30 to 40 grams of a slow-burning protein like casein before bed.
I’ve always used whey protein in my post-workout meal and preferred a scoop or two of egg protein later in the day, but with egg protein prices out the roof, I’m now just eating low-fat cottage cheese or Greek yogurt instead.
My Favorite Casein Protein Powder
The best type of casein you can get is micellar casein. That’s because it’s produced in a way that preserves the small bundles of protein (micelles) that are responsible for its slow-digesting properties and often destroyed during traditional manufacturing processes.
That’s why when I set out to make my own casein powder (Casein+), I chose 100% micellar casein made from exceptionally high-quality milk from small, sustainable dairy farms in Ireland.
It’s also 100% naturally sweetened and flavored, and is the best-tasting all-natural micellar casein to boot.
Click here to learn more about my casein protein:
Egg protein isn’t nearly as popular as whey and casein but it’s one of my favorite types of protein powders.
I like it so much for three reasons:
It has a high “biological value.”
The biological value of a protein is a measurement of how efficiently your body can absorb and utilize it.
As you can imagine, high-BV proteins are best for building muscle, and animal research suggests that egg is as effective as whey for this purpose.
Egg protein is digested very slowly (even slower than casein).
This means that egg is good for all-around supplementation, including before you go to bed.
There’s also evidence that slow-burning proteins are better for muscle growth over the long term, but I don’t think the research is strong enough to really know one way or the other.
Egg protein powder has little-to-no fat and carbohydrate.
Egg protein powder is made from egg white so it’s naturally more or less carb- and fat-free. This means more macros for your food. 🙂
My Favorite Egg Protein
I prefer whey protein for my pre- and post-workout meals but like egg for all other supplementation needs.
For years I used a chocolate flavor of egg protein from a company called Healthy n Fit, but, for whatever reason, the price shot out the roof about a year ago.
If you don’t mind paying about $30 per pound for protein, go for it. I find that a bit outrageous and I assume you would too.
That’s why I recommend this instead:
It’s unflavored so you won’t want to drink it straight, but it works well for protein smoothies.
The protein found in many plants, vegetables, and grains such as rice, hemp, and pea is often thought of as inferior to animal proteins.
This is partially true, and not for the reason you’re probably thinking.
The most common charge leveled against plant proteins is that they’re “incomplete” and thus aren’t suitable for meeting the body’s protein needs.
This is a myth.
Research shows that all protein found in plants and vegetables is “complete.”
That is, it contains all the same amino acids as animal proteins.
Where plant proteins can be inferior, though, is in their amino acid profiles and how well they’re absorbed in the body.
Some forms of plant protein are lower in essential amino acids than others and some are better absorbed by the body than others.
This just means that if you want to get a significant amount of your protein from plants, grains, seeds, vegetables, and the like, you need to be more discriminating than an omnivore.
The Scoop on Soy Protein
Soy protein is a mixed bag.
While research has shown it’s an all-round effective source of protein for building muscle, it’s also a source of ongoing controversy, and especially for men.
According to some research, regular intake of soy foods has feminizing effects in men due to estrogen-like molecules found in soybeans called isoflavones.
For instance, a study conducted by scientists at Harvard University analyzed the semen of 99 men, and compared it against their soy and isoflavone intake during the 3 previous months.
What they found is that both isoflavone and soy intake were associated with a reduction in sperm count. Men in the highest intake category of soy foods had, on average, 41 million sperm/ml less than men who didn’t eat soy foods.
On the other hand, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Guelph had 32 men eat low or high levels of isoflavones from soy protein for 57 days, and found that it didn’t affect semen quality.
What gives, then?
Well, there isn’t a simple answer just yet but one promising line of research shows that soy’s effects in men can vary depending on the presence or absence of certain intestinal bacteria.
These bacteria, which are present in 30-50% of people, metabolize an isoflavone in soy calleddaidzein into an estrogen-like hormone called equol.
In a study conducted by scientists at Peking University, researchers found that when equol-producing men ate high amounts of soy food for 3 days, their testosterone levels dropped and estrogen levels rose. These effects were not seen in women, regardless of equol production or lack thereof.
Related to this is a study conducted by researchers at Sungkyunkwan University, which found that in a high-estrogen environment, isoflavones suppressed estrogen production, and in a low-estrogen environment, they increased estrogen production.
Now, in the case of women, research shows that it is less likely to negatively affect your hormones.
There are other things to consider, however.
While there is evidence that soy might have special benefits for women such as reducing the risk of heart disease and breast cancer, other studies cast doubt on these findings. And to the contrary, soy can even stimulate the growth of cancer cells.
The bottom line is if you want to supplement with a protein powder several times per day, I recommend you go with something other than soy.
The Scoop on Rice Protein
You may not think much of the protein found in rice–or even knew it contained any–but it’s actually quite viable.
I also think rice protein tastes great and really like the texture (it goes down easily).
Here’s the rice protein that I like:
And if you want to make rice protein even better, you can mix it with…
The Scoop on Pea Protein
Pea protein is even more of an unsung hero of plant proteins than rice.
I mean…when’s the last time you heard someone was eating a lot of peas to help bulk up?
Well, ironically, pea protein can help you do just that.
It has a high biological value (about the same as beef’s as well) and, like whey, it also has a large amount of leucine.
This makes it great for muscle building purposes, and when you combine pea protein with rice protein, you get what’s often called the “vegan’s whey.”
This is because the amino acid profiles of pea and rice protein are very complementary and, together, look a lot like whey protein’s.
In terms of a specific product recommendation, check out our 100% vegan protein powder THRIVE, as it contains 23 grams of pea protein in every serving.
Hemp protein is more popular than rice and pea protein but it shouldn’t be.
It’s highly nutritious but only about 30 to 50% protein by weight, which means it comes with quite a bit of carbohydrate and fat.
Furthermore, hemp protein isn’t absorbed nearly as well as rice or pea protein, making it even less useful as a protein supplement.
That’s why I look at hemp protein powders more as whole foods than protein supplements and don’t really recommend or use them.
When you see a company claiming that a supplement or food helps you lose weight faster, you should immediately be skeptical.
From a marketing standpoint, the easiest way to increase the sales of any product is to associate it with weight loss.
The truth, though, is most of that stuff won’t do much of anything.
That said, certain foods are more conducive to weight loss than others because of how many calories they contain and how those calories break down into protein, carbohydrate, and fat.
Generally speaking, the best foods for weight loss are those that provide an abundance of micronutrients and are filling while also being relatively light in calories and in dietary fat and added sugar in particular.
When you’re restricting your calories for fat loss, you’ll find that eating a lot of these types of foods helps you stick to your diet.
For example, my favorite “weight loss foods” are…
- Lean meats (chicken, lean beef, fish, and so forth)
- Low-fat dairy products
- Eggs and egg whites
- Whole grains like wheat, brown rice, oats, and barley.
- Vegetables like green beans, carrots, broccoli, and artichoke.
- Legumes like green peas and beans.
- Tubers like white potato, which is incredibly satiating, and sweet potato.
As you can see, the majority of my calories come from nutrient-dense, high-fiber, relatively unprocessed foods.
The foods I avoid are those that are very calorie dense but aren’t all that filling. These types of foods are generally high-fat with added sugar.
This includes junk like chips, candy, cookies, and the like, but also includes quite a few “healthy” foods like nuts, dried fruit, whole-fat dairy, avocado, and so forth.
They just contain too many calories and too much fat in particular (and I’m not a fan of low-carb, high-fat dieting for cutting).
Now, coming back to protein powders.
The best protein powders for weight loss would be those that are as close to pure protein as possible.
Generally speaking, when you’re dieting to lose fat, you want to drink as few calories as possible.
The problem with drinking calories is it doesn’t trigger satiety (fullness) like food does.
That applies to all caloric beverages too–soda, energy drinks, fruit juices, dairy, dairy alternatives, and so forth.
You can drink 1,000 calories and be hungry an hour later, whereas eating 1,000 calories of food, including a good portion of protein and fiber, will probably keep you full for 5 to 6 hours.
Here’s a quote from a study conducted by researchers at Purdue University, which investigated the influence of meal timing and food form on daily energy intake:
“Based on the appetitive findings, consumption of an energy-yielding beverage either with a meal or as a snack poses a greater risk for promoting positive energy than macronutrient-matched semisolid or solid foods consumed at these times.”
That is, people that drink calories are much more likely to overeat than those that don’t.
You now know everything you need to make good, informed choices about what protein powder will be best for you.
Here’s a recap:
- No one protein powder is unequivocally better for weight loss than another but less carbohydrate and fat in the powder, the better.
- Whey protein is particularly good for post-workout meals.
- Whey, casein, and egg are good for general supplementation, with casein and egg possibly being better for long-term muscle gains.
- A slow-digesting protein like egg and casein is good for having before you go to bed. Food works well for this as well (eggs, low-fat cottage cheese, and Greek yogurt are my favorites choices.)
- It’s probably a good idea to skip soy protein and go with something else instead.
- A blend of rice and pea protein is a great option for plant-based protein.
If you’re like me and like to keep things simple, get a whey protein and use a few scoops per day and get the rest of your protein from food.
What do you think are the best protein powders? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!