Whey protein isolate is the gold standard of protein powders, and it’s the only one I take besides collagen, but it’s not the only one out there. There are reasons for branching out beyond whey into other types of protein powder. Maybe you’d like some variety once in awhile. Maybe you’re just curious about what else is out there, or perhaps you don’t want any animal protein at all. Whatever the reason, I figured I’d give you some info on some of the more popular types of protein powder, including whether or not they contribute meaningfully to our intake of essential amino acids.
Before we begin, let’s talk about how we can measure a protein’s usability.
The BV (biological value) is one way to measure a protein’s “usability.” Biological value testing measures the amount of nitrogen that appears in the urine and feces after eating it to determine how much was retained and utilized by the body. If very little nitrogen appears in the toilet after eating a given protein, that protein has a high BV. If a good amount appears in the toilet, that protein has a lower BV.
The higher the BV, the greater the proportion of available protein that can be synthesized by the body’s cells. Higher BVs usually indicate a greater amount of essential amino acids—those amino acids that the body cannot synthesize or convert on its own and must instead obtain from the diet—but it doesn’t measure them specifically.
Note, though, that biological value does not refer to the amount of protein in the powder; it only refers to the usability of the protein in the powder. A particular powder might be 60% protein, and the biological value would tell you exactly how much of that 60% is usable by the body. Different powders have different protein contents. Hemp protein, for example, is often about 50% protein, but it varies by the manufacturer. A quick glance at the nutrition facts should clue you in.
There’s also the protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS), which is the method by which the World Health Organization and FDA evaluate protein value. It’s a newer model, and it’s based on the amino acid requirements of humans, specifically children, as well as digestibility and absorption. To determine the PDCAAS, they measure fecal nitrogen and track the amount of essential amino acids in each protein powder. Most promotional materials use the BV, but the PDCAAS is more accurate for what we care about. Whey protein isolate (both isolate and concentrate) has an optimum PDCAAS of 1.
A newer method of quantifying protein quality is the DIAAS, or Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score. This is similar to PDCAAS, but instead of measuring nitrogen in the feces, it measures nitrogen in the ileum after it has left the small intestine and before it descends into the large intestine. This is more accurate than measuring fecal protein, because fecal protein may be lower due to protein metabolism by gut bacteria. Measuring it in the ileum reflects only what the body has absorbed.
Whichever method you use to quantity protein quality—BV, PDCAAS, or DIAAS—animal proteins like whey outperform plant proteins. So as a good general guideline, it’s safe to assume that animal-baed protein powders are going to be higher quality than plant-based protein powders. That said, let’s get into the specific powders ranked according to overall quality and usability.
The Top 9 Types of Protein Powder
1. Whey Protein Powder
The gold standard against which everything else is compared. Whey defeats all. It’s rich in essential amino acids and has a host of benefits for immunity, muscle-building, performance, cognitive function, and overall robustness. Read more about whey for a discussion of its benefits.
2. Egg White Protein Powder
Egg white protein powder is another highly bioavailable protein choice. In fact, it’s so bioavailable that it represents the BV against which all others are compared (that’s why whey can have a BV exceeding 100). All the amino acids are represented. If you’re concerned about oxidized cholesterol, stay away from whole egg protein powder. You may be able to get a hold of a minimally processed whole egg powder with very little oxidation, but you’ll probably end up spending a ton of money. Just eat actual eggs or stick with egg white powder instead.
3. Casein Protein Powder
Derived from that other fraction of milk protein, casein protein powder doesn’t absorb as quickly as whey. It’s a complete protein with the full range of amino acids (including ample amounts of glutamine, which transports nitrogen to tissue), just like whey, but it may be problematic for people with casein intolerance. Those with dairy allergies should probably avoid it. Bodybuilders swear by casein; they dig it for the slow absorption rate and tend to take it before bedtime. One (industry funded) study found that casein was inferior to whey protein in terms of body composition and muscular strength outcomes, so I wouldn’t replace whey with casein just yet. There may be some benefit to taking both, since both casein and whey are a package deal in nature. Milk is certainly a popular post-workout recovery drink, and it contains both casein and whey.
4. Soy Protein
Soy protein is actually one of the more complete plant proteins, and it can definitely fill in some nutritional gaps for people who don’t eat any animal products at all, but there are downsides. One big one is that soy protein supplementation has been shown to depress testosterone production in men.1
5. Potato Protein
Potato protein is my favorite plant protein of all. The protein powder isn’t very economical or widely available, but potatoes have almost complete protein, about as good as soy without the negative effects on testosterone. If this becomes more common I’d recommend it to any vegan dieter.
30 grams of potato protein compares favorably to 30 grams of milk protein in resistance trained individuals looking to gain strength and size.2 Note, though, that 20 grams of milk protein will be more effective than 20 grams of potato protein. The lower the value of the protein, the more absolute protein you need to eat to get the same effect.
6. Pea Protein
I’m generally down on vegetarian protein powders. In my experience, they just don’t work as well as the animal-based ones. We’re not meant to get all our protein from vegetable sources, and our absorption of vegetable-based protein isn’t as efficient, so you have to consume far more pea protein powder just to get enough—and this stuff can get pretty pricey. Furthermore, pea protein powder tends to be lower in protein by weight than animal-based protein powders. No protein powder is perfectly Primal, but pea protein powder is even less so. If egg and milk protein powders are off limits for whatever reason, though, give pea protein a shot.
Compared to whey’s huge effect, pea protein has an intermediate effect on post-workout muscle damage.3 And that was taking pea protein 3x a day. So it’s better than nothing, but still not as good as whey.
7. Wheat Protein
If you refuse to use whey protein, egg protein, or casein, you have the option of eating pure wheat gluten. Of course, gluten activates zonulin, which regulates intestinal permeability and increases leaky gut in everyone who eats it.
8. Rice Protein
Rice protein powder is created by isolating the protein from the brown rice grain. Rice is already one of the least offensive grains out there, so a smattering of rice-based amino acids will work okay. You’re not going to absorb or digest the rice protein with as much ease as with animal-based protein, but that’s fine.
There is a study where rice protein supplementation had similar effects on muscle strength and gains as whey supplementation, but it took a heroic dose to get there: almost 50 grams.4 You could get the same effect on muscle protein synthesis with just 20 grams of whey isolate or 30 grams of potato protein.
9. Hemp Protein
Hemp is another option for vegetarians (or nutrition explorers). Like the other vegetarian protein powders, hemp is quite a bit lower in protein content than the animal protein-based powders (or even other vegetarian powders). It’s generally loaded with tons of fiber and a bit more fat than other powders, but fiber-free versions do exist. Again, not my first choice, and it’s fairly expensive, but hemp powder does taste relatively good and usually comes with some minerals like magnesium.
However, there are no published studies on hemp protein and muscle protein synthesis. The closest I could find was one where hemp protein lowered blood glucose compared to eating an equivalent dosage of carbs, which should come as no surprise.5
Choosing the Right Protein Powder for You
When selecting which protein powder is right for you it’s important to keep these three elements in mind.
Protein quality: Choose protein powders that hit high marks on all three measurements—BV, DIAAS, PDCAAS
Protein percentage by weight: Choose protein powders that have a high percentage of protein by weight. If 100 grams of whey powder contains 90 grams of protein and 100 grams of pea gluten soy rice protein powder contains 70 grams, the whey is far more concentrated in the stuff we actually care about—protein. You don’t want to eat a half cup of powder just to get 20 grams of protein.
Protein efficiency and economics: You’ll need about 30-50 grams of plant protein in a single sitting to get the same effect as 20 grams of whey isolate. That will get expensive, fast.
Do You Need Protein Powder?
Whey protein powder is proven to be the most effective. Protein powder in general can help athletes recover from training, and it doesn’t have to be dairy-based, if you’re sensitive. There’s nothing wrong with dabbling (or even throwing yourself into) in alternative protein powders, and in the case of casein and egg whites, you might even see added benefits by incorporating them into your whey regimen.
But that doesn’t mean you need protein powder.
Take your time and evaluate your diet. You may find that you don’t need powder supplements. I certainly don’t need any myself, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a big whey shake after an intense workout session from time to time, just for the anabolic effects as well as the convenience and taste. If you’re not getting enough protein, or you can’t find the time to cook every single meal, try some protein powder. Otherwise, eat a steak.
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