Walk up and down the aisles of any major supplement store, and the sheer variety of protein powder options can be overwhelming. Protein sources range from whey to soy to pea (yes, pea as in the vegetable). And they come in hundreds of flavors, including “Rocky Road,” “Birthday Cake” and “Extreme Milk Chocolate” (not to be confused with “Double Rich Chocolate,” of course). On top of all that, there’s deciding whether or not to shell out for premium options like “hydrolyzed” and “isolate,” which come with a considerably higher price tag.
But is it worth springing for a pricier protein powder that claims to digest faster or deliver more nutrients to your muscles? And how do your personal goals and dietary needs factor in? To help you navigate the confusing world of protein powders and pick the right one for you, we’ve highlighted the most common types of protein powder and the best uses for each.
Perhaps the most common and cheapest variety of protein powder on the market is whey protein. Found at any supplement retailer and now many grocery stores, it boasts an impressive array of vitamins and minerals. That’s why this dairy-based product has become a post-workout staple among pro athletes and recreational gym-goers alike. And there’s good reason whey is a popular way to go. It has been shown to help repair muscles post-strength session, and increase muscle strength and size when consumed within two hoursof your workout.
But it’s not as easy as grabbing any old jug and hitting the road. Consumers have the option of “hydrolyzed,” “isolate,” and more. At its core, “hydrolyzed” means the product has broken down from whole proteins down into smaller groups of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), also referred to as peptides. This method is meant to improve the speed of digestion. Another term, “isolate,” refers to a purification process where supplement companies attempt to get the purest form of whey protein possible.
All of these processes sound great, but are they worth the additional $15 or more per container? Not necessarily, research suggests. According to Brian St. Pierre, sports dietitian and nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition, while specialized protein powders may be slightly more beneficial, the advantage is small in the grand scheme of sports nutrition. A basic whey concentrate protein powder from a reputable company can deliver great results, too, so long as adequate attention is paid to overall protein intake, optimal supplement timing, and diet quality, St. Pierre says.
Although it might not fly off shelves quite as quickly as whey, casein protein is actually very similar in more ways than one. Like whey, casein protein comes from dairy and is actually the primary protein found in cow’s milk. Unlike whey protein, however, it digests slower due to a complex interaction with stomach acids. This results in a slower release of essential proteins and amino acids, which makes casein the preferred supplement in situations when a slow release of nutrients is beneficial. (Think before bed when you’re going seven to 10 hours without food).
This same benefit is also thought to make casein protein a less optimal supplement post-workout (when you want nutrients quickly). However, research indicates this might not be as big of a deal as we thought. In many cases, whey and casein can be interchangeable, St. Pierre says. “Honestly, it’s pretty much an equal substitute. The research that compares whey to caseins post-workout is equivocal,” he says. You can stock up on both. But, according to St. Pierre, “Your total protein intake far outweighs anything else.” While that total amount will vary from person to person, the experts at Precision Nutrition recommend taking in 0.6-0.9 grams per pound of bodyweight depending on activity levels. (More active individuals will need more protein.)
In the land of muscle, sweat and ripped physiques, it’s hard to imagine that fuel can come from the almighty…pea. This 100 percent plant-based protein is typically made from yellow peas and towers above common protein powders in a few regards. First, it is naturally fat- and cholesterol-free (it comes from a plant after all). Second, pea protein isn’t derived from dairy, making it appropriate for those who are lactose-intolerant. Lastly, it’s completely gluten-free, which can help individuals avoid gastric distress when supplementing frequently.
So is time to ditch your regular source of protein in search of the elusive pea? Not exactly. Pea protein has its benefits, particularly for those with specific dietary considerations. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect for everyone. While pea protein is affordable and contains similar levels of protein per same-sized serving as whey and casein, it has been shown to be deficient in one amino acid (cystine). If you’re having stomach trouble with your current protein powder, it might make sense to give pea protein a try. Otherwise, you could try rotating it into your supplement schedule to avoid boredom and mix up your nutritional routine.
A mainstay in the households of many vegetarians, soybeans are another form of plant-based protein that still contain all of your essential amino acids (referred to as a complete protein). In studies, soy protein also performs comparably to whey protein in terms of stimulating muscle growth after a tough strength training session. However, the benefits of soy extend beyond the gym. According to some research, isoflavones, organic compounds present in soy, have been shown to potentially reduce the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Soy protein doesn’t come without a possible downside, though. The isoflavones can interact with hormones like estrogen and potentially skew hormone levels when taken in excess. For men, specifically, the fear is that increased soy intake could reduce testosterone levels. However, research suggests that this shouldn’t necessarily be a huge concern for soy consumers. According to St. Pierre, “If you are having a lot of soy-based foods in addition to your soy proteins then, yes [you may want to cut back]. If you are having the occasional shake with soy protein in it, it’s probably not anything to be concerned about,” he says. For those still wary of any ill effects, soy protein concentrate is always an option. Due to the way this protein variation is processed, it has a lower amount of the potentially-negative isoflavones.
Made from hemp seeds, hemp protein is actually a derivative of another “supplement” altogether: cannabis. Of course, hemp protein contains very little THC, the ingredient in marijuana that makes you feel high. So it’s safe to consume without any side effects. Nutritionally speaking, hemp seeds have more to offer than just protein content. For one, they are often thought of as a superfood due to their high content of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Hemp protein is also 100 percent plant-based and highly-digestible, meaning less GI distress for some users.
Hemp protein does come with a few cons, though. For one, the high fat content results in a higher calorie count, making this protein powder a less-optimal choice if the goal is purely weight loss. It’s also worth noting that because growing hemp is illegal in many U.S. states, most hemp products are imported from other countries. This drives up the price making hemp protein one of the more expensive options on the market.
While a big bowl of rice just won’t cut it after a long weight session, a rice protein shake might. Surprisingly enough, this 100 percent plant-based protein stacks up well against the competition. In an eight-week study comparing the benefits of both whey and rice protein supplementation, researchers concluded that both offered nearly the same benefit. Rice protein is also gluten-free, making it a safe (and economical) choice for those with gluten allergies.
One downside to rice protein is that it tends to be low in certain amino acids — namely, lysine. This means that relying on rice protein powder as your sole source of protein likely isn’t ideal. Pairing rice protein with other sources of animal or plant-based proteins is the best way to incorporate this supplement in your diet without missing out on essential amino acids.
The quest to find a quality plant-based protein doesn’t mean you have to stick with just one source. Vegan protein powder blends have become an increasingly popular choice, harnessing the power of hemp, peas, rice, quinoa and more — all in the same bottle. The result is a gluten-free, dairy-free and soy-free supplement that can nutritionally stand up against animal-based products, without users having to worry about amino acid deficiencies (or an upset stomach).
While some plant-based blends can be a bit more expensive than your average whey product, they can be a great choice for vegetarians, vegans (or anyone who wants more protein, sans animal-based products). And because these varieties can suit most dietary needs or restrictions, vegan protein powders are a smart choice for households, gyms and dorms where there’s more than one person fueling up.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to protein powder, buyers really do have a diverse choice. Powders come from nearly any source imaginable with a wide range of price tags to match. In the end, the type of protein powder you choose should reflect your dietary needs and food preferences. And, of course, if you’re downing a protein shake or smoothie each day, it should pass the taste test! Consider sampling single-serving packets first, so you’re not stuck with five-pound tub of powder you can’t quite stomach. If you’re still stumped on which variety to choose, consult with a certified nutritionist. They can review your current diet, training goals and intended use in order to make the best possible decision for you.
Originally published July 2014. Updated October 2017.