How to Choose Quality Protein SupplementsSome higher quality protein powders deliver all the nutrients you need and help your muscles to recover from exercise, or they simply help you boost your daily protein intake. Others, however, lack quality, purity, and taste.
Quality Protein Supplements
By: Jeremy Partl, Registered Dietitian
Supplementation of any kind is a tricky subject. Before I can give a meaningful recommendation, I have to know who and what is being supplemented. All else equal, nobody needs supplementation. All the micronutrients you need are available in food form. But, we also live in the real world, where preferences, schedules, and access to food are not all equally conducive to a varied diet of micronutrient-rich and macronutrient-balanced foods. For real people, some supplements are useful for…well supplementing, adding something useful rather than taking the place of whole foods.
While no recommendations for supplements will apply to everyone, lifters have self-selected themselves into a group that values strength and the processes that build and maintain muscle mass. And many of us have a dietary background firmly rooted in a Traditional Western Diet that is relatively light on protein and heavy on carbohydrates and fat. In some recent articles, I’ve talked about the trifecta of muscle building: lift weights, maintain a high level of activity, and eat high-protein diets (compared to most people) spread out evenly throughout the day:
To help them capitalize on their efforts in the gym, many lifters require easy access to protein.
While it’s probably best to try and get your protein from food (rather than from supplements and powders), sometimes we fall short in our diets due to hectic schedules and busy lives. In almost any case, protein powder can help to boost your protein consumption to higher levels.
If you’re searching for a high-quality protein powder and struggling to decipher the difference between the overwhelming number of options on the market, it’s a good idea to do research and read the labels. Some higher quality protein powders deliver all the nutrients you need and help your muscles to recover from exercise, or they simply help you boost your daily protein intake. Others, however, lack quality, purity, and taste.
This article serves as a guide for helping you to select the right type of protein powder for your personal preference and goals.
TYPES OF PROTEIN POWDERS
There are a lot of types of protein powders available out on the market that suit a wide variety of dietary preferences and requirements, ranging from milk-based proteins to vegan- and vegetarian-friendly options.
Whey protein is probably the most popular type of protein powder available. It is made by extracting the liquid from milk that is a result of the cheese manufacturing process.
Compared to other protein sources, whey contains some of the highest concentrations of essential amino acids (making it a very high-quality protein). It is characterized by its rapid digestion in the body.
Whey protein can be found in a few different forms on the market, each varying in the actual ratio of protein to fat and carbohydrates in the product.
- Whey protein concentrate can be thought of as the least “pure” form of whey protein, containing the least amount of protein (meaning that there is extra fat and/or carbohydrate present). While the amount of protein in concentrates can vary from 25-89%, most whey protein concentrate products have about 80% of their calories coming from protein.
- Whey protein isolate typically has greater than 90% of its total calories coming from protein. Compared to concentrates, isolates tend to have higher protein content and less fat and carbohydrates (specifically, lactose).
- Whey hydrolysates are the most “pure” form of protein. While they also contain greater than 90% of calories from protein, manufacturers use enzymes to break the bonds between amino acids, yielding smaller peptides that make absorption easier for your body.
It’s always good to make sure you are actually getting protein when purchasing and using a supplement. However, unless you have major troubles with digestion, it’s unlikely that you need to purchase a hydrolysate. Even for those with lactose intolerance, isolates may be a suitable option.
For the best bang for your buck, isolates are probably the first recommendation, followed by concentrates.
Milk actually contains two proteins, whey and casein. Casein—typically found in the semisolid “curds”—is actually the predominant protein found in milk (making up approximately 80% of it). However, casein protein isn’t the most popular form of protein supplement on the market.
Unlike whey, casein is a slow-digesting protein source, raising amino acid levels more gradually and for a longer duration than whey protein. This theoretically makes casein an ideal protein source before bed, where it can be used to reduce muscle protein breakdown during periods of fasting.
Egg White Protein
Eggs are often referred to as the gold standard for high-quality protein sources, making egg-based protein powders a good choice. Furthermore, this type of protein powder is a great option for anyone who avoids dairy, soy, gluten, etc. While they typically don’t have as great of a taste as other protein powders, mixing with fruits and vegetables in something like a smoothie makes it more than tolerable.
Vegetable Protein Sources
Whether for ethical, moral, or dietary concerns (for individuals who are needing lactose and/or gluten-free options), vegetable protein powders from sources such as soy, pea, rice, hemp, and flax provide a suitable supplement. While plant protein sources are incomplete and lack the full spectrum of essential amino acids, many plant-based protein powders contain a variety of sources to make a well-rounded supplement. Furthermore, soy protein is the only plant-based protein that is a complete protein containing all essential amino acids.
While it can be easy to get caught up in minutiae, your first focus should be on eating 15 to 45 grams of high-quality protein every three or four hours. Then, you can begin to focus and select a protein powder that fits your budget, lifestyle, and dietary preferences.
CHOOSING A QUALITY POWDER
With the vast number of protein supplements out there, it can be hard to determine which is the best “bang for your buck” deal. When it comes to protein powder, you are going to want to make sure that you are actually getting the protein that you are paying for.
Sadly, that is not as simple as it sounds. While it was probably happening for years, there was a pretty big controversy around something called “amino spiking” or “protein spiking” in the 2010 decade. Companies were making their products less pure by adding additional amino acids that aren’t used as building blocks of protein (notably glycine and taurine) to inflate the protein content listed on the Supplement Facts label (versus the actual protein content of the product).
With protein powders, it’s important not to just go for the protein powder that provides the most grams of protein per dollar you spend. For example, just because you can stock up on a cheap protein powder at your local Walmart for much less than other products sit next to it or at another retailer, it’s more than likely that the cheap product will be a waste of money.
Because there can be such variability, and because of the “amino spiking” scandals, it’s important to do your research. What are some of the things you should do?
1. Start With the Ingredients
How many ingredients are listed on the label? Protein supplements should be relatively simple. While it’s not necessary to buy only “whole and natural” products, you probably don’t want a laundry list of ingredients included in your protein powder.
Most notably, watch out for “proprietary blends.” While companies have to be transparent about the ingredients in a product, they don’t have to reveal the amounts in which they are included. Oftentimes this is a recipe for companies to increase the perceived value of the product and get away with using less of the most efficacious ingredients.
Additionally, if the ingredient panel lists a bunch of free-form amino acids such as L-Glutamine, L-Taurine, and/or Creatine (especially at the beginning of the list), it’s likely that your product may be spiked.
2. Look at the Amino Acid Content
Does your supplement list the individual amino acid content? For example, can you find the amounts of Leucine, Isoleucine, Valine, etc.? While not all quality protein supplements will contain a listing of the amino acid content, it can be something helpful to guide your choice in spending your money wisely.
The most important amino acid to analyze would be Leucine, arguably the most critical amino acid pertaining to protein synthesis. Ideally, your product should have 2 grams or more of Leucine per 25 grams of protein.
If your supplement does not list the amount of amino acids (especially Leucine), it may be a sign that the company has something it wants to hide.
3. Check for 3rd Party Verification
Luckily, you don’t have to do all the work. Thanks to multiple legitimate, unbiased, and reliable 3rd party verifying bodies such as Informed Choice and National Science Foundation (NSF), you can be assured that you are getting the protein you are paying for…and not any other additives that may be missing from the ingredient label. Another notable company to check with is Labdoor.com, which does loads of testing of supplements to verify the accuracy of quality and label claims.
RECOMMENDED PROTEIN BRANDS
Starting off this section, I want to first clarify that I have no affiliation with any of these companies or products. My intent is to advocate for and help our audience find a quality protein supplement that fits your dietary preferences, budget, and more (whatever other factors are a consideration for you).
Like I mentioned before, it’s probably wise to avoid picking a product based only on price. Below, I list some of my favorite protein supplements that I have found to be a good blend of high quality and a lower price point. In other words, these are my “bang for your buck” protein supplements that I often recommend to clients.
- Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard
- Bodybuilding.com Signature 100% Whey
- Dymatize Iso100
- Orgain Organic Plant-Based Protein Powder (Vegan)
- Garden Of Life Sport Organic Plant-Based Protein (Vegan)
While protein supplements surely are not necessary, many people find that their convenience and taste (among other factors) make them a worthwhile purchase. However, walk into any supplement store, and you will find the shelves stocked with an abundance of choices of protein supplements. Hopefully, this article gave you a brief course of knowledge to help you spend your hard-earned money wisely if you are going to pick up a protein supplement.