Choosing an option from all the protein powder types on the market can be an exhilarating (or extremely confusing) experience.
You’re taking concrete steps toward optimizing your nutrition, enhancing your training performance, and building your dream physique. That is until you step into the supplement section of your neighborhood health store …
And realize that picking a protein powder isn’t as straightforward as you’d hoped.
Whey protein powder. Casein protein powder. Then, there’s also beef protein powder – which, based on what you’ve heard, is apparently the same thing as collagen protein powder. It’s all very confusing.
Worse still, it appears that there are different types of whey protein powder: whey protein concentrate (WPC), whey protein isolate (WPI), and whey protein hydrolysate (WPH).
What’s the difference between all these protein powder types? Is one better than the other? And if it is, which is the best for you? What are the things you need to look out for when making a purchase?
Lots of question marks.
To clear up some of the confusion and help you choose the best protein powder type aligned to your unique goals, physiology, and preferences, here’s a comprehensive comparison of popular protein powder types available. Plus, things you need to look out for.
What are protein powders for?
First up (and it’s a serious question): what are protein powders for?
I mean … getting protein from your diet isn’t exactly rocket science. If you’re eating an animal-based diet, there’s poultry, fish, dairy-based products, etc. And if you’re eating a plant-based diet? There’s always tofu, soy, tempeh – so on and so forth.
So, why do we still shell out billions of dollars yearly (on a collective basis) on protein powder?
Easy. Getting protein from our diets isn’t the same as getting sufficient amounts of it to support our fitness goals. If you’re hoping to train for a bigger butt, for instance, hitting 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is indeed challenging (1).
Meaning if you weigh 60 kilograms? You should be getting 120 grams of protein daily.
Admittedly, it’s certainly not impossible to get all your daily required protein from your diet (especially if you meal prep). But the truth is that it’s not the easiest – or most palatable – thing for most of us.
Enter protein powders. If you find getting enough protein through your foods ‘Mission Impossible’, then they’re lifesavers.
What’s more, protein powders are one of the few well-researched and proven workout supplements worth investing in. It’s unlike products, such as BCAA supplements, that are more questionable in efficacy.
Also, there’s no overstating the convenience factor of the chuggable, portable, lightweight, mixes-in-seconds protein shake.
How many protein shakes should you drink a day?
Decided that you do need protein powders? The next question that comes is undoubtedly this: how many protein shakes should you drink a day?
Thankfully, there’s nothing complicated about this. Here’s how you can find out:
- Calculate how much protein you need to eat in a day (A)
- Determine how much protein you’re already getting through your diet from food alone (B)
- Minus B from A to find out how much more protein you need (C)
- Note how many grams of protein your protein powder gives you per scoop (D)
- Divide C by D (i.e. C/D) to find out how many scoops of protein you need a day
- That’s also most likely how many protein shakes you should drink a day – provided you only use 1 scoop of protein powder for each shake
Not a big fan of algebra? No worries. Here’s an example that’ll help you get a better idea of just how much protein powder you should drink a day:
- You weigh 60 kg and need to eat 120 grams of protein daily
- You’re currently only getting 80 grams of protein from your food
- To hit your daily required protein intake, you still need to eat another 40 grams
- Your protein powder gives you 20 grams of protein per scoop
- You’ll need 2 scoops of protein powder every day
- And so, the answer to how many protein shakes you should drink a day: 2!
Protein powders are great when you’re struggling to hit your daily required protein intake. To find out how many protein shakes you should drink a day, calculate how many grams of protein you’re falling short on daily – then divide that by the number of grams you’re getting from a scoop of protein powder.
What makes a protein powder ‘good’?
Before diving into the various types of protein powders available, it’s crucial for you to first learn what makes a protein powder ‘good.’
In other words: the factors that determine the quality of a protein powder.
This will help you make better sense of the discussions that’ll follow in just a bit. And help you make an informed decision the next time you step into a supplement store!
So, without further ado, here are the 2 things you need to pay attention to:
- Leucine content: Leucine is a special type of essential amino acid called a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) (4, 5). Various studies show that this particular amino acid appears to be the most potent at stimulating muscle protein synthesis (6, 7, 8, 9). So, in general, you want a higher leucine content in whichever type of protein powder you go for.
- Digestibility: Protein digestibility refers to how well your body can make use of a particular source of dietary protein (10). In this case, it predicts how much amino acids from the protein powder your body can digest, absorb, and use for protein synthesis (i.e. in muscle growth).
Ideally, the type of protein powder you choose should score high on both factors: leucine content and digestibility.
This suggests that it’ll be more effective with muscle repair and growth.
A high-quality protein powder should score high on leucine content and digestibility.
Animal-based protein powder types
It’s crucial to note that animal-based types of protein powders are generally better for protein synthesis and growth than plant-based options (11).
Why? Well, it all comes down to the leucine content.
Animal-based protein powders have higher leucine content (12). The average leucine content for animal-based protein powder types ranges between 8% to 13%, while the average leucine content for plant-based protein powders ranges between 6% to 8%.
It’s also worth mentioning that plant-based powders also tend to be deficient in other essential amino acids as well. In other words: they’re not ‘complete proteins.’
Now, this doesn’t mean that you can’t maximize protein synthesis and muscle growth by relying on plant-based protein powders. There are just a few things you’ll need to do to account for their ‘shortcomings.’
We’ll explore those after we’re done with the animal-based protein powders. That said, feel free to skip right ahead to the plant-based powders section if you’re on a plant-based diet.
Whey protein powder
A common question people ask is, “Where does whey protein come from?” Here’s the answer: it comes from milk.
It’s the liquid that separates from the curds during cheese production (13, 14). Ever opened a yogurt container to see liquid sloshing around at the top? Yep. That’s whey. Now, if you could only pick one type of protein powder for the rest of your life, I’d suggest going with whey.
That’s because compared to other forms of protein powder, whey contains the highest essential amino acid content. And has, thus, been shown as the best at stimulating muscle protein synthesis (15).
As for the specific type of whey protein powder you should go for? Let’s see:
- Concentrate (WPC): About 35% to 80% protein, contains some lactose (i.e. milk sugar) and fat. Typically offers the highest number of calories per serving as a result.
- Isolate (WPI): At least 90% protein and contains less lactose and fat than in WPC. The lower amount of calories (than in WPC) makes this particularly useful when eating in a calorie deficit. Individuals with lactose sensitivity or intolerance can safely take WPI.
- Hydrolysate (WPH): Whey concentrates or isolates that have been ‘predigested’ to help with absorption. But here’s the surprising bit. Research shows that it is not any more effective at stimulating muscle growth than WPC or WPI – and yet is much more expensive than either (16).
So … save your money on the whey protein hydrolysates. They’re overhyped and, quite frankly, unnecessary.
Which whey protein powder type should I choose?
And when it comes to whey protein concentrate vs whey protein isolate, here are a few questions that’ll guide you to the right choice for yourself:
- Do you have lactose sensitivity or intolerance? Whey protein isolate.
- Just want the most affordable option available? Whey protein concentrate.
- Want a tastier shake? Whey protein concentrate.
- Want to minimize the number of calories in your protein powder? Whey protein isolate.
To assess your needs objectively, start by understanding the macronutrient profile of your diet. If you’re able to make a little room for the higher calories of a whey protein concentrate, it’s definitely the most budget-friendly option.
Whey protein is arguably the best animal-based protein powder type around. Save your money on the hydrolysates. Go for the whey isolates if you want to minimize calories in your protein powders and/or have lactose sensitivities.
Casein protein powder
Like whey, casein protein is derived from milk.
Casein makes up 80% of milk protein, while whey makes up the remaining 20%. These by-products of cheese production – casein and whey – are high-quality proteins; they’re both complete proteins and easily digested and absorbed (17).
Casein forms a gel when it interacts with your stomach acid – delaying your bloodstream’s absorption of amino acids. As a result, it provides your body with a slow, steady release of amino acids (lasting anywhere between 4 to 5 hours).
On the contrary, whey protein is quickly digested and absorbed by your body (90 minutes).
More importantly, whey protein stimulates muscle protein synthesis to a larger degree than casein, especially when consumed in tandem with workouts. This is due to the higher leucine content in whey protein.
Till now, it might appear as though casein protein powder is totally inferior. But that’s not true.
As mentioned, casein can ‘drip-feed’ your muscles with muscle- repairing and building amino acids for up to 4 hours. Take it right before going to bed to help with muscle recovery and growth overnight when you aren’t getting protein from meals (22, 23, 24).
What does this mean for you then?
Well, one way I’d go about it is to have whey protein during the day – then supplement with casein protein powder right before I head to bed. Another alternative is to simply blend both types of protein powders together.
Of course, there are plenty of protein blends on the market that have already done that for you, although they can be pricey. If you’re hoping to keep your protein blends affordable, it’s usually cheaper to buy whey and casein protein powders separately, and mix them yourself. You can even experiment with the ratio that works best for you.
But if I’m being very honest, at the end of the day, what matters the most when it comes to muscle recovery and growth is the total amount of protein you’re eating.
Both whey and casein are incredibly high-quality protein supplements. You’d do fine relying on either, or even both of them. It’s entirely up to you.
Whether you’re trying to lose weight or aiming to build muscle, casein’s uniquely slow digestion rate makes it a great addition to any diet.
Casein protein powder comes in a close second to whey protein. One of its best uses is to take it right before bed – so it supplies your muscles with a constant stream of amino acids when you’re sleeping.
Egg white protein powder
Eggs are an excellent source of high-quality protein. In fact, of all whole foods, eggs have the highest protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) – which is a measure of a protein’s quality and digestibility (25).
That said, ‘egg protein powders’ are typically made from egg whites rather than whole eggs.
While the protein quality remains excellent, research suggests that you may not see as much protein synthesis.
Specifically, according to a 2017 study, researchers found a 40% greater post-workout muscle-building response in those eating whole eggs than those consuming an equivalent amount of protein from egg whites (26).
Regardless, egg white protein powders are still a complete protein source.
What’s more, egg protein is second only to whey as the highest leucine source – the BCAA we’ve established to play the largest role in muscle growth. With that said, it’s crucial to note that egg protein powders aren’t as well-studied as whey or casein powders.
Ultimately, if you’re allergic to dairy, egg white protein powders could be an excellent option for you.
Egg white protein powders are a complete protein source. And it could be an excellent option for you if you’re allergic to dairy.
Collagen protein powder
I was pretty impressed with collagen protein powder’s purported benefits: radiant skin, reduced inflammation, and most importantly – muscle growth. Plus, it’s tasteless, odorless, and typically dissolves much better than any other type of protein powder.
Unfortunately, after some digging, I realized that it doesn’t exactly live up to its claims.
Especially not when pitched as a substitute for any type of regular type of animal-based protein powder. As mentioned earlier, the quality of a protein powder comes down to its amino acid profile. And if there were a single amino acid we had to zoom into, it’d be leucine.
So, how does collagen fare in this aspect?
One word: terribly (27). Yes, it does ‘contain all 9 essential amino acids for muscle development.’ But the more critical issue here is, how much?
The amount of amino acids you’re getting is minute, especially compared to a high-quality protein source like whey.
Take leucine, for instance. 11 grams of bovine collagen peptides gives you 310 milligrams of leucine. 11 grams of whey protein concentrate, in comparison gives you more than 3.5 times that amount (1,115 milligrams)
What does this mean?
If you’re consuming protein shakes mainly for muscle development (i.e. get bigger, stronger, or add more shape to your physique), then give collagen protein powders a miss.
Wondering if collagen protein shakes are ever worth it?
There is evidence that collagen supplementation can mitigate or protect against age-related wrinkles (28, 29). There is also some research supporting its benefits in joint health (30). So, if you’re interested in these benefits, collagen protein powder could be an option.
Just keep in mind that it’s not the ideal type of protein powder.
Don’t rely on collagen protein powders for muscle recovery and growth. They simply don’t have enough of the essential amino acids to be considered a high-quality protein source.
Plant-based protein powder types
Whether you’re in favor of plant-based protein powder types for health, sustainability, or ethical reasons, one thing’s clear: there are plenty of options available.
That said, it’s worth repeating that research shows plant-based or vegan protein powders simply don’t stimulate muscle protein synthesis as well as animal-based protein powders (e.g. whey, casein).
Many plant-based protein powders simply don’t have all the essential amino acids – or have little amounts of them.
Although, you can partially compensate for this by simply consuming more of the plant-based protein powder. Or combining 2 complementary proteins into a protein powder blend (more on this later) (31).
For now, let’s cover one of the best types of plant-based protein powder in the market: pea.
Pea protein powder
What do you know?
Those mushy little orbs your mom forced you to eat when you were a kid do contain protein! Just so you know, pea protein is made from the yellow split pea – a high-fiber legume that boasts all but one of the essential amino acids: methionine (32).
While low on methionine, one of its benefits is it contains a higher level of protein than other popular plant-based options like hemp.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’d have noticed that an obvious downside to pea protein powder is that it does not have a complete profile of all essential amino acids as it lacks methionine.
For an easy fix, combine it with other plant-based protein powders that have a high amount of methionine (e.g. rice protein powder).
Make up for this shortfall, and research appears to suggest that you may see as much muscle gains as you would with whey (33). More high-quality studies are needed to confirm this finding, of course – but this is heartening news for all on a plant-based diet.
Ultimately, pea protein powder is your best bet if you’re vegan or allergic to both dairy and soy.
Pea protein is the best type of plant-based protein powder if you’re on a plant-based diet or allergic to both dairy and soy. That said, you should combine it with a rice protein powder to make up for its shortfall in methionine.
Hemp protein powder
Hemp protein powder is made by grinding pressed hemp seeds into a fine powder.
And yes, if you were wondering: hemp is related to marijuana. But get your heads out of the clouds; hemp protein powder only contains trace amounts of the psychoactive component, THC, so you can only count on your post-workout endorphins for a natural high (34).
Now, hemp protein powder does contain all nine essential amino acids. That means it’s a complete protein source.
That said, research is mixed on the exact amounts of essential amino acids it contains.
A 2004 study found that its amino acid profile is similar to egg whites and soy – both high-quality protein sources (35). However, other studies have shown that it contains relatively low amounts of lysine, making it a poorer-quality protein source (36, 37). It’s also known to be low on leucine.
Hemp protein powder also typically contains less protein per serving than soy or pea protein powder (38).
With all this said, I’m struggling to find a reason to go with a hemp protein powder – especially when pea protein is available.
Its high-fiber and unsaturated fat content are definite plus points, but are still not convincing reasons for anyone to use it as a muscle-building tool (39).
Despite it being a complete protein source, there is little reason to recommend hemp protein powder.
Brown rice protein powder
Wait a minute, rice?
Yes – despite its reputation as a carb-dominant source, rice contains a fair amount of protein. And because brown rice typically offers slightly more protein than white rice (5 grams per cup vs 4 grams per cup), most rice protein powders are derived from brown rice (40, 41).
Here’s something you should be aware of, though. As it’s low in lysine, brown rice protein powders cannot be considered complete protein sources (42).
Like other types of plant-based protein powder, brown rice protein powder is commonly accepted as inferior to whey protein for muscle recovery and growth.
Regardless, you can make up for its shortfall by combining it with pea protein.
As mentioned earlier, pea protein is low in methionine – but slightly higher in lysine. Brown rice protein, in comparison, scores high on methionine but lacks lysine. Thus, complementing each other’s amino acid profile.
Brown rice protein powder lacks lysine – and, therefore, cannot be considered a complete protein source. That said, you can make up for this shortcoming by combining it with pea protein.
Soy protein powder
Ah, soy protein powder – the most, dare I say, controversial plant-based protein powder type available.
Now, unlike most other plant-based protein powders, soy protein is a complete protein source. It contains all of the essential amino acids your body cannot make.
As a result, compared to whey and casein protein powders, soy sits somewhere in the middle for muscle protein synthesis. Research shows that while soy is inferior to whey protein regarding synthesizing protein for muscle, it performed better than casein (43, 44).
You might be wondering why soy protein powder isn’t the go-to plant-based option for those on a vegan or vegetarian diet in light of this information?
Well, there are several concerns about soy.
Soy contains plant estrogens known as ‘soy isoflavones.’ These are chemical compounds that have biological effects similar to human estrogen hormones (45). Many individuals – men, especially – worry that soy protein powder could inhibit the effects of testosterone.
There is also some concern that soy consumption may affect an individual’s thyroid function. This is even though most studies have shown that soy has only a very mild or no effect on thyroid function in humans (49, 50, 51, 52, 53).
Another reason why soy products are controversial is that they’re frequently genetically modified (GMO).
So, if any of the above-listed factors bother you, you may want to consider supplementing with a different type of plant-based protein powder (e.g. pea protein).
Soy protein is a complete protein source. However, there are several concerns about its consumption: hormonal effects, thyroid functions, and GMOs. Pea protein powder is likely a better choice for you if you’re bothered by these.
What type of protein should I use?
Ultimately, when it comes to the question, ‘what type of protein powder is best?’, there really is no straightforward answer.
You have to take your dietary preferences into account.
One thing to keep in mind: protein powder is considered a supplement. Meaning that the FDA does not approve supplements before they’re made available on the shelves. And so, as with other supplements, studies have found that some protein powders may not be exactly what they say they are on the product label.
That said, you can minimize your risk of purchasing a low-quality protein powder by sticking with reputable brands.
Choose products bearing a seal from an independent verifying company – including the Certified for Sport seal from NSF International and the Informed Choice. This indicates that the protein powder has been lab-tested for banned substances, contaminants, and/or ingredient quality.
Protein powders are beneficial when you’re trying to hit your daily protein intake. Just make sure to buy a type of high-quality protein powder aligned with your dietary preferences and goals.