A Breakdown of the Different Types of Protein Powder

Protein powder is the one must-have supplement that every lifter and gym-goer swears by! No hate for the other supplements! It's just protein is one of the hardest macronutrients for people to hit, and it's essential for building muscle, so having a protein powder in your pantry comes to the rescue on days you need to increase your protein intake fast. Although... Eating enough protein is not only necessary for those who want to build muscle, it's necessary for everyone! Aside from being important for muscle growth, protein contributes to keeping your immune system healthy and even your heart and brain functioning properly. So even if you're not focused on building muscle at the moment, protein powder is still an ideal supplement to have in case it's hard for you to eat enough protein in your diet and you still want to maintain a healthy weight and muscle mass.

The one downside to protein powder is that there are so many different types to choose from! It can be overwhelming shopping for a protein powder, especially if you don't know the different types and how they work. It's ideal to know this information because you'll have a better understanding of what type of protein powder is best for your dietary needs and your fitness goals! And you'll be less stressed when searching for your next protein powder, so it's a win-win. To help you make an informed decision we've laid out all the information you need to understand the different types of protein powders and how they work.

What are protein powders?

They are a concentrated source of protein that is extracted from animal or plant-based sources. But unlike the sources they come from, they go through processing that often removes naturally occurring carbohydrates, fats, minerals, and fibers, while adding other supplementary ingredients that vary from nutrients, herbs, and sweeteners. The processing also is what determines the protein's form which will give you insight into the protein content in each type of protein powder. Here are the three common ones...

  • Protein concentrates:  This form of protein is produced by extracting protein from whole foods using heat and acid or enzymes. They supply 60-80% protein, and the remaining is composed of fat and carbs.
  • Protein isolates: This goes through additional filtering processes that remove more fat and carbs to further concentrate the protein, leading it to contain 90-95% protein.
  • Protein hydrolysates: Hydrolysates are absorbed more quickly by the body and muscles because it is produced by heating even further with acid or enzymes, breaking the bonds between amino acids.

It's important to know these forms because it'll help give insight on the protein content in the different kinds of protein powder we will be going through, but before we do that, why do you even need a protein powder in the first place? 

Like we mentioned earlier, protein is an essential macronutrient not only for muscle building but to help your body function properly. Although the best way to fulfill your protein needs is through whole foods, it can be hard to do so! And if you take part in any physical activity, sports, strength training, cardio training, etc, then the amount of protein you need to eat is much higher than someone who doesn't. That's because regularly exercising requires a lot of energy which means your body will need more nutrients, like protein, for energy, muscle recovery, etc. So always prioritize a healthy diet, try to get sources of protein from natural foods - meat, dairy, eggs, legumes, fish - and use a protein powder supplement when needed.

Different types of protein powder

The benefits of protein are clear, that is if they come from natural food sources, specifically animal protein since they are considered to be a complete protein (has all the essential amino acids). What's not so clear are the protein powders and the different types! When choosing a protein powder you want to make sure you have the right type not only for your fitness goals but for your lifestyle and dietary needs. So to clear up the many questions surrounding protein powders and what they do, we'll break down the most common types: whey protein, casein protein, egg protein, and plant protein.

Whey protein

This protein powder type is one you most likely already know of due to its popularity in the fitness world. This seems to be a lot of people's favorite protein supplements and for good reason. Whey is an animal-based protein produced from the watery portion of milk that separates from the curds when cheese is made. It contains all nine essential amino acids that are used for muscle protein synthesis and muscle repair. Muscle protein synthesis is the key driver behind muscle growth, and leucine (one of the EAAs), has been discovered to play a major role in increasing protein synthesis. [1] Interestingly enough, whey protein powder has the greatest amount of leucine compared to casein and soy protein. Another reason whey protein is widely loved is because it's acid-soluble, meaning it is digested quickly which increases amino acid delivery into the blood and muscle tissue. And when that happens, they become readily available for muscle protein synthesis.

There are three different types of whey protein based on how it was processed. The three types are Whey Isolate, Whey Concentrate, and Whey Hydrolysate.  So based on the protein forms we mentioned earlier we can conclude that whey protein isolate has a higher and highly concentrated protein content, whey concentrate contains an average of 70-80% protein (the rest being carbs and fats), and whey hydrolysate is "pre-digested" so it gets absorbed faster by the body. 

That's a little background on how this protein powder works, but the question is... Does whey protein help build muscle? 

Whey protein has been around for ages and has gone through extensive research throughout the years. Most studies reveal that supplementing with whey protein (when protein intake isn't being met by natural protein sources) can help build and maintain muscle mass, along with assisting athletes and lifters with recovery after intense exercise and increase muscle strength in response to resistance training. [2] Another interesting finding of whey protein is that it seems to help reduce appetite like its counterpart. One study, in particular, tested four different types of liquid protein meals on different days on a group of healthy men. It was found that the whey protein meals led to the largest decrease in appetite and a reduction in calorie intake at the next meal. [3] So not only can whey protein powder help build muscle in those strength training, but it can also help contribute to weight loss by helping reduce appetite.

Casein protein

Casein protein powder, similar to whey, is derived from milk. And just like whey, it also contains all nine essential amino acids. The difference is that casein contains more milk protein (around 80%) and whey contains less, typically around 20%.  But the biggest difference between the two is that casein is absorbed in a slower rate than whey protein powder is. That's because casein forms a gel when it interacts with stomach acid. This leads to a slower rate of emptying the stomach and delaying the bloodstream's absorption of amino acids. So instead of getting an immediate stream of amino acids, you receive a more gradual and steady stream in your bloodstream and muscles, thus helping reduce the rate of muscle protein breakdown. [4] This makes casein protein powder ideal for taking at night when protein needs aren't met because the slow absorption rate helps with recovery and reduces muscle breakdown, on top of increasing overall protein intake for optimal muscle growth.

Now, let's take a look at what the studies say... 

Previous research shows that casein does not stimulate muscle protein synthesis at the same rate whey does, it's also not absorbed quickly making it not the best post-workout protein shake option. This doesn't mean casein protein is ineffective, in fact, it has been shown to inhibit protein breakdown in the entire body. It does this by helping your cells synthesize protein during times when your body tends to break down muscle, like when you’re sleeping and haven’t eaten in a long time. So although casein isn’t the best option for immediate post-workout protein ingestion, it's still a great option to take before bed due to the slow absorption rate. A particular study provided healthy young males with an intense workout protocol, their anabolic response was monitored throughout the day, and half of the group was provided with 40g of casein protein before bed and the other was given 40g of a placebo. The group that consumed casein before bed had a much higher muscle protein synthesis rate than the placebo group. [5] 

Egg protein

This lactose-free protein powder comes from an excellent high-quality protein source - eggs. Eggs contain all essential amino acids, have the highest protein-digestibility corrected amino acid source, and they are great at keeping you full longer and decreasing appetite. Unfortunately, egg protein is made from egg whites rather than whole eggs. This doesn't reduce the protein quality in egg white protein powder, but the high-fat yolks being removed make it less satiating. Other than that egg white protein still contains all EAAs, and is second to whey as the highest source of leucine, which we know is key for muscle building. This makes it a great dairy-free, lactose-free option for those who have trouble digesting the dairy from whey.

The one downside to egg white protein is that it hasn't been studied as much as whey or casein. Although the research is lacking, egg protein is seen as a viable source to increase muscle protein synthesis. A study conducted on female athletes showed that egg white protein produced similar gains in lean muscle mass and muscle strength as those supplementing with carbs. But one study has demonstrated it to be less filling than casein or pea protein, so it might not be the best option for weight loss. [6] If egg white protein powder doesn't seem to be a good fit, make sure to eat the actual high-quality protein source - Eggs!

Plant-based protein powders

Someone following a vegan or vegetarian diet isn't able to fulfill their protein needs with high-quality protein like meat, fish, dairy, or protein powders derived from them. This makes protein supplementation extra important! Luckily, there are a few quality plant protein powders that can help boost protein intake. 

Let's look at the four best protein powders that are considered to be plant-based/vegan:

  • Soy Protein Powder: Soy protein is produced from the common plant-based protein soybeans. It is a great alternative to whey because it contains all EAAs making it a complete protein. It's also low in fat and carbohydrates making it ideal for those with fat loss goals. The one downside is that soy is known to contain isoflavones which can interact with hormones and potentially skew hormone levels this can have a number of negative effects. But this is only a concern for those who already consume soy products regularly. There is a soy protein concentrate option for those who are concerned about this. The processing it goes through results in a soy protein concentrate that has a lower amount of isoflavones.
  • Pea Protein Powder: This protein is made from a high-fiber legume, yellow split peas. Pea protein is rich in the branched-chain amino acids (BCAA's), leucine, isoleucine, and valine, but it's missing one EAA (methionine) so it's not considered a complete protein. Regardless of this, it still shows promise! In fact, this 12-week study conducted on men doing resistance training showed that those taking pea protein had a similar increase in muscle thickness than those who consumed whey protein. [7]
  • Hemp Protein Powder: This protein supplement is made from hemp seeds, which not only contain protein but also omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Unfortunately due to its low levels of lysine and leucine, it's not considered a complete protein. There's very little research on hemp protein, but it does appear to be highly digestible and it contains fatty acids that are good for overall health. But it is higher in fat content which means it's more calorie-dense, so again, not the best for those restricting calories.
  • Brown Rice Protein Powder: As you may have guessed, this is made from brown rice. Brown rice protein contains all EAAs, but it's low in leucine and contains very little lysine so some don't consider it a complete protein. There isn't a lot of research on it, but one study did demonstrate that those who took pea protein resulted in similar changes in body composition, muscle strength, and recovery compared to whey protein. [8] 

In summary, protein powders can be beneficial for many reasons, but especially for those who have fitness goals like fat loss, weight loss, and increasing muscle and strength. Use this information as guidance to help you find the perfect and best protein powder for you.

At 373 Lab we pride ourselves on creating supplements that will enhance your training performance and recovery by creating formula blends with fewer fillers, and more high-quality ingredients. Our Whey Protein Isolate Powder has high protein content and minimum lactose level. During our whey filtration process, membrane filtration was used, this method filters the whey without using any harsh chemicals. We also use simple, and only the most important, ingredients you need - no unnecessary thickeners, no soy lecithin, no carrageenan - plus an added enzyme blend to help with digestion. All to give you a clean 25 grams of protein per scoop. 

A Breakdown of the Different Types of Protein Powder