Guide to Protein Powders
Updated: Aug 29, 2018
We're going to go over:
-What is the best type of protein?
-How can I tell my protein is safe?
-Other protein buying tips.
-How much protein to consume.
In order to explain which protein is the best I need to explain how we determine the effectiveness of different proteins. Scientists can measure protein synthesis and gains in muscle mass. When they set up a study it is usually paired with a weight lifting workout and they give subjects protein after the workout. Muscle protein synthesis is actually only one side of the equation. Muscle protein breakdown is the opposite end of the spectrum. Muscle growth=muscle protein synthesis-muscle protein breakdown. Therefore, if there is more muscle protein breakdown than muscle protein synthesis you won’t gain any muscle. We may see an increase in muscle protein synthesis in a study but it still might not mean any muscle growth is happening. We can judge the effectiveness of a protein by the amount of muscle protein synthesis it causes after consumption (the spike) and the length of time that muscle protein synthesis is stimulated.
Something else we need to consider is that the type of protein you consume is not very important compared to the amount of protein you eat. For example, 48 grams of rice protein causes the same amount of muscle growth as 48 grams of whey protein over 8 weeks (Joy et al). How can this be? It may be that both groups consumed enough leucine and other amino acids to trigger protein synthesis. Some researchers have shown that after a certain amount of protein muscle protein synthesis will be stimulated maximally and more protein won’t help. First, focus on the amount of protein you consume in a day, then focus on type.
When we talk about protein quality we are talking about how quickly it is absorbed and the amino acid profile. Essential amino acids are important for protein synthesis, the most important of which is leucine. For example, Baar et al showed that if leucine content was matched, 6.25g of whey protein was as effective as 25g of whey. That means that leucine is probably the most powerful stimulator of muscle protein synthesis. However, just taking leucine doesn’t seem to be as effective as consuming whole protein sources. It’s not confusing, it’s just science. The fastest digesting sources of protein are whey and soy. Casein takes the longest to digest, which is why people recommend casein protein for bedtime.
The most available forms of protein in powder form are: whey, casein, soy, rice, beef, and egg albumin. From best to worst:
Then there is a gray area in the research, so all of these proteins will tie for 4th: (egg albumin, beef, rice)
Whey comes out on top because it is the fasted digested and most leucine-rich protein. Soy is second because it is also very fast digesting and has a fairly high leucine content. Casein is third because it is slow digesting and does not create much of a spike in muscle protein synthesis. It does take a while to digest and can keep muscle protein synthesis elevated for a long time (it would be more accurate to say that it prevents muscle breakdown). I excluded egg, beef, and rice protein because they haven’t been tested extensively and haven’t been tested head-to-head against the big 3 protein sources I ranked above.
Since leucine is an important determinant of muscle protein synthesis, we should look at the leucine content of all of the popular protein powder choices:
Whey: .109 grams of leucine per gram of whey protein.
Soy: .081 grams of leucine per gram of soy protein
Casein: .082 grams of leucine per gram of casein
Beef: .018 grams of leucine per gram of beef protein
Egg: .543 grams of leucine per egg (this may seem excellent but keep in mind that the other forms listed above are leucine content per gram, this is per egg)
As you can see, whey protein has the highest leucine content. Soy and casein are tied. Beef is significantly lower than all of the other forms. For this reason I would have to say that beef protein is probably a waste of money. Eating beef is great for muscle gain but for reasons other than its leucine content. It contains tons of micronutrients that are important for strength athletes and is also packed with fat and protein. This is why you shouldn’t simply consumer protein powders to get your protein for the day. Eating protein-rich foods will give you micronutrients as well as calories that will help you gain weight and get stronger.
Another option is to get a blend of proteins which is usually whey and casein or whey, soy, and casein. Honestly I don’t think that this is necessary. Just go with the cheapest and best tasting protein.
There are various forms of whey protein (hydrosylate, isolate, etc.) I don’t think that this is very important, so don’t pay it much attention.
When choosing the brand of protein powder you should be careful. At least do a quick google search of the company to see if they have ever gotten in trouble. I have a Consumer Labs account which is probably the best source of information because they actually test supplements. The industry as a whole is not well regulated and multiple companies have gotten caught putting some sketchy things in their products.
Is it safe?
If you really want to get into testing your powders you have two pretty reliable options. The first is to add up all of the macronutrients and add up the amount of calories that each serving should consumer. For example:
Carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram
Protein has 4 calories per gram
Fat has 9 calories per gram
If your powder has 25 grams of protein, 3 grams of fat, and 3 grams of carbs, it should have about 139 calories, give or take a few calories. If it is way below or above, you should be suspicious.
The second method:
Typically only whey protein powders provide the amount of leucine per serving but this can actually be pretty useful. Take the amount of leucine per serving and divide it by the amount of protein per serving. It should come out to about .109. If you have significantly less than this then there are probably fillers in the protein. It is not necessary to list the amount of leucine per serving on the label so this may not be the best method.
Other than that feel free to look over the ingredients. If your protein powder has a lot of ingredients that have nothing to do with protein then steer clear. Go with the simplest protein powder that you can find.
Beyond safety I really look for taste and cost per serving in a protein. I try not to spend over $1.40 per serving of protein.
How much protein?
.25g to .4g per kg of bodyweight is the current recommendation. To figure this out:
(Bodyweight (in lbs) / 2.2) X .25=the minimum amount of protein you should consume per meal. For a 200lb man this is about 23 grams. This is usually around one serving of a protein powder. If you go over this amount your kidneys will not explode and your bones will not turn to dust, don’t worry.
-The type of protein you consume doesn’t matter compared to the amount of protein you consume.
-Whey protein is the best protein for stimulating muscle protein synthesis.
-Be careful where you buy protein from.
-One scoop of protein powder should be sufficient.