So, you’re trying to learn about the different types of protein powder?
Before I dive into this topic—and I’m never one to hold back from sharing the latest and greatest high-performance science—it only seems proper to start with an introduction.
Luckily, all you need to know about me can be easily summed up, because I’m obsessed with three things:
- Empirical Observation
Improvement? This is easy to define. It’s thrilling and energizing to be a constantly improving version of yourself.
Science? What is a better pleasure read than some hard, cold, repeatable, peer-validated science?
Empirical Observation? I love that which you can verify by opening your eyes and looking at what the heck is going on around you. I don’t care much about what the one person does.
Why is that? Because sometimes you find a person who has incredible genes, an insane work ethic, a slew of ritualistic behaviors (likely pre-packed meals with precise macronutrient quantities), intelligent supplement use (definitely fish oil and vitamin D3), or perhaps a bit of dumb luck.
Yes, those people exist. So, let’s roll up our sleeves and delve into that hard-core science that I promised, because this will teach you the principles that are repeatable—and proven.
The Different Types of Protein Powder
First, let’s start by considering a list of the different types of protein powers that you can find online or at your local GNC or Vitamin Shoppe.
There are three main categories of protein powders, which are the milk-based proteins, the animal-based proteins, and the plant-based proteins, as shown below.
- Whey Protein Concentrate
- Whey Protein Isolate
- Whey Protein Hydrolysate
- Casein Protein
Other Animal-Based Proteins:
- Whole Egg Protein
- Egg White
- Beef Protein
- Pea Protein
- Hemp Protein
- Brown Rice Protein
- Mixed Plant Proteins
While each of these different types of protein powder have their advantages and disadvantages, the milk-based protein powders have unquestionably had the greatest commercial (and nutritional) success to date.
Let’s explore why…
Your Day Has Two Parts (Rest vs. Training)
When you are training hard, the day becomes broken up in two periods of time. These periods are the:
- Rest periods – The times when you’re not training.
- Peri-workout periods – The interval before, during and after your workout.
Peri is simply a prefix meaning “about” or “around.”
In this context, we’re using it to talk about the period right around your workout. That is, the 30 minutes before, the workout itself, and an hour or so afterward.
Those are the two parts of the day that exist. So, how do these two intervals differ from a nutritional context?
Simple. During the rest periods, your body can be properly fueled by high-quality, wholesome, nutrient-dense foods.
Meaning, lean proteins, healthy fats, heaps of veggies and possibly a few fruits, and lots of water (more than you’re drinking now).
Pre, During and Post Workout Nutrition
However, for the peri workout period, everything changes. Remember, peri-workout encompasses your pre, during and post workout interval.
During this time period, your physiology changes, your biochemistry changes, and your signaling pathways change—including which receptors open up on your muscle cells.
Even your gene expression changes. (Gene expression determines which proteins your body’s DNA decides to create and fold into three-dimensional structures.) Whoa, right?
Understandably, we need to treat this period differently. This is where the different types of protein powder come in.
If you shuttle the right foods into your body during this time period, you’ll create a high-performance “power boost”, allowing you to put more weight overhead than you did yesterday.
Universal Nutrition Truths?
Because nobody’s built quite the same, there are unlikely to be any universal nutrition truths beyond simple rules like “eat food.” Thus, there will always be someone with a different perspective—and it could well be valid.
Having said that, the nearest equivalent to a “universal truth” for the peri-workout period is this:
Take in carbs and amino acids both pre and during your workout, and immediately afterward, consume carbs along with whey protein.
I’m highlighting that, because this whole article just got summarized into that one sentence.
For your workout carbs, reliable choices are:
- Sports nutrition drinks
- Any other fast digesting carb source, such as maltodextrin or vitargo, for example
For the amino acids, you also have choices. But, first, let’s explore what an amino acid really is.
What Are Amino Acids?
Amino acids are the building blocks that form proteins.
Whey protein is considered a “complete protein” because it contains all 9 of the essential amino acids.
In total, there are 20 amino acids that compose the human body, but only 9 of them are “essential” – meaning, amino acids that we can’t produce ourselves, so we have to acquire them through our diet.
Virtually every study I’ve ever seen has demonstrated that the addition of essential amino to carbs turns on protein synthesis. Protein synthesis is just a fancy term for muscle repair or growth.
Meaning, the mathematical formula for how to get swole is:
Strength Training + Amino Acids + Carbs =
Muscle Repair & Growth
How to Source Your Amino Acids
For your pre, during and post workout amino acids, you can either source them as complete protein or you can source it as specific essential amino acids.
Put more simply, you can either get your amino acids by:
- Drinking a whey protein shake
- Drinking a BCAA drink
BCAA is an acronym for branched chain amino acids. While the science to support adding amino acids to carbs for improving exercise performance is not exact, it is overwhelmingly robust.
Thanks to various tracer and biomarker techniques that allow us to track pathways involved in protein synthesis, we’re getting a continually improving understanding of what happens when we ingest these foods around our workout window.
Whey Protein vs. BCAA Drinks
Ok, so you now know you can get amino acids from either a whey protein shake or from a BCAA drink.
Well, which one should you choose?
In an interesting study conducted by Jackman, et al., subjects who tipped back a drink with 5.6 grams of BCAAs after a resistance training workout had a 22% greater increase in muscle protein synthesis compared to those who drink a placebo (substitute) drink.
However, this increase is greatly overshadowed (~50% less) than the increases in muscle protein synthesis observed when subjects drank a whey protein shake containing a similar amount of BCAAs.
The gains in muscle repair produced by whey protein are assumed to result from the reality that it contains all 9 of the essential amino acids that are required to build muscle.
Simplifying Different Types of Protein Powders
While I’ve seen varying results produced by different scientific studies, the point is, either BCAAs or whey protein can be an effective choice to sip on before and during your workout.
However, if you’re assessing which one to have after your workout, definitely opt to tip back a whey (isolate or hydrolysate) protein shake in a flavor of your choosing.
Personally, I like to keep things simple and drink a whey protein shake plus a carb drink (like Vitargo) both during and after my workout.
When in doubt, this is a safe and simple strategy for workout nutrition that you can use too.
Leucine: The Amino Acid Beloved by Strength Athletes
If you’re an athlete like me, then the big amino acid that we should all know, love, and gossip about while foam rolling, is the amino acid leucine.
The reason for this is that leucine is the one essential amino acid that can be transferred rapidly and with minimal effort from the gut to the blood stream.
This means our body has a solid evolutionary reason to rely on leucine as the major signal of, “Hey, I just ate a wooly mammoth!”
Whey protein is a leucine-heavy protein.
Meaning, whey protein provides both a strong “call to action” with its leucine content and provides a spectrum of other essential amino acids that your body can use to build your new muscle tissue.
After leucine, the next most important amino acids for strength and muscle size gains are isoleucine and valine.
Why Emphasize Leucine?
Ok, so why emphasize leucine so much? Because all too often I see people get drawn into trying other types of protein as alternatives to the “tried-and-true” whey protein shake.
Either the label is shiny or the Vitamin Shoppe was running an incredible promo or that Facebook ad was so darn persuasive.
Whatever the impetus, people rarely see their strength gain improve when they switch away from whey protein to a different protein powder alternative.
While there are multiple factors at play, the amino acid composition of whey is a major part of what makes it a “powerhouse” of a protein.
Whey vs. Other Types of Protein Powders?
For whey protein, in particular, there’s a large population of scientific studies that have consistently shown the repeatable benefits of:
- Strength gains
- Increased lean body mass
- Decreased body fat
- Enhanced recovery
- Enhanced immune system function
In addition to the robust body of science that supports its use, another reason that I’m biased toward whey protein as a trigger for protein synthesis is its quick bio-availability.
Meaning, whey protein is rapidly transported from the gut to the bloodstream.
Whey protein is a very fast digesting protein that can get rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream (in 30-45 minutes, in many cases). This let’s you to take advantage of changes that occur within your body following strenuous physical activity.
In contrast, if you’ve ever heard of casein protein, it is a slow-digesting (milk-based protein) that can take up to six hours.
Many whey protein products also mix together these different products. They do this both for nutritional reasons (bioavailability and macronutrient composition) and for commercial reasons (price point).
When comparing different types of protein powder, just know that both whey isolate or whey hydrolysate are excellent choices to chug post workout.
Comparison of Milk-Based Protein Powders
To make my point about absorption rates extremely clear, here are the various types of milk-based proteins ranked by their digestion speed:
- Casein – This is a very slow-digesting milk-derived protein that absorbs over a period of up to six hours, depending on what you eat with it, the digestive environment, and your genetics.
- Whey Concentrate – This is the slowest digesting type of whey protein, as well as the least processed and the cheapest. Compared to its whey protein peers (below), it contains more carbs, sugar, and fat.
- Whey Isolate – This is a faster digesting type of whey protein. Whey isolate is more processed than whey concentrate and has had most of it carbs and fat are removed. It’s usually priced above whey concentrate but below whey hydrolysate.
- Whey Hydrolysate – This is the fastest digesting whey protein, because it has been partially pre-digested by enzymes to allow for faster absorption. It is the most processed type of whey that has had nearly all its carbs and fat are removed. It’s usually the best choice for people with lactose sensitivities.
When comparing different types of protein powder, faster absorption will serve you best post-workout (whey hydrolysate or isolate), while slower absorption (casein) is best for overnight recovery.
How Milk is Processed to Create Different Protein Powders
What most people don’t know is that milk is composed of approximately 80% casein protein and 20% whey protein.
Both casein and whey are complete proteins, meaning they contains all 9 of the essential amino acids that we can’t make ourselves.
Thus, the difference between casein and whey is how the milk is separated into its component parts.
In contrast, the difference between whey concentrate, isolate and hydrolysate is how—and to what extent—the whey protein has been processed.
Other Types of Protein Powders?
Are there viable alternatives to whey protein?
Yes, there sure are, as listed above. However, the absorption profiles for hemp and other paleo proteins – such as whole egg protein, egg white protein, or beef protein isolates – are less known.
Personally, I would be delighted to see some lovely, peer-validated studies about their absorption profiles and muscle protein synthesis capacity in comparison to whey protein.
Remember, whey protein is a…
- Thoroughly validated
- Quick absorbing
… post-workout protein source.
For performance nutrition, we’ve got to beat the baseline, folks!
Hemp Protein Powder: The Hard, Cold Facts
While hemp protein has become increasing popular, several sources have indicated that hemp protein is not a complete protein.
Meaning, when its amino acid profile is considered, it appears to be weak in lysine, and also to be low in leucine and tryptophan.
Thus, while hemp seed protein has all the essential amino acids, these essential amino acids don’t appear to be present in the optimal proportions.
Another aspect to note is that less scientific research has been performed for hemp protein.
To date, there have been an impressive 18,725 scientific articles published about whey protein, versus only 2,041 published about hemp protein. This search was completed using my favorite website, a scientific database called PubMed.com.
Meaning, there has been ~9X more scientific investigation around whey protein than hemp protein.
Oh, and if you’re ever tasted hemp protein, it goes down a little rough…ugh.
What to Do If You Can’t Do Whey Protein
Having said that, for some folks milk-based proteins like whey or casein don’t work with their system. (it, err, makes them gassy.)
Or, maybe you’ve made a commitment to eating paleo. Or, you’re doing a nutrition challenge like the Whole Life Challenge and want to get a “perfect score”.
If that described you, then here are two paleo-friendly, milk-free proteins you might want to try:
- Paleo Protein Powder – Made from free-range, grass-fed beef and eggs
- Hemp FORCE – A hemp-based protein power
While neither of these protein sources will give you the comprehensive benefits of whey, they represent a solid choice if you’re milk-adverse.
Also, if you opt for hemp protein (or a similar alternative), you could consider adding a leucine supplement to it to help cue initial protein synthesis.
The Different Types of Protein Powder, Simplified
In summary, based on evidence to date, whey protein should be a staple in your workout nutrition toolkit, because of its amino acid profile and ability to produce impressive recovery, performance, and physique gains.
What questions do you have about the different types of protein powder? Ask them in the comments below.