Protein powders on the market today are vast and admittedly confusing, which can make choosing the best protein powder quite tricky. Some protein powders have performance-enhancing substances with drug-like effects, while others are pure protein. The quality of the protein can vary widely between different protein powders.
Some protein powders have a laundry list of artificial ingredients as well, making good intentions go bad. It’s no wonder people struggle to find good products out there. This article will help you navigate the aisles in a way that will help you choose the best protein powder to meet your specific protein needs.
Protein: Who Needs More?
Protein is perhaps one of the more challenging nutrients to get these days, especially for people with hectic lifestyles. Kids eat crackers, pastries, and sugar-filled treats on the go, at sporting events, and more. They often miss out on the essential protein for best health.
Elderly often lose their desire for eating protein-rich foods, so supplements of protein can become an important part of their diet for maintaining strength and preventing muscle loss as well.
People with depression and many health conditions lose appetite and also fail to get enough protein.
Highly processed carb snacks often crowd out more filling and nutritious protein-rich foods. In addition, cheap meals can be full of processed carbs and minimal protein, such as a piece of toast, cereal, or pasta-based dinners.
Additionally, people with vegan and vegetarian lifestyles can be starkly low in protein if not planned out carefully.
I had friends in college who were vegetarian and the mainstay of their diets was pretzels and pasta. They never touched a legume! I still meet a lot of vegetarians who eat this way. If this describes you, a protein powder could be very helpful to enhance the protein in your diet.
Athletes fair better, especially if they are strength training, with additional protein after a workout. While most of the market is geared toward athletes, so many people can benefit from additional protein.
What Does Protein Do?
Protein helps with mental focus, mood, building muscle, building hormones, immune cells and more, so it’s no wonder that we should strive to get adequate amounts of this essential nutrient.
Protein builds your neurons and makes up the structure of your heart.
Protein is made up of smaller units called amino acids. While there are 8 essential amino acids, certain non-essential amino acids may help improve your physical performance. An example of this is arginine.
The type of protein powder that suits you most may depend on what your goal is. You may be better off with different kinds if you are looking for a mood benefit versus a muscle gain benefit, for example.
Who Benefits From Protein Powder?
It makes sense for people turn to protein powders to get the extra boost of protein in their diet if they want to gain muscle, round out a vegetarian diet, fill gaps in the diet, or just make it through the school day.
Adding protein powder may enhance mood, focus, strength, muscle recovery, and prevent physical decline in the elderly.
What are the Pitfalls of Protein Powders?
Unfortunately, many protein powders on the market today are filled with chemical additives, artificial vitamins, and artificial sweeteners. These additives may have some short and long-term side effects such as weight gain. They also can be highly refined, leading to blood sugar spikes.
Additionally, the synthetic vitamins and poorly-absorbed minerals in many of the powders are not best for our health. If they don’t absorb well, they can make your digestive tract unhappy.
The quality of protein can vary substantially. Limiting amino acids can also limit their benefits.
While one protein powder may be helpful for one condition, it may not help much for another if it has a limiting amino acid. Some supplements try to overcome these issues by combining multiple protein sources.
Not everyone wants or needs a bunch of extra creatine or muscle-bulking agents. These additives can bring their own health risks if not used correctly.
Whole Food versus Protein Isolates
Whenever possible, find a protein powder that is based on the whole protein, such as whey instead of whey protein isolate.
The isolate versions may spike blood glucose levels and also may have solvents used in the processing.
However, the concentrate form of whey may have some traces of lactose.
How Do Vegan Protein Powders Stack Up?
All vegan protein powders have at least one limiting amino acid, but often can combine two types to make a more complete protein. Options today include:
- Pea Protein
- Rice Protein
- Hemp Protein
- Soy Protein
Does the Limiting Amino Acid Matter?
It appears like it does, at least if you are trying to build muscle.
Whey protein concentrate contains the most leucine compared to other types of protein powders. Leucine is likely the most important factor when trying to build muscle.
The leucine content of vegetarian proteins is about 50% less than whey. Whey tends to have about 10% leucine, which is pretty high.
Vegan proteins can come out ahead because of the following: they often have many beneficial plant compounds for health. In addition, when combining protein from nuts, grains, and legumes, they can have as much or MORE leucine than whey. For example, for every 15 grams of protein, some vegan proteins can have up to 19% leucine.
Most of the research will look at single-types of protein, making the research behind the marketplace in this regard.
How to Get the Best Vegan Protein Powder
You can find combinations of pea protein, chlorella, nut, and flaxseed powders, which are all very nutritious foods. Other nice blends can contain pea, amaranth, and quinoa protein.
Hemp-based protein powder has the added bonus of providing anti-inflammatory benefits for the body. It is limited by its leucine content, so try to combine it with other protein sources.
How to Get the Best Whey Protein Powder
Try to get whey protein concentrate instead of whey protein isolate. The concentrate has a slower absorption, potentially enhancing muscle gain for longer and may reduce blood sugar spikes.
Many people care about how the animal is treated, and so for that reason, I definitely recommend a grass-fed, free-range type of whey protein powder.
You may pay a bit more, but it is definitely a bit of peace of mind. It is also likely a lot more sustainable and better for the soil going this route for dairy farming.
Try to find whey protein powder from 100% grass- fed cows and also free range.
When to Consider Egg Protein Powders
Egg protein powders are richest in the amino acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan helps make nerve chemicals in the body that may improve mood, such as serotonin.
In a short term study, supplemental egg white protein powder at 2 and 4 grams per day improved mood and reduce a decline in mood (resistance to stress) in both healthy and depressed women.
A longer term study of egg white protein supplementation found similar benefits for mood.
Another study found that egg protein hydrolysate improved mood and stress compared to placebo.
For working out, however, simply eating the whole eggs likely has a better muscle gain benefit than the egg white protein.
Egg protein supplements have not received as much research attention as whey protein powder, so it is difficult to determine if one is better than the other for athletes.
Tryptophan-rich supplements like egg white protein also may be helpful in reducing symptoms of ADHD.
Are you sensitive to dairy or egg? Look for pea protein and rice protein or hemp protein/nut protein combinations.
How Do I find Healthier Vitamins and Minerals in My Protein Powder?
- Look for Folate (L-5-methyltetrahydrofolate) rather than folic acid. About 50% of the population does not metabolize folic acid well.
- Also, methylcobalamin is a better choice for vitamin B12 than cyanocobalamin.
- Try to find a chelated magnesium and zinc instead of oxide forms.
Choosing a Sweetener in Your Protein Powder
I prefer protein powders with no sweeteners. They are hard to find, however. What to look for in sweeteners? Go with natural sweeteners, including stevia and monk fruit. I recommend avoiding sucralose, nutria-sweet, aspartame, acesulfame K and other artificial sweeteners. Many protein powders add these synthetic ingredients in, so read the label carefully. Monk fruit is a natural sweetener that is 100-250 times sweeter than sugar. Monk fruit sweeteners, also known as lo hanguo, is grown in Southeast Asia. I personally prefer the flavor of monk fruit over stevia, which can sometimes have a bitter aftertaste.
Allergy note: if you are allergic to gourds, you may be sensitive or allergic to monk fruit. Monk fruit itself may have its own health benefits by reducing inflammation and more.