In part II of my guide to buying protein, we will cover the different types of protein powders available on the market today, what is good and what to avoid to achieve optimal results and sustain good health.
Before you begin, make sure you are up to date by first reading part 1 here.
Table of Contents
- 1 Types of protein powder supplements and biological value
- 2 The craze for a complete amino acid profile
- 3 The goal of mixed animal protein sources
- 4 Closing thoughts
Types of protein powder supplements and biological value
“Which type of protein should I buy?” There are different types of protein available in the market today and all of them have their pros and cons. The following are the most famous ones in order of (personal) importance:
- Milk proteins such as Whey, casein or calcium caseinate.
- Egg protein,
- Beef protein,
- Rice protein,
- Plant source proteins such as:
- Pea protein,
- Hemp protein,
- Soy protein,
- Potato protein,
- Crap protein.
Personal note: I need to mention at this point that this information about the different types of protein and their timing is something quite controversial. Some claim that these studies on timing are pure marketing tricks for the billion dollar protein powder industry.
What you need to understand is that if you put in the hard work and get adequate food, you will meet your goals. I find it ridiculous when people say that they did not grow because they were using casein or a plant based protein instead of whey. Using any type of protein is a matter of personal taste, budget and a personal preference.
MILK PROTEINS (whey, Casein)
Out of all the proteins mentioned, whey is considered the fastest and casein the slowest.
Whey and casein are both extracted from milk and they are either byproducts of the cheese making process (whey) or they are derived from milk (casein). When you make cheese, the heaviest parts of the milk tend to sit and create the cheese part while the foam stays on top. That foam and water is extracted and what is left is cheese. The water is discarded and the foam is your whey.
Worth mentioning is the fact that pure whey does mix well in water which is certainly not the case with casein. They are both high in biological value but not the highest.
Casein is a complete protein and contains high levels of L-Glutamine. It is considered slow because when consumed, it turns to a gel in your stomach and is absorbed slowly. This is great when you need something that will keep you full longer (such as before sleep) but it is not very handy if you need protein fast (such as after your workout).
Casein is found in the market in 2 types:
Calcium caseinate and micellar casein. There are many different caseins but these 2 dominate the market.
- Calcium caseinate is a water soluble protein. It is considered to be of very low quality due to its manufacturing process (heated at 95 C which renders it completely void of nutrients). This process often turns it into a thermolyzed protein full of MSG and has been linked to colon cancer. It is the cheapest and most toxic form of protein available and you will find it in many proteins and gainers.
- Micellar casein is of higher quality but because of its molecular structure it tends to be unstable when stored for long periods of time. This is why it is important to do your research and only buy micellar casein of the highest quality.
Whey is also a complete protein high in L-cysteine, the precursor of NAC which in turn is responsible for glutathione production. (Glutathione is the father of all anti-oxidants and the strongest out there.)
Whey has become so milked in the last decade (pardon the pun) that we actually have different forms (and speeds) of whey.
And so we have the following forms on the market:
- Whey Concentrate,
- Whey Isolate,
- Whey Hydrolysate,
- Ion Exchange, Ultrafiltration and Microfiltration,
- Specialized types of whey.
The basic wheys on the market are of the whey concentrate variety which is not very processed and at about 35-80% protein. The higher the percentage, the better the protein. Whey concentrate also means that it is 100% whey and has no casein.
The next better protein option is whey isolate which is 90-96% protein which has even less fat than the actual whey concentrate.
The next level of whey protein is whey hydrolysate, which is a predigested form of whey compounds that get digested faster when consumed.
Then we have different filtration systems (Ion Exchange, Ultrafiltration and Microfiltration) which are considered to be the purest form of whey. Ion exchange came out first. There was a small problem in the way it was made, as it lacked small nutritional whey fractions. This was something that was mended in the case of Ultrafiltrated and microfiltrated proteins.
However I seriously doubt that sometimes purer is better, especially when it comes to milk proteins.
For example, we tend to forget that milk contains a complete protein that is 80% casein and 20% whey. So when we consume milk (despite the other health hazards related to pasteurization and hormone content in farmed animals) we actually get the best protein there is. But it was because we chose to separate those 2 forms of milk protein in order to optimize their timing and dose (more whey than casein after a workout for example) that we ended up with using whey and casein supplements instead of milk.
However, there is another form of milk protein that combines the benefits of whey with the ones of casein and it is called Milk Protein Concentrate (MPC). This is a type of protein powder that is almost the same as milk and is a combination of whey and casein (like in real milk). It comes from a membrane filtration of milk, is very stable (unlike other casein types) and can mimic casein’s properties.
If you are interested in MPC look for products that come from raw milk of pasture-fed cows but don’t expect it to be cheap.
Last but not least, I should make a separate mention on the other types of whey. Most whey comes from cow’s milk. Cow’s milk has been often accused to contain the same Growth Hormone that is also given to the cows which can lead to several problems. There is however a type of whey that is free from G.H and possible antibiotics: New Zealand Whey. This is the best type of whey on the market today, it is pure and free from any kind of drugs, antibiotics and GH. It comes from pasture-fed cows who are not crammed up in a meat factory. It is perhaps the best quality of whey you can find on the market today and for that reason, the price is double.
For those who are lactose intolerant, worry not. There is also whey from goat’s milk which does not contain the same amount of lactose that cow’s milk does. It is also much healthier than cow’s milk as the goats are usually free range. This type of whey is even more expensive than the New Zealand Whey but it does solve a lot of the problems that come with normal whey (lactose).
Along with milk, the other most complete food source in the world is the egg. When I say egg, I mean the egg white and the yolk. The egg white contains the purest amino acids with high bioavailability. The yolk also contains protein but it also contains saturated fat, which is important for optimal health (make sure to read my article on saturated fats to get the bigger picture).
Just like with milk (once again), it contains protein and fat which makes it a self-contained food profile. The importance of fat when consuming protein is something I will cover further on.
When it comes to egg protein powders, the product is a complete protein and has the highest biological value of all. It is made from dried egg whites so you get only the protein part without the extra fat.
When it comes to speed, egg protein is classified as a mid-range speed protein bridging the gap between a fast whey and a slow casein.
I consider it to be one of the best proteins out there. However, I also believe it has a high concentration of arachidonic acid, making it great for building muscle but is highly inflammatory. While high inflammation should be avoided for optimal health, you must understand that we still need a bit of inflammation in our body in order to survive.
Because of their high biological value and the way they are made, egg proteins tend to be a bit more expensive than your average whey.
Beef protein is a recent product on the protein market. While it is true that beef along with poultry (with turkey meat being the highest bioavailable source of protein) are the best sources of protein when it comes to real food, the same does not hold with beef protein.
Beef protein is actually hydrolyzed gelatin, joints and other animal parts not fit for human consumption. Most people that consume beef protein think that it is dried beef meat but as you can see, the truth is different.
I have used it in the past, not for its high quality but as an alternative to rotating through my protein sources and in order to create a rotation diet with my shakes. It is inferior to whey or egg but I consider it superior to plant source protein.
PLANT SOURCE PROTEIN
This is protein derived from plants and comes in the following forms:
- Hemp protein,
- Pea protein,
- Rice protein,
- Soy protein,
- Potato protein,
- Crap protein.
Hemp protein is an incomplete protein that comes from hemp seeds. The original hemp protein source is balanced in protein, carbs and fats but after the oil extraction (which is high in omega 3 just like flaxseed oil) it ends up with the hemp protein qualities that it’s known for.
Beware of its claims about the health benefits of omega 3 in this protein. The omega3s present in this protein is of the ALA form which in turn is converted to EPA and DHA in the body. This conversion does happen better in women than in men so if you are a guy looking for omega 3 properties, turn to fish oil or marine algae instead. The omega 3 will mostly benefit women in this case.
Unlike most proteins, this actually does have a bit of carb (which is not good if you are looking for a low-carb protein) and fiber which is great if you want the extra fiber in your diet. However, because it lacks in L-Lysine, it is deemed an incomplete protein of lower biological value than casein. It does have a high level arginine and tyrosine though.
If you are looking for a protein source, always check the label and make sure they don’t contain any extra carbs or other weird ingredients (which we will cover later on).
Some people might have concerns about the cannavoids in hemp but they are in such an insignificant quantity that it is harmless. The same cannavoids are claimed to produce health benefits but research is not substantial yet.
Pea protein is another incomplete protein of lower biological value that has been marketed in the last decade as a vegan source for people with whey and egg allergies. It comes from pea (obviously) and tends to jellify in water just like casein does.
It has a very strong taste that might throw some people off so be warned. If you are not a fan of beans and other legume products such as chickpeas, I would advise you to tread carefully. Try a sample before buying a complete bottle or you will end up tossing it away or even worse, having to eat a protein you hate.
Usually these come unflavored but some of them come in chocolate or vanilla flavor as well. I am however worried about their phytic acid content which can lead to high inflammation.
Just make sure to look for organic non-GMO products when buying pea proteins.
Rice protein is again another incomplete protein (due to its low lysine levels) that is usually extracted from brown rice. Unlike pea protein, rice protein is lighter in taste and I believe was the first to be marketed as an alternative for people with allergies as being hypoallergenic and vegans.
They come in different flavors or unsweetened/unflavored. Once again, I am somewhat concerned about its phytic acid levels.
Make sure you look for organic non-GMO products.
This is a protein that I have never bought, not only because it is an incomplete protein but I would not recommend using proteins that come from potato or wheat proteins. These are starch proteins which tend to be super inflammatory without the actual benefits of a complete protein. Of course, if your system can handle it, it can be an amazing alternative to regular protein powders.
Also the ones I have come across have a high fat and carb content which actually beats the point of a pure protein powder. There are much better alternatives such the ones mentioned above.
I was really not going to include this one but I just had to, because a lot of people tend to consume this protein full of phytoestrogens like it’s their job.
Soy was marketed as the miracle plant back in the 80s as they tried to replace the very expensive and low supply market of olive oil in the United States. Coming from a Mediterranean country where olive oil is king, I remember soy oil commercials being promoted for their health benefits and was even foolish enough to consume soy for a while.
In today’s day and age and unless you have been living under a rock, I guess you are already aware of the millions of studies that have proven time and time again about the dangers of soy for both sexes. Especially for men, soy can cause a severe hormonal balance between testosterone and estrogen, favoring estrogen which in turn can cause feminization in men (gyno, lower testosterone etc).
It is a cheap and incomplete protein. Avoid anything that contains soy or soy products like your life depends on it (actually, your life DOES depend on it).
More Reasons why you should avoid soy protein
Not convinced from the above reasons? Here’s a couple more:
- Soy, most of the times is GMO (genetically Modified),
- Soy can disrupt iodine absorption and interfere with thyroid function which will mean fat gain and thyroid problems,
- Soy contains phytic acid which can interfere with mineral absorption,
- Soy contains oxalic acid which can decrease calcium, magnesium and iron by binding to them,
- Soy contains excessive amounts of manganese which in high amounts is neurotoxic!
- Soy can interfere with proper child development.
This category includes everything else that you may stumble upon in a supplement section. With protein supplement demand on the rise, manufacturers nowadays will make a protein out of a chair if they have to. They will make up a bogus story and if they market it well enough, it will end up in your shake.
Unless you have substantial evidence about its health benefits, avoid anything that does not belong in the animal protein categories and also avoid anything that belongs to the lower end of the plant protein category above (soy, potato, wheat and crap proteins).
However, the latter does not only apply to plant based proteins. Animal proteins such as Salmon Protein are dangerous and should be avoided. I would rather eat my salmon rather than have it in a bottle.
MIXED PROTEIN SOURCES
This section refers to protein powders that come from mixed sources. Do not confuse this category with the weight gainers one, which I will cover in a different blog post.
A mixed protein product is a product that is over 60-70% protein and comes -as the name suggests – from different protein sources.
Consumers tend to focus on big letters on a tub and skip the fine letters in the ingredients list. These fine letters can make or break your product selection and make your product choice from being awesome down to plain dangerous and toxic.
The craze for a complete amino acid profile
All vegan proteins (plant source proteins) tend to be incomplete because they are low in one or more amino acids. However, we are able to produce a complete protein by combining different sources together such as rice (low in lysine but high in methionine and cysteine) and pea (low in methionine and cysteine but high in lysine).
So a combination of rice and pea protein will produce a complete protein.
But what is up with the craze over complete proteins? There are many studies out there that prove that you cannot get malnourished by taking incomplete proteins. The body is intelligent enough to make complete proteins from incomplete sources if you have taken different forms of it in 48 hours. So if you eat peas on day 1 and potatoes on day 2, you still get a complete amino profile.
That being said, a complete amino acid profile (aka complete protein) is still a must for people who exercise. Plus, I personally believe that unless you have life-threatening situations from extreme allergies or are lacking certain nutrient absorption mechanisms in your body by default, you should never avoid or favor nutrients as this will eventually lead to some sort of imbalance in your body (even though your body always finds a way to survive).
For me personally, I don’t lose sleep over using incomplete proteins for one reason only: I am not vegan or vegetarian which means that I do consume all types of foods.
Why is that important? By consuming all types of foods, you will never get your body lacking a nutrient because the plasma levels tend to be accumulative in most cases. No nutrient is completely removed from your system in 1 day and it can take up to 2-3 days to complete remove a certain food out of your system. With that in mind, you can see how easy you can eat only rice on Tuesday, then eat meat on Wednesday or even Thursday and your body will be able to combine the two and produce the complete amino acid profile it needs.
Vegans however, never eat meat or animal products which makes this process above quite difficult. However, if you replace the meat mentioned above with beans, then you will have a complete amino acid profile.
Be wary of statements such as ‘quinoa, soy, (enter plant source) is a complete protein)’ as they tend to be over exaggerated and false. No plant sourced protein even comes close to the amino acid profile completeness of an animal product (sorry vegan friends). However by intelligently combining plant food sources, you can still achieve protein completeness.
The goal of mixed animal protein sources
Coming back to the interesting case of other Mixed Protein products: their goal is to provide a protein that is both fast and slow acting. In theory that will cover all of your needs, whether it is immediately or over a period of 3 to 6 hours. This means that over that period of time you will have a steady release of protein in your bloodstream and then muscles.
At least that’s what the theory says. Don’t forget that most complete protein sources in nature already work like that. Take for example the egg or full raw milk. They both have fast (whey) or medium acting proteins (egg) to provide an instant protein fuel to the muscles. They also both have a slow acting agent (casein and fat in milk and yolk fat in egg) to allow for a slow release of the proteins in the body.
I would personally recommend not losing any sleep over combining fast and slow acting proteins. Yes it will benefit you more (+3-5%) but is that small percentage worth all that extra money and all that time invested in creating a protein shake? I personally do not think so.
However, if you are really advanced and need even the smallest extra benefit from your nutrition, then you can go for it if you can afford it. I would personally invest the extra money from the expensive casein in either food or buying a good fish oil supplement or Vitamin D3. The choice is always yours.
This concludes part 2 of the complete protein guide. In the next article, I will cover who needs weight gainers, all that is good and bad with them, how to make your own, how much protein you need, how to establish your budget, why reading the ingredients is the most important part of buying a protein and how to distinguish good and bad ingredients and more!
Do you have a favorite type of protein? What is it and how do you take it? Let me know by leaving it in a comment below.
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by Nick Sigma
CWC, EH, E-YRT200