By Ed Joseph Man Up Boot Camp
With the endless supplemental protein options available, how do you know what’s best for you? Easy–just read this overview. It provides a breakdown of the benefits of each type of protein powder, and how it can work in your diet.
Whey protein is the most popular form of supplemental protein, and is derived from milk. During the process of cheese making, the milk is coagulated, which causes it to split into solids and liquids. This process is known as ‘separating the curds and the wheys’ (those that love poutine know all about cheese curds), and the ‘wheys’ (the liquid part) is literally whey protein.
In essence, whey is a synonym for water-soluble milk proteins. Of the protein extracted from milk, only 20% is whey (the other 80% is casein).
Whey is a complete amino acid source with moderate to high levels of most essential amino acids, but a relatively large amount of l-cysteine; the amino acid precursor to n-acetylcysteine and to the anti-oxidant enzyme glutathione. (Just making sure all you science geeks are paying attention.) Beyond the cysteine, whey protein also has some bioactive peptides that may reduce blood pressure (by acting as weak ACE inhibitors).
Whey is popular in part due to the mysticism of fast absorption being good for muscular gains. (Whether it is true or not, its practical benefits are far overstated by marketing. In other words: Yes it digests faster. And yes, whey helps your muscles. But does the speed of digestion of whey make much of a difference to your body? Maybe or maybe not.)
It was also once considered a waste product and thus cheap to procure. It has since greatly increased in demand, and is no longer as cheap. (As you can determine by walking into any supplement store and being able to blow your entire paycheck.)
Last word on Whey: Whey is derived from milk, and was originally a waste byproduct. It is (relatively) absorbed quickly by the body (with the importance of speed being vastly oversold), and it provides all essential amino acids.
Casein protein is milk protein minus the whey. Technically, casein protein refers to water insoluble proteins derived from dairy sources. It is the only other dairy protein, so if you are not consuming whey, you are consuming casein.
Casein is a complete protein source and its amino acid profile is relatively high in glutamine. It is touted as ‘slow absorbing’ due to its gel forming properties, which may either be your favorite thing about casein (pudding!) or your most hated, as it has really bad mix ability (not shaker-cup friendly).
Last word on Casein: Casein is also derived from milk. Unlike whey, it has gel-properties, so that it thickens when mixed with water (pudding!). People allergic to milk should stay away from casein.
Soy is protein derived from the soybean (Glycine max) and is commonly included in supplements as well as food products because it’s a fairly cheap protein to produce. It seems to verge on the border of being a complete and incomplete protein source, with the methionine content varying depending on growing conditions.
Excluding other bioactives in soy protein (which we’ll expand upon later in another part of this guide, including the discussion on estrogenicity), the protein itself seems to be a decent source for supplementation. It does consist an adequate amount of amino acids, has a taste that is easily masked by flavoring agents, and can be processed in such a way that many undesired byproducts can be removed, making it a fairly pure solution of amino acids.
Although there isn’t sufficient evidence to support soy being ‘better’ than other protein sources, soy can act as a plausible alternative to dairy proteins assuming no allergies. (We’ll discuss hormonal issues in another section.)
Last word on Soy: Soy is a valid protein source. No better or worse than other sources in terms of amino acids and protein quality.
Rice and pea
These two protein sources are bundled here due to their frequent usage together. Both protein sources are inherently vegan and both incomplete protein sources. But by adding them together in a balanced 1:1 ratio…ta-dah!…you have a complete vegan protein source.
Rice is a very thin and smooth tasting protein source low in lysine, while pea seems to have gel-forming properties similar to casein. It is possible that pea protein has as much versatility as casein protein when it comes to cooking due to these gel forming properties, while rice is likely to mix very well in solutions.
Additionally, rice protein is said to be low allergenic and is marketed to people with allergies to eggs, dairy, and soy. It seems to hold somewhat of a niche in this aspect.
Interestingly, the cumulative amino acid profile of a rice and pea combination (due to the high cysteine content of rice) is very similar to that of whey protein; due to this, a rice and pea combination formula is sometimes said to be a vegan source of whey protein.
The (quite limited) comparative studies suggest no significant differences between a rice and pea protein mixture when compared to other non-vegan sources.
Last word on Rice and Pea Protein: Rice and pea are independently incomplete sources. Combined, they are a complete source and they are good for people with allergies.
Egg protein is the protein fragment from egg whites, heat treated, and dehydrated into powder form.
It should be noted that there is a concern with eating raw egg whites. Here’s why (for all your Rocky lovers): a molecule known as avidin is an amino acid present in egg whites binds to the vitamin biotin, rendering the biotin unusable in your body. Although moderate raw egg white consumption is not associated with biotin deficiency, it has been reported in some isolated case studies where a few hundred grams of egg whites were consumed daily for a prolonged period of time.
Regardless, avidin is destroyed in the heat-treatment process, and is unlikely to be a concern in egg white protein supplements. The egg yolk tends to be excluded from protein powders due to being high in dietary fatty acids, and some leucine may be added to the egg white protein to make it more balanced (usually, leucine is found in the egg yolk).
Egg white protein can be useful to round out dietary protein needs, but it lacks enough evidence to support its usage over other protein powder sources. Additionally, there is a faint eggy taste that seems to persist over all but the strongest flavoring agents.
Last word on Egg Protein: As effective as any other protein, hard to see its benefits.
Beef (yeah, in the powder form)
Beef protein is marketed to be a protein powder derived from dehydrated and processed beef (with the first beef protein on the market being blueberry flavour).
There is insufficient evidence to support the usage of beef protein, in any form, over other protein sources; especially when in the context of a mixed diet.
From a practical standpoint, the financial cost of dehydrating large amounts of meat into powders is exorbitant, and it is highly plausible that purchased beef protein is not beef protein in the sense of buying beef and processing it into a powder. Isolated amino acids can be put in a certain ratio to mimic complete protein sources, but this would exclude any particular meat-derived bioactive peptides. Essentially, there is a high chance your ‘beef protein’ is just glorified gelatin. Beef protein is new on the market and under-researched as a supplemental protein source.
In the end, beef protein is scientifically unsupported yet has a high probability of not being better than other protein sources, and it’s possible that it’s not actually beef. It would be better, and (probably) more delicious to eat the meat itself.
Last word on Beef Protein: Hard to see its benefits, especially considering its costs. We recommend you eat the real thing and skip the powders.
At the end of the day, worrying about the speed of digestion or any special properties of the various protein powders is an exercise in nit-picking . Protein powders are meant to be a quick and easy solution for more protein, and all powders fit that criteria (although you saw our thoughts on meat powder). Your primary goal should be to eat as much protein as possible from whole food sources, and then meet your protein goals by using the supplements that work best for you to fill the gaps. Whether that means choosing convenience and taste (whey), cooking (casein), allergies (pea and rice, or egg protein), or cost (soy), there’s nothing magical about powders but each can serve a purpose and help.