A high-quality protein powder is not inexpensive, although the nutrient density in a good one can make it an excellent value as far as food cost. But because a quality protein powder can be somewhat expensive, it’s important to choose the best one you can afford.
However, if you ask ten different people or read ten different articles about which is the best protein powder, you’ll get ten different answers. The reason for that is that protein powders are not one-size-fits-all. The best choice for one person will not be the best choice for another.
There are a number of things that need to be considered when choosing a protein powder, such as the protein source (whey, soy, pea, etcetera), your reasons for choosing that protein source (lactose-intolerance, vegan/vegetarian diet) and your dietary needs (fast-acting or slow-acting protein, bulking versus cutting).
In the most basic terms, your protein powder choices come down to whey proteins, non-dairy/plant-based proteins and animal-based proteins. While you certainly might limit yourself to one or another, many people switch out their protein powders, depending on their needs, so it’s always good to know what your options are in any of these groups and the pros and cons of using them.
Whey Protein Powders
Whey protein powders are by far the most popular choice. There are a number of reasons for this. One of the most important reasons is whey’s bioavailability. Whey protein has been shown to be much more bioavailable or to have a much higher biological value (BV) than other sources. The highest BV in whole food form is found in the egg, which has a BV of 100. A whey protein isolate has an even higher value, at 104. This means that it is absorbed and utilized by the body at a very fast rate.
This is very important for athletes who are using a whey protein powder during their workout window; just before, during or just after their workout. Because it’s so easily digested, the protein is available when your muscles need it. Also, a fast-acting protein won’t divert as much blood to the digestive system during your workout, when your muscles need it for delivering oxygen to the tissues.
Whey is also fat-free, which makes it a good choice for those who are in a cutting phase, for people who have some body fat to lose in general and for those that prefer to reserve their daily fat intake for whole foods.
However, whey protein powder is not an option for everyone. People who have a lactose intolerance, those on a vegan or vegetarian diet and people following a Paleo lifestyle will need to find another protein source.
Non-Dairy and Plant-Based Protein Choices
If a dairy protein doesn’t fit in with your lifestyle or your health requirements, there are a number of good non-dairy options. Soy, pea, hemp, egg and beef-based proteins are all available. Again, not all of these will be appropriate for everyone. Obviously, vegans and most vegetarians won’t be looking at egg and beef-sourced protein powders.
While soy is probably one of the most popular plant-based choices, there are some concerns that should be considered. Soy is one of the most heavily-treated crops, and many soy powders contain unsafe levels of pesticides and herbicides. There’s also the issue of genetically-modified soy beans. Virtually all commercially-grown soybeans are from GMOs and this is a concern for many people. For these reasons, it’s important to choose a soy protein powder that is 100% certified organic. Of course, most good organic products, whether soy, wheat or pea-based, are going to cost a bit more than the non-organic brands.
Another issue with soy is the ongoing research that regular soy consumption can cause issues with the thyroid and hormone function. Soy is a pseudo-estrogen. Pseudo-estrogens bind with estrogen receptors on your body’s cells, which can cause hormonal and other health issues. Women with a high risk or history of certain cancers are advised not to consume soy at all.
For these reasons, some people might prefer to go with a protein powder made from peas, hemp or wheat.
One of the benefits of a plant-based protein is the high fiber content. While lower than the fiber content found in the whole food, it’s still a decent amount of fiber, which is good for cardiovascular health, makes the protein powder a medium-to-slow acting formula and helps you to feel fuller for a longer period.
Of course, wheat, pea and soy-based protein powders aren’t going to be an option for those following a Paleo diet.
Egg and Beef-Based Protein Powders
If you’re one of those people, you still have some good options. Egg protein powders can be an excellent choice and are widely available. Beef-based powders are less so, but they’re still not difficult to find.
Again, though, organics are best when choosing from this category. Organic egg and beef protein powders are sourced from chickens and cattle that have not been raised on GMO feed or feed laced with high levels of antibiotics, added hormones and herbicides or pesticides. It’s also best to choose a brand that is sourced from grass-fed animals. These formulations will be higher in healthy fats, lower in unhealthy fats and have a much higher Omega-3 content. As with organic soy powders, higher prices may be an issue for you when choosing an organic brand of egg or beef protein powder.
Egg and beef-based protein powders are among the slower-digesting types, so they’re a better choice for bedtime protein or if you’ll need to consume them an hour or more before your workout.
Another Thing to Think About
You’ll also want to consider the leucine content in your protein powder choice. A number of studies have shown that the proper amount of leucine is needed for maximum muscle protein synthesis and 3g of leucine per protein meal seems to be the optimum.
Since different protein sources can contain different amounts of leucine, you’ll need more or less protein powder to get those 3g, depending on the source. Whey protein has the highest leucine content at 12g per 100g of protein powder, so you’d only need 26g of a whey protein powder to get your optimal leucine.
Beef-based protein powders come in second place, with 8g of leucine per 100g of powder, so you’d need 36g of beef-based protein powder to get your requirement. Egg is in third place, with 8.6g per 100. You’ll need 34g of an egg-based protein powder to get enough leucine. That’s about the same amount as in pea protein, if you’re looking for a plant-based option.
Obviously, there’s more to a protein powder than how many grams of protein it contains. When you’re trying to find the best product for you, you’ll need to consider which source of protein is best for you based on your health/dietary requirements and when and why you’ll be taking it.
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