There are a million and one protein products on the market, and choosing between them can mean the difference between a significant boost to your muscle-building ability and lackluster, weak results. Check out this list of variables to consider when making your decision, and you’ll be sure to get the right product for you!
If you’re new to protein supplements, the sheer variety of products available can be overwhelming. Nobody wants to be scammed, of course, and like any other product, there is often a significant difference between what the clerk in the store thinks you should buy and what you should actually buy, both in terms of overall quality and your specific needs.
The websites can be just as confusing. With long lists of specifications as to what’s actually in the supplement—normally just a list of words you’ve never seen anywhere, and that aren’t in the dictionary—or generalizations about “maximum muscle-building” or “optimal fat loss,” the product descriptions featured on a product or company webpage can leave you more confused than enlightened.
However, armed with the right information, and knowing what to look for, you can pick a protein product that will be the best for you. Here are the main points to consider when choosing a protein product for use with your workout regimen.
Value, at its most basic, applies to the benefits provided by a product, as compared to its relative cost, minus its drawbacks.
For example, where protein supplements are concerned, it might be helpful to think of it as quality, minus drawbacks, divided by the cost per serving.
There’s a good rule to follow when thinking about product value as it applies to protein supplements. In general, buying protein supplements is like buying a car. There are different price ranges, and within each price range, there are different sets of options.
Maximizing your purchasing power consists in accurately understanding, before you go shopping, what your price range is. Then, within that price range, you can do the required research so that you understand what the best products available in that price range are.
It’s all too easy, if you don’t know your budget beforehand, to walk into the nutritionist and suddenly find yourself walking out with bulk quantities of a supplement you’re not sure you like, because somebody talked you into getting a slightly higher quality at a vastly higher price than you’d intended. The stuff you walk out with might not even be what’s best for you.
A protein’s quality will determine in large part your overall happiness with your protein experience. You’re going to have to face the hard truth that not all protein supplements are created equal, and the cheap-o bottom-shelf brand may have significant drawbacks in addition to not providing the maximum available advantage.
Some protein powders have drawbacks that are almost certain deal-breakers; things like gastro-intestinal bloating and muscle cramps. Others, while their side effects might not be completely unacceptable, are just uncomfortable; some products cause excessive flatulence. Then, there’s the ever-present problem of taste: there are all too many protein powders that blend into a concrete-thick sludge that tastes like chalk. Avoid at all costs!
Overall quality, however, is not just a function of price (thankfully). In fact, protein quality can be broken down into a number of different variable attributes. Let’s take a look at some of the most important attributes of any protein powder, and explore how each one changes your overall experience, and how to look for a protein that provides you with exactly what you need.
There are no protein powders in existence that are 100% pure protein. They just don’t exist, and you probably wouldn’t want one, even if they did. Yield is the measure in percentage of protein per serving of a particular supplement.
To calculate yield, multiply the number of grams of protein per serving by 100, then divide that number by the serving size in grams. The answer is your percentage.
Let’s say you were to go out to the supplement store and pick up a big tub of a protein powder that had a 100g serving size. Then, you happen to read this article, so you pull out your new protein powder and find that within each serving, you’re getting 50g of protein. Calculating that out, you’d multiply 50 by 100, and then divide it by the number of grams per serving—also 100.
That’s a 50% yield: pretty disappointing. Next time, get a protein powder with a higher yield. But don’t go looking for 100% protein—you won’t find it. There will always be other stuff in your protein powder. And yes, some of it will be filler.
Amino Acid Profile
We said above that a protein powder is never going to be 100% protein. There will necessary be other stuff. Some of that other stuff—if you’re buying a good brand—will be amino acids. There are a few different types of amino acids, and each performs a slightly different function. But it’s sure a relief to learn that your protein supplement from the last example wasn’t a total waste—of that 50% that we calculated wasn’t protein, that doesn’t mean that the other 50% was filler.
For our purposes, there are two important kinds of amino acids. The first are Branch-Chain Amino Acids—BCAA, for short. The second type are Essential Amino Acids—EAA. Despite the second one’s name, both are actually essential, because they both perform vitally-important functions in muscle building.
Nitrogen in your blood stream is good for your muscle tissue. It helps the muscles to synthesize the amino acids it needs for the anabolic processes. And while branch-chain amino acids don’t figure directly into the anabolic process, they do act as nitrogen carriers, helping your muscles to do that job on their own. They also help your insulin levels rise, so that glucose flooding the bloodstream after you eat or drink the shake can be absorbed by the muscle cells and converted into fuel.
Insulin acts as a ‘key’ that opens a ‘lock’ in each muscle cell. When insulin touches the insulin receptors in muscle tissue cells, those cells open their cell walls and allow nutrients in. This is why people with diabetes have to take insulin when they eat: their pancreas no longer produces insulin, so nutrients can’t be absorbed into their muscle fibers and used as fuel.
But branch-chain amino acids also do something else: when it comes to fat burning, they act as an anti-catabolic agent, so the body eats up only excess fat, and not the lean muscle tissue you’re trying to hold onto.
The essential amino acids are the basic ones your body always needs. They include leucine and isoleucine, valine, threonine, phenylalanine, lysine, and tryptophan. Keep in mind that protein is actually made of amino acids; there are actually twenty different AAs that combine in different ways to make up proteins. Make sure these are included with your supplement:
The Amino Acids
Alanine: Alanine is a basic source of energy for muscles, and it allows your body to produce the necessary antibodies for proper immune function.
Arginine: This acid helps clear your liver of unwanted or built-up toxins, and signals your glands to release the growth hormones that make your muscle tissue physically larger.
Aspartic Acid: Ammonia is a toxin and it builds up in the body in all sorts of different ways. Aspartic acid binds with ammonia and carries it safely out of your system.
Cystine: Cystine is one of the better antioxidants available through supplements, and helps your body in producing the proper proteins more effectively.
Glutamic Acid: If you ever crave simple carbs, this amino acid will help blunt the urge to load up on sugar. It also helps get rid of fatigue.
Glutamine: Glutamine helps with the creation of muscle growth hormones.
Glycine: The manufacturing of hormones speeds up and operates more efficiently as digestion is improved with this supplemental acid.
Isoleucine: Isoleucine raises your overall energy levels, like glutamic acid. Unlike glutamic acid, however, it’s considered an essential protein.
Leucine: This is one of the more important amino acids involved in the regeneration of muscle tissue after a high-intensity workout.
Lysine: This essential hormone also aids muscle growth, and helps in the production of antibodies and certain vital enzymes. Lysine also improves nitrogen flow through the bloodstream.
Methionine: This amino acid helps shuttle fatty substances out of the body, and also aids in digestion.
Phenylalanine: Essential for everyone but especially for those trying to burn fat, phenylalanine helps suppress the urge to gorge yourself on simple carbs.
Proline: Your joints and tendons do their jobs more effectively, and your heart muscles get stronger, faster, with the help of this non-essential, but helpful acid.
Serine: Boost your immune system and antibody production with serine.
Threonine: Primarily a “signal” acid, threonine aids in the maintenance of protein levels and healthy protein production.
Tryptophan: Found most famously in large quantities in Thanksgiving turkey, tryptophan is a fundamentally-important amino acid that, among other things, signals the release of hormones for muscle growth.
Valine: The systems in your body that handle neuromuscular coordination use valine for optimal function.
If you’re looking at a protein powder, make sure it contains all of the above-listed amino acids. The relative concentration of these acids is often a direct function of the overall quality of the powder.
Whey Proteins: Concentrate and Isolate
Proteins are proteins. But, of course, it’s never quite that simple. Differences in how the proteins are made, specifically how whey protein is made, will result in differences in how your body uses those proteins. It’s not better versus worse, but a discriminating decision made based on your specific needs.
In general, the different types of whey protein are primarily differentiated by the size of the individual molecule of powder. Now, you can’t exactly break out a ruler and examine your protein powder, but looking at what type of proteins are contained in the mix will give you a good idea of how big the molecules are.
But what does molecule size have to do with anything, anyway? As a rule, smaller protein molecules go through the digestive system much more easily than do large molecules. It makes a kind of intuitive sense, if you think about it.
Then, there’s “biological value.” Whey protein concentrate, for example, has a lower biological value than does whey protein isolate. This does not mean that it is “worse” protein. For examples of other “low biological value” proteins, consider eggs, beef, chicken, and peanut butter.
Biological value does not determine the effectiveness of a protein. It’s often best to ignore biological value when considering a protein source, and instead, look for a combination of casein proteins, along with eggs and whey. These different proteins each perform different functions, and having the three together creates a powerful trinity of protein sure to help you build mass quickly, easily, and safely.
Whey proteins have a fast oxidation rate, so they enter the muscle tissue quickly. That’s why whey protein is often touted as “building muscle fast.” Casein, on the other hand, has a much slower release for consistent, slow absorption over time. Food proteins like eggs and soy often combine these two characteristics.
But the body is always trying to get back to stasis—homeostasis, more accurately—and for this reason, it’s best to vary the kinds of proteins used, even within a particular category. For example, while most male bodybuilders shy away from soy, due to its high phytoestrogen content, soy in controlled amounts does give you a healthy dose of isoflavones, which can contribute to reducing your risk of prostate hypertrophy.
Know Thy Enemy: Filler Percentages
Every protein powder available for sale contains filler. Every single one. So the presence of filler is not something to be “avoided”; it’s something to be considered. However, there’s another side to that coin, and filler levels in supplements range anywhere from less than one percent to well over 90%. It probably goes without saying that higher quality products will generally tend more towards that “less than one percent” range than towards the “well over 90%” range.
We’ve discussed proteins and amino acids as they interact with your body and each other within a protein powder. Filler is anything except for proteins and amino acids.
For example, then, you might find filler to be helpful if it helped flavor an otherwise nasty, inedible protein shake—flavorings are all considered filler. Any fats in the powder, as well as any carbs (yes, carbs make it into protein powders, too) would also be considered filler.
If you discover (as discussed earlier) that your chosen powder has a good yield, and its proportion of amino acids is also high, then you need not worry that you’re choking down a giant can of just filler. Those are always the best metrics to go by, as filler can mean just about anything else.
Filler also has one more important role to play:
One man’s junk is another man’s treasure, and one man’s “great taste” is another man’s “giant glass of barf.”
Either way, you can’t expect yourself to spend all day drinking something with taste you can’t stand. It may not seem like a big deal if you’re new to protein shakes, but taste can absolutely make or break your protein experience. Everybody who’s experimented with different products and flavors can tell you that some of the products out there actually taste like poison.
But not all. Some are edible, and there are those who genuinely enjoy the taste of their favored protein supplement.
The best course of action is never trust the manufacturer. Or the store clerk. Trust other end-users like yourself. That means asking around the gym for advice. Most people are only too willing to spare a newcomer the unenviable experience of trying to choke down an entire giant jar of something disgusting. They’ll be glad to help you. You want something that actually tastes good, ideally.
This does not refer to how far away the supplement store is, but instead to two basic factors that affect the logistics of using your preferred supplement. Ease of blending and ease of digestion. Many protein powders, even when put in a blender, turn into a concrete-like sludge that requires a metal implement (like a jackhammer) to remove from the blender. This is the stuff you have to chew, even though it’s a “shake,” in order to get it down. Gross.
If you can safely bet that you could mix up a protein shake using just a bottle, your mixer, and your protein, and shake up the bottle to make the mix, then you’re on the right track. If it requires a blender, it’s probably not going to work as well. And you’ll end up with a labor-intensive new job: cleaning the blender every day.
Ease of digestion is similar, but also slightly different. While a shake that blends easily and well is often a shake that digests easily and well, check how you feel after you down a shake. If you feel really full, or worse, bloated, then you’ve got something that is hard for your body to digest. The stomach has to deal with everything you put into it, so make sure you’ve taken its needs into account, as well as your tongue, when you pick a supplement.
And, finally, perhaps the most important factor of all.
Does it Get Results?
If it doesn’t make dollars, it doesn’t make sense. If your protein shake of choice is working for you, if you feel good after you drink it and when you look in the mirror, then you’re probably on the right track. Percentages and recommendations aside, you are the final arbiter of the success of your product: ultimate success is entirely a function of your satisfaction with it. Don’t let some “expert” talk you out of something you like and that is working for you. The best, if most dangerous, teacher is still personal, firsthand experience.
Asking around can also be a huge help in cases like this. Your fellow bodybuilders have probably tried brands and products you haven’t, and they’ll be able to tell you which ones in general to avoid. Look at the guy you see at the gym who has the physique you want: ask him what he drinks.
The absolute worst place to go for a recommendation is the store clerk. He has too many other motivations besides your results to be truly trustworthy. His boss may very well have told him to plug a product that isn’t selling well, so they can get rid of their inventory. In that case, what the store clerk is recommending to you would be the worst possible choice, because nobody wants to buy it.
Don’t be the chump who buys the jar collecting dust in the corner, because you didn’t know any better than to just trust the sales guy who’s trying to make quota this month and keep his job.
When you go looking for a protein powder, first consider the overall yield of the powder. In general, the better products will have higher yields. Examine the amino acids present, and compare them with the list above to make sure the manufacturer has included everything you’re going to need after your high-intensity workout. Ask your fellow bodybuilders and friends about relative taste: don’t end up with something that tastes like excrement because you were too scared to ask. Then, make sure that your filler levels aren’t out of control, and test different products (and again, ask around) for knowledge of ease of digestion, and ease of blending.