A Primer on Protein
Protein powders are considered a staple of many person’s supplemental regimens, and for good reason too. Protein powders are cheap, simple, and effective. They can be used for fat loss, muscle building, or for general health. They come in a variety of flavors from a variety of providers and are an efficient and sometimes delicious way to get in nutrients with minimal to no side effects (really none in healthy individuals). As far as supplements go, protein powders can be considered the closest to being a real food.
Due to these reasons, protein powders are a relatively big topic. Whether their popularity warrants such controversy over what they are and how they work is confusing though; in most cases they are, quite literally, crushed and dehydated foodstuffs. Nevertheless, many people would find a guide to protein supplementation useful.
The following looks at various forms of animal derived protein sources, and then delves into vegan sources as their existence is one riddled with unwarranted controversy.
Animal derived proteins are better than vegan derived. They are complete protein sources and are typically better absorbed and digested than their plant based partners. If you are not vegan, these should be the protein powders to consider using as they are typically cheaper in addition to just being more beneficial.
The standard protein powder. Whey is derived from milk as the liquid component. It’s main benefits that make it stand apart from the rest are:
- 25% BCAA content by weight, approximately
- High cysteine and glutamine content, which aid in glutathione formation and gut health
- Fast absorption speed relative to other protein sources
Various forms exist, such as Whey Concentrate, Whey Isolate, and Whey Hydrolysate (or hydrolyzed whey).
Whey is typically the first protein source people go for due to it’s popularity and economy. Out of all protein sources, whey can also be seen as the ‘healthiest‘ due to it’s cysteine and glutamine content increasing levels of glutathione (an intrinsic anti-oxidant) in the body, and providing an abundance of glutamine for cells lining the gut. Whey also contains various other compounds like Lactoferrin, Lactalbumins Alpha/beta, Glycomacropeptide (GMP), and Bovine Serum Albumin which all exert beneficial effects on the immune system, gut lining, and microbial profile of the gut.
It’s digestion speed is fast relative to foods, being in systemic circulation around 30-45 minutes after ingestion (although numbers will vary depending on the person and manner the whey was ingested). The various forms of whey affect digestion speed (Concentrate -> Isolate -> Hydrolysate; slowest to fastest) relative to each other, but the speed is not overly significant under most scenarios. Hydrolysate and possibly Isolate may not also have the above list of beneficial compounds as they may have been filtered out due to particulate size (digestion speed is increased by either enzymatic treatment or microgradient filters; both of which exclude or destroy the above compounds).
The BCAA content is also notable as it is rich in the amino acid Leucine, which has many muscle building properties in the body and is one of the most important amino acids to ingest in higher-than-normal doses with the goal of building muscle mass or retaining muscle mass when losing fat.
The standard ‘slow release’ protein source. Casein is the curd (solid) portion of dairy protein. The typical benefits associated with casein supplementation are:
- A very high insulin secretion value relative to other protein sources
- Slower absorption in the intestines
- Gel-forming properties outside of the body
Casein is found in various forms such as Calcium Caseinate, Micellar Casein, and Casein Hydrolysate. The last one which is actually fast absorbing. (A fairly unique version of Casein protein, a review of which may be found here). These proteins are also a great source of dietary glutamine, which feed the cells lining the gut.
Confusion occurs with the gel forming properties that are observed in the kitchen and the ‘slow absorption’ typical of casein. Casein does not form a gel in the stomach like many believe. Casein protein itself passes the stomach fairly fast, but acts upon receptors in the intestines (opioid receptors) to slow down intestinal uptake rate (Aside from hydrolysate, which does not have this property to such a degree).
Non-hydrolyzed casein protein has gel-forming properties outside of the body, which is why casein can be found as an ingredient in glue. It also is used to make recipes such as pudding, cookies, peanut butter clusters or protein fluff in which no heat is applied.
A note on dietary calcium intake with casein protein. Both whey and casein are great sources of calcium, but casein is an exceedingly good source of calcium. Excessive supplementation with casein protein can cause one to exceed their daily requirements of calcium quite rapidly. This would most notably, for lack of a better term, clog you up something fierce.
Milk protein is a blend of casein and whey proteins. They have both benefits of whey and casein in approximately a 20%/80% distribution (whey/casein respectively).
Milk protein (aside from being easily accessible from foods) is an even more economical and efficient way of getting the benefits of both whey protein and casein protein.
It may even exert additional benefits in regards to digestion speed by combining a slow and a fast absorbing protein by having the fast absorbing protein slowed down slightly by the presence of the casein. This would theoretically lead to an amino acid drip similar to casein protein but with an initial flux of amino acids (although less drastic than pure whey). One can buy milk protein and not worry about blending in casein and whey proteins individually.
Egg protein is typically dehydrated egg white albumin, although some companies may sell the egg protein of both the yolk and the white (different final amino acid composition). Egg’s main marketing points are:
- A high bioavailability
- A balanced amino acid profile
Egg white protein is heat processed, so the biotin-binding compound called ‘Avidin’ (which may lead to biotin deficiency via consumption of raw egg whites) becomes a non-issue.
The high bioavailability (in lay terminology, the percent of the protein absorbed) places eggs above many food sources of protein, but it is not unique in this regard as whey protein has an even higher score.
Egg protein, in excess, is also notorious for making farts smell incredibly bad; this is due to it’s very high sulfur content via select amino acids. Whether you are a business man or a college age male, this last fact may make or break the decision to buy said protein source.
An old-school protein that is just starting to be reintroduced, beef protein extract can be seen as dehydrated meat. It will contain many of the benefits of meat itself (possessing a creatine and carnitine content, possibly trace CoQ10 and choline levels).
A benefit to consuming beef protein in supplemental form is avoidance of some carcinogens typically correlated with meat processing (such as nitrates, which convert into nitrosamines), and compounds produced in the cooking of meat which are either carcinogenic (heterocyclic amines) or artherogenic (advanced glycemic end products, or AGEs).
Also, you can drink chocolate beef.
Not as good as animal based protein powders. Various vegan options exist each with their own list of benefits and drawbacks. They may not complete protein sources and would then need to be paired with other sources to complete their amino acid profiles.
Soy protein is a protein source based on soy beans. It’s main selling points are:
- A complete vegan amino acid profile
- Hormonally active constituents that may benefit bone health and anti-cancer effects
- Very high and diverse micronutrient profile
The amino acid profile contains all amino acids, although it is has a lesser value of methionine (an essentially amino acid) then normal ‘complete’ amino acids; this should not result in much over time given other sources of protein intake however. It can be bought in soy protein concentrates (around 65-70% protein by weight) or isolates (>90%).
Soy is a controversial topic. Soy itself in an unprocessed (food) and unfermented form has many noted downsides to it, including:
- Protease and trypsin (intrinsic enzyme) inhibitors
- Disruptions to the estrogen / testosterone balance in the body [via phytoestrogens]
- Disruptions to thyroid metabolism
- Lectin content
- Phytic acid and similar anti-nutrients
The significance of these concerns are dependent on the form of the soy ingested (fermented, unfermented and raw, processed, etc), on the person ingesting it (post-menopausal women v. 20 year old male) and in the dose consumed.
The processing of soy involves dehulling, deflaking, and defatting soybeans; and then later treating the extraction with an acid or hexane bath to remove volatile compounds which could increase rancidity or contribute adverse flavors. The processing techniques involve heat and acid treatment which inactivates most of the protease and trypsin inhibitors (meaning that they are much less an issue with powder supplementation). Lectins are heat-resistant, so they are still in the final product.
The phytoestrogens and their effects on hormonal function are all statistically significant (high validity) but whether they are practically significant is up for debate. Many people forget that soy protein isolate is used as a control in many studies comparing protein sources and no variances in hormonal function is seen (at least acutely), and example of which can be seen here; the purpose of the study and the conclusions of many of the studies analyzed were focused on whey protein’s benefits yet no harms of soy ingested under normal conditions were noted.
A great deal of the phytic acid is in the soybean’s hull, which is removed during processing and is thus a non-issue with powder supplementation but a concern with actual soy beans or nuts.
So in sum; A high quality Soy Protein Isolate (as is used in many studies) is just too processed to carry with it either the benefits or negatives of phytoestrogens, anti-nutrients, or enzyme inhibitors; it is quite literally just a solution of amino acids and nothing else (hence why it makes such a nice control in studies). Unfermented soy foods do have all these sexy effects (be them good or bad), and Soy Protein Concentrate will fall somewhere in between the two.
The lectin content is small, but still existent in Soy Protein Isolate. This may be the reason why some people still report digestive issues with supplementing with it.
Hemp protein is a protein powder made from ground up seeds of Cannabis Sativa, which is free of the neuroactive compound of marijuana called THC (This can be good or bad depending on your perspective). Hemp’s main selling points are:
- A complete and vegan protein source (not a lie this time around)
- Contains Omega-3 and 6 amino acids in a decent ratio, as well as GLA
- Good micronutrient content
It is not exclusively protein by caloric division as it also supplies some fatty acids and carbs. It provides both omega fatty acids (3 and 6), although the omega-3 form is in the form of Alpha-Linoic Acid, which is subpar compared to the animal form of Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA, or fish oil) in increased body levels of EPA and DHA. It also contains the omega-6 fatty acid GLA (Gamma-Linolenic Acid) which is one of the more beneficial n-6 fatty acids. Sadly, the amount of GLA in hemp protein kind of sucks (around 1-4% of the fatty acid profile).
It’s micronutrient profile is better than most other protein powders, it’s almost like a whole food rather than a protein powder.
Building on that, it pretty much should be considered a whole food rather than a protein powder. Hemp protein is almost always found with 30-50% protein by weight of the powder when other options in this article near 90-100% protein by weight. Hemp, also, is more expensive than other options and whether it warrants this extra price is a decision based on the individual purchasing it.
Rice protein is a protein powder created from rice after the protein and carbohydrate sections have been separated by enzymatic treatment. Rice proteins main marketing points are:
- Very easily digested on ‘easy on the stomach’
- Low allergin content
It is usually paired with Pea / Gemma protein to get a more complete amino acid profile.
Rice protein is fairly unremarkable in and of itself, but is a great option for said Pea pairing for a complete amino acid profile. Taste of rice protein is highly variable between providers, so ask around for people who have used it before for a good company to buy from or get a flavoring agent, just in case.
The low allergin content of rice protein is due to avoidance of all main allergins (eggs, dairy, soy, etc.) while being very low (almost non-existent) in lectin/gliaden content, despite being a grain.
Pea / Gemma
Can be seen as the ‘Whey’ of the vegan options. Pea protein is higher in the amino acids leucine, arginine, and glutamine. The first and last also quite high in whey protein. It is highly digestible for a plant source (approximately 90% or above is absorbed) and is non-allergenic. Pea protein’s main selling points are:
- High leucine content
- High digestibility
It is usually paired with rice protein in order to get a more complete amino acid profile. It possesses no lectin/gliadin content and is (like rice protein) non-allergenic.
Pea typically also contains isoflavones similar to soy, but the significance is not as widely studied relative to soy.
Using Protein powder supplementation
Protein powder supplementation is probably one of the simplest things to supplement. You put it in water and chug. However, to make it taste the best possible or to get the most benefit some guidelines can be followed.
Some protein powders, such as Whey and Casein Hydrolysate, will never form any clumps or chunks. Others like calcium caseinate or milk protein are prone to clumping, and other proteins such as rice or pea fall in between. It is advisable to get what is known as a ‘Blender Bottle’, or a shaker bottle (710mL) that has a small whisk ball inside of it. Shaking a protein shake in this bottle is a portable and efficient way to break down clumps.
Blenders are also an at home solution, and have a lot more lee-way with alternate ingredients added to it.
For first time protein buyers, it may be best to purchase something basic like Vanilla if you wish to add things to it in a blender. Vanilla is a flexible flavor and has been around for long enough in the supplement industry that many companies are able to nail the flavoring quite well.
Most companies carry the basics of Chocolate and Vanilla, then branch off into Strawberry or Banana to later be followed by Cookies and Cream. These flavors are relatively popular and many companies hit the flavoring nearly perfectly. Some companies provide many, many more flavors than this as well.
Making a protein shake at home can be a fun endeavor, and you can add almost anything to it. Berries, peanut butter or nutella, different forms of fruit such as coconut or bananas, a different form or flavor of protein, milk or heavy cream, and various powders like cinnamon can be used to customize your flavor.
Dosing of protein powder should correspond with how much protein you wish to consume in a day and how much protein you intake from other foods.
Protein powders are not needed in any way, but they can be used to ‘supplement’ your protein intake from food. Eating meat at all meals may not be feasible, appetizing, or healthy given your choices.
So, for example, if you wish to get 1g/lb of bodyweight (as protein is usually measured in relation to bodyweight for relatively normal weight individuals) and you weigh 200lbs. You can eat 150g from food sources and then take 2 scoops of 24g protein at some times during the day.
Note on Casein
Casein protein (not hydrolysate, but caseinate and micellar) are the only proteins in this list that can be used in solid food preparation by itself. Due to casein’s gel-forming properties, it can make a very nice pudding with the addition of enough liquid, or can be used with other ingredients such as peanut butter or coconut flakes to create ‘clusters’. With enough ingenuity and the use of Google, one can even make protein cookies.
Take the following with a grain of salt, as I can benefit from it directly. However, a good site to buy from in my opinion is TrueProtein.com. Very cheap, gives you many options to choose from and also gives you the option to customize a blend on a per weight basis (in case you liked multiple powders above but do not want to buy more than one powder) and offers a wide variety of flavors. Using the discount code KSF812 will save you some more money on their already low prices for bulk powders.
I do not work for nor am I affiliated with Trueprotein outside of that discount code.