A good protein supplement is a mainstay in every nutrition plan, whether your aim is to build a better body, lose weight or enhance your recovery.
A visit to your nearest supplement store will reveal an impressive range of protein supplements.
Each product contains a beneficial dose of protein in various forms, including different animal-sourced proteins and various plant-based options.
There are also different flavours and a mix of ingredients and formulations to consider. Use this comprehensive guide to help inform your choice to find the best protein supplement for you and your specific goals and preferences.
Whey protein powders
Whey is a dairy-based protein made from ingredients derived from the cheese-making process. Its effectiveness and versatility make it one of the most popular protein supplements.
Whey is a complete protein, delivering all nine essential amino acids – those that your body can’t produce on its own – including the beneficial branched-chain amino acids (BCAA). This includes high levels of leucine, a powerful amino acid that the body needs to rebuild muscle during the recovery process.
Whey protein supplements typically come in three forms:
- Whey concentrate: The most common, least processed form of whey. It contains more lactose than the other two variants. While it is highly bioavailable, it is more slowly digested and absorbed than an isolate or hydrolysate.
- Whey isolate: Whey concentrates go through an additional processing step to remove some fat and lactose.
- Whey hydrolysate: This predigested, partially hydrolysed whey powder goes through an extra processing step to remove additional lactose and increase its bioavailability compared to concentrates or isolates.
These products are created using dairy from organically-reared cows, which are typically grass fed and aren’t given artificial growth hormones or antibiotics. These products are often formulated without added sugars, preservatives and colourants.
Casein protein powders
This milk-derived protein is absorbed more slowly than whey as it tends to clump in the digestive tract.
This characteristic makes it a popular standalone product for use at night, when a prolonged amino acid release can sustain the anabolic process during sleep. It is also commonly included in blends for the same reason.
This slower digestion rate can also leave you feeling full for longer, which makes it a common addition to meal replacement powders (MRPs) or diet shakes. A popular form of this supplement is micellar casein, which has the slowest digestion rate.
Dairy protein blends
Whey blends contain a combination of or all three whey protein variants. This delivers the ideal mix for rapid absorption and a more sustained amino acid release, which accelerates the muscle repair and aids the recovery process.
Milk-based blends typically contains a combination of two or more whey protein sources, such as whey isolate, concentrate and/or hydrolysate, and micellar casein and/or milk protein isolate for a combination of fast, medium and slow-releasing protein sources.
Beef protein powders
Beef protein powders are generally derived from raw beef material that goes through a hydrolysation process to isolate specific protein peptides.
Passing beef through this enzymatically-controlled process leaves manufacturers with a partially-digested protein source that is highly bioavailable and has a complete amino acid profile.
As most plant proteins are incomplete – they don’t provide a full amino acid profile – plant-based protein supplements typically combine incomplete plant-derived protein powders. Common sources include pea, brown rice, hemp or soy to create a complete amino acid profile.
Other, less common sources may include pumpkin seeds, spirulina, oats and various sprouted grains. These plant proteins also provide a variety of vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and fibre.
Plant proteins ensure that those who suffer from digestive issues linked to dairy or other allergens, or intolerances or food sensitivities have a beneficial protein option because they are lactose-free.
And these products offer an effective substitute to anyone who aims to reduce or eliminate animal protein from their diet for health, ethical or environmental reasons. These products are obviously also suitable for vegans or vegetarians.
This product category combines animal and plant protein to deliver a multi-source blended product.
The most common blend is a mix of whey, soy, and casein, which delivers a prolonged amino acid release to sustain and support recovering muscles.
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.