What is the best protein powder?

I get asked from clients pretty much weekly about which protein is the best to buy. If you walk into any supplement store, or even your run-of-the-mill supermarket, you’re probably going to see some whey protein powders on the shelves. You’ll probably see a lot, actually, all claiming one is better than the other.

Turn to the Internet and BANG, so much choice, the number of options becomes nearly infinite.

So which do you pick?

It’s a simple question, yet one I could never find a good answer to, in any book, on any website. So I decided to purchase from the best source on supplements Examine.com.

My goal with this blog is simple: to help you navigate the whey protein powder market. I want you to know what to look for in a product; what the red flags are; what questions to ask.

What’s the difference between milk powder and whey protein powder?

The protein in cow’s milk is only 20% whey protein (and 80% casein), but milk protein is good, that’s not the problem. So what is the problem? Let’s say you pick a skim milk powder, so your milk powder is nearly fat-free; it still has less protein (36%) than carbs (52%), and those carbs are lactose, a sugar. By contrast, a decent whey protein concentrate will be 80% protein, and its carbs will be in the low single digits.

What exactly is whey?

Whey comes from milk; it is most often a byproduct of cheesemaking. Whey’s dry mass is 75% carbs (lactose), 13% protein, and 1% fat. So for those of you who think you can make your own whey protein at home, the answer is no, because separating the protein from the carbs requires heavy machinery.

Is whey the best protein source?

Whey protein is highly bioavailable and has an excellent amino acid profile.

• Animal-based proteins (such as whey) and plant-based protein powders are digested and absorbed with more than 90% efficiency, compared to 60–80% for the protein in plant-based whole foods.

• Whey protein is 52% EAAs and 13.6% leucine, where as other animal-based proteins are roughly 40–45% EAAs and 7–8% leucine, and plant-based proteins are even lower.

Is isolate better than concentrate? What about hydrolysate?

There is no essential difference between whey concentrates and isolates: the latter just have a little less fat and carbs. Still, since the carbs are lactose, an isolate may suit you better if you’re lactose intolerant. In terms of their effects on strength and muscle mass, however, there doesn’t appear to be meaningful differences between concentrates, isolates, and hydrolysates. Hydrolysates are “pre-digested” but neither more bioavailable nor faster digesting than concentrates and isolates. Moreover, hydrolysates are denatured proteins, which means your digestive enzymes may not be able to produce health-promoting peptides from them.

Does it matter how the whey protein was processed?

Some forms of processing can denature the protein, but it is still protein: your body will use it, including to build muscle. However, your digestive enzymes usually produce health-promoting peptides from the protein you ingest; they may not be able to do so if the protein is denatured.

What is cold-processed whey?

Cold-processed whey is whey that has been created without the application of heat. This term is doubly meaningless: all whey protein powders derive from pasteurized milk, and none of the filtration methods used to concentrate whey protein (i.e., to extract it from the whey) involve heat application. The only part of the whole process for which “cold processing” could possibly make sense is the transformation of the liquid whey protein into a powder: vacuum drying and freeze drying don’t involve heat, whereas spray drying does.

Should my whey be from pasture-raised, grass-fed cows?

That’s up to you. There are important environmental and ethical arguments to be made about how cows are raised, but from a purely nutritional standpoint, greater access to pasture doesn’t appear to matter.

Any additives I should avoid?

Most additives aren’t worth worrying about in the concentrations found in whey protein powders (if they’re even there at all). Only carrageenan and food dyes (artificial colorants) warrant caution.

Should I take a whey protein powder especially made for women?

Whey protein is whey protein. A whey protein powder can only be “made for women” through additional ingredients, such as added iron. It’s up to you to decide if those added ingredients are worth your money.

Why can’t I just use BCAAs?

Well, you can. But why when the benefits seen from whey protein are both larger and more consistent than the benefits seen from leucine, BCAA, or EAA supplementation? A complete, fast-digesting protein, such as whey, should be your first choice, but if for whatever reason a protein powder is not an option for you, then some isolated leucine, BCAAs, or EAAs may be useful, depending on your goals.

Should I take casein before bed?