Protein powders are concentrated sources of protein from animal or plant foods, such as dairy, eggs, rice or peas.
There are three common forms:
- Protein concentrates: Produced by extracting protein from whole food using heat and acid or enzymes. These typically supply 60–80% protein, with the remaining 20–40% composed of fat and carbs.
- Protein isolates: An additional filtering process removes more fat and carbs, further concentrating the protein. Protein isolate powders contain about 90–95% protein.
- Protein hydrolysates: Produced by further heating with acid or enzymes — which breaks the bonds between amino acids — hydrolysates are absorbed more quickly by your body and muscles.
Not everyone benefits from these powders. If your diet is already rich in high-quality protein, you likely won’t see much difference in your quality of life by adding protein powder.
However, athletes and people who regularly lift weights may find that taking protein powder helps maximize muscle gain and fat loss.Whey Protein
1. Whey Protein
Whey protein comes from milk. It is the liquid that separates from the curds during the cheesemaking process. It’s high in protein but also harbors lactose, a milk sugar that many people have difficulty digesting. While whey protein concentrate retains some lactose, the isolate version contains very little because most of this milk sugar is lost during processing.
Whey protein seems to reduce appetite at least as much as other types of protein (2) One study gave lean men four different types of liquid protein meals on different days. The whey-protein meals led to the largest decrease in appetite and the greatest reduction in calorie intake at the next meal.
2. Casein Protein
Like whey, casein is a protein found in milk. However, casein is digested and absorbed much more slowly. Casein forms a gel when it interacts with stomach acid, slowing down stomach emptying and delaying your bloodstream’s absorption of amino acids.
This results in a gradual, steadier exposure of your muscles to amino acids, reducing the rate of muscle protein breakdown (2).
However, one study in overweight men suggests that when calories are restricted, casein may have an edge over whey in improving body composition during resistance training (3).
3. Egg Protein
Eggs are an excellent source of high-quality protein. Of all whole foods, eggs have the highest protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS).
Eggs are also one of the best foods for decreasing appetite and helping you stay full for longer (1).
However, egg protein powders are typically made from egg whites rather than whole eggs. Although the protein quality remains excellent, you may experience less fullness because the high-fat yolks have been removed.
Like all animal products, eggs are a complete protein source. That means they provide all nine essential amino acids that your body can’t make itself. What’s more, egg protein is second only to whey as the highest source of leucine, the BCAA that plays the largest role in muscle health (2).
4. Pea Protein
Pea protein powder is especially popular among vegetarians, vegans and people with allergies or sensitivities to dairy or eggs. It’s made from the yellow split pea, a high-fiber legume that boasts all but one of the essential amino acids.
In a 12-week study in 161 men doing resistance training, those who took 1.8 ounces (50 grams) of pea protein daily experienced similar increases in muscle thickness as those who consumed the same amount of whey protein daily (1).
Though pea protein powder shows promise, more high-quality research is needed to confirm these results.
5. Hemp Protein
Hemp protein powder is another plant-based supplement that is gaining popularity. Although hemp is related to marijuana, it only contains trace amounts of the psychoactive component THC.
Hemp is rich in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and several essential amino acids. However, it is not considered a complete protein because it has very low levels of the amino acids lysine and leucine.
While very little research exists on hemp protein, it appears to be a well-digested plant protein source (1).
6. Brown Rice Protein
Protein powders made from brown rice have been around for some time, but they are generally considered inferior to whey protein for building muscle. Although rice protein contains all of the essential amino acids, it is too low in lysine to be a complete protein.
There isn’t a lot of research on rice protein powder, but one study compared the effects of rice and whey powders in fit, young men. The eight-week study demonstrated that taking 1.7 ounces (48 grams) of rice or whey protein daily resulted in similar changes in body composition, muscle strength and recovery (1).
However, more research on brown rice protein is needed.
Although all protein powders provide a concentrated source of protein, certain types may be more effective at giving your body what it needs.
For Muscle Gain
Research has consistently confirmed whey protein’s ability to promote muscle mass and recovery. While whey concentrate is cheaper than whey isolate, it contains less protein by weight.
For Weight Loss
Casein protein, whey protein or a combination of the two may be the best protein supplement for promoting fullness and fat loss.