Protein powders are a popular choice for increasing protein intake and supporting body composition goals. Whether you’re trying to build muscle, counteract age-related muscle loss, or shed fat, adding a protein powder to your routine can help.
There are many types of protein powders to choose from. In this article, we’ll review the most common types of protein powder and things to consider to help you choose the best protein powder for your needs.
What is protein powder?
Protein powders are a concentrated form of protein in powdered form. They’re intended to help you easily increase protein intake by supplementing your food intake.
The protein in protein powder can come from animal or plant sources. The most common animal proteins found in protein powders are milk and egg proteins. Plant-based protein powders use proteins from soy, pea, rice, hemp, nuts, and/or seeds. Protein powders may also include artificial or natural flavorings and sweeteners, thickening agents, or vitamins and minerals.
Protein powders are mixed with a liquid, such as water or milk, and come in many flavors.
Most protein powders contain around 15 to 30 grams of protein per serving and small amounts of fat and carbohydrates.
Types of protein powder
Here are the most common protein powder sources:
Whey and casein are two proteins found in dairy. Protein powder can be made from either of these proteins, but whey protein powders are more popular and considered the gold standard for many. Whey protein is a complete protein because it contains all nine essential amino acids the body cannot produce itself.
Whey protein powders are well-studied and have been found to support weight loss and muscle growth when combined with resistance or strength building s .1 Whey is a natural source of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are linked to enhanced synthesis of new muscle tissue and improved workout recovery.2
You’ll typically find whey protein in three forms: concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate. Protein isolates contain more protein than concentrates.3 Hydrosolates are designed for rapid digestion and absorption.
Casein protein powder offers various benefits for fitness enthusiasts. When compared to whey, it is a slow-release protein source, perfect for muscle recovery and growth. It helps maintain satiety and supports weight management. Additionally, casein contains essential amino acids crucial for overall health and muscle repair.4
Both whey and casein protein powders contain lactose, so it may not be an appropriate choice for those sensitive to lactose or dairy. It is always best to check with your doctor about what type of protein powder is right for you, particularly if you are lactose intolerant.
Protein powder sourced from eggs is typically made with egg whites and not whole eggs. Although eggs are a good source of bioavailable protein and egg protein contains all nine essential amino acids, the benefits of egg protein powders haven’t been studied as much as whey protein.5
Egg protein powder may be a good choice for anyone who can’t consume milk-based protein powders. However, egg protein powders are not a good choice for vegans or any individual with an egg allergy.
Soy, pea, hemp, and brown rice proteins are popular protein sources in plant-based protein powders. Not all plant proteins are complete, so it’s common to find a blend of proteins in plant-based protein powders.
Several studies have found that plant-based protein powders can be as effective as whey protein for building muscle and strength.6
Plant-based proteins are a good option for vegetarians, vegans, and individuals who have allergies or intolerances to dairy or eggs.
How to choose a protein powder
Here’s what to consider before choosing a protein powder:
Your food preferences and dietary restrictions will help guide your protein powder options. A plant-based protein will be the best option for vegetarians and vegans. You’ll also want to consider any food sensitivities and allergies, such as lactose intolerance or a dairy allergy when deciding on a protein source.
Be sure to read the ingredient list on your protein powder for allergens and any ingredients you may wish to avoid, such as artificial ingredients.
If you’re simply trying to up your protein, a protein powder that provides 15 to 20 grams of protein per serving may be adequate. If your goal is to build muscle you may want to look for a protein powder with more than 20 grams of protein per serving.
If you’re trying to lose weight or eat for better blood sugar control, avoid protein powders with added sugars. Always speak with your doctor about the best protein powder for you particularly if you are managing any medical conditions that may change your protein or carbohydrate needs.
Protein isolates cost more than concentrates. Tubs of protein powder are usually more affordable than single-serving packets. Purchasing larger tubs is often more cost-effective, but be sure to only buy what you can realistically use before the product’s expiration date.
The biggest consideration in choosing a protein powder is the source of protein. Protein powders can be derived from animal or plant foods. Individuals with no dietary restrictions will likely find whey protein meets their needs. For those that can not consume dairy or animal foods, a plant-based protein powder will be a better alternative.
- West DWD, Abou Sawan S, Mazzulla M, Williamson E, Moore DR. Whey Protein Supplementation Enhances Whole Body Protein Metabolism and Performance Recovery after Resistance Exercise: A Double-Blind Crossover Study. Nutrients. 2017;9(7):735. Published 2017 Jul 11. doi:10.3390/nu9070735
- Santos CS, Nascimento FEL. Isolated branched-chain amino acid intake and muscle protein synthesis in humans: a biochemical review. Einstein (Sao Paulo). 2019;17(3):eRB4898. Published 2019 Sep 5. doi:10.31744/einstein_journal/2019RB4898
- Jeewanthi RK, Lee NK, Paik HD. Improved Functional Characteristics of Whey Protein Hydrolysates in Food Industry. Korean J Food Sci Anim Resour. 2015;35(3):350-359. doi:10.5851/kosfa.2015.35.3.350
- Abbott, W., Brett, A., Cockburn, E., & Clifford, T. (2019). Presleep Casein Protein Ingestion: Acceleration of Functional Recovery in Professional Soccer Players. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 14(3), 385–391.
- Puglisi MJ, Fernandez ML. The Health Benefits of Egg Protein. Nutrients. 2022;14(14):2904. Published 2022 Jul 15. doi:10.3390/nu14142904
- Kerksick CM, Jagim A, Hagele A, Jäger R. Plant Proteins and Exercise: What Role Can Plant Proteins Have in Promoting Adaptations to Exercise?. Nutrients. 2021;13(6):1962. Published 2021 Jun 7. doi:10.3390/nu13061962