Sources of Protein in Protein Supplements – Which Shake, Bar, or Powder is Best for You?

If you are interested in optimizing your nutrition, chances are that at some point in time you may find yourself in a health food store looking at the endless shelves of protein supplements and trying to decide which one to choose. If you feel confused you are not alone. The number of protein supplements available on the market is overwhelming and this does not make a task of choosing one easy.

If you had to leave the store without buying anything or bought something that you are unhappy about don’t feel that you failed – this is expected. There are just too many factors to take into account.

To make a sound decision about choosing the best protein supplement you should consider the source of protein, the way this protein was processed, the type and quality of other nutritional ingredients, the presence and type of sweeteners, preservatives and various other additives, the reputation of the manufacturer, your specific goals, your lifestyle, your dietary limitations, etc. It is absolutely unrealistic to expect that you could do this during your visit to the store. You have to do your research in advance.

Whether you are trying to choose the best meal replacement shake, protein drink, protein or meal replacement bar, or just protein powder, the protein source is always the first thing to decide on.

Where does the protein in protein supplements come from?

While there are many different food sources of protein, only some of them are used in protein supplements.

Looking through the labels you will almost always find one or more of the following sources: soy, egg, whey, casein, hemp, rice, and pea. In this article we will go over each one of these sources and compare their amino acid profiles, digestibility, bioavailability, price, taste, and convenience of use. We will also discuss which protein sources work best for different situations and purposes.

By the end of the article you should be able to name the source of protein that will work best for you.

Soy Protein

Soy protein is isolated from soybeans. The soybeans are dehulled (where the crust is removed) and defatted (where the soy meal contains less than one percent oil) to produce soy flour, soy concentrates and soy isolates.  Soy protein is marketed as a high-protein and low-fat supplement. It is a plant based protein and contains almost all essential amino acids.

The Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score of soy protein is 1.00, which is equal to the same score for casein and egg white, so it is considered a good quality protein as per availability of amino acids.

Bioavailability of protein from soy is equal to the bioavailability of proteins from corn. However the digestibility of soy protein is much lower than that of whey protein. This unfortunately makes soy protein an inferior protein source compared to whey protein. Soy protein has a neutral vegetable taste and is highly soluble in water. Shelf life of soy protein isolate is about one year and it cost an average market price of about $2 per pound.

Soy protein helps improve the immune system and is beneficial for optimum bone health. In addition, soy protein is well known for its cardio protective properties and its ability to help reduce the risk of cancers. Many cheap protein supplements often contain high amounts of soy proteins. Secondly, soy protein has a significant influence on hormonal levels that can lead to hormonal imbalances, which may be a point of concern.

Pros

  • Cheap source of protein
  • Good for bone health and immune function

Cons

  • Low bioavailability
  • May negatively influence hormone levels

Best choice for

  • Vegetarian and Vegan
  • Individuals who infrequently use protein powders

Whey Protein

Whey protein is the source of protein that comes from whey – a byproduct of cheese processing. It is the most common source of protein found in protein powders and is also the most commonly used sports supplement on the market. Its popularity is largely due to its effectiveness and its ability to deliver results. Whey is without a doubt the gold standard for protein powder. It is important to note that there are three different types of whey protein – Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC), Whey Protein Isolate (WPI) and Whey Protein Hydrolysate (WPH). Each type of these whey proteins are produced with a slightly different nutritional quality and with slightly different processing techniques.

Whey protein is a great choice for anyone looking to lose weight, gain lean muscle mass, increase their daily protein intake or simply looking for a meal replacement shake. This is because whey protein contains up to 90% protein content by net weight (in the case of WPI) and is very low in both fat and carbohydrates. Additional benefits of whey protein include its rapid digestion rate. Whey protein is quickly digested meaning it helps to create short-lived spike in plasma amino acid levels. This spike of plasma amino acids has been shown to increase protein synthesis greater than that what is observed in individuals who use casein protein (see below). There is however, one slight negative point regarding whey protein. Current evidence suggest that the beneficial effects of whey protein are only observed when it is consumed in a fasted state, meaning it may in fact not be the best choice for those wanting to gain weight.

Pros

  • High quality protein
  • Low in fat and carbohydrates
  • Taste great
  • Relatively cheap

Cons

  • Not vegan friendly

Best choice for

  • Individuals wanting to lose weight or gain lean muscle mass
  • Individuals who want a good quality protein powder

Pea Protein

Pea protein has a neutral taste and is composed of approximately 18 percent branched chain amino acids (isoleucine, leucine and valine). Pure pea protein consists of 7 percent of lysine, which is essential for growth of the body and bone health, 8 percent arginine and 17 percent glutamine. Due to its amino acid profile, pea protein is very suitable for both athletes and non athlete populations. Its bioavailability is also good at approximately 98%. Pea protein is a great alternative source of protein for individuals who are allergic to animal proteins. However, although it contains a good source of branched chain amino acids, it does fall short in its overall amino acid profile. For this reason, pea protein is not recommended for use as a protein replacement but as an additional source of protein in your diet. The shelf life of pea protein is around two years and it has an average market price of about $5 per pound, making it a more expensive protein source.

Pros

  • Good source of branched chain amino acids
  • High bioavailability

Cons

  • Poor amino acid profile
  • Relatively expensive

Best choice for

  • Vegetarian and Vegan
  • Individuals who infrequently use protein powders

Casein

Casein protein is composed of 20% Glutamic Acid, 10% Proline, 8% Leucine, 7% Lysine, 6.5% Valine, and other important amino acids such as serine, isoleucine, tyrosine, arginine etc. It is a type of milk protein with a high bioavailability and biological value. Casein proteins are a common ingredient in many protein supplements on the market. These proteins have a greater solubility in water and shelf life is around two years.

Casein proteins digest slowly and is best taken before bed. It promotes lean muscle growth and is helpful in losing body fat. However, casein protein is not well tolerated in some people with allergy to animal proteins and for this reason may not be suitable for all.

Pros

  • Good quality protein source
  • Can aid muscle growth and weight loss when taken prior to sleep

Cons

  • May cause gastrointestinal discomfort in some individuals
  • Not vegan friendly

Best choice for

  • Vegetarian and Vegan
  • Individuals who are trying to lose weight or increase muscle mass

Rice Protein

Rice protein is a protein isolate and an alternative to soy protein and whey protein. It is a rich source of sulfur containing amino acids. It is high in cysteine and methionine content and low in lysine. Therefore, the combination of rice protein with pea protein is best to compensate the lysine, as pea protein is rich in lysine content and low in cysteine content. Bioavailability of rice protein is about 85 to 90 percent. The taste of rice protein is good and acceptable as compared to whey hydrolysate. Rice protein is soluble in water and has a shelf life of about two to three years.

The known health benefits of rice protein are that it is easily digestible and quickly used by the body. It is considered the best source of protein for vegetarians. The only problem with rice protein is that it is deficient in some important amino acids, so it cannot fulfill the requirement of all amino acids. Therefore, some experts advise to take this protein with other protein sources – especially with pea protein. Rice protein retails for approximately $7 per pound

Pros

  • High bioavailability
  • Long shelf life

Cons

  • Poor amino acid profile
  • Expensive

Best choice for

  • Vegetarian and Vegan
  • Individuals who infrequently use protein powders

Egg Protein

Egg Protein contains all essential amino acids and other amino acids such as alanine, glutamic acid and aspartic acid. It is also rich in semi essential amino acids such cystene, arginine, proline, tyrosine and glucine. Protein from egg is considered highly bio available, however protein absorbed in the body from raw egg is only about 10%. Protein from cooked egg is absorbed about 90% in the body, so it is best to consume cooked egg for maximum bioavailability of protein from it. The taste of egg protein may not be pleasant to some people particularly compared to other protein alternatives such as whey or casein.

Egg Protein is also less soluble in water. The albumin contained in egg makes a colloidal type solution when mixed with water, which also negatively influences its taste. Egg protein forms a foam type solution in water making it visually unappealing.  The shelf life of egg protein powder is approximately 12 to 24 months depending on the manufacturing process.

Pros

  • High quality protein source
  • High bioavailability

Cons

  • Taste

Best choice for

  • Vegetarians
  • Individuals wanting to lose weight

Hemp Protein

Hemp protein is extracted from cannabis seeds and it is now considered to be a super food. Hemp protein offers a near to complete source of protein, as it contains 21 amino acids. 100 grams of hemp protein powder contains 8% Glutamic Acid, 5% arginine, 4.5% aspartic acid, 2% gycine, 1.5% lysine, 1.3% histidine and 2.5% leucine.

Bioavailability of hemp protein is about 80%, which is lower than other proteins. The taste of hemp protein powder may not be so pleasant, so it is best taken with smoothies or juices for better taste. Hemp protein is 70% water soluble, but some companies claim that it is 100% water-soluble. The shelf life of hemp protein powder is around 12 months. Hemp protein powder is very expensive, retailing at approximately $15-20 per pound.

Hemp protein powder is a vegan friendly health supplement and is well tolerated in most people as hemp does not become allergic in people unlike milk or casein protein. Its benefits include improved brain and heart health by improving circulation of the blood.

Pros

  • Good amino acid profile

Cons

  • Average bioavailability
  • Taste
  • Expensive

Best choice for

  • Vegetarian and Vegan

Summary:

When it comes to choosing a protein powder, the options are diverse. There are many different types of protein powders on the market and all seem to contain a slightly different make up of protein sources. Soy protein is rich in amino acids, but linked with hormonal imbalances due to genetic modification of soy crops. Pea protein is good, but lacks some amino acids. You can however take pea protein with rice protein to compensate the deficiency of some amino acids in both proteins. Casein protein digests slowly and may good during a weight loss program, but is not well tolerated by all. Rice protein is a good vegan protein with higher bioavailability, lacks some amino acids, but as described above, it can be taken with pea protein. Egg protein is a great protein source offering a complete amino acid profile, but it may cause an allergic reaction in some people. Hemp protein is another good source of protein, however, it is a very expensive protein supplement. So with all of this in mind, which protein is the best for you?

If you are trying to lose weight – Whey, Casein or Egg

If you are vegetarian / vegan – Pea or Rice

If you want a high quality protein source – Whey or Casein

If you want to gain lean muscle mass – Whey, Casein or Egg

If you want a meal replacement shake – Whey

But if there had to be one winner out of the group, there is no denying this title belongs to Whey Protein. Whey protein is the best source of protein powder for most individuals due to its high quality and fast digestion rate. It is the most multipurpose protein powder on the market, offering benefits for those who want to lose weight, gain lean muscle mass or those looking for a meal replacement option. For more detailed information about the different types of whey protein and its many benefits, you can read this article: Which Whey Protein Type Do You Need?

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