With so many different proteins on the market now, it can be hard to know which one to buy. To make it even more confusing, there is not one single best protein powder for everyone. The ideal protein powder for you depends on your goals, nutritional needs, allergies, and dietary preferences. Today, we will cover the difference between animal- and plant-based proteins, running through the pros and cons of different protein powders, and telling you which we think are best avoided entirely.
Animal-Sourced Protein PowdersPhoto by Viktor Hanacek
Whey has long been the “gold standard” of protein powders. It is one of the types of protein found in cow’s milk and has a complete, balanced amino acid profile, which makes it easy for the body to use.
The pros of whey protein are:
- Nutrition: Low carb, non-fat, and almost pure protein with a complete amino acid profile.
- Cost: Whey protein is relatively affordable compared to other sources of good quality, digestible protein.
- Digestibility: Whey is very easy for the body to use and has a high biological value (which indicates how well the body absorbs a given type of protein).
- Taste: Whey tastes good, especially in flavored protein powders.
- Texture: Whey protein is extremely smooth and dissolves easily in water, milk, or smoothies.
- Commercial Availability: Whey protein powders are the most widely available and easiest to find proteins.
- Effects on Longevity: Research has shown that whey protein has wide-reaching benefits for health. In addition to including maintaining lean body mass, whey protein has positive effects on brain, bone, cardiovascular, and immune health.
However, there are some cons of whey protein:
- Allergies: Many people have dairy allergies or sensitivities and do not tolerate whey protein well. Do not use whey protein if it makes you gassy, bloated, causes unpleasant changes in your bowels, or you have any other symptoms of an allergy or sensitivity. That being said, some people who are lactose intolerant have no problem with dairy proteins and tolerate whey protein powder much better than they tolerate other dairy products. If you are interested in using whey protein, experiment and see what works best for your body.
- Additives: Most whey proteins on the market are filled with additives like artificial sweeteners and colors. Luckily, you can avoid this by shopping at an all-natural supplement store like Peach Vitamins. There are some great, clean whey proteins on the market, you just need to read labels carefully to ensure you are getting a pure product.
- Processing: Like the additive issue, most whey proteins on the market are highly processed, sometimes to the point that the quality of the protein is damaged. You can avoid this issue by familiarizing yourself with the processes and terms used on whey protein labels and choosing proteins that have been processed in ways that preserve the quality of the protein.
Casein is the primary type of protein from cow’s milk, making up 80% of the protein found in milk. Most bodybuilders recommend whey as a fast-digesting source of protein to be used immediately before and/or after a workout, and casein as a slow-digesting protein that should be taken before bed to help stimulate protein synthesis during sleep. Other than that, casein and whey have pretty similar effects in the body, so the pros and cons of casein protein powder are similar to those listed above for whey. However, there is one additional con to casein: many people dislike the texture of casein. They say it’s chalky, thick, and doesn’t dissolve well. That reason may be why whey is so much more popular than casein.
Egg White Protein
While sales of whey proteins exceed sales of egg white protein powders, egg-based protein powders are coming back in vogue in some circles as a paleo option and an alternative for people who are allergic to dairy.
Pros of egg white protein powder:
- Nutrition: Low fat, carb-free, and egg white protein provides a balanced protein source with all the essential amino acids. It contains especially high concentrations of leucine and arginine, both of which are important amino acids for fitness and muscle building. Leucine kickstarts protein synthesis, and arginine is a nitric oxide precursor, which helps dilate blood vessels and deliver oxygen and nutrients to muscles.
- Digestibility: Egg protein is the gold standard of digestibility for protein. The biological scale used for measuring protein usability is based on eggs (they have a perfect score of 100).
- Digestion speed: Egg protein digests at a medium pace, somewhere between the rates at which whey and casein digest. This makes it a good option for workout recovery or as a satiating meal replacement or snack
- Cost: Egg white protein is similar to whey protein in price so people who want a dairy-free alternative will not have to choose a much more expensive protein powder.
Cons of egg white protein powder:
- Allergies: Eggs are also a common allergen, so some people have allergies or sensitivities to eggs and may not even realize it.
- Contaminants: If you purchase a low-quality egg protein, it’s possible for the protein to be contaminated with salmonella or other diseases and toxins. Eggs that come from factory-farmed chickens likely contain traces of antibiotics and whatever chemicals were on their feed. If you can, find egg protein from a high-quality company that tests their protein powder for purity and uses eggs from chickens that were raised as cleanly and ethically as possible.
Beef protein powder is now option on the market for people who have a lot of allergies or want to avoid any of the other types of animal-sourced protein for a variety of reasons (for example, an elimination or paleo diet).
Pros of beef protein powder:
- Digestibility: Animal proteins are probably the most easily digestible and usable types, so you will get high-quality protein that the body can use for building lean muscle.
- Concentration of protein: Beef protein powders have almost no carbs or fat, so they are close to 100% pure protein by weight.
- Digestion speed: Beef protein is digested more slowly than whey protein, at about the same rate as egg white protein.
Cons of beef protein powder:
- Meat-based: Clearly beef protein powder is not suitable for vegetarians, as it is made form beef flesh or parts.
- Flavor: Beef protein is distinctly saltier than a lot of other proteins, and the flavor doesn’t mix well with fruit flavors, so it’s less versatile than other protein powders.
Plant-Based Protein Powders
Plant-based protein powders are growing in popularity for a number of reasons. Some people want a vegan or vegetarian source of protein for ethical or environmental reasons. Others want to avoid allergens like dairy and egg. Even if people aren’t allergic, some people get gas from dairy-based protein powders and want a protein powder that their body digests more easily. While plant proteins can be a great alternative to animal protein, they also have some drawbacks. The texture of plant-based protein powders is typically thicker and grainier than whey protein, which some people find unpalatable. Also, most plant-based sources of protein do not have all the essential amino acids. However, there are protein powders that come from a blend of different plant protein sources to fill in and create a complete amino acid profile.
Rice protein is one of the most popular plant proteins. Typically, protein powders are made from brown rice protein, as white rice has had the outer hull and bran removed and is much lower in protein.
Pros of rice protein powder:
- Absorption: Amino acids from brown rice protein are absorbed at almost the exact same levels and rates as amino acids from whey protein
- Allergen-free: Rice is a pretty gut-friendly food; it is very rare to have an allergy to rice. That makes brown rice a good choice for people with food allergies or sensitivities
- Vegan: This is a good option for vegans and vegetarians who want a plant source of protein, as it contains all the essential amino acids.
- Relatively gentle extraction process: The extraction process used to make brown rice protein isn’t too harsh, so rice protein powder is a good choice for people who want a protein powder but don’t want to consume a protein that has been extremely highly processed (soy is one of the most highly processed plant proteins).
Cons of rice protein powder:
- Potential for contamination: Since organic arsenic is found in rice, theoretically, some brown rice proteins might contain some arsenic. Luckily, this issue is very easy to avoid, especially in a product like rice protein powder. Organic arsenic is water soluble, and can easily be washed away in the processing required to turn the rice into rice protein powder. Additionally, reputable companies will test their final product to ensure that levels of arsenic are well below the threshold for potential negative effects. When in doubt, contact the manufacturer of a protein powder and ask them about their testing standards. Also keep in mind that trace amounts of arsenic are found in many foods, and in low levels, it is not harmful. Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that is in soil, water, and air; it is mainly the inorganic arsenic (the kind you might find in rat poison) that should cause alarm.
- Texture: Brown rice protein has a chalky texture that many people find unappealing. Texture can vary widely by brand, so if you want to use a brown rice protein powder, try a few different types and see if you like any of them.
- Low in some amino acids: Compared to other proteins, brown rice protein is low in leucine, isoleucine, glutamic acid, histidine, and other aminos acids. The ratio of amino acids in each protein source is a bit different, and plant sources tend to be short in certain aminos. Read on to learn about blended protein powders that correct for imbalances in aminos.
Pea protein has been one of the fastest growing popularity in terms of sales and popularity.
The pros of pea protein powder:
- Vegan: This is a good option for vegans and vegetarians who want a plant source of protein.
- Allergen-free: Pea allergies are pretty uncommon, so pea protein is a safe option for people with food allergies.
- Fiber: Most protein powders will have most of the carbohydrates, including the fiber, removed, but most pea protein powders will still have some fiber. Fiber increases satiety, balances blood sugar, and has beneficial effects in the gut.
- Good amino acid profile: Pea protein has all of the essential amino acids and many of the non-essential aminos.
- Good source of iron: Peas are naturally high in iron, which makes pea protein good for vegans who tend towards anemia.
- Taste: Pea protein often is not as palatable as whey protein. It has a distinctly vegetable taste. That being said, you can sometimes get creative to make the flavor work. When I discovered plain pea protein’s flavor, I thought it was really gross in sweet smoothies, but discovered that it works quite well in savory dishes. I sometimes use it as a thickening protein boost in butternut squash soup.
- Type of iron: Although peas are iron-rich, they contain non-heme iron, which is not absorbed as well as heme iron from animal sources.
- Digestibility: People’s ability to digest all of the different types of protein varies widely, but some people may have an issue digesting legumes. If you experience gassiness or any other gastrointestinal distress after eating peas, pea protein powder is probably not a good choice for you.
Hemp protein powder is made from hemp seeds, which contain protein, fiber, and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Pros of hemp protein:
- Contains all the amino acids: Hemp seeds contain all 9 essential amino acids, and actually have all the known 21 amino acids.
- Contains immune-boosting proteins: Both edestin and albumin are globular plant proteins that play important roles in immune function.
- Fiber: Hemp seed provides some fiber, which increases satiety and is good for the gut.
- Easy to cultivate organically: Hemp grows pretty easily without chemicals, herbicides, or pesticides, so it is pretty easy to find a sustainably-farmed organic hemp protein powder.
Cons of hemp protein powder:
- Low concentration of protein: Compared to other food sources of protein, hemp protein has a relatively low concentration of protein and has a lower biological value than other proteins, meaning it isn’t absorbed as well.
- Low in an essential amino acid: Hemp protein is low in lysine, one of the essential amino acids. Hemp is also high in arginine, which is important for nitric oxide production during exercise, but can also stimulate outbreaks in people who have herpes simplex virus (either type 1 or type 2).
- Relatively ineffective for muscle building: Opinions vary on this point, but some people say that they have found hemp protein to be less effective for muscle building.
People have very mixed opinions on soy. It is an extremely confusing topic, since soy contains phytoestrogens (weak plant estrogens), which may have either beneficial or harmful effects. We do not recommend soy protein powder at this time, mostly because the vast majority of soy on the market is genetically modified, sprayed with tons of chemicals (such as herbicides), and highly processed. Some studies do support the efficacy of soy protein as a supplement, but other sources show that soy could disrupt hormones and have negative effects in mulitple parts of the body. Since there are so many other great options for soy-free, plant-based protein powder now, we suggest avoiding soy protein powder and using an alternative.
Plant Protein Blends
Out of the plant-based options for protein powder, my favorites are the blended proteins that are made from a variety of plant sources. This creates a more balanced amino acid profile to “correct” for the different levels of amino acids in various plants.
Pros of blended plant protein powders:
- Fiber: Most of these blended formulas have a good sized serving of fiber in them. The pairing of fiber and protein will increase satiety, making you feel full for longer; this can also lead to weight loss if you’re trying to watch your weight.
- Flavor: Most of the new blended plant proteins on the market have a good flavor to them. Manufacturers design formulas to prevent the flavor of any one plant from being overpowering.
- Texture: Compared to hemp and brown rice protein, blends have a much smoother texture. Most of the new blended plant protein powders on the market now are very smooth and pleasant to drink.
- Balanced amino acids: One of the main benefits of using a blend is that the formulators have figured out what each individual source lacks in amino acids and then compensated with specific amounts of different plants.
The cons of the blended proteins are things that are disadvantages for any plant-based protein. Generally, the blended plant-based protein powders have fewer disadvantages than protein powders from a single plant source.
- Digestion speed: Plant proteins are digested and utilized more slowly than whey protein is, so many people prefer to have fast-digesting whey protein for immediately after their workouts.
- Lower biological value: Plant proteins have a lower biological value than the animal sourced protein powders. Most bodybuilders rely on animal-sourced proteins for reliable muscle building.