Protein powders are very popular among health conscious people.
There are many types of protein powders, made from a wide variety of sources.
Among the many options, it can be confusing to figure out which will provide the best results.
This article lists 7 of the most popular types of protein powder.
It also suggests a few specific protein powder supplements at the end.
What Are Protein Powders?
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: These are produced by extracting protein from whole food using heat and acid or enzymes. They typically contain about 60–80% protein, with the remaining 20–30% of calories from fat and carbs.
- Protein isolates: These go through another filtering step that removes additional fat and carbs, further concentrating the protein. Protein isolate powders contain about 90–95% protein.
- Protein hydrolysates: These are produced by further heating with acid or enzymes, which breaks the bonds between amino acids. This allows your body to absorb them more quickly, and your muscles to take them up more easily.
Hydrolysates appear to raise insulin levels more than other forms, at least in the case of whey protein. This can enhance the muscle growth response to exercise (1).
Some powders are also fortified with vitamins and minerals, especially calcium.
It’s important to note that not everyone will benefit from taking supplements. If your diet is already rich in high-quality protein, you likely won’t see much difference simply by adding protein powder.
However, athletes and people who regularly lift weights may find that taking protein powder supplements helps them maximize muscle gain and fat loss.
Protein powders can also benefit individuals who find it difficult to meet protein needs with food alone, such as the ill, the elderly and some vegetarians or vegans.
Bottom Line: Protein powders come from a variety of sources and are available in several formulations. People use them to increase muscle mass, improve overall body composition and help meet their protein needs.
1. Whey Protein
Whey protein comes from milk. During cheese-making, it is the liquid that separates from the curds. It’s high in protein, but also contains lactose, a milk sugar that many people have difficulty digesting.
Whey protein concentrate retains some lactose, but whey protein isolate contains very little because most of the lactose is lost during processing.
Whey is a quickly digested protein rich in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). Leucine, one of these BCAAs, plays a major role in promoting muscle growth and recovery following resistance and endurance exercise (2, 3).
When amino acids are digested and absorbed into the bloodstream, they are available for muscle protein synthesis (MPS), or the creation of new muscle.
Studies have shown that whey protein can help build and maintain muscle mass, assist athletes with recovery from heavy exercise and increase muscle strength in response to strength training (4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9).
In one study of young men, whey protein increased muscle protein synthesis by 31% more than soy protein and 132% more than casein protein following resistance exercise (9).
However, a recent 10-week study found that postmenopausal women had a similar response to resistance training whether they took whey protein or a placebo (10).
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 (18).
Bottom Line: Whey protein is quickly digested, providing a rapid rise in amino acids that may help increase muscle mass and strength. It may also reduce appetite and promote fat loss.
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 the absorption of amino acids into the bloodstream.
This results in a gradual, steadier exposure of the muscles to amino acids, reducing the rate of muscle protein breakdown (22).
Based on the results of most studies, casein appears to be more effective than soy and wheat protein — but not as effective as whey protein — at increasing muscle protein synthesis and strength (5, 6, 23, 24, 25, 26).
However, one study suggests that when calories are restricted, casein may have an edge over whey in improving body composition during resistance training.
The study followed overweight men who consumed a diet providing 80% of their calorie needs. Some took casein protein and others were given whey protein.
Those who took casein protein had twice the reduction in fat mass, gain of lean mass and increase in chest strength as the whey protein group (27).
Bottom Line: Casein is a slow-digesting dairy protein that may reduce muscle protein breakdown and promote muscle mass growth and fat loss during calorie restriction.
3. Egg Protein
Eggs are well-known for being an excellent source of high-quality protein.
Of all whole foods, eggs have the highest protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS).
This score is a measure of a protein’s quality and how easily it is digested (28).
However, egg protein powders are typically made from egg whites rather than whole eggs. Although the protein quality remains excellent, feelings of fullness may be reduced when yolks are removed.
Like all animal products, eggs are a complete protein source. That means they provide adequate amounts of the 9 essential amino acids your body can’t make itself.
What’s more, egg protein is second only to whey protein as the highest source of leucine, the BCAA that plays the biggest role in muscle health (31).
Unfortunately, egg white protein hasn’t been studied as much as whey or casein.
In one study, it was shown to have less ability to reduce appetite than casein or pea protein when consumed before a meal (32).
In another, female athletes taking egg white protein experienced similar gains in lean mass and muscle strength as the carb-supplemented group (33).
Egg white protein could be a good choice for people with allergies to milk protein who prefer a supplement that’s based on animal protein.
Bottom Line: Egg white protein contains high-quality protein that is easily digested and absorbed. A few studies have looked at its effects on muscle mass, weight loss and appetite.
4. Pea Protein
Pea protein powder is relatively new and especially popular among vegetarians, vegans and people with allergies or sensitivities to dairy or egg proteins.
It’s made from the yellow split pea, a high-fiber legume that contains high amounts of all the essential amino acids except for methionine.
Pea protein is also particularly rich in branched-chain amino acids.
A rat study found that pea protein was absorbed more slowly than whey protein, but faster than casein. Researchers also reported that its ability to trigger the release of the “fullness hormones” PYY, GLP-1 and CCK was comparable to dairy protein (34).
In a controlled study of 161 men who performed resistance training for 12 weeks, the group who consumed 50 grams of pea protein daily experienced similar increases in muscle thickness to the group who took 50 grams of whey protein per day (35).
In addition, a study found that humans and rats with high blood pressure experienced a decrease in blood pressure when they took pea protein supplements (36).
Though pea protein powder shows promise, more high-quality research is needed to confirm the results of these studies.
Bottom Line: In the limited studies available, pea protein has been shown to promote fullness and increase muscle growth as effectively as animal-based protein sources.
5. Hemp Protein
Hemp protein powder is another plant-based supplement that is gaining popularity.
Although hemp is related to marijuana, it only has trace amounts of the psychoactive component tetrahydrocannabinol (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.
Although there is very little research on hemp protein at this time, it appears to be a well-digested plant protein source (37).
Bottom Line: Hemp protein has a high omega-3 fatty acid content and seems to be easily digested by the body. However, it is low in the essential amino acids lysine and leucine.
6. Brown Rice Protein
Protein powders made from brown rice have been around for some time, but they have generally been considered inferior to whey protein for muscle building.
Although rice protein contains all of the essential amino acids, it is too low in lysine to be considered a complete protein.
There isn’t a lot of research on rice protein powder, but one study compared the effects of rice and whey protein powders in fit young males.
The 8-week study found that taking 48 grams of rice protein or whey protein daily resulted in similar changes in body composition, muscle strength and recovery (38).
However, more research is required to determine whether brown rice protein would provide the same benefits as whey over the long term or in other populations.
Bottom Line: Early research on brown rice protein powder suggests it may have beneficial effects on body composition. However, it is low in the essential amino acid lysine.
7. Mixed Plant Proteins
Some protein powders contain a blend of plant sources to provide complete protein with all the essential amino acids.
Mixed plant protein powders typically contain a combination of two or more of the following proteins:
- Brown rice.
- Chia seeds.
Plant proteins tend to be digested more slowly than animal proteins, due in part to their high fiber content. Although this may not be a problem for many people, it can limit the amount of amino acids available for immediate use after exercise.
One recent, small study provided resistance-trained young men with 60 grams of either whey protein, a pea-rice protein blend or a pea-rice protein blend with supplemental enzymes to speed up the rate of digestion (39).
Adding digestive enzymes to the mixed-vegetable protein supplement led to a faster appearance of amino acids in the blood that was comparable to whey protein.
Bottom Line: Several protein powders contain a mixture of plant proteins. Adding enzymes to these plant protein mixtures has been shown to increase the digestion and absorption of their proteins.
Which Protein Powders Are Best?
Although all protein powders provide a concentrated source of protein, certain types may be more effective for achieving specific goals.
For Muscle Gain
Research has consistently confirmed whey protein’s ability to promote gains in muscle mass and aid in recovery. Whey concentrate is cheaper than whey isolate, but contains less protein by weight.
Here are a few suggestions for whey protein powders:
- Optimum Nutrition Whey Protein: This whey protein isolate plus concentrate provides 24 grams of protein and 5.5 grams of BCAAs per serving.
- EAS 100% Whey Protein: This whey protein concentrate provides 26 grams of protein and 6.3 grams of BCAAs per serving.
- Dymatize Nutrition Elite Whey Protein: This whey protein concentrate and isolate provides 24 grams of protein and 5 grams of BCAAs per serving.
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:
- Jay Robb Grass-Fed Whey Protein: This whey protein isolate provides 25 grams of protein per serving.
- Optimum Nutrition 100% Casein Protein: This casein protein provides 24 grams of protein per serving.
- EAS Whey + Casein Protein: This combination of whey and casein protein concentrates provides 20 grams of protein per serving.
For Vegetarians and Vegans
Here are a few high-quality protein powders containing single or mixed 100% vegan plant proteins:
- Vega One All-in-One Nutritional Shake: This blend of pea protein, flaxseeds, hemp and other ingredients provides 20 grams of protein per serving.
- Sun Warrior Raw Plant-Based Protein: This brown rice protein provides 16 grams of protein per serving.
- MRM Veggie Elite: This blend of pea protein and brown rice protein with vegan digestive enzymes provides 24 grams of protein per serving.
Bottom Line: Choose a protein powder based on your health and fitness goals, dietary preferences and tolerances.
Take Home Message
Protein powders can provide high-quality protein in a concentrated, convenient form.
Although not everyone needs protein powder supplements, they can benefit people who strength train or find it difficult to meet protein needs with food alone.