Protein powder is one of the most popular (if not THE most popular) supplements in the world. There’s thousands of brands, a plethora of protein sources, and even various ‘types’ of the same protein.
What protein powder to choose is not an easy task, made more complicated by the hyped up claims every supplement company makes about their own brand of protein.
Whether you actually NEED protein powder or not is another question you should consider too (hint: you may not).
The Best Protein Powder
If you don’t want to read 5000 words about protein powder and just want to skip to my recommendation, then here it is. I recommend Naked Protein as the best protein.
It’s not cheap (86 bucks for 4lbs), but this is organic protein powder and is sourced from the highest quality ingredients and made from California cows. This means no antibiotics or growth hormones and GMO free.
So it’s a jungle out there in the world of Protein Powder. But I’m here to make your live a little bit easier and point you in the right direction. I try to give evidence, researched backed advice in this guide.
Now, there’s a lot of ‘protein guides’ on practically every fitness site (and non-fitness blog). That’s fine. However, for this article, my aim is to make recommendations geared towards athletes; specifically, Muay Thai, MMA, Boxing, Kickboxing, and Jujitsu fighters. The article also applies to strength training and bodybuilding, but if you are a body builder or a power lifter, you are best off going to a blog devoted to those disciplines. This one is aimed at FIGHTERS.
I’ve also updated this article with new information for 2016 to make it more relevant and accurate.
WHAT IS PROTEIN POWDER
Protein in powder form with the sole purpose of adding protein to a diet.
There are a number of different kinds of protein powders:
- Whey Protein (the liquid part of milk)
- Milk Protein (protein as it is found in milk)
- Casein Protein (the curd part of milk)
- Beef protein
- Soy protein
- Hemp protein
- Rice protein
- Pea protein
- Insect Protein
Choosing a protein powder often comes down to looking at the absorption rate of the protein (fast or slow), the amount of actual protein per gram, and the other nutrients that make up the protein powder (hemp contains fiber, whey, milk, casein contain calcium and lactose, etc).
There’s a lot of bullshit to wade through in the unregulated supplement industry, and protein powders are ground zero for many of the bullshit claims made by manufacturers hyping their product to the moon and back.
The Protein Powder Claim: Supplementing with Protein Powder will Lead to Greater Mass Gains combined with Resistance Training
It’s pretty much accepted as fact that to build muscle, you need enough protein intake to support the ongoing protein synthesis that is stimulated by resistance training. As for which protein delivers the best protein synthesis kick is still up for debate as research is still mixed. From the studies done comparing the types of proteins, the direction seems to be pointing to Whey as being the most effective.
But as has been stated before here:
The difference between say Whey and Casein and their effect on muscular development would be minor compared to bringing your diet from a protein deficient one to a protein sufficient one, regardless of the type of protein you use to get there.
Adequate protein WILL lead to greater lean mass gains in combination with a resistance training program. This is pretty much an accepted fact — you can look up the many studies that prove this point if you wish.
- Supplementing with Whey leads to greater protein synthesis with resistance training than not supplementing ([5. Darren G. Burke, Philip D. Chilibeck, K. Shawn Davison, Darren G. Candow, Jon Farthing, and Truis Smith-Palmer. “The Effect of Whey Protein Supplementation With or Without Creatine Monohydrate Combined With Resistance Training on Lean Tissue Mass and Muscle Strength”. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 2011, 11, 349-364]): Keep in mind this is not so much proving the superiority of whey, but rather that increasing protein uptake when combined with a heavy resistance training regimen is beneficial towards muscular development. The same results could have occurred in the study if 4 glasses of milk were used instead of whey or 2 chicken breasts were eaten. The point here is that protein is beneficial.
As we don’t need to prove that protein intake can lead to muscle increase in the right circumstances (resistance training), I will assume no more studies are needed as proof that protein powder works.
It’s also generally accepted that any benefit protein powder delivers to the body, protein found in whole foods (meat, eggs, milk, soy, etc) will do at least the same for. Meeting a high protein intake quote for the day, however, can be challenging — especially when the protein requirements go up, which is the case for hard-training athletes, individuals on a strength training regimen seeking to increase lean mass, and those trying to lose bodyfat while preserving muscle mass. This is where protein powder comes in and makes getting enough protein, easy and cheap.
TYPES OF PROTEIN POWDER
We will look at two major ones: Whey protein and Casein protein. These are by far the two most popular protein types on the market, and likely the protein of choice that you will consider.
There are other types of protein (soy, rice, insect, beef, hemp, etc) but most people in the fitness/athletic world outside of vegetarians supplement with Whey or Casein.
If you get enough protein in your diet, then consuming protein powder offers no additional benefit. However, if you can’t (easily) meet your protein requirements for the day due to time issues or food choices, then a quality protein powder can be a useful supplement.
Whey is the most common protein supplement taken. Whey can be found naturally in dairy such as milk, cheese, and yogurt. Whey itself is the liquid part extracted from milk with the other part being the curds (Casein) and the natural by-product of cheese production. What used to be thought of as a waste product of cheese-making, is now a multi-billion dollar industry. The brands are countless as are the flavors, the add-on ingredients, and of course the hyper-inflated claims each brand makes about their blend of whey.
A lot of bullshit is made about the types of whey and how they can improve protein synthesis. We aim to punch through some of these claims in this article.
There are basically three ”kinds of Whey” to choose from, with the differences being in how much the whey is processed and how easy it is to digest. There is also the issue of the texture of the powders with the most processed of the bunch, Hydrolyzed Whey, often having a bitter, pasty taste.
Whey Concentrate is the least processed form of Whey and is created by pushing milk through a special filter; the part left behind is later dried and is Whey Concentrate. Concentrate contains lactose, fats, and carbs. Concentrate also contains various protein subfractions with may have additional health benefits. Because concentrate is less processed than Isolate it contains less protein per unit than does Isolate.
If you are looking for a more ‘’natural’ protein, than choose Whey Concentrate over Isolate.
Usually preferred by the fitness community because it’s a more ‘pure’ protein. Whey Isolate is made by further processing Whey Concentrate, removing more non-protein stuff (lactose, carbs, various protein subfractions). However, during this processing, the shape of the protein might change (denatured) which may suppress any biological activities of the protein [3. Once a whey product surpasses 85% protein content, it becomes whey protein isolate]. This doesn’t affect the protein synthesis ability of the protein (i.e. building muscle), by any other health benefits the protein might have brought would be suppressed.
Since all the non-protein stuff is mostly removed from the Concentrate, the leftover Isolate contains more protein per unit with very little fat, carbs, and lactose. Despite the fact that some of the health benefits might be stripped away during the processing, Isolate may have some advantages that Concentrate does not have. Studies have shown that isolate can have more of an effect on the body’s insulin release than Concentrate. But whether this makes any real world difference is questionable.
Whey Isolate can be further processed by pre-digesting the Isolate into a mix of amino acids and proteins that are smaller. This increases the absorption time and the manufacturers claim this can increase protein synthesis aspects of the protein. Because of these claims (and the additional costs of processing), the cost of Hydrolyzed Whey is much more expensive, anywhere from 30 percent to 200 percent more! Hydrolyzed whey often has a bitter taste to it.
Studies do show that Hydrolyzed Whey is a fast absorbing protein. However, if you compare the data between two studies, one comparing the absorption times that non-hydrolyzed whey vs casein([1. Ingestion of whey hydrolysate, casein, or soy protein isolate: effects on mixed muscle protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in young men. Journal of Applied Physiology (2009)]) and one study comparing hydrolyzed whey vs casein([2. Whey protein stimulates postprandial muscle protein accretion more effectively than do casein and casein hydrolysate in older men. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2011)]) the absorption rates of Hydrolyzed Whey and regular Whey are almost the same! In other words, hydrolyzed whey, despite it’s pe-digested state, is NO BETTER THAN plain old regular Whey Isolate.
Which ”Whey” to Choose?
If you want to know which ”whey” is best for you (yes, pun intended, sorry), here’s our breakdown:
Choose Whey Concentrate If:
- Budget is a concern (concentrate is cheaper)
- You don’t want an insulin spike([3. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Jul;82(1):69-75.Effect of whey on blood glucose and insulin responses to composite breakfast and lunch meals in type 2 diabetic subjects.Frid AH, Nilsson M, Holst JJ, Björck IM. ]) — helps if you are trying to lose weight / get ripped
- You want a more natural protein that’s less processed; concentrate has protein subfractions that may offer some health benefits.
Choose Whey Isolate If:
- You are lactose intolerant, you’ll probably want to avoid whey out of principle, but if you have to take whey, go with Isolate as there is very little to no lactose. Isolate is generally easier for you to digest.
- You are restricting calories: Isolate also has more protein per gram and because it is more ‘’pure’’ than concentrate, less calories. So if you are restricting calories, Isolate is a better choice.
- You are restricting carbs/fat: Isolate has less carbs than Concentrate
Choose Hydrolyzed Whey If:
- You have difficulty digesting protein and get stomach aches or gas. It’s per-digested so you are less likely to have stomach issues. Keep in mind Hydrolyzed Whey is much more expensive.
Taken from the milk curds, this is a slow-absorbing protein. It takes between 3-4 hours to be absorbed. The fitness community likes to promote casein consumption at night so you have a slow-releasing protein that feeds your body when sleeping. In actuality, it is debatable whether this makes any difference at all. You can simply get a large dose of natural casein from cottage cheese if you don’t want to ‘supplement’.
Note that the taste of Casein is quite a bit different than Whey and casein unlike whey has gelling properties when mixed at a high speed (a blender) and can be used to make protein ice cream and protein pudding as a healthy, high protein, low cal, low carb snack.
PROTEIN POWDERS COMPARED
What’s the best protein powder? Well it really depends on what your specific needs are. The research is still a bit mixed and not too many studies have been done directly comparing one type to another. Overall, research points to Whey being the best for muscle building if you have to choose one. But there are other benefits to be had with Soy, Hemp, and Casein that don’t directly apply to building muscle — but as we are interested here in muscle building and athletic performance benefits, we are ignoring those however.
Whey vs. Casein
The major differences between the two is claimed in the absorption rates of whey vs. casein. That is, Casein is a slow absorbing protein (taking up to 5 hours to absorb) while whey fast absorbing (less than an hour). This has lead to a number of different ‘protein timing’ strategies to get protein to the body either slowly or quickly, depending on when you take it. The typical is taking a whey supplementation after a workout sessions and a casein supplementation before bed.
Examine.com has looked at the significant research studies done comparing both and found there is real long term advantage on building muscle mass based on taking either a fast absorbing protein(whey) or slow-absorbing one (casein). Hence, there are likely no real-world benefits either of these proteins have over the other for building muscles for the average person.
But if we have to choose a ”which protein is the best” out of the two, the few studies done comparing the two protein powders do point in the direction of Whey protein being superior for better protein synthesis (read, more lean muscle gain) results than Casein.
Research Comparing Whey to Casein effectiveness with protein synthesis:
- The most definite study on the topic took a group of recreational bodybuilders, put them on an intense 10 week highly structured strength training regimen and divide them into two groups, with one group supplementing with 1.5 grams of whey isolate per kilo bodyweight while the other group supplementing with casein. The group that was given whey isolate had by the end of the 10 week period a significant gain in strength and lean body mass over the group that supplemented with casein( [4. Paul J. Cribb, Andrew D. Williams, Michael F. Carey, and Alan Hayes. “The Effect of Whey Isolate and Resistance Training on Strength, Body Composition, and Plasma Glutamine” International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 2006, 16, 494-509] ). This would indicate a clear win for whey over casein, by all means except for one limiting point noted in the study: The group that consumed Whey Isolate also ate an additional 250 calories per day for the 10 week duration, which likely contributed to some of the lean mass and strength gains. How much, it’s not clear. As anyone who has started a strength training regiment with the intent to gain mass and strength knows, this usually requires a caloric surplus; take two groups, give them the same protein intake, but increase the calories for one group by a couple hundred and have the other keep their calories around maintenance and you would expect to see a greater gain in strength and mass in the group that has MORE calories. So we have to take this study with a grain of salt.
- Another study took overweight people, put them on a calorie restricting diet and divided them into a whey-taking group, and a casein-based meal replacement group and had them do resistance training over a 12 week period. The group that took the casein based meal replacement showed more results in terms of strength and lean body mass compared to the only-whey group([5. Demling, R.H. and L. De Santi. Effect of a hypocaloric diet, increased protein intake and resistance training on lean mass gains and fat mass loss in overweight police officers. Ann. Nutr. Metab. 44:21-29, 2000]). However, given that the meal replacement contained casein, amino acids, vitamins, carbs, and some whey, it’s hard to actually claim a specific type of protein nutrient (in this case, Casein) made the difference.
- A 6 week study giving rodents whey protein, casein protein, and carbohydrates and an exercising routine showed the rodent group with whey had more lean mass and less fat mass at the end of the study compared to the other two groups. As this is a study done on rodents and NOT humans, take it with a grain of salt.
- A study done a number of years ago took untrained individuals and supplemented half of them with whey and half with casein; both groups DID NOT participate in a resistance training regimen. After a 10 week period the whey group saw a decrease in body fat percentage and an improvement in anaerobic performance([6. Lands, L.C., V.L. Grey, and A.A. Smountas. Effect of supplementation with a cysteine donor on muscular performance. J. Appl. Physiol. 87:1381-1385, 1999]).
- However, another study has shown that slow digesting proteins such as casein or a combination blend of slow and fast absorbing proteins is superior post workout to fast absorbing ones. The study compared milk vs soy post workout and found the slow absorption milk protein was more effective than the fast absorbing soy for promoting lean muscle mass gains after 12 weeks([8. Milk: The New Sports Drink? A ReviewTitleRoy BD. Milk: the new sports drink? A Review. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2008 Oct 2;5:15]). I will say that milk, which contains a mix of whey and casein, compared to soy, is not at all the same as whey vs. soy directly though. The only direct similarities are that soy is fast absorbing, just like whey. Lyle McDonald, does finger this study as some of the new emerging evididence that the fitness industry has it backwards, that it is actually SLOW absorbing protein or a mix of slow and fast, taken after a workout, is more beneficial for protein synthesis then fast absorbing protein (whey).
What does this all mean? We really have some confusing and mixed results here. Some research suggest that the fast absorbing proteins like Whey are better post workout than slow ones like Casein and some of the studies listed above do show Whey more effective at building lean muscle.
But recent emerging research is actually starting to finger slower release proteins or a BLEND of fast and slow to be more effect for lean muscle gains. You can read Lyle McDonald’s take on this issue here. With the marketing push to sell Whey as a fast absorbing protein powder that’s ideal for post workout and the marketing push to sell Casein as a slow release protein, there is a lot of vested interest to keep the status quo .
Ultimately it’s pretty hard to come down with exacts. Having sorted through the information myself, I still think Whey comes out ahead slightly over casein , but if I’m going to throw in the hammer on a direct recommendation, I’d say take a BLEND of whey + casein, over straight whey, and straight whey over casein.
Whey Vs. Soy
Most athletes and fitness-minded people opt for Whey as the default, but Soy is an alternative choice for some. It generally appeals to those who are:
- Lactose Intolerant
Research Comparing Whey to Soy effectiveness with protein synthesis:
- Non-soy protein found to promote greater lean mass than soy ([7. Hartman JW, Tang JE, Wilkinson SB, et al. Consumption of fat-free fluid milk after resistance exercise promotes greater lean mass accretion than does consumption of soy or carbohydrate in young, novice, male weightlifters. Am J Clin Nutr. Aug 2007;86(2):373-381])
- A combination of whey and casein (milk, essentially) was proven to be much more effective at promoting lean muscle mass over soy milk in a 12 weeks study([8. Milk: The New Sports Drink? A ReviewTitleRoy BD. Milk: the new sports drink? A Review. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2008 Oct 2;5:15])
It’s likely that if you plan to supplement with Soy, then you will supplement with it regardless of the benefits of Whey or Casein — due to either being a vegan or having some sort of digestive issue with the other protein powders. Research does point to Soy being less effective than Whey and there is some research that points to Soy increasing estrogen levels and suppressing testosterone.
Whey Vs Other Protein Powders
Whey Vs Pea Protein
If you suffer from food allergies or are allergic to dairy, consider pea protein as an alternative. It’s a good protein for people with allergies to milk products (such as whey and casein), for people who are lactose intolerant, and for vegetarians who are allergic to soy. It’s plant based, so it’s good for people who can’t handle animal-based protein powders (beef protein, for example).
Basically, if you have allergies or can’t tolerate the other proteins, try pea protein powder.
Whey vs Hemp Protein Powder
Hemp is nearly complete plant-based protein, derived from the hemp plant. Hemp may be particularly suited for vegetarians and vegans and in high in fiber (compared to other proteins) and omega-6 acids. Basically, hemp protein has less ‘protein’ per scoop vs whey, but the addition of beneficial extras like fiber and healthy fats. Again, whey has more ‘protein’ per scoop.
Whey vs Spirulina
Technically, this is classified as a cyano-bacteria and not a plant (or animal). But you can still eat it and it’s a good, if unique, source of protein for some.
Spirulina, unlike many of the other protiens is up to 95 percent digestible and with no cellulose, it’s very easy for your body to digest. The main issue is that the taste is very strong — you may not like it — and 30 percent of the world’s population has some sort of allergy to spirulina. On the positives, it’s cheap.
Realistically, unless you are allergic to all the other proteins out there, spirulina is a bit unnecessary unless you want the benefits of spirulina combined with protein. To get the same amount of protein as you would with whey, you’ll have to have a lot more spirulina powder than similar whey. Combined with the odd taste, this may not be something you want.
FINAL WORLD ON PROTEIN POWDERS
- Make sure you have adequate protein in your diet. If you want to build lean muscle and increase strength, you need enough protein. A good rule of thumb is about 1-1.5 grams per lb of bodyweight. If you are on a calorie defect there are advantages to having even more protein than if you are on a caloric surplus (1.5-2 grams per lb of bodyweight).
- Research points to Whey being slightly more effective for protein synthesis than casein, though recent research has shown slower absorbing proteins or a mix of slow + fast are better than fast absorbing post workout. However, more research needs to be done here as it is still hard to draw conclusions.
- Research points to Whey being superior to Soy for protein synthesis
- Whey Isolate is a good default choice for Whey due to protein content levels and less lactose and fat. Also has less calories. Choose Whey Concentrate if you want a cheaper price and more natural protein and are less concerned about calories per serving. Hydrolyzed Whey is a ripoff pricewise and delivers no advantage over regular Isolate, other than the fact that it is easier to digest if you have problems with regular Whey.
The bottom line is that the difference between Whey and Casein on protein synthesis is minor compared to the difference of going from a protein deficient diet to a protein sufficient diet. If you have to choose, then research currently points towards as being slightly more effective for building muscle over casein and over soy.
Given that some studies do show Whey (fast absorbing) superior to Casein protein (slow absorbing) and Whey + Casein (fast absorbing + slow absorbing) protein superior to Soy (fast absorbing) it’s hard to give an absolute definite. It all might depend on the age group (older people may respond differently to protein absorption rates some research points to), whether resistance training is performed along with supplementation, whether protein is taken before or after the workout, or whether the subjects are on a calorie surplus, maintenance, or deficit.
And given that people supplement with protein BEFORE a workout, or DURING a workout, or AFTER a working, or BEFORE bed, or some combination, then the issue of when is the best time to ingest what type of protein is kind of a moot point.
Based on some of the emerging research, as noted by Lyle Mcdonald, one of the more trusted nutritionist who does not buy into the marketing/fitness bullshit but looks at facts, perhaps the best catch all strategy to employ is to use a BLEND of both Whey and Casein protein so as to extract the benefits of both fast absorbing and slow absorbing protein OR use timing strategies such as ingesting whey after a workout and casein before bed time.
Either way, at the end of the day, just make sure you have enough damn protein in your diet, regardless of WHAT TYPE of protein you are getting, to keep protein synthesis going if you are trying to build more lean muscle or if you are an endurance/combat athlete, keep efficiently repairing your muscles after training sessions.
The Best Protein Supplements: What Should You Buy
This is a highly personal choice.
Some brands throw in other nutrients such as BCAA’s, Glutamine, etc. You will want to look at how much protein per gram, the number of calories per serving (some mixes are low carb/low calorie which are better for calorie restriction diets, say), and whatever other extra nutrients have been added such as BCAA’s, Glutamine, etc.
Choosing ‘the best protein powder’ really comes down to many factors — and some may be more important to you than others.
- quality of protein
- type of protein source (milk, plant, animal)
- protein processing (there are versions of the same protein that are more or less refined)
- the calories in the protein (are you cutting or bulking?)
- extras added in the protein (bcaa’s, glutamine, etc)
- the taste
As for the best protein powder, I’ll just suggest WHEY protein. It’s the most common protein type, packs the most protein per scoop, has the best taste, blends easily in any shakes, and is generally low calorie.
You’ll need to decide if you want Hydrolyzed Whey, Complex Whey, or Whey Isolate.
Personally, just go with Whey Isolate. There’s less calories and more protein in it than Complex Whey. Hydrolyzed Whey is interesting, but is really just a lot more expensive and does the same thing regular Whey does.
More important than the type of whey is the quality of the whey — where it comes from!
As Whey protein comes from MILK (it’s separated from the milk during the cheese making process), I highly recommend you source the highest quality protein powder you can. You may find dirt cheap whey protein, but you really don’t know what sort of grade milk is being used — it’s possible you could be getting very low quality dairy, dairy pumped full of antibiotics, and other nasty things.
So yes, quality matters, especially if you value your long term health. I recommend:
- organic protein powder (protein powder comes from organic milk)
- protein company comes from a reputable company.
Based on those, here are my three choices for regular whey.
Best Quality Protein Powder
Naked Whey is the shit! If you want a clean whey that’s sourced from California, grass fed cows with no antibiotics, no growth, no hormones, no artificial flavors, soy and gluten free, then this is YOUR brand. You pay a lot more for it, but you get what you pay for: quality and health. I highly recommend this brand if you can swing it. Really, why put shit into your system when you don’t have to.
Best Tasting Protein Powder
Optimum Whey (10lbs – $111)
Optimum Whey is another popular choice and along with Dymatize, my favorite brand. Good quality, good ingredients, good flavor. However, the price has gone up quite a bit over the years.
I prefer Dymatize because it’s about 15 bucks cheaper for the 10lb dymatize vs the 10lb Optimum Whey ($111). The quality level is about the same between Optimum and Dymatize. Both are good quality bulk protein. However, if you want the healthiest protein with no antibiotics, growth hormone, no artificial flavors, organic whey protein, get the Naked Whey I recommended above.
Best Budget Protein Powder
I highly recommend Dymatize Whey Isolate in the 4.5 kilo (10lbs). It’s the best bang for your buck, quality and quantity wise. It also tastes pretty damn good too. This is the protein I personally use if I can’t get my hands on the Naked Whey listed above. Note that Dyamatize is NOT sourced from high quality sources. You are not getting organic, grass fed cows with no hormones, antibiotics fed to them. But on the other hand, it’s affordable. You decide.