In a world of well marketed nutrition supplements, it can be tough to determine what is necessary and what will leave you with nothing more than a lighter wallet and expensive urine! Protein powders can be particularly hard to figure out, as there are so many different types. Firstly, let's look at them as a whole, and then discuss the different types.
Again, these powders are not “magic” and offer a great benefit to both men and women, children to the elderly and those performing at virtually all levels of activity. In fact, the past several decades of research have moved more away from how protein powders can benefit exercise/competition recovery, performance as well as an athlete’s body composition (as these are all well and truly backed with a great deal of “ehhh yes it can”) and are now more focused on; addressing and reducing sarcopenia (age related muscle loss), addressing third world malnutrition and improving weight loss results and sustainability.
Are they necessary?
The research shows that if a healthy adult is eating adequate protein from food, adding in a protein powder is unnecessary. The rule of thumb for protein target for an individual aiming to gain lean mass is 1.6-2g/kg bodyweight of protein per day. This means for a 80kg male, 160g protein per day is considered sufficient to maximise muscle recovery and growth. For some individuals, this amount of protein may be difficult (and expensive!) to consume. In this instance, protein powders can be added in as a supplement to reach this protein target.
Protein powders are more food stuff than supplement and, to this point, offer one of the best protein : kcal ratio. For example, if you're aiming to consume 30g of protein in a meal, this would typically be one average chicken breast, around 100 - 110g and approximately 210 - 240 kcals. Comparatively, a high quality protein powder, would only require a serving typically around 38 - 45g of actual powder and would be in around 110 - 120kcals. Protein powder is therefore a great alternative for those with restricted calorie intakes or simply looking to use the “saved” kcals elsewhere that day (going out for a meal, certain snacks etc).
There are a variety of forms of these powder, which can sometimes confuse and intimidate individuals needing to select the correct, yet reputable and reliable product/brand.
Whey is the most common form of protein powder and is found in three forms; concentrate, isolate and hydrolysed whey. Whey concentrate is the “original” protein powder, offering a complete protein, rich in leucine and the other BCAAs and typically falling into a ratio of 65 - 80% protein. Whey isolate has gone through a further step of manufacturing, stripping away virtually all lactose and making it more tolerable for those with lactose intolerance. Additionally it tends to be higher in protein percentage (with some reaching 90%). Finally, hydrolyzed whey is a form of whey protein powder that has had a process of digestion simulated through manufacturing, breaking down the protein as the body would during digestion to make it more rapidly absorb. This form of whey’s cost to benefit ratio makes it only really an option for elite level athletes or those with an extensive budget. And even at that, it is unlikely to give any sizeable benefit over a typical isolate form.
Whey and casein are the two types of protein found in milk. Casein actually constitutes around 80% of the whey to casein ratio in milk, yet it is whey that is much more popular. Why so? Well, whey is more rapidly absorbed and made available for skeletal muscle recovery and development following exercise. Casein on the other hand forms a gel like substance, slowing it’s transition in the gut (somewhat akin to soluble fibre), allowing for a more prolonged protein availability (and why people typically refer to it as the “night time” protein). Casein would not be an effective option for optimized recovery post-exercise but could be a useful dieting tool, given it’s slowed transition through the gut and what this would mean for feelings of fullness, blood sugar regulation etc.
These powders can be of huge benefit to vegans/vegetarians who may struggle with daily protein targets, specifically those who engage in a lot of exercise/sport. These powders are also heavily marketed and require a great degree of navigation to ensure you’re purchasing a product that offers the full spectrum of amino acids that the body requires (and not just one that plays into the stereotypes of the target market). Non-animal protein sources offer an incomplete spectrum of amino acids and so vegans/vegetarians must ensure they take in complimentary sources in the same meal to achieve this. Therefore, powders that offer one source e.g. pea, brown rice, hemp etc. should be avoided. Instead, opt for blends of these sources to ensure you achieve the full spectrum of amino acids and get the desired result. The blends also tend to be of similar price, if not cheaper in some instances.
Ignore any and all powders that claim to be solely for men or women, this is a form of targeted marketing at first time/ lack of knowledge users.
If you're eating adequate protein from food, adding in a protein powder is unnecessary
Protein powder has a good protein:calorie ratio, and therefore may be a great substitute if you're looking to hit your protein target and save on calories
The reasearch shows that whey protein is more superior to casein in maximising muscle protein synthesis following resistance exercise
When opting for a plant based protein, opt for blends of these sources to ensure you achieve the full spectrum of amino acids