Protein Powder: Which One?

Walking into a health food store and seeing that giant wall of protein powder can be an overwhelming experience for people without the proper knowledge of what they need. You ask for help from the staff, and they convince you to buy the most expensive protein powder in the store. You can’t be mad at them, it’s their job. However, odds are the average consumer doesn’t need a $70 canister of protein.

Whey. Isolate. Hydrolysate. Casein. There are a LOT of options when you go in the store or click on the supplement website. And while you’ll be told or read that something is the best, odds are it’s what the store or website is trying hard to sell that month. Today, I’m going to explain the difference between all those things up on that wall so you can be a more educated consumer next time you buy Protein powder. Who knows, maybe you’ll be able to teach the sales guy something!

For a large number of you, a standard whey protein is all that you’re really going to need when you are choosing a protein powder. Whey protein is a protein that is isolated from a liquid by-product of cheese production. There are quite a few steps to it, but the “fillers” are removed from this liquid, it’s turned into powder form, and takes on the role of one of the most highly absorbable proteins money can buy. These proteins also have a much higher level of branched chain amino acids (BCAA) than a lot of meats, and are nearly perfect for consumption post workout. As I’ve explained in other articles, amino acids are what make up proteins which in turn are what make up muscle tissue.

There are a range of benefits that come from including whey in your fitness program. Whey can be used as a milk alternative to people who are lactose intolerant (although you should verify there is no lactose in the powder you choose if you have a lactose issue). When coupled with exercise, whey helps many people lose significantly more body fat while retaining their precious muscle mass. Whey has also proven to be a very powerful antioxidant. Some studies have actually shown that whey isolate has an even more powerful antioxidant effect than fruits and vegetables, as it works on a cellular level as opposed to just seeking out free radicals in the blood stream.

When choosing a whey protein, you generally have 3 options. Whey protein concentrate. Whey protein isolate. Whey protein hydrolysate. All have beneficial qualities, but all are a bit different in their own way. Let me break down a few specifics about each one:

Whey Protein Concentrate: Most “cheap” whey proteins you’ll see at the store are made up of whey concentrate. In the spectrum of whey proteins, WPC is absorbed quickly, but at a slower rate than it’s isolate and hydrolysate counterparts. This is due to the filtration process used. Since WPC isn’t processed at a super high level, there are still milk-like qualities to it in the form of lactose and milk fat. Most “100% whey” protein powders at the store have a blend of WPC and isolates. The amount of WPC can range anywhere from 30-90%. I usually tell people you can get a general idea how much WPC is in it based on the fat and carbohydrate content of the powder. If the contents of one scoop are something like 2g fat, 7g carbohydrates, and 15g protein, you can bet there is a higher amount of WPC in the product. If you buy a powder with the same fat and carbs, but something more like 30g of protein, odds are there is less WPC and more isolate. That all being said, WPC is a good product, but on the lower end of the whey protein spectrum.

Whey Protein Isolate: As WPC powder can range anywhere from 30-90% protein, when you buy a canister that uses the word “Isolate” on it, the protein content is immediately around the 90% mark, if not more. Whey protein isolate is rendered using processes than remove nearly all milk fat and lactose from the protein. What you are left with is a smaller molecule of protein that is very pure and very rapidly digested. A quality isolate powder will have 1 or less grams of fat and carbohydrates and be much lower in cholesterol compared to concentrate. Fair warning. Isolate is generally going to cost you about 25% more than a WPC based powder.

Whey Protein Hydrolysate: If isolate is the Cadillac of whey protein, Hydrolysate is the Ferrari.  When you drink whey protein, the digestive system has to use enzymes to break that protein down to use the amino acids contained in it.  Manufacturers can use a process called hydrolysis to “pre-digest” whey, so it provides the most rapid absorption and requires the least digestion of all the whey protein types.  These are the protein hydrolysates (look for the word “hydro” on the label, generally speaking).  This type of protein is great for someone looking for the best protein absorption you can get, with a bigger available budget.  Three pounds of hydrolysate will generally cost as much as five pounds of isolate.  Hydrolysates do hold an edge over the other two types of proteins, yes.   However, in my opinion, hydrolysates aren’t necessary to achieve great results.  I would only recommend buying them if money isn’t an object.

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