Protein powders offer a quick, tasty, and cost-effective way to satisfy your daily protein needs. They require no refrigeration and can be used to support any performance or physique goal, including weight loss, muscle gain, or general wellness.
But, many individuals struggle with deciding on which particular protein powder to purchase given the hundreds of options available on the market.
How do you know which protein powder is best suited to satisfy YOUR own personal health, performance, and physique goals?
That’s where this guide comes in.
Ahead, we’ll show you how to pick the best protein powder based on your needs.
But, before we get to that, let’s briefly review each of the different protein powder options you’ll encounter when searching for the perfect protein powder.
Types of Protein Powder
Whey protein easily qualifies as the most popular option when it comes to choosing a protein. It’s a complete protein, rich in BCAAs, and high in leucine -- the “anabolic-trigger” amino acid that stimulates mTOR and drives muscle protein synthesis.
Whey protein is one of the two proteins found in milk, accounting for 20% of the protein in milk, with casein accounting for the remaining 80%.
For a long time, whey was perceived as nothing but the useless, liquidy byproduct of the cheese-making process. Manufacturers soon realized that whey was incredibly rich in protein, particularly the BCAAs, and recycled their “waste product” into a staple commodity in the nutrition and bodybuilding areas.
Through the use of various processing, filtration, and isolation techniques, manufacturers are able to “refine” whey from the thin, milky liquid into the powder you mix into your shaker each and every day.
But, not all whey protein powders are created equal. In fact, there are three main “subcategories” of whey protein based on the amount of processing they undergo and the resulting protein content. The higher the grade of whey protein, the more protein it contains by mass.
Here’s a quick rundown of the various forms of whey protein you’ll encounter when searching for the best protein powder:
Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC)
Whey protein concentrate is the least refined form of whey that also offers the widest range of protein content. Due to the limited amount of processing and refinement WPC undergoes, it also retains a higher amount of beneficial fractions lactoferrin and ɑ-lactalbumin.
Whey concentrates offer the best value in terms of cost, nutritional value, and protein content.
Speaking of protein content, concentrates may contain anywhere from 25 to 89% whey protein by mass. <1>
However, knowing the exact grade of whey concentrate in your given protein can be a bit tricky as manufacturers are not required to list which grade they use. A few companies, such as SteelFit® do as Steel Whey Protein uses the highest quality whey protein concentrate in WPC-80. But, by and large, you’re not going to see the specific grade of whey concentrate listed on the supplement facts panel.
This usually means if a company is willing to tell you which grade of whey concentrate they include in their product, chances are very high that they are using the “good” stuff in WPC-80.
And this brings us to one of the “issues” with most protein powders that use whey concentrates -- you’re not really sure what grade or quality of concentrate your getting.
For example, let’s say that a company decides to run its initial batch of protein and wants to deliver a high-quality product. As such, they’ll use WPC-80, which is the highest quality form of concentrate, containing 80% protein by mass.
However, after the first batch has sold out, then decide to create a second batch, but this time, they want to increase profits without increasing the price the consumer pays per tub. All the company has to do is change what grade of concentrate they use. For instance, they could use WPC-60 or WPC-70 and save a good bit of money on the cost of goods.
The consumer is none the wiser as he/she just sees that the protein powder contains “whey protein concentrate”. But, the supplement company just significantly increased their profits.
In theory, sure, the consumer could compare the protein, carb, and fat contents of the old tub to the newly purchased tub to see if there are any changes, but most people really aren’t going to do that. Although a discerning consumer might get a more explosive notification of the change in WPC quality if they start experiencing considerable amounts of GI distress, bloating, and/or flatulence -- common side effects from the consumption of low-quality whey protein concentrates.
Concentrates also usually contain greater amounts of calories, carbohydrates, lactose, and fat than other forms of whey protein, but if you opt for WPC-80, you still get a high amount of protein with a small number of carbohydrates and healthy fats.
One other thing, if you are lactose sensitive (or outright intolerant), you may want to choose whey isolate (or another form of protein altogether). Concentrates generally contain more lactose than other forms of whey, which can lead to stomach upset and cramping for the dairy sensitive out there.
Whey Protein Isolate (WPI)
Whey protein isolate is often advertised as the “purest” form of whey protein (from a protein content standpoint) as it must contain a minimum of 90% protein by mass. As a result, this means isolates yield a very high amount of protein with minimal amounts of carbohydrates, lactose and milk fat. As such, whey isolates are generally the better choice for individuals who are lactose intolerant, yet still want to enjoy the benefits of whey protein.<2>
However, whey isolate isn’t without its own set of limitations or “drawbacks”, similar to concentrate has its own “drawbacks” of a wide range of variability in protein content and higher lactose content.
The drawbacks to whey isolate protein is that in order for the powder to contain a minimum 90% protein by mass, it must undergo additional processing and refinement. With this added processing comes a loss in some of the immune-boosting compounds abundant in concentrates, such as immunoglobulins.
Isolates also tend to not have a thinner texture and less satisfying “mouthfeel” compared to whey concentrate, due to the decreased levels of fat and carbohydrates.
And finally, isolates generally cost more than concentrates do, again due to the increased amount of processing it undergoes.
As such, unless you’re very sensitive to lactose, whey concentrates are generally the best option for most people looking for the best blend of cost, protein content, flavor, and texture. This is why Steel Whey includes whey protein concentrate (WPC-80) -- concentrates offer consumers a high protein content, yet low calorie and most affordable option to hit their protein goals for the day while delivering a thick, rich texture and immune-boosting fractions.
Whey Protein Hydrolysate
Hydrolyzed whey protein (whey hydrolysate) is the most processed, heavily refined form of whey protein. For all intents and purposes, hydrolyzed whey protein is essentially “predigested” via hydrolysis -- a chemical process where enzymes are mixed with whey to partially digest and break down the peptide bonds linking the various proteins together.
As a result of this “pre-digestion” process, whey hydrolysate protein is incredibly rapid digesting, and quite frequently recommended by the gym bros as the “best” option for a post workout shake as the lightning-fast digestion should flood your muscles with protein and amino acids significantly quicker than whey concentrate or isolate.
However, research comparing whey protein, hydrolyzed whey, and casein found no significant difference in lean mass gains despite the wide variance in digestion speed.<6,7>
Hydrolyzed whey protein contains essentially no carbohydrates, lactose, or fat, which makes it ideal for those deep into contest prep or the extremely lactose intolerant.
Again, due to extra processing and use of chemicals, whey hydrolysates have a vastly inferior flavor, texture and mouthfeel compared to concentrates and even isolates. This is due to the fact that the enzymes used during hydrolysis leave the protein with a distinct “off”, chemical-like flavor.
Whey hydrolysate protein is also the most expensive of the three forms of whey protein, due to the increased amount of processing it undergoes and has virtually all of the beneficial, immune-boosting fractions removed.
At the end of the day, there’s never really a need to purchase hydrolyzed whey. They’re expensive, inferior tasting, and lack the beneficial compounds present in whey. If you’re severely lactose intolerant, you’re better off from a cost and taste standpoints choosing another protein altogether, such as pea or egg-based protein, which we’ll cover in a bit.
Benefits of Whey Protein
Whey protein has been thoroughly researched and, in addition to its ability to boost immune function, the bodybuilding staple has also been noted to help:
- Increase muscle size and strength when used in combination with resistance training. <3,4,5,6>
- Support fat loss -- research shows that whey promotes feelings of fullness, which reduces hunger and helps you consume fewer calories during the day. <7,8>
As we mentioned up top, casein accounts for the vast majority (80%) of the protein content of milk. It’s also been a staple pre-bed snack for athletes, bodybuilders, and personal trainers for quite a long time to help keep the body “anabolic” during your 8 hours of sleep.
The reason for this is that casein is incredibly slow digesting. In fact, research notes that casein protein can provide a steady supply of amino acids to your body for up to 7 hours!<9,10>
Whey vs. Casein Post-Workout
Whey protein is frequently believed to be the best post-workout protein powder due to its rapid digestion; however, research has shown that casein protein can be just as effective as whey protein for enhancing muscle mass and reducing body fat.<11>
In other words, if you finish your workout and quickly realize that your tub of whey protein is empty, don’t panic. The anabolic window isn’t going to close on you, and you aren’t going to miss out on any big gains. Simply have a scoop of casein (or whole foods meal), and you’ll be perfectly fine.
Now, be aware that casein mixes up incredibly thick, several times more thick than whey protein. As such, if you are going to use casein as your post-workout protein shake on occasion, but don’t want a sludge-like consistency, you will need to add more water than you’re probably used to.
Up to this point, we’ve covered the two protein in milk separately, as they generally are sold separately. However, milk and casein can be found together within the same protein powder, both as part of a protein blend (which we’ll cover later) or in the form of milk protein isolate.
Milk protein powder naturally contains both whey and casein in the standard ratios (20/80, respectively) that you find them in your daily serving of moo juice.
So, why would you consider using milk protein powder over drinking regular milk?
Well, you’d get more protein, and substantially fewer calories, fat, and lactose by using milk isolate protein powder than drinking milk.
Compared to straight whey protein, milk protein powder provides a “best of both worlds” approach for digestion speeds as it contains both whey and casein. This yields a protein with a digestion time somewhere between that of the lightning-fast whey and the ultra-slow digestion of casein.
Milk protein powder also typically has a thicker texture and more satisfying “mouthfeel” than those of whey isolates or hydrolysates. Again, this is due to milk protein isolates containing a mixture of whey and casein. And, similar to whey protein and casein protein, milk protein powder is a complete protein source providing all nine essential amino acids needed for protein synthesis.
Egg White Protein
Eggs have a reputation as nature’s “perfect” protein due to the fact that the breakfast staple scores a perfect 100 on the biological value ranking scale.<1> Biological value (BV) is a measure of how efficiently our bodies can absorb and use the nutrients we ingest.
Basically, outside of whey protein (which has a biological value of 104), egg protein is about as ideal as you can get when it comes to consuming protein.
To create egg protein powder, egg yolks are separated from the whites. From there, the whites are dehydrated, pulverized, processed, and ground into a fine powder. Powdered egg whites can be consumed just like whey protein (shakes, smoothies, oats, etc.); however, you should be aware that egg protein powder tastes “eggy”, so getting used to the flavor might take a while for some of you.
Due to the fact that egg white protein tastes like eggs, it’s most often included as part of a protein blend along with whey, casein, and milk protein.
Egg protein powder is also a great alternative protein powder for the lactose intolerant as it is completely lactose-free.
For quite a long time, those not wanting any dairy or other animal-based proteins (beef, chicken, etc.) turned to soy protein as their protein powder of choice.
The reason soy was the de facto dairy-free protein powder of choice is that it is one of the few plant sources that is a complete protein, meaning it contains all of the essential amino acids needed for protein synthesis.
However, soy protein fell out of favor, particularly with men, due to the belief that eating too much of it would increase estrogen levels and lead to gynecomastia, a.k.a. man boobs.<16> This man boob myth stems from the fact that soy contains isoflavones which are phytoestrogens, plant-based compounds that act similar to estrogen.
However, the fears of budding are mostly overblown as recent research has shown that the “soy makes man boobs” fears were overblown. When consumed within reason, soy does not negatively impact hormone levels or serum testosterone. However, studies have shown that soy protein does support muscle growth and strength development, though. <17,18>
Another reason to consider supplementing with soy protein powder is that studies note it supports heart health.<19> And to top it off, soy has a Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) score of 100, meaning it has incredibly high bioavailability and ranks alongside whey and egg proteins as one of the most efficiently utilized proteins for our bodies.<20>
Continuing with the plant-based proteins is pea protein.
Yes, there is such a thing as pea protein powder, and in terms of amino acid profile, it’s a surprisingly good protein powder too.
The vast majority of plant-based proteins are “incomplete” proteins, meaning that they are lacking or deficient in one or more of the essential amino acids. Because of this deficiency, different plant proteins have to be blended together (think beans and rice) to address the amino acid inadequacies naturally present in each plant protein. Combining these different proteins creates a complete protein, and this is why most plant-based proteins are found as blends of multiple plant proteins.
Pea protein, however, doesn’t suffer from these deficiencies. Similar to soy, pea protein powder is a complete protein providing all nine EAAs needed for muscle repair and growth, which makes it a top choice for vegan athletes looking to optimize protein intake.
As an added bonus, pea protein is lactose-free, making it ideal for the lactose intolerant crowd.
Compared to whey protein, pea protein has been found to be just as effective as whey for building muscle<12>, and it surpasses whey and rivals that of casein in terms of satiety and feelings of fullness.<13>
Similar to soy protein, pea protein has also been found to support cardiovascular health. Research suggests that consuming pea protein may help lower cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as blood pressure.<14,15>
The “drawback” to pea protein powder is that, well, it kind of tastes like peas and has a rather distinct the earthy, dirt-like texture. Due to this, pea protein powder is usually blended with other plant proteins to cover up its “unique” texture and flavor.
Other Plant-Based Proteins
While pea protein and soy protein are the two most well-known plant-based proteins, there are a number of other non-animal-based proteins you’ll find on the shelf, including:
- Brown Rice Protein
- Hemp Protein
The main drawbacks to plant proteins is that they usually are lacking in one or more of the essential amino acids, and they have inferior taste, texture, and mixability compared to whey or casein. Plant proteins are notorious for having a chalky or dirt-like taste and texture along with a rather unpleasant mouthfeel.
Still, if you want to avoid animal-based proteins, plant protein powders can be just as effective for satisfying protein requirements and physique goals, but they will not taste as good, and they are generally more expensive, too.
When browsing through all the various whey protein options on the shelf, you’ll soon realize that quite frequently a protein will contain more than one form of protein. Whey protein isn’t just sold pure concentrate, isolate, or hydrolysate. Whey protein powder also is available in the form of whey protein blends.
As you might guess, a whey protein blend is a protein powder containing a mix of concentrate, isolate, and/or hydrolysate. This creates a protein powder that contains a higher amount of protein than your average whey protein concentrate, while also containing fewer carbohydrates, lactose, and fat than powders containing only whey concentrate.
Whey protein blends also allow you to get the thicker texture, better flavor, and superior “mouth feel” of concentrate while getting the higher protein content of isolates.
Now, it’s also important that we mention that protein blends extend beyond just blends of whey protein. In fact, protein blends can contain any and all of the animal- and plant-based protein sources outlined above, including:
- Whey Protein
- Egg White Protein
- Beef Protein
- Chicken Protein
- Brown Rice Protein
- Pea Protein
- Plus Many Others
Protein blends offer you a “jack of all trades” approach to protein, where you get a good mixture of slow, intermediate, and fast digesting proteins, which provide a staggered and sustained release of amino acids into the bloodstream. This also has the added benefit of greater satiety than consuming just whey protein, which may help limit mindless snacking between meals.
However, the drawback to protein blends is that you never really know how much you’re getting of each individual kind of protein if that sort of thing is important to you.
Now that we’ve gone over the various kinds of protein powder available to you, let’s find out how to choose the best protein powder.
What is the Best Protein Powder?
Here’s the thing -- there is no such thing as a “best” protein powder for every person all the time. That being said, you can find your own personal “best” by answering several simple questions:
Is the Protein a Complete Protein Source?
Simply put, if you’re looking to find the best protein powder that money can buy, you want to purchase a protein that is a complete protein, meaning it contains ALL nine of the essential amino acids your body requires to build proteins.
While you could make an argument that so long as you’re consuming a variety of foods during the day, whether or not your protein powder supplies all the amino acids needed for protein synthesis isn’t a big deal. And that’s very much true.
But at the same time, if you’re trying to optimize protein intake and muscle protein synthesis, you want a protein powder that is a complete protein. Furthermore, the whole point of purchasing a protein powder is for the protein, so don’t you owe it to yourself to purchase the best quality protein powder you’re budget allows?
Yes, you do. Your muscles sustain the beating you put them through week after week in the gym, so yes, they deserve the best stuff you can get. And in this case, the “best” protein powder is one that provides a complete protein.
The best protein powders also have a high PDCAAS rating and biological value as well. Any of the animal-based proteins (including whey protein) easily fit the bill of a complete protein that also offers high biological value and plenty of mTOR-activating leucine.
Is the Protein Powder High-Quality?
While it can be tempting to buy the protein powder that is on sale (BOGO, anyone?) or the one that advertises the highest protein content per scoop, we’d caution you to pause for a second and really look closely at the entire product label.
By that, does the protein powder state whether or not it is 3rd party tested for quality and purity.
Does it list exactly how much of each kind of protein it contains?
Is it cGMP certified?
Does the list of ingredients include any added free form amino acids?
If you answered yes to this last question, DO NOT, we repeat, DO NOT buy it. The reason for this is that if the protein powder you are considering purchasing contains added free-form amino acids (l-glutamine, creatine, l-taurine, l-glycine, etc.) there is a very strong chance it is spiked.
Without getting into the nitty-gritty (that’s for another article), protein spiking is a tactic used by supplement companies seeking to pull a “fast one” on consumers. Added free form amino acids allows companies to artificially inflate the protein content by tricking the nitrogen test that is used to test the protein content of various protein powders.
Again, if you see added free form amino acids and the product label DOES NOT make a distinction between whole protein and added amino acids, you’re probably holding a spiked protein, meaning you aren’t getting as much protein as the label states.
Steel Whey™ DOES NOT contain added free form amino acids and is NOT spiked. It contains only 100% pure WPC-80 whey protein concentrate -- the highest quality whey concentrate available.
Can You Tolerate Dairy (Lactose)?
A certain percentage of the population lacks the lactase enzyme in their bodies which is required to properly digest lactose -- the principle carbohydrate contained in dairy. If you are lactose sensitive or outright intolerant to all things dairy, then you’re better off choosing a non-dairy protein powder such as pea protein, egg white protein, beef protein, or any other non-cow derived protein powder.
If you’re only mildly lactose sensitive, you may be able to get away with using a WPC-80 protein powder or whey isolate.
Another option may be to use a digestive enzyme blend so that you can “have your whey and eat it too.”
Are You Vegan or Do You Avoid/Limit Animal-Based Products?
In light of the current obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome epidemic, more and more people are adopting a plant-forward diet while limiting their use of animal products. Concurrent with this is also a rise in the number of people adopting a vegan lifestyle for a multitude of reasons.
If you are one such person, all dairy-based proteins (whey, casein, milk), egg white protein, beef protein, and a majority of protein blends are not in line with your diet. As such, you’ll need to source a plant-based protein powder or plant protein blend. For the best plant-based protein powder, check out SteelFit's Vegan Protein Powder, Steel Vegan.
The Bottom Line on Choosing the Best Protein Powder for YOU
The takeaway here is that there is no “best protein powder”. Furthermore, you don’t absolutely need protein powder to build muscle and strength.
However, protein powder is high in leucine, easy to prepare, cost-effective, and perfect for a quick anytime, anywhere infusion of muscle building protein. This is why anyone who trains consistently and with intensity regularly uses protein powder.
The vast majority of people do not need to worry about using isolates, hydrolysates, or micromanaging the digestion times of casein vs whey protein.
The most important thing is ensuring you get enough high-quality protein each day. Whey protein concentrate provides a great combination of quality, taste, texture, affordability, and, above all, protein content.
That’s why Steel Whey™ includes the best form of whey protein in WPC-80 whey protein concentrate. Each scoop of Steel Whey™ supplies either 24 or 25 grams (based on flavor) of high-quality whey protein in each serving along with all the beneficial bio fractions naturally occurring in whey.
That is why Steel Whey™ qualifies as one of the best protein powders money can buy.
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