We’ve all been there: walking down the supplement aisle looking for a protein powder, eyes glazing over, wondering which one of the dozens available is the right choice.
We already know that hitting our protein target is important for strength and muscle mass gains, and to aid recovery. Plenty of scientific research has proved as much, including a large meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. And a quality powder can be a convenient and tasty way to up your protein intake.
‘Protein is our structural macronutrient, helping to give form to tissues in the body such as skin, hair, nails, ligaments, joints and muscle,’ says Sports Dietitian, Strongwoman competitor and founder of Athletic Eating, Harriet Walker.
‘Adequate protein is necessary to build up lean muscle, and is also very handy when trying to reduce body fat, as it keeps you full and helps ramp up metabolism slightly too.’
As for how much protein a woman needs?
‘An active female should hit somewhere around 1.6 to two grams per kilogram of body weight per day – a little lower or higher is generally fine, depending on your specific goals,’ suggests Walker.
With so many types of protein on the market – from variations of whey to entirely plant-based – it’s hard to know which type is best for your individual bodies and goals. But never fear, help is here! We called on the experts to decipher the different types of powder, so you can sip on what’s actually going to work.
WHEY PROTEIN CONCENTRATE (WPC)
Whey protein is created by removing water and casein from milk. From there, the whey can be processed into one of three forms: whey protein concentrate (WPC), whey protein isolate (WPI) and whey protein hydrolysate.
The most popular type of protein powder, WPC contains helpful nutrients for muscle building and recovery such as tryptophan, which helps increase the production of serotonin (the ‘feel-good’ hormone), amino acids, and glutamine. They are most effective when consumed post-workout or as a snack between meals.
These powders are 80 per cent protein, and contain more fat and carbs from the milk than a WPI.
‘Most whey proteins will provide between 20 to 30 grams of total protein per serve, which is a good goal, as well as two to three grams of the amino acid leucine, which is important for muscle protein synthesis,’ says Walker.
‘I also prefer brands which have been third party batch tested via HASTA or Informed Sport as this provides an extra layer of security against accidental (or deliberate) contamination with unwanted substances. This is a must for any athlete competing in a tested federation.’
WPCs are usually more cost effective due to the minimal manufacturing requirements. They tend to mix well with milk or water and have a creamier texture than WPIs, making them a great starting point for protein supplement newbies. However, they also contain lactose, which can be a problem for those with allergies or intolerances.
WHEY PROTEIN ISOLATE (WPI)
As the purest form of whey, isolates are perfect to take before, during or immediately after your workout. They absorb quickly into the bloodstream, helping the muscles repair and grow. Whey isolates are 90 to 95 percent pure protein, meaning they contain almost zero carbs and fat, and less than one per cent lactose.
Similar to WPCs, whey isolate is a complete protein containing essential amino acids required for muscle building and recovery, including the all-important BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids), leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
For Walker, choosing between WPC or WPI protein powder comes down to personal choice.
‘For my clients, I usually recommend a WPI or WPC that has a short ingredients list and that has been third party batch tested – which many brands are doing these days,’ says Walker.
‘WPCs have a couple of extra grams of sugar and fat when compared to a WPI, but they are usually more affordable and are just as effective as a WPI. So it really comes down to personal choice.’
Hydrolysates can be formed by exposing either whey isolate or whey protein to heat. By doing so, the supplement is partially broken down, eliminating the bonds linking the amino acids. The benefit of the pre-digested hydrolysates is how quickly they are absorbed by the body and repair your muscles. Hydrolysates contain all the same benefits as a WPI, but are even faster-absorbing!
Hydrolysates also release a hormone called cholecystokinin that tells the brain that you’re full, making them an effective dietary supplement for those looking to lose or maintain body fat. Although a supreme source of pure protein (well over 90 per cent), their higher cost means they aren’t always affordable for serious athletes downing it by the litre.
Similar to whey, casein protein is isolated from milk during processing and is rich in essential amino acids. Where casein differs is in its slower absorption in your gut and into your bloodstream.
‘Both whey and casein are great for achieving total daily protein intakes. Casein may have an edge when taken before bed due to its slow rate of absorption providing the body with a steady stream of amino acids during night time recovery,’ explains Walker.
Casein is usually slightly cheaper than whey, so it’s perfect for those on a budget. In the end, it comes down to your personal taste.
‘Some people can be sensitive to casein powders. Anecdotally, it can be harder to mix in water and leaves some people feeling overly full,’ warns Walker.
There are many sources for plant-based protein including hemp, rice, peanut, pea, soy, and brown rice. However, unlike proteins from animal by-products that contain all nine essential amino acids, most vegan proteins tend to be missing one or two.
‘Plants will generally have one of more ‘limiting’ amino acids which are absent, or in low amounts, which can impair protein synthesis. For this reason, blending plant-based proteins can be the best approach,’ says Walker.
‘Specifically, plant-based protein powders should be fortified with the amino acid leucine, which is important for muscle protein synthesis, and is generally found in low amounts in plants.’
Walker recommends looking for a plant-based protein that contains at least two to three grams of leucine per serve.
Not a vegan? Plant-based proteins can still be an excellent meal replacement or post-workout option for those looking for additional nutrients such as carbs, fibre, vitamins, and antioxidants that whey protein powders can lack.
What to avoid when choosing your protein powder
- Long ingredients lists – less ingredients is a good indication that the protein powder doesn’t contain unnecessary fillers.
- Cheap carbs – ‘Some products will market themselves as ‘mass gainers’ and contain a huge amount of cheap carbohydrates (as much as 70 per cent), such as maltodextrin. This is a great way for protein companies to ensure a bigger profit, while providing less actual protein,’ says Walker.
- Artificial sweeteners (for those with gut issues) – Most protein powders will include sweeteners to improve taste. While these are perfectly safe, they can cause digestive problems for those people with already sensitive stomachs. ‘If you suffer from IBS, it can be worth looking for a product that doesn’t use sugar alcohols,’ suggests Walker.
- High levels of added ingredients – Most protein powders will contain at least a few added ingredients such as emulsifiers and thickeners to create a smoother, more uniform drink. ‘These are safe, but probably not ingredients we want to have a large amount of and regularly. This is why a food first approach is best, supplemented by protein powders,’ adds Walker.
STRONG Australia’s pick?
ISO100 by Dymatize
Dymatize is a US-born supplement company that’s fresh to the Aussie market. Their flagship product? A high-quality and fast-absorbing Hydrolysed Whey Protein Isolate. Here’s why we love it:
- At just 120 calories per 32g serve, it contains a whopping 25g of protein, 2g of carbs and less than 1g of fat. So it fits within all of your diet and macro goals.
- Its short ingredient list. Enough said.
- Third-party testing ticks our protein powder checklists.
- Dymatize is also a bit of a flavour innovator (perfect for those who bore easily), with Birthday Cake, Cinnamon Bun, Chocolate Peanut Butter and their new Fruity Pebbles and Cocoa Pebbles varieties as tasty as the protein is quality!
- The cost is very affordable for a hydrolysed whey: $59 for 726g, $99.90 for 1.36kg and $139.90 for 2.27g.
You can buy yours from Supps R Us – thank us later!