Maybe you are just like me. You want a good protein powder to add into your workout routine but get overwhelmed by all the different brands, buzz words, and marketing gimmicks. Even if you settle on a brand you like you typically still have multiple protein powders to choose from. What’s the difference? Does it matter which one I choose? Why are some so much more expensive than the others? Well, in this article I’ll cut through the noise and get back to the basics to answer these questions.
Where do I start?
There are many different protein sources out there but by far the most popular and common is whey protein powder. Dairy milk is made up of two types of protein – casein and whey. Remember the old nursery rhyme “Little Miss Muffet, sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey?” Well during the process of making cheese, milk is separated into a solid (curds) and liquid (whey). The solid part contains the casein protein and the liquid part contains the whey protein. In fact, in dairy milk 80% of the protein content is casein while the remaining 20% is whey. Casein protein powders are readily available as well and have their place, but let’s just stick with whey for now since this comprises most of the marketing and products today.
Whey is still king of the protein powders because of its fast rate of digestion, branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) content, essential amino acid content and it being highly tested and studied.
What’s the difference?
There are 3 main types of whey protein you’ll see in marketing and on the back of the nutrition label. These are, from least expensive to most – whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, and whey protein hydrolysate (aka hydrolyzed whey protein, whey peptides).
Whey protein concentrate (WPC)
WPC is created by filtering and processing the liquid whey into a protein powder. By definition, WPC is at least 25%-89% protein by weight with the remaining product milk fat and sugar (lactose). However, most times you see WPC on the nutrition label of a tub of protein powder it is usually about 80% protein.
Whey protein isolate (WPI)
WPI is further filtered and processed to isolate the protein from the remaining fat and lactose. By definition, WPI is at least 90%-95% protein by weight, with minimal fat and lactose content. Due to the extra filtering it is higher in cost.
Whey protein hydrolysate (WPH)
WPH or hydrolyzed whey protein, is essentially a pre-digested form of whey protein concentrate or isolate for more rapid absorption by the body. The whey protein is broken down (hydrolyzed) from its long chain form to its short chain or peptide form. Once again, the hydrolyzing process is expensive thus making this the most expensive type of whey.
Which one do I choose?
One reason you may choose to go with a WPI is if you are lactose intolerant. WPI’s minimal to no lactose content makes this type a great option. Another reason to consider a WPI is if you simply don’t want the extra calories from the higher fat/carbohydrate content found in WPC’s.
Regardless of the clever marketing techniques, however, studies have shown that there are minimal differences between consuming a WPC vs WPI vs WPH in terms of achieving the benefits of a whey supplement. Whey protein is already a fast digesting protein source. Breaking this down even further into a WPH has minimal to no additional benefits. So unless you are dialing it in getting ready for a competition, you can still get in amazing shape and reap the benefits by going with a cheaper protein powder and saving some money in the process.
In fact, most of the less expensive varieties of protein powder on the market contain of blend of all 3 types anyway. An example of this is Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey. It contains a blend of all 3 whey protein types (WPC, WPI, and WPH). It is the product I still use myself and always recommend as a starting point for my clients. My particular favorites are the extreme milk chocolate, chocolate mint, and mocha cappuccino.
An important item to note when looking at protein blends is the order the types of protein are listed on the nutrition label. While they don’t give the exact percentages, the item listed first is always the highest percentage of the blend followed by the others listed in their respective orders.
What about the rest?
While whey protein is the driving force, there are other types of protein you will see on the nutrition labels. Among these are Milk Protein Concentrate/Isolate, Caseinate, Micellar Casein, and Egg Proteins. A quick summary of each is given below.
Milk Protein Concentrate/Isolate
Just like WPC and WPI, milk protein isolate has a greater percentage of protein by weight than milk protein concentrate. The difference being milk protein contains both major proteins found in milk, casein and whey, in the same ratio as milk.
Micellar Casein/ Caseinate
Micellar Casein is casein in its natural form. It is the highest quality of casein. Caseinate is a processed form of casein by adding calcium, sodium or potassium. The main difference being micellar casein has a slower rate of digestion when compared to calcium caseinate which is valuable when you want a slow steady release of amino acids over a long period of time.
Protein powder derived from egg whites.
All forms have their benefits. In fact, you’ll find that certain brands combine the above non-whey types with whey protein. For example, BPI Sports Whey-HD combines whey protein concentrate/isolate with milk protein concentrate/isolate.
Another one of my favorite protein powders is Blue Star Nutraceuticals Iso-Smooth. Which combines whey protein isolate, milk protein isolate, micellar casein, and egg protein all in one.
There is no right answer when choosing the correct protein powder. The three products mentioned in this article are great starts. Just remember you don’t need to break the bank to get a quality product or need to invest in a pure hydrolyzed whey protein isolate to get better results. Protein blends are beneficial because they allow you to receive the benefits of multiple protein types all in one. Just remember when looking at blends make sure that whey is listed as the first ingredient on the nutritional label.