If you’ve ever shopped for protein powder, you already know: Options are endless. There’s whey, there’s soy, and there are even pea protein, hemp protein and egg white protein powders. Is one better for a muscle-building, post-workout shake than the other? Or what if you just want to add protein to a morning smoothie? Below is a breakdown of some common types of protein powder supplements and what each is good for.
Something to keep in mind: The daily value for protein is 50 grams a day based on a 2,000-calorie diet, but some people work to get 0.6 to 0.8 grams per pound of body weight. A registered dietitian can help you determine an appropriate amount of protein for your goals.
Whey protein is a byproduct of milk and perhaps the most popular type of protein supplement on shelves. Whey enters your bloodstream faster than any other protein and boasts the highest level of the amino acid leucine, which is good for providing muscles with the necessary fuel to power through a workout and build muscle. It’s considered the most effective powder for building muscle; so, if that’s the goal, aim to consume it within an hour after exercise.
You’ll see whey in two forms: concentrate and isolate. Whey concentrate includes some lactose (the sugar found in milk products) and fat. It’s about 78 to 88 percent protein and is often more flavorful and less expensive than whey isolate, which is about 98 percent protein and contains very little, if any, carbs and fat.
Casein, like whey, is a protein found in milk. The biggest difference is that casein takes longer to digest, which is why some athletes choose to take it before bed. Whey protein, on the other hand, absorbs more quickly, which is why it’s often taken immediately after a workout.
Egg white protein is just what it sounds like: dried egg whites that have been turned into a powder. This protein digests more slowly than whey but faster than casein. Although not quite as good as whey or casein in terms of muscle protein synthesis, it’s still a good option for a post-workout or meal-replacement smoothie. It’s also a good option for anyone who is allergic to or avoids dairy (since whey protein and casein protein are derived from milk).
Soy protein is made from ground soybeans that have been dehulled and defatted. It digests at a moderate rate, like egg white protein, and contains greater amounts of the amino acids glutamine and arginine, which may help support immune function, digestive health and brain function. It’s a complete protein and considered the most effective plant-derived source for building or maintaining muscle.
Pea protein, derived from the yellow pea, is the most highly digestible of the plant proteins, making it a good alternative for anyone with a sensitive stomach who doesn’t want to do dairy or soy. But it’s not a complete protein – it’s low in two amino acids – so pair it with another plant-based protein such as hemp or rice to round out its amino acid profile and make it “complete.” If you want higher protein content, choose a “pea protein isolate.” The slightly lower-protein “pea protein powder” is also a good choice, and readily available in organic varieties.
Hemp protein is made from nutrient-packed hemp seeds, and while it’s not the best for boosting muscle because of its lower protein content (most contain just 10 to 15 grams per scoop, depending on the brand, compared to about 25 grams in whey and 22 grams in soy) and Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score, it does provide a good dose of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. Pair it with rice or pea protein to round out its amino-acid profile and make it complete. This is a good choice if you want to ramp up your overall nutrient intake and don’t have strong protein needs.
Tip: One way to assess protein quality and bioavailability is the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score. It ranks proteins from zero to 1; the closer to 1, the better. Whey, casein, egg white powder, and soy are all 1; whereas hemp is 0.46 and pea protein is 0.69.
Vega protein powder is made from a multisource plant-based protein blend, including pea protein, brown rice protein and sacha inchi protein (an omega-3-rich seed from the Amazon rainforest). By combining several different types of plant-based protein, it offers a well-rounded amino acid profile, with each serving containing 20 grams of protein and between 110 to 120 calories. Because this product does not contain dairy, grains or soy, it’s a good option for people with certain allergies. It’s also vegan-friendly and gluten-free. As an extra bonus, Vega Protein & Greens contains a dose of vegetables, such as spinach, broccoli and kale – but in flavors including vanilla, tropical and salted caramel – and has only 1 gram of sugar, making it a smart choice for a breakfast smoothie or post-workout shake.
Blueberry Vanilla Smoothie
Total time: 5 minutes
What you need:
1 serving Vanilla Vega® Protein & Greens
1 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk
½ cup fresh spinach (optional)
½ cup frozen blueberries
½ ripe banana
½ cup ice
Splash of lemon juice
All you do: Add ingredients to the blender in the order listed and blend until smooth.
Nutrition facts, per serving: 235 calories, 5g fat, 0g saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 398mg sodium, 30g carbohydrate, 5g fiber, 15g sugar, 22g protein.
Tracey Shaffer, RD, LD, is a Hy-Vee dietitian at the Blue Springs location. The information provided should not be construed as professional medical advice. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.