There are many varieties of protein powders available, including whey, casein, egg white, pea, hemp, and brown rice protein. Each type varies in terms of its source, amino acid profile, and potential benefits.
Protein powders are very popular among health-conscious people. There are numerous types of protein powder made from a wide variety of sources.
As there are so many options, it can be difficult to determine which will provide optimal results. Here are seven of the best types of protein powder.
Protein powders are concentrated sources of protein from animal or plant foods, such as dairy, eggs, rice, or peas.
There are three common forms (
- Protein concentrates: These are produced by extracting protein from whole food using heat and acid or enzymes. These typically supply 60%–80% protein, with the remaining 20%–40% composed of fat and carbs.
- Protein isolates: These are made through an additional filtering process, which removes more fat and carbs, further concentrating the protein. Protein isolate powders contain about 90%–95% protein.
- Protein hydrolysates: These are produced by further heating with acid or enzymes, which breaks the bonds between amino acids. Protein hydrolysates are absorbed more quickly by your body and muscles.
Hydrolysates appear to raise insulin levels more than other forms — at least in the case of whey protein. This can enhance your muscle growth following exercise (4,
Some powders are also fortified with vitamins and minerals, especially calcium.
However, not everyone benefits from these powders. If your diet is already rich in high quality protein, you likely won’t see much difference in your quality of life by adding protein powder.
However, athletes and people who regularly lift weights may find that taking protein powder helps maximize muscle gain and fat loss (
Protein powders can also aid individuals who have difficulties meeting their protein needs with food alone, such as people who are ill, older adults, and some vegetarians or vegans.
Protein powders can help you increase your protein intake and may be beneficial for certain populations. They are available in various forms and derived from plant or animal sources.
Whey protein comes from milk. It is the liquid that separates from the curds during the cheesemaking process. It’s high in protein but also contains lactose, a milk sugar that many people have difficulty digesting (
While whey protein concentrate retains some lactose, the isolate version contains very little because most of this milk sugar is lost during processing.
Whey digests quickly and is rich in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). Leucine, one of these BCAAs, plays a major role in promoting recovery after resistance and endurance exercise (
When amino acids are digested and absorbed into your bloodstream, they become available for muscle protein synthesis (MPS) or the creation of new muscle.
Studies reveal that whey protein can help build and maintain muscle mass, assist athletes with recovery from heavy exercise, and increase muscle strength in response to strength training (
One 2009 study in young males showed that whey protein increased MPS 31% more than soy protein and 122% more than casein protein following resistance exercise (
However, another older 10-week study found that postmenopausal females had a similar response to resistance training whether they took whey protein or a placebo (
Other studies suggest that whey protein may improve body composition by decreasing fat mass and increasing lean mass, especially when paired with resistance training and decreased calorie intake (
Moreover, whey protein seems to reduce appetite and increase feelings of fullness (
Some studies also suggest that whey protein may also reduce inflammation and improve heart health (
Whey protein can help build muscle mass and strength and enhance post-workout recovery. It may also help improve body composition, reduce appetite, decrease inflammation, and support heart health.
Like whey, casein is a protein found in milk. However, casein is digested and absorbed much more slowly.
Casein forms a gel when it interacts with stomach acid, slowing down stomach emptying and delaying your bloodstream’s absorption of amino acids.
This results in a gradual, steadier exposure of your muscles to amino acids, reducing the rate of muscle protein breakdown (
Research indicates that casein may be slightly more effective at increasing MPS and strength than soy and wheat protein — but less than whey protein. It may also be a better protein supplement choice when taken before bed (
However, one older study in overweight males suggests that when calories are restricted, casein may have an edge over whey in improving body composition during resistance training (
Casein is a type of protein found in milk that is digested and absorbed more slowly than whey protein, which can reduce the rate of muscle protein breakdown. It may be also more effective at increasing muscle growth than some other types of protein, including soy and wheat.
Eggs are an excellent source of high quality protein.
Of all whole foods, eggs have the highest protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS), which is used to measure a protein’s quality and digestibility (
Eggs are also one of the best foods for decreasing appetite and helping you stay full for longer, especially when combined with fiber (
However, egg protein powders are typically made from egg whites rather than whole eggs. Although the protein quality remains excellent, you may experience less fullness because the high fat yolks have been removed.
Like all animal products, eggs are a complete protein source. That means they provide all nine essential amino acids that your body can’t make itself (
What’s more, egg protein is second only to whey as the highest source of leucine, the BCAA that plays the largest role in muscle health (34).
Remember that egg white protein hasn’t been studied as much as whey or casein.
In one older study, it demonstrated less potential to reduce appetite than casein or pea protein when consumed before a meal (
In another 2012 study, female athletes taking egg white protein experienced similar gains in lean mass and muscle strength as those supplementing with carbs (
Egg white protein could be a good choice for people with dairy allergies who prefer a supplement based on animal protein.
Egg white protein is a good source of essential amino acids and is rich in leucine. Though more research is needed on the potential benefits, egg white protein supplements may be a good alternative to whey or casein for those with dairy allergies.
Pea protein powder is especially popular among vegetarians, vegans, and people with allergies or sensitivities to dairy or eggs.
It’s made from the yellow split pea, a high fiber legume. It also boasts all nine essential amino acids, though it is fairly low in methionine (
Pea protein is also particularly rich in BCAAs (
A 2015 animal study noted that pea protein is absorbed slower than whey protein but faster than casein. Its ability to trigger the release of several fullness hormones may be comparable to that of dairy protein (
Another small study found that whey protein and pea protein were similarly effective at improving body composition, muscle thickness, workout performance, and strength when paired with 8 weeks of high intensity functional training (
In addition, a 2011 study revealed that humans and rats with high blood pressure experienced a decrease in these elevated levels when they took pea protein supplements (
Though pea protein powder shows promise, more high quality research is needed to confirm these results.
Pea protein is a good source of BCAAs and contains all nine essential amino acids. It may also be comparable to whey protein in terms of its ability to increase fullness hormones and improve body composition, strength, and performance when combined with exercise.
Hemp protein powder is another plant-based supplement that is gaining popularity.
Although hemp is related to cannabis, it only contains trace amounts of the psychoactive component, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) (
Hemp is rich in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and several essential amino acids. However, it is not considered a complete protein because it has very low levels of the amino acids lysine and leucine (
While very little research exists on hemp protein, it appears to be a well-digested plant protein source (
Hemp protein is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and several essential amino acids. Some research suggests that it may also be well-digested, but more studies are needed.
Protein powders made from brown rice have been around for some time, but they are generally considered inferior to whey protein for building muscle.
Although rice protein contains all of the essential amino acids, it is too low in lysine to be considered a complete protein (
There isn’t a lot of research on rice protein powder, but one study compared the effects of rice and whey powder in trained males.
The 8-week study demonstrated that daily consumption of 0.8 ounces (oz), or 24 grams (g), of rice or whey protein resulted in similar changes in body composition and performance when combined with a resistance training program (
However, more research on brown rice protein is needed.
Rice protein contains all essential amino acids but is not considered a complete protein. Though research is limited, one 8-week study found that rice protein and whey protein were similarly effective at improving body composition and performance when paired with resistance training.
Some protein powders contain a blend of plant sources to provide your body with all the essential amino acids. Two or more of the following proteins are usually combined:
- brown rice
- chia seeds
- flax seeds
Due in part to their high fiber content, plant proteins tend to digest slower than animal proteins. Although this may not pose a problem for many people, it can limit the amino acids your body can use immediately after exercise.
One small 2015 study provided resistance-trained young males with 2.1 oz (60 g) of whey protein, a pea-rice protein blend, or a pea-rice blend with supplemental enzymes to accelerate digestion. The enzyme-supplemented powder was comparable to whey protein in terms of the speed at which amino acids appeared in the blood (
Many protein powders contain a blend of plant sources to provide all nine essential amino acids. However, plant proteins are digested more slowly, which can limit the amount of amino acids available for your body to use immediately after exercise.
Although all protein powders provide a concentrated source of protein, certain types may be more effective at giving your body what it needs.
For example, whey protein is often recommended for building muscle, as it has been shown to increase muscle growth and strength when combined with training (
While whey concentrate is cheaper than whey isolate, it contains less protein by weight, which may be an important consideration to keep in mind when shopping for whey protein powder.
If weight loss is your primary concern, protein powders made from casein, whey, or a combination of both.
Casein, in particular, takes longer to digest and absorb, which may be ideal for those seeking a protein powder to help keep them feeling full between meals (
Meanwhile, multiple studies show that whey protein can reduce appetite and support weight loss (
When determining which protein powder is right for you, it’s also important to consider your food preferences and dietary restrictions.
For instance, for people with a dairy allergy or those interested in limiting their intake of animal products, vegan protein powders sourced from plant-based ingredients like peas, flax seeds, hemp, or brown rice may be a good option.
It’s best to choose a protein powder based on your dietary preferences, food tolerances, and health and fitness goals.
Protein powders can provide high quality protein in a concentrated, convenient form.
Although not everyone needs protein powder supplements, they can assist you if you do strength training or cannot meet your protein needs with diet alone.
If you’re looking to up your protein intake, try one of these protein powders today.