How to Choose a Protein Powder: Tips from a Dietitian
Overwhelmed with all of the protein supplements on the market? From plant-based protein powders, whey concentrate vs. whey isolate, and collagen peptides, it’s hard to know what to look for. In this post I share what to look for in a protein supplement, what to avoid, and ultimately how to choose a protein powder for you.
Before we talk about how to choose a protein powder, let’s discuss whether or not you actually need to take one.
Do You Need a Protein Supplement?
Protein is an important macronutrient for many reasons, and not just muscle-building! Compared to carbohydrates and fat, protein takes the longest amount of time (and energy!) for the body to digest and absorb, so it plays a big role in satiety and helps us feel full.
Protein supplements are really mainstream today, and many people think that adding a protein powder to their diet is necessary for everyday health. It seems like the belief is that protein powder goes hand in hand with healthy eating, and that’s not necessarily true.
In fact, most of us don’t really need protein powder in our diets. Many of us already get enough protein as is! That being said, I understand that protein powders can be a convenient way to add protein to your meals and snacks, so it will be helpful to know how to choose one.
Read on to find out the types of protein powders available and how to choose one based on your needs.
Types of Protein Powders:
There are a few of different ways that we can characterize or categorize protein supplements. Today we’ll categorize them into animal- and plant-based
Animal-Based Protein Powder:
Popular animal based protein powders include whey and casein protein (both dairy-derivatives) and collagen protein (typically bovine or marine). Whey and casein are bi-products of cheese production that have been dried into a powder. In this post I’m going to focus on whey and casein, but you can learn more about collagen supplementation here.
Plant-Based Protein Powder:
Plant based protein powders are derived from plant sources like rice, hemp, soy, or pea. Many plant-based protein powders on the market contain a mixture of several sources in order to diversify the amino acid content of the supplement (amino acids are the individual building blocks that make up a protein). We’ll touch on whether this is advantageous or not shortly.
Now that we know where our protein powders come from, let’s talk about how to choose one.
How to Choose a Protein Powder:
Ultimately, this will depend on your unique goals, nutrition needs, and personal preferences, but here’s a breakdown of what to look for in a protein supplement.
How to Choose a Dairy-Based Protein Powder:
Between whey and casein protein powders, whey tends to be your best bet, especially if you are using the supplement to recover after a workout. This is because whey protein is more readily digested and absorbed for use by the body, while casein protein has a slower release. This is why professional athletes or bodybuilders will take casein protein before bed, and whey protein after a workout.
Whey Concentrate vs. Whey Isolate:
You may have seen that there’s different varieties of whey protein available. Specifically, whey concentrate and whey isolate. So which one is best?
Generally speaking, it really depends. A whey isolate protein has been further processed to filter out more fat and carbohydrates than whey concentrate, leaving a more isolated protein source, hence the isolate. That said, with further processing comes a higher price tag.
Whey concentrate tends to be slightly lower in price and protein content, and slightly higher in carbohydrates and fat. While whey isolate tends to be slightly higher in price and protein content, and slightly lower in carbohydrates and fat. Because the carbohydrate content is lower, whey isolate protein is also lower in lactose, which may be more tolerable for an individual with lactose intolerance.
Whether you choose a whey concentrate or why isolate is up to you, your needs, goals, and budget!
How to Choose a Plant-Based Protein Powder:
If you prefer to use a plant-based protein powder for whatever reason, you may be wondering whether to choose a single-source protein (like hemp protein, pea protein, etc.) or a protein powder made of a mixture or plant sources.
Frankly, it doesn’t really matter. It was once thought that if a protein source wasn’t a “complete” protein (a protein that is considered “complete” is one that offers all 20 amino acids), it wasn’t a good quality protein source. Many plant-based protein sources are considered incomplete. So in order to offer a “complete” amino acid profile, this is why a lot of plant-based protein powders contain a mixture of plant protein sources.
But, we now know that as long as you’re consuming a variety of protein foods offering you a variety of amino acids throughout the day, you’re likely to get all of the ones you need. This means that it’s not absolutely necessary to always have a “complete” protein source, this includes plant-based protein powder.
Generally speaking, choose protein powder that you like (I know it can be hard to find one that actually tastes good and blends well with liquid). And if you can, try to choose one with a shorter list of added sugars, flavours, and fillers.
Added Sugars & Artificial Flavours:
If you want to use a protein powder (again, for most of us they’re not necessary for good health), I think it’s most important to find one you like and actually enjoy using. There’s no point buying one that you’re going to have to choke down every time you use it.
That said, I’d also recommend being gently mindful of long lists of added ingredients. Things like added sugars, artificial flavours, fillers, etc. Not to demonize these things (hey, candy and other fun foods have their place!), but most people are using protein powder as a health food in their breakfast smoothie or post-workout shake. So, you may want to look for one that’s lower in sugar and other additives.
What Else Do I Need to Consider When Choosing a Protein Powder?
Third-Party Testing and Certification:
In case you weren’t aware, nutrition supplements aren’t regulated by Health Canada or the FDA. While not necessary for general use (versus elite/professional sports performance), if you want to ensure that your supplement actually contains everything it says it does on the label (and nothing else), you can look to see if your protein powder has been third-party tested.
Third party testing means that the protein powder (or other supplement) company has hired a third party organization to test and analyze the product to ensure it contains all of the ingredients in the amounts listed on the label. It also ensures that the product doesn’t contain any banned substances, which is important if you’re an elite or professional athlete.
There’s definitely nothing wrong with knowing exactly what’s in the product you’re consuming!
The Best Alternative to Protein Powder:
Remember, protein powders aren’t absolutely necessary for health – even if you’re active! In general, most of us can get all of the protein we need through whole food sources. Yes, even vegans and vegetarians!
Protein powders can be expensive, too. So I recommend looking to get your protein from food first. And if you still want to use protein powder after that, I hope this post helps you better navigate all of the products available on the market.
Connect with Hannah Magee, RD!
Which protein powder do use? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below! And if you found this post helpful, share it with your friends on social media. Don’t forget to follow me on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter so you don’t miss any of my posts. 🙂