Protein powder is everywhere – row upon row of over-sized tubs of various brands and flavours can now be found in the supermarket. Clever marketing by supplement companies has made many people, especially younger men, believe that drinking protein shakes is necessary if they want to build muscle. On the other hand, many women are scared of protein powder as they think it will cause them to bulk up.
So, what exactly is protein powder?
Let’s go back to basics. The most popular form of protein powder – whey protein – is made from cow’s milk. The protein in milk is made up of approximately 20% whey protein (the remaining 80% is casein).
In order to transform whey (which you may have heard is also used to make cheese) into protein powder, milk is filtered and dehydrated, giving us a handy powder which can be mixed with water or other liquids to make a convenient shake.
What kind of protein powder should I buy?
Whey is a fast-acting protein. This is why many people take it after a workout: so it will be digested, absorbed into the blood and quickly reach the muscles in order to aid recovery.
Whey protein comes in three forms which have different strengths and purities: hydrolyzed whey is the purest (over 90% protein) as it has gone through the most filtering. It is therefore the fastest acting and the most expensive. Isolate comes next (up to 90% protein), and concentrate (around 80% protein) is the cheapest. Hydrolyzed and Isolate are often called ‘diet’ whey as they have the least fat and carbohydrate.
Choosing which type to buy is similar to the choice you make every time you buy unleaded petrol – you can go for the regular stuff or, if you have a high-performance car, the premium stuff, which is a lot more expensive and will have a marginal effect on your car’s performance. If you are counting every single calorie or seriously bulking in order to compete, it may be worth going for hydrolyzed or isolate whey. But for the average person, the added cost probably outweighs the benefit, and whey concentrate will absolutely do the job.
Casein is a slow-release protein, which means that it will take longer to digest, keeping you fuller for longer. This is why it is often drank in a shake before bed: the theory is that it will provide a slow and steady release of amino acids to ‘feed’ the muscles through the night. Casein can be a better choice than whey if you are on a low-calorie diet as it will fill you up and ward off hunger pains.
If you are vegan or avoiding dairy, you might want to choose a plant-based protein powder. There are so many different kinds available – I find that pea protein is good for baking, while pumpkin seed protein is better for drinking. And if you are worried about the nutrition side of things (i.e. getting all of the essential amino acids), you are better off choosing a blend of plant protein powders.
So, should I start adding some protein powder into my diet?
So, which protein powder is best?
There are loads of brands available, all of which are very similar in terms of quality.
Whey – MyProtein is a popular & reliable brand which always seems to have a sale on. Their Impact Whey is the cheapest and is fine for most people. I usually buy both the unflavoured kind and the natural vanilla flavour.
Casein – I buy it unflavoured from MyProtein.
Plant Protein – My Protein’s Pea Isolate is great for baking, but for shakes I prefer Pumpkin Seed Protein Powder (sadly it’s quite expensive as the big protein manufacturers haven’t cottoned onto it yet).
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