The scoop on protein powders

Emma Brown - Nutritionist | 01 Apr, 2022

Protein powders are one of the most popular supplements available, with many gym-goers believing they are the answer to all their body goal prayers. It's true that protein is hugely important when it comes to exercise performance and recovery – but are protein powders always the answer?

In truth, we should be able to get all the protein we need from food sources, and this is the healthiest and cheapest way to reach our daily protein needs. However, protein powders can offer a convenient option to anyone who is struggling to meet the protein they need to reach their personal goals. There are lots of options available on the market, many of which are good quality products which can be taken alongside a healthy balanced diet. They shouldn't, however, be used as a replacement for real food and should only ever be used as a supplement when required.

Which protein?

There are various types of protein powders available on the market, designed to fit different needs. You'll be able to find milk-based, egg-based, vegan and diet options. Which one you choose depends on your personal goals as well as taste and dietary preferences.

Protein powder

Whey protein

The type most commonly used is whey protein. This is derived from milk and provides a very accessible and easily digestible source of complete protein. There are different types of whey protein available depending on the process used to derive the protein from milk:

  • Whey protein concentrate – this type of whey protein typically consists of around 80% protein, with the remaining nutrition coming from fats and carbohydrates. It tends to be a popular choice as it tastes the nicest thanks to its slightly higher sugar content! Good brands offering this type of whey protein are Bulk, Myprotein, Protein World, MaxiMuscle and The Protein Works.
  • Whey protein isolate – this type of whey protein is produced through further processing to increase the protein content to around 90% or more, with just 10% or less coming from fats and carbs. This makes it a more protein-rich choice, which often comes with a slightly higher price tag. Good brands offering this type of whey protein are Bulk, Myprotein, Protein World, MaxiMuscle and The Protein Works.
  • Whey protein hydrolysate – also called 'hydrolysed' protein powder. This is a type of whey protein which is further processed to make it more easily absorbed, so it can be taken up very quickly by the body. This makes it the most effective whey protein for quick exercise recovery, but it can often be the most expensive and has quite a bitter flavour. For most people, concentrate or isolate would be more than sufficient. Good brands offering this type of whey protein are Bulk and Myprotein.

Casein protein

Casein is also derived from milk alongside whey protein, but takes longer to break down and digest. This makes it a less popular choice for people aiming to gain muscle mass, as they are looking for a quick hit of protein to aid their exercise recovery. Casein would be more suitable to have just before bed for example, to help meet additional protein needs across 24 hours, rather than immediately post-exercise. Good brands offering this type of protein powder are Bulk, Myprotein and Optimum Nutrition.

*Interesting fact – Hilary Swank had to set alarms throughout the night to drink protein shakes when she was training for Million Dollar Baby to ensure she was hitting her protein needs – so some unique training situations do require this!

Egg white protein

This type of protein is derived straight from pure egg whites, which makes it a good choice for anyone wanting or needing to avoid dairy or lactose. Eggs are a complete protein – meaning they contain all the essential amino acids our body can't make itself – so egg white protein powders have this going for them. However, egg white protein powders haven't been as well researched as other types, so it's not entirely clear how effective they are at aiding muscle recovery compared to other types of protein powder. Good brands offering this type of protein powder are Bulk, Myprotein and Protein World.

Protein powder

Vegan protein powders

There are various types of vegan protein powders available, generally based on pea, rice, hemp or soy. These are great choices for those wanting to boost their protein intake without adding any animal products to their diet. While some of these plant-based options are sources of complete protein, they don't tend to have as high levels of each amino acid as whey, casein or egg-white protein powders. This is why it can be a good option to choose a vegan protein powder which offers a blend of pea, rice and hemp for example, to up the amino acid profile. Good brands offering this type of protein powder are Bulk, Myprotein and Protein World.

What to look out for?

While the base ingredient of each protein powder is simply the protein source, many have additional ingredients to improve the flavour. For this reason, it's important to check the packaging to see what else is included. Many can have added sugar, which we should all try to cut down on, so do look out for this. On the flip side, others will use artificial sweeteners to boost the sweetness without adding additional sugar. This isn't of huge concern, as various artificial sweeteners are approved for use in food products in the UK, but if you prefer to avoid them, then it's important to check the label of your protein powder.

Informed Sport and Informed Choices offer voluntary quality assurance for sports supplements. They check the contents of various products to ensure banned substances are not used. For peace of mind, ensure the brand of protein powder you are buying has been approved by either of these.

Nutritionist Emma Brown (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.