Picking a Perfect Protein
By Dwayne N. Jackson, PhD
Proteins are chains of amino acids that provide the substrates needed to build muscle and support metabolism. The amino acids in proteins also provide important biological signals for growth and recovery after bouts of heavy exercise or sports performances.
Protein supplements represent the most scientifically supported and effective muscle building products on the market. This has led to the development of numerous different protein supplements, formulated from one or many different source proteins. Like most things in life, different sources of protein have strengths and weaknesses— but, to get the best bang for your buck, there are few things that must be considered.
In the following article, we provide you with a report card on the top 5 protein sources available today. Herein, we evaluate and describe each protein source using 5 fundamental categories you should consider when choosing the right protein source(s) for the job!
PROTEIN SOURCE: Whey Protein Isolate (WPI)
OVERALL SCORE: A
WPI represents one of the purest of all protein products on the market, with purity in the upwards of 90%. Furthermore, pure WPI contains negligible amounts of fat and lactose, so it is great for those who are dieting or lactose intolerant. WPI is absorbed relatively quickly, which promotes robust and rapid increases in blood amino acid levels and protein synthesis.
Amino Acid Profile (A+): WPI contains an abundance of all 8 essential amino acids, including exceptionally high levels of branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) and the highest levels of leucine among protein sources. Leucine is the primary BCAA necessary to turn on protein synthesis for muscle building.
Pre-workout (A+): WPI’s absorption rate makes it ideal as a pre-workout supplement. Taking as little as 20 grams before working out will ensure an abundance of important BCAAs are supplied throughout your training session, sparing hard earned muscle (especially when dieting).
Post workout (A+)
Studies show that immediately after a bout of resistance training, the rate at which amino acids enter the blood is directly related to the level of anabolism in the body. Whey also boosts anabolic insulin better than any other protein source, this enables greater shuttling of glycogen and nutrients into fatigued muscle, promoting faster and greater recovery.
Between meals (A+)
WPI’s bioavailability is unrivaled by any protein source. This ensures every gram of protein participates in recovery and muscle building. Its relatively rapid absorption profile minimizes fullness and bloating, guaranteeing your muscle needs are met without the chance of missing a meal.
Before Bed (C)
The amino acids in WPI are absorbed at a rate of about 8 to 10 grams per hour. So, if you consume 40 grams before bed, you will be feeding your muscle for about 4hrs while you sleep. This isn’t bad, but micellar casein is better (see below)!
PROTEIN SOURCE: Whey Protein Hydrolysate (WPH)
OVERALL SCORE: B+
WPH is processed from WPI or WPC by pre-digestion, which entails using enzymes to break down the protein (hydrolyze), resulting in the production of peptide fractions (short chains of amino acids). These fractions are low molecular weight and absorb into the blood stream quickly. Because of rapid absorption, WPH supplements drive water into muscle cells (cell volumizing), speeds recovery, and signals for increased anabolic drive. Just remember that the hydrolyzing process is costly, so WPH products tend to be more expensive than other sources.
Amino Acid Profile (A+): Enzymatic pre-digestion retains the superior amino acid profile of the WPI or WPC starting product.
Pre-workout (A+): The moderate absorption profile of WPH make this a great choice before training. Studies have shown that sustaining high levels of blood amino acids while working out promotes greater muscle growth and faster recovery.
Post-workout (A+): WPH absorbs faster than any other source of protein. Since it is pre-digested, you will note very little stomach discomfort or bloating, which means you can eat a healthy meal soon after ingestion.
Between meals (C): During this time, you want a protein that will sustain amino acid delivery for 2 to 4 hours and WPH’s absorption rate is too fast.
Before Bed (D): WPH is known for its fast rate of absorption, which is the opposite of what you want from a protein shake before bed. Stick will slow absorbing proteins (like micellar casein) for best effect.
PROTEIN SOURCE: Whey Protein Concentrate
OVERALL SCORE: B+
Compared to WPI and WPH, whey protein concentrate (WPC) is relatively impure. The impurities in WPC are mostly from lactose and fat, making this product undesirable for those who are dieting and/or lactose intolerant. Notably, WPC is the starting material for most whey protein supplements, so you can still reap most of the muscle building benefits of WPI and WPH. However, since WPC does not require the level of processing that WPI and WPH, it is the most affordable source of whey protein. Just remember, due to impurities, scoop for scoop you get less protein.
Amino Acid Profile (A+): Since WPC is the starting material for other forms of whey, it has a comparable amino acid profile to WPH and WPI. However, less processing means that the whey will retain more of its native structure and added health benefits.
Pre-workout (B): WPC has a medium absorption rate, which is good as a pre-workout protein supplement. Though, the fat and lactose in WPC may cause bloating or stomach discomfort when taken before physical exertion.
Post-workout (A): WPC has a medium absorption rate, making it a very good post-workout protein source.
Between meals (A): WPC is a great product to be taken between meals. The extra calories in this supplement provide excellent nourishment for ectomorphs (i.e., skinny and lean people) and those who are bulking up.
Before Bed (B): Having a medium absorption rate, drinking a WPC shake before bed is a decent choice. The caveat is the extra calories ingested from fat and lactose, which are not ideal right before sleeping.
PROTEIN SOURCE: Micellar Casein
OVERALL SCORE: A
Casein is the most abundant protein found in cow’s milk. Micellar casein has the unique ability to form a gel in the stomach, slowing absorption, and making it a sustained supplier of amino acids.
Amino Acid Profile (A+): Micellar casein protein has a robust amino acid profile. A good micellar casein product will be produced by advanced microfiltration techniques, which preserves the many sub-fractions and growth factors known to contribute to its anti-catabolic properties.
Pre-workout (D): Micellar casein has the slowest absorption rate of all protein products rendering it a less effective choice compared to whey protein products.
Post-workout (D): Again, the remarkably slow absorption of micellar casein makes it a mediocre post-workout choice compared to whey protein.
Between meals (A+): The slow absorption and high bioavailability of micellar casein provides protection against catabolism for hours between meals, especially when you know you won’t get a chance to eat for several hours.
Before Bed (A+): This is where micellar casein outshines the rest, making it the number one pre-bed protein supplement. Drinking just 30 grams of micellar casein has been shown scientifically to promote a 7 hour sustained plateau in blood amino acids, leading to the highest muscle nitrogen retention and utilization in its class. In one study, the slow and sustained absorption of this protein was shown to reduce catabolism by 34% for 7 hours after ingestion.
PROTEIN SOURCE: Egg Protein (albumin)
OVERALL SCORE : Overall C+
Before we knew about whey protein supplements, eggs were the benchmark by which all other proteins were compared. Egg protein supplements are very low fat and contain an abundance of amino acids. Egg protein isolate is well tolerated in moderation and digests completely, but can cause bloating and gas if used in excess.
Amino Acid Profile (B)
Eggs carry a good amino acid profile that contains all of the essential and sulfur-bound amino acids. Egg protein used to be the best product available but whey products contain much better amino acid profiles (e.g., high grade whey protein contains about twice as much leucine as egg albumin).
Egg isolates digest at “fast to medium speed”, as such, they elevate amino acids at a moderate rate. Studies show that 25-30 grams of egg albumin will elevate blood amino acids for about 2 to 3 hours, which is ideal for pre-workout use. However, egg albumin my cause bloating and gas, which may hinder training.
Compared to WPI and WPH egg protein is passable as a post-workout protein. This is mainly due to the superior amino acid profile found in whey products.
Between meals (A+)
Egg protein is an ideal supplement for between meals. It is affordable and provides an adequate source of protein with ideal digestion time, nicely bridging the gap from meal to meal.
Before Bed (D)
With its moderate absorption rate, egg albumin will not provide optimal protein nutrition throughout the night.
Protein Blends- A practical choice?
Protein powder blends are becoming more popular. They are formulated using proteins from many sources with different absorption profiles. The rationale for such products is to deliver a single protein supplement that provides all the unique advantages of fast, medium, and slow digesting protein sources. In the last few years there has been a handful of research suggesting that blended protein supplements have a unique ability to raise and sustain blood amino acid levels better than whey protein isolate alone. If you are looking for a protein blend, the best products contain fast digesting whey protein hydrolysates and isolates, as well as slower digesting milk protein isolates and/or micellar casein.
- With an array of proteins with differing absorption rates, they are ideal for someone who wants a “well-rounded” protein supplement for anytime of the day.
- They are great for people on a budget or just starting out, as they save buying multiple protein supplements for different times of the day.
- With a broad spectrum of absorption and robust amino acid profiles, they are an ideal protein boost for those who don’t have the opportunity to take time out and eat every 2-3 hours.