Have you ever wondered about the different types of protein powders available? The variety you find in supplement stores can be overwhelming.

Protein powders are supplements that are high in protein, and tend to be low in fat, carbohydrates and sugars. They come in a variety of types and flavours, are made to be convenient, easy to use, and are meant to enhance, not replace, the protein you get from food These protein-rich powders are used to build muscle strength and size, and reduce muscle breakdown. No matter the source, protein can help with weight management, body composition and immune function. To learn if you need protein powder, read Do I need to use protein powder? and other protein powder questions.

Tell me about the different types of protein powders


The protein sources in protein powders include milk, soy, rice, pea, hemp and more. The most common types are milk (whey, casein) and soy.

1. Whey – Whey is the most frequently used protein powder. Whey comes from milk and is quickly absorbed and easily digested. It is naturally high in the branched chain amino acid , leucine, which play a key role in muscle growth and increasing muscle size. Because whey powder dissolves fast in water and is quickly digested, it can rapidly deliver amino acids to the muscles. It typically contains about 20-25 grams of protein per scoop. Research shows whey protein helps enhance exercise recovery, stimulates muscle growth, and build muscle when combined with strength training. All these attributes makes whey a top choice for many protein powder shoppers.

2. Casein – Casein is the protein in milk that is used to make cheese. Casein is high in branched chain amino acids. It is considered a slow digesting or slow release protein, which means that it provides a steady release of amino acids, making you feel full longer and helping to keep your blood sugar stable. Casein is not as water-soluble as whey protein, and doesn’t mix as easily in water as whey protein. It contains about 25 grams of protein per scoop.

3. Soy – Soy is a plant-based protein and makes for a good vegetarian or vegan option, as it is made from soybeans. It has anywhere from 15-25 grams of protein per scoop. Soy protein powder is considered to be a “quick” protein, being absorbed rapidly and good for muscle protein synthesis, although not to the extent of whey protein powder. This is believed to be due to its lower leucine content. The phytoestrogens (i.e. plant estrogens) in soy are purported to upset hormone balance and may be of concern to women with breast cancer. Breast cancer survivors, those with a family history of breast cancer, or those apprehensive about using soy protein powder in general, should check with their physician before using this supplement.

4. Hemp – Hemp is a plant-based protein made from hemp seeds. It should not be confused with marijuana, although the two plants are related. Hemp seeds are naturally rich in omega fats and fibre. The naturally-occurring fats results in more calories, and the fibre is a nice addition to the powder. Hemp protein powder does not contain as much protein as animal-based protein powders, with about 10-15 grams per scoop. It is promoted as being easy on the stomach compared to other protein powders.

5. Pea – Pea is a plant-based protein made from the yellow pea, a legume. Pea powder is easy to digest, and doesn’t cause bloating or gassiness of some other protein supplements. The amount of protein per scoop ranges widely from 15 to 24 grams. It is an alternative protein source for those with allergies to dairy or lactose intolerance or those following restrictive diets.

6. Brown Rice – Brown rice protein powder is a plant-based protein. It is considered hypo-allergenic and easily digestible. It contains about 15 grams of protein per scoop and does not mix as easily with water as whey protein powder. For anyone with allergies to soy or dairy or with a sensitive stomach, brown rice protein could be an option. Research showed that when rice protein isolate supplementation was compared to whey protein isolate on body composition there were no differences found with the resistance-trained young men over an 8-week period.

Leucine, the branched chain amino acid, is essential for muscle protein synthesis. In fact, a certain amount of leucine is required just to stimulate protein synthesis. Most plant proteins contain less leucine than animal proteins per scoop so you require more plant-based protein powder for the same impact.

When looking at protein powders, you will see the words concentrate, hydrolyzed and isolate.

a. Concentrate – is the least expensive and most common form of protein. For example, in the case of whey protein concentrate, it contains lactose, minerals (e.g. calcium) and some fat and is only about 60-70% protein by weight. It is basically removing the water from the liquid whey.
b. Isolate – the manufacturers are “isolating” the protein. An isolate contains a higher percentage of pure protein, about 90% and remove almost everything else. In the case of whey protein isolate, the isolate version is lactose free, carbohydrate free, fat free and cholesterol free. This additional processing increases the cost of the protein powder.
c. Hydrolyzed – this product has been broken down, into smaller groups of amino acids by a process called hydrolysis. It starts with whole proteins, which are long chains of amino acids and breaks them into peptides, shorter chains of amino acids, some refer to it as being pre-digested. These shorter chains of amino acids speed up digestion, are more bioavailable to maximize delivery to the muscle tissue. Hydrolyzed protein powders are the most expensive.

The dairy-based proteins, whey and casein, are best known for their muscle-building abilities. If you are lactose-intolerant, have allergies, a sensitive stomach or are a vegetarian or vegan, the plant-based proteins, such as soy, hemp, pea or rice may be the right choice for you.

If you need to boost the protein in your diet to reach 20-30 grams at mealtimes, look for a protein powder that meets your personal needs, taste and budget.

Cindy Thorvaldson

Registered Dietitian

Cindy (MSc, RD) is a registered dietitian and nutrition specialist at Alberta Milk. With the Nourish Move Thrive® program, Cindy believes people can Eat to Change.® She enjoys sharing the latest nutrition research and applying it with healthy food ideas.

Article posted on May 17, 2016



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