A Mighty Guide to Protein Powders
Looking to add protein to your diet? Bulk up your knowledge on the different types of protein powders, and get delicious protein powder recipes that go way beyond the shake.
High-protein diets seem to be all the rage these days. But they’re no longer the exclusive realm of bodybuilders and dietary supplement enthusiasts. Lots of folks are getting in on it as they look to lose weight, reduce fat while building muscle, and simply adjust what they’re eating for a healthier, more balanced lifestyle.
Although whole-food, micronutrient-rich sources of protein are best for a day-to-day diet, protein powders are convenient, readily available, more affordable than meat with equal amounts of protein, and more quickly digested.
Ready to learn more about protein powders?
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What is protein, and how much do we need?
First, let’s define protein. Most simply, it’s one of the three primary macronutrients we need, along with carbs and fat, to merely exist. It’s vital for muscle recovery, muscle building, cell growth, and even weight loss. “It keeps you satiated while you build muscle,” explains registered dietitian Karalynn Chiazzese, based in The Bronx, New York. (Chiazzese is also a bikini competitor — an individual who trains to model a lean, toned physique in a swimsuit, and an expert in what it takes to get to that peak physical state.) “The more lean muscle mass we have, the more calories our bodies burn at a resting state,” says Chiazzese.
We need at least .36 grams of protein per pound of body weight daily, but the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends 1.1 for active folks just to maintain muscle mass.
In addition to athletes, people who might needs extra protein include:
Those who are changing body composition via weight loss or weight gain
Those who would like a boost in muscle recovery from strenuous activity
Busy folks like parents or business travelers looking for easy, fast, inexpensive nutrition
People filling nutrition gaps, including vegans, vegetarians, those who are sick, have low appetite, or are recovering from surgery
Older adults wanting to retain muscle
Talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian to find out how much protein is right for you.
What is protein powder?
Essentially, it’s a distillation of protein sources down to just this key element. It’s typically dehydrated and broken down into powder form to allow for easy mixing into liquids, baked goods, and more, in order to increase the nutritional value of its base.
Benefits of protein powder
Supplementing your diet with protein powder can support goals like:
Easy, fast, inexpensive nutrition
Filling nutritional gaps
Retaining muscle mass
Changing body composition via weight loss, weight gain, or bodybuilding
Maximizing muscle gain, fat loss, performance, and recovery for resistance or strength training
What to look for in a protein powder
The protein powder aisle at your local supermarket or big box store alone can be overwhelming, so it’s no wonder that health and wellness stores and online supplement sites can be outright intimidating. Here are some tips to help you filter through the choices.
Look for all nine essential amino acids: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. These building blocks of protein can’t be made by the body and have to come from food. A complete protein contains these essential amino acids, while an incomplete protein is missing some of them.
Look especially for leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They're also called branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), and are especially helpful for building muscle.
Get ready for some long ingredient lists. Protein should be first, since components are listed by weight. Then expect sweeteners, flavorings, and thickeners to make them palatable and mixable. These may include fiber-rich psyllium husk and inulin; dextrins, xantham gum, or guar gum; and emulsifiers that prevent clumping, like carrageenan, lecithin, carboxymethylcellulose, silicon dioxide, even vegetable oil.
Red flags include excessive sugars, high sodium, trans fats like hydrogenated oils, and artificial color.
Those with sensitivities should avoid sugar alcohols like sorbitol, malitol, and erythritol.
Grass-fed doesn’t mean much, since it’s touted for beneficial fats, and protein powder contains so little fat.
Organic, however, is a plus.
If allergens are an issue for you, allergens outside of the eight major ones may not be listed, so do your research before settling on a brand.
Finally, look for organizational approvals: Tags from NSF Certified for Sport, Informed Sport certification, GMP Good Manufacturing Practices, or LGC Group’s Informed-Sport and Informed Choice guarantee better sourcing and freedom from banned substances like heavy metals. Third-party certification comes with a cost that’s passed on to the consumer, though. Check ConsumerLab and LabDoor for purity and label claim verification, including quality, which is determined by protein digestibility and bioavailability.
Types of protein powder
Protein powder is available in plant-based and dairy-free formulas, as well as from animal-based sources.
Overall, there are three categories. Most affordable and least processed are protein concentrates, which are 60 – 80 percent protein. Next are protein isolates, which undergo additional filtering to reach 90 – 95 percent protein. These are lower in calories while higher in protein, which can be a better choice for weight loss, says Chiazzese.
The third type of protein powder is protein hydrolysates, which have been heated to break amino acid bonds for quicker absorption. They’re good for rapid muscle-building.
Whey protein powder
Once a byproduct of cheesemaking, whey has become the most common source of protein for powders, available in astounding flavor varieties from traditional chocolate to lemonade.
Benefits: Whey protein powder digests quickly and is the most effective protein powder for muscle recovery.
Pro-tip: Whey concentrate contains some lactose, which some are sensitive to.
Casein protein powder
Think of the squeaky Midwestern favorite — cheese curds — in powder form.
Benefits: When eaten, casein forms a gel in your stomach, slowing down its emptying and keeping you fuller longer.
Pro-tip: In addition to the isolate form, casein is available hydrolized for faster digestion — but this defeats the purpose of choosing casein.
Egg protein powder
Made from egg whites, egg protein powder is easy to digest, though won’t keep you feeling full as long as some kinds of protein powder.
Benefits: Second only to whey as a protein powder-source for the amino acid leucine, egg protein powder is an excellent choice for those with dairy allergies or other food sensitivities.
Pro-tip: Egg protein powder can substitute for egg whites in recipes. Mix it 1:1 with water.
Collagen protein powder
While collagen is abundant in animal bodies, making up connective tissue from skin to muscles and the tendons and ligaments in between, it’s not an ideal source of protein powder. It tends to be lower in quality than other protein powders and does not contain all nine essential amino acids.
Benefits: Studies have shown that collagen can reduce arterial stiffness and is helpful for reducing age-related muscle and bone loss and relieving joint pain. It’s also reported to improve hair, nails, and skin, restoring elasticity and reducing wrinkles.
Pro-tip: Read labels carefully. This hydrolized protein may contain allergens including fish, shellfish, and eggs, and/or heavy metals.
Mixed plant protein powder blends
All plant proteins — except for soy and lesser-used, pricey quinoa — are incomplete proteins by themselves, and protein powders made from them tend to be less easy to digest than ones from eggs or dairy. Mixing different plant proteins, though, makes them complete. Common ingredients include pea, brown rice, alfalfa, chia, and flax, plus vegetables such as artichoke, and trendier ingredients like hemp and sunflower seeds. Plant-based protein powders also include more carbohydrates than some protein powders, including sweeteners needed to mask dominant flavors.
Benefits: Plant-based protein powders keep you fuller longer than some types, but tend to limit immediate access to protein. For faster absorption, choose a formula with enzymes added.
Pro-tip: Be sure to check for allergens and taste-test. Get familiar with strong flavors you may feel averse to, such as hemp or pea.
Soy protein powder
Made of soybean flakes with sugar and fiber removed, soy is an eco-friendly, inexpensive, and readily available protein source.
Benefits: Soy is a complete protein (meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids) — rare for a plant — and provides similar gains in strength and lean body mass as whey protein when combined with resistance training.
Pro-tip: Choose soy protein powder concentrate, since the isolate protein powder form has been stripped of many nutrients.
Pea protein powder
Typically made from yellow split peas, this protein powder is particularly rich in quality amino acids, boasting eight essential amino acids. It strikes a good balance with absorption, slower than whey but faster than casein.
Benefits: Highly digestible, hypoallergenic, and inexpensive, pea protein performs. It keeps you feeling full, helps build muscles, and may help decrease blood pressure.
Pro-tip: Although it gets frothy, can be chunky, and taste funky, pea protein powder is an excellent option for those sensitive to dairy and eggs, once you find a formula to your taste.
Rice protein powder
Typically brown rice protein, this neutral-tasting protein powder has all nine essential amino acids, but its lysine level is too low to be considered complete.
Benefits: In addition to providing protein, rice protein may help enhance liver, heart, and kidney function, and regulate cholesterol and sugar. It’s also high in B-vitamins and fiber, and absorbs quickly into the body.
Pro-tip: If you see “sprouted and fermented,” spring for it. That means the rice has been soaked and germinated, which makes its nutrients more available.
Hemp and seed-based protein powder
Pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, and now hemp are all trendy sources of whole-food, plant-based protein powder. All seeds miss the mark on certain essential amino acids; however, they’re good sources of minerals, and depending on the type, may be a good source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Dairy-free protein powder
If lactose intolerance or sensitivity is an issue, avoid whey and casein protein powders. Egg and mixed plant protein powders are the best choices for complete protein solutions, and are widely available in a medley of styles.
Gluten-free protein powder
Although it sounds counterintuitive, some protein powders may contain traces of gluten, or be processed in an environment that also processes gluten. If you have Celiac’s or are allergic to gluten, make sure to check the label for gluten-free certification.
How to store protein powder
Always store protein powder in the opaque, airtight container it came in. Keep it cool and dry, in a dark space like your pantry. If you bought protein powder in bulk and/or in a bag, make sure to squeeze out extra air before sealing it back up.
How long you can keep protein powder depends on its makeup. Whey protein powder has a shelf life of 9 to 19 months, while others contain additives that preserve their quality for up to 2 years. When in doubt, check the “best by” date and give yourself 3 to 6 months past that prime. Beyond that, it’s not necessarily unsafe to consume it, but it will lose nutritive value. And do check for damp clumps or funky smells. Either one is a good tell to dump it and start anew.
How to use protein powder
The most common way to work protein powders into your diet is as a shake, but experimentation is half the fun! Did you know you can bake with it, whip it, fluff it, and mix it into savory dishes? The Yummly community does! Here are some great recipes that can help you DIY this vital macro.
Protein powder smoothie recipes
It’s easy enough to follow the directions on the powder: Mix with water, milk, or plant-based milk, and shake. Take your drink to the next level with these additions.
Smoothies are a great place to start with protein powder, and this one’s easy “pea”sy.
Get your protein, fruit, veggies, and dairy all in one gorgeous, tasty drink.
For this spoonable smoothie, we recommend choosing cinnamon or vanilla protein powder to complement the pear, pecans, and coconut in the recipe.
Protein powder breakfast recipes
When our instinct is to reach for a convenient carb for breakfast, it can be hard to get enough protein into the most important meal of the day. But not with these solutions!
Proats — short for protein oats — have become really popular, and for more than convenience. If you added an egg white-based or plant-based protein powder to hot oatmeal, you’d risk getting scrambled eggs or foamy plant powder in your pot. Going the cold, overnight route removes the learning curve.
Who says eating healthy isn’t fun? This gluten-free baked oatmeal makes every day feel like a birthday, and commonly available cake batter-flavored whey protein powder lets you celebrate harder.
Put your mixing tools away and prepare to be “bowl”ed over by these simple waffles. Note that the recipe suggests bone broth protein powder, but we recommend using a higher-quality protein source like whey instead.
Sound too good to be true? Not with this keto recipe! To make the “fathead dough” you’ll want to use unflavored protein powder — egg protein would be smoothest in terms of texture and flavor, but milk protein will do the trick, too.
For those of us who wake up craving something salty, these handheld breakfast muffins will hit the spot. Protein powder, eggs, and Greek yogurt add up to plenty of protein.
Savory protein powder recipes
The majority of protein powders are geared to become sweet treats. But unflavored varieties can disappear into savory dishes without a trace.
Being that dairy protein powders are made from milk, adding them to something like tomato soup will immediately make it creamier.
Sometimes, you just want plain pizza. Add whey protein powder to your dough to make a cheese slice more well-rounded … even if your slice is square.
Dessert and snack recipes with protein powder
Who says dessert can’t be healthy, nutritious, and filling? With these recipes, you can have a sweet treat that eats like a meal.
Angel food cake is already pretty virtuous in its innocuousness, but add protein to it and watch a halo appear. This one recommends the snickerdoodle flavor of one of Chiazzese’s favorite brands for baking, PEScience.
It may not be Devil’s Food, but every angel needs its counterpart. This six-ingredient wonder may be high in calories, but it’s rich in flavor, which you can amp up by using chocolate protein powder instead of more subtle vanilla.
High fiber, no food coloring, no baking, and lots of protein? Sign us up. But note that you need chocolate brown rice protein powder. Whey, casein, or egg protein powders won’t work for this recipe, as they will keep the bars from firming up.
No need to wait for the holidays to make this, but if you do, you’ll be able to amp up the flavor with seasonal pumpkin spice protein powders.
Thick, rich, and creamy, pudding is a simple dessert that brings simple pleasures. Adding protein turns it into a more balanced treat.
Super low in calories and super high in airy fun, protein fluff is a secret treat enjoyed by many fitness folks who are trying to cut back on calories without sacrificing nutrition. This unique creation does both.
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