Protein Powder: Learn The Different Types And Scams To Avoid

The most common supplement that everyone hears about whenever they begin a fitness program or diet plan is protein powder.  Protein powder is probably the most commonly used supplement on the market.  Like most supplements, protein powders aren't necessary to lose fat or gain lean muscle.  Even though protein powders won't cause you to gain muscle or lose body fat by themselves, high-protein dieting can help you gain muscle and lose fat.  And one of the ways that you can create a high-protein diet is by the assistance and convenience of protein powders.  

If you're counting your macros, then you know that you have a protein goal to reach every day.  For help calculating your macros, check out my previous article, Calculating Your Macronutrient Needs.  It is recommended that you eat around 1 to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day.  If you eat all of your protein through whole foods, you may find it a bit challenging to consume that much protein.  This is where the convenience of protein powders can help you out.  Also, a lot of whole food proteins, like red meat, chicken, or pork are going to come with some amount of fat.  So, you'll need to add to your fat goal as you add to your protein goal.  However if you're taking a whey protein isolate powder, then you can mostly eliminate the fat and carbs from your protein source.  This makes it easier to meet your protein goals without adding to your other macronutrient counts.

Types of Protein Powder

  1. Whey Protein - Whey protein is derived from the protein in the whey of milk.  It is the most common form of protein powder and it's quickly digested by the body.  Many people prefer to take whey protein immediately following a weight training workout because that's when your body will have the highest need for protein and you'll want to give it a fast digesting protein so that it can get to your muscles as fast as possible to repair the damage you inflicted on them during your workout.  Within the category of whey protein, you have different types:
    1. Isolate (WPI) - Isolates have many of the components that come with milk protein (fat, lactose, etc) removed.  They've isolated just the protein so that it's more pure.  Many people who get upset stomachs from lactose prefer to use a whey isolate protein powder for ease of digestion.  Since it's purely protein, it also makes it easier to increase your protein macro count without affecting your other macros.
    2. Concentrate (WPC) - Unlike an isolate, a whey concentrate will not have the other components that come with milk protein removed.  Concentrates tend to have less protein on a gram for gram basis, however they also have many other potentially beneficial compounds that aren't found in isolates.  The problem with whey concentrate proteins is that the quality can vary widely!  It could be as low as 20%-30% protein by weight with a lot of fat and carbs or as high as 80% protein by weight.
    3. Hydrolyzed Peptides (HWP) - Hydrolyzed whey peptides are whey protein concentrates or isolates that have had their peptide bonds strategically predigested with enzymes or other catalysts.  Because they are predigested, HWP's are easily absorbed into the body.  However, HWP's have their drawbacks.  The main drawback of HWP's is that they are extremely bitter.  Most people would have trouble drinking a glass of hydrolyzed whey peptides.  They're also more expensive due to the extra processing step in the manufacturing process.
  2. Casein Protein - Casein protein is derived from the protein in the curds of milk and is a slower digesting protein.  Because it is a slower digesting protein, it is commonly taken earlier in the day or right before bed to give your body a steady supply of protein throughout the night.  If you work out on a regular basis, then your body is constantly undergoing a state of repair, even at night when you sleep.  If your body finishes digesting your last meal of the day 3 or 4 hours after you've eaten it, then there is a long period of time while you are sleeping when your body isn't getting a supply of protein that it needs.  By taking the slower digesting casein protein before bed, you can help ensure that your body has a steady supply of protein throughout the night.  Casein protein can be more challenging to mix with liquids and tends to clump up more than whey.
  3. Soy Protein - Soy protein is derived from soybeans and can be a good vegetarian or vegan alternative to whey or casein protein.  However, there is some evidence that suggests that soy can have a feminizing effect on men and seems to be partially determined by genetics.  Soy protein contains estrogen-like compounds and they can have estrogen-like effects in the body for people who are genetically predisposed to convert those estrogen-like compounds into estrogen.  There are also some studies that suggest that this can also cause hormonal effects in women.  However, none of that is conclusive.  In addition, the general quality of soy protein is usually fairly low.  So, because of these reasons, I would suggest staying away from soy protein unless you have a specific dietary need to choose it over other options.
  4. Rice Protein - Rice protein powder is another vegetarian alternative to whey and casein and it also doesn't have the potentially negative side effects of soy.  The amino acid profile of rice protein can be a little weak, however there are rice and pea protein blends that, combined, create a great amino acid profile.  They may be harder to find in your local supplement store, but if you are looking for a vegetarian alternative to whey or casein, I would suggest a rice/pea protein blend.

There are several other types of protein powders out there like egg, hemp, etc. however in order to avoid an extremely long article, I will just cover the main 4.

Protein Powder Scams

The protein powder industry is huge and whenever there is a huge market for a product, there will be devious companies that are only concerned with profit and will do whatever they can to increase their margins.  So, be warned that not all protein powders are created equally.  In addition, the cost of manufacturing protein powder has gone up exponentially over time.  Whey protein, for example, as nearly doubled in manufacturing cost.  Therefore many companies saw their huge margins begin to shrink and some came up with a way to produce a cheaper, lower quality protein powder.  One of the more common ways that companies can produce low quality protein powder is through a process called amino spiking.  

The protein content of food is measured through a method called the Kjeldahl method.  It's an internationally recognized method for estimating protein content by determining the amount of nitrogen present in the food.  Higher amounts of nitrogen present indicate a higher amount of protein in the food.  These devious companies decided to take advantage of this fact and they cut the amount of protein in their powder in half and replaced it with a cheap amino acid that is also nitrogen-rich.  Glycine is a popular example of a cheap, nitrogen-rich amino acid that could be used to fill the place of the protein.  Glycine is also naturally sweet therefore the protein powder will taste better in addition to being cheaper.  Because the amino acid is nitrogen-rich, it causes the Kjedlahl method to report more protein in the food than is actually present, by as much as 200%.  Now those companies can list 20g of protein on the nutrition label, when there really may only be 9g of protein with the rest being an amino acid filler.  There have since been several lawsuits against some companies about the reported protein content of their protein powder.  

How can you tell if a protein powder has been amino spiked?  The only guaranteed way to know if your protein powder has been amino spiked is to send it to a lab and have it analyzed.  However, there are some reg flags that may indicate that a protein powder has been amino spiked, although these are just possible indicators, not guaranteed indicators.  One red flag for amino spiked protein powder is just that it has added amino acids, like BCAAs or glutamine.  Some companies even advertise that they add BCAAs or glutamine into their protein powder because most people don't know what amino spiking means, so a company can brag about it as if it's a positive thing!  Another red flag is when the serving size in grams doesn't add up to the number of fat, carbs, and protein on the nutrition label.  For example, if a serving size for 1 scoop of protein powder is 42 grams, but there is only 20g of protein, 2 carbs, and 1 fat, then that should be a red flag to figure out what is taking up the rest of that serving size and whether or not you want to be putting that in your body.  The macros won't always add up to be exactly the same number as the serving size, but they should be fairly close.  There are other things in the powder like sweetener, flavor, additives to prevent clumping, etc. that will add to the weight of the serving size but not add to the macro count, so that's why they may not match exactly.  But, again, they should be fairly close.

Besides amino spiking, another thing to watch out for is the order of ingredients listed in the protein powder.  The ingredients of any product are listed in order of the most used (by weight) to the least used.  So, the first ingredient is going to be the primary ingredient in the product and will likely be what most of the product is made from.  So, if the first ingredient in your protein powder is something like maltodextrin (which is just a cheap sugar), then that protein powder contains a lot of maltodextrin and probably not a lot of protein.  Or if the protein powder claims to have some amazing proprietary blend but it's listed 5th or 6th in the ingredient list, then there's probably a very small amount of that blend in the container and you're getting nearly nothing in each serving.

Sum It Up

I know that there has been a lot of info in this article.  To summarize things, you don't have to use protein powder in order to gain muscle or lose fat.  You can achieve the same results with whole foods.  However, many people prefer to supplement their diet with protein powder for the convenience factor and in order to make sure that they meet their daily protein requirements.  If you do choose to supplement with protein powders, I recommend whey protein after your workouts and casein protein during the day and before bed.  Not all protein powders are created equal.  There are some scams that you should be aware of to ensure that you are purchasing the highest quality protein and getting the most bang for your buck.  

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Michael McGill

Uproar Athletics

Michael McGill
Michael McGill


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