The most commonly used sports nutrition supplement on the market is protein powder – hands down. While everyone seems to have a protein powder on the market with a bunch of different claims and benefits, how do you even know what you should look for or use to get the results you desire? Unfortunately, with so many protein sources available, what you used several years ago may no longer be best suited for you and your individual wants and needs.
For that reason, let’s dive a little deeper into what protein sources are out there so you can make a better-informed decision into what will help you reach your health, fitness, and physique goals.
Different protein sources serve different purposes. While we label them all “protein” it’s not exactly that simple and can actually get quite complex. Without going super deep and geek out on the depth and breakdown of each protein source, we are going to dive into what each is and why you may want to consider using it (or not).
Note: There are many protein powders on the market which are a blend of many of the protein sources listed below. If you find more than one of these fits your needs, a blended protein powder versus a straight source may be the most beneficial for you.
Whey Protein Concentrate
The first of the protein sources on the list is the most common – whey protein concentrate. WPC is found in almost all blended protein powders and is a basic yet inexpensive form of protein.
WPC is a fair fast-digesting and complete protein source but sits somewhere in the middle of this list in terms of how quickly it is digested and absorbed. Whey protein concentrate is generally digested within 30 minutes of consumption.
While not the highest quality of the protein sources on the list, whey protein concentrate is a great place to start if you are just getting into weight training or if you are on a tight budget.
It should be noted that due to WPC not being of the highest quality, some users may experience some minor bloating and gas due to their body not being able to easily digest the lactose found in this particular source of protein.
Whey Protein Isolate
If you were to look specifically at the digestibility of these protein sources, whey protein isolate would be a step above whey protein concentrate. WPI is not only a higher quality protein but also digests better and faster than WPC.
Users have found that the digestion issues commonly associated with whey protein concentrate are not there when using a whey protein isolate. This tends to be due to the reduction of lactose in the protein source (those with lactose sensitivities may find they are better able to use whey protein isolate).
Whey protein isolate is high in amino acids (especially Leucine which is extremely important for building quality lean muscle mass) while being extremely low in carbohydrates, sugars, and fat.
Whey Protein Hydrolysate
Of all the protein sources on the list, whey protein hydrolysate is the most expensive as well as being the highest quality. WPH is also the fastest digesting protein on the list and again, if looking at what was already mentioned, is a step above both WPC and WPI.
Whey protein hydrolysate provides users with highly absorbable peptides which can have a positive anabolic effect to help enhance their muscle growth potential. WPH is highly concentrated and is the easiest to breakdown and absorb by the body.
While somewhat uncommon to find a straight whey protein hydrolysate powder, more times than not, you’ll find WPH as part of a blended protein powder containing multiple protein sources.
There seems to be some confusion out there where people think milk protein and whey protein are one and the same – this is not true. Unlike whey protein, milk protein contains a high concentration of casein along with a lower concentration of whey protein sources (typically 20% whey protein and 80% casein). While not a preferred source of protein, milk protein is generally found as part of some protein blends.
Milk protein does not sit well with those who are sensitive to lactose and this protein source in particular is one of the higher protein sources when it comes to lactose concentrations.
If you were to compare nutritionally, milk protein will contain higher amounts of carbohydrates and fat compared to something like WPC, WPI, and WPH.
While not one of the protein sources we see in a bunch of protein powders or even as a standalone powder (although they do exist), egg protein does have its benefits. If you were to look at the protein sources of a powder you may see egg protein listed as it’s commonly referred to name – egg white albumin.
When you think of egg white albumen, you can think of it in a similar fashion to the eggs you cook for breakfast. Eggs are one of the best sources of protein available and for that reason, many protein powders include it in their blend.
Egg protein is high in the amino acids Cystine and Phenylalanine. In terms of how quickly egg protein is digested, it sits slightly slower than whey protein concentrate but faster than the next protein source mentioned – casein.
When scanning over the list of protein sources, casein may have stood out to you. Why? It’s because casein protein is extremely common not only in blended protein powders but also as a source used either between meals or before bed. Those looking to increase their muscle size may find including a casein shake before bed to be advantageous in their muscle-building efforts.
Casein protein is an extremely slow-digesting protein source which allows for a slow release of amino acids into the system. It can take, on average, anywhere from 4-6 hours to fully break down and digest casein protein. This also helps extend the anabolic response which can help you add the quality muscle mass you desire.
Due to how slow casein is to digest and absorb, it can also help you stay full and satiated longer which is perfect between meals and at bed, so you aren’t starving between meals and have cravings.
The last of our protein sources on the list is collagen protein. While generally not common in the bodybuilding realm of the industry, nor when it comes to muscle-building, collagen does have its own unique set of benefits.
Collagen is a protein found in your body that makes up skin, ligaments, and tendons yet lacks in the amino acid department with only three (glycine, hydroxyproline, and proline). Surprisingly enough, collagen is one of the more expensive protein sources. While not truly beneficial for building lean muscle, it can help improve your joint and skin health.
Unless you are specifically looking for health benefits along with joint and skin improvements, it is recommended to choose one of the other protein sources above to aid in muscle recovery and growth.
Another highly popular protein powder on the market these days is vegetable protein – most commonly referred to as plant-based protein. Plant-based protein tends to be lower in calories when compared to some of the other protein sources mentioned in this article while still being loaded with helpful nutrients. Plant-based protein is primarily marketed towards those who cannot consume any milk-based or animal-based protein powders or products. Therefore, a plant-based protein is ideal for those who follow a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle or who are lactose intolerant. Even if you aren’t on a specific diet, a plant-based protein could be a great way to help increase your overall protein intake for the day.