Protein powder is one of the most commonly utilised sports supplements. While it has a wide range of potential applications, it’s typically used by people aiming to improve their body composition through increasing muscle mass and/or decreasing body fat. It isn’t necessary, but it can have some utility if used well.
In some cases, it can be difficult to obtain the optimal amount of protein through food. Protein powder can be a tool to help reach this target.
It also can be useful for times when you want to consume protein, but it would be inconvenient due to schedule or appetite. For example, if you are on the go, a protein shake is going to be more convenient than a meal. Or if you have just finished a gym session, but it has suppressed your appetite, it can be easier to drink than it is to eat.
Another way it can help is that not all meals are as easy to make high protein. A lot of people consume lower protein breakfasts. By adding protein powder to things like shakes, porridge or yoghurt, you can more easily increase the protein content of that meal.
Although a lot of people think of supplements as expensive, protein powder can be one of the cheapest options per gram of protein if ordered online. In Australia, my two favourite options are VPA and Bulk Nutrients since to the best of my knowledge they are the cheapest ways to purchase protein.
Using their standard prices though:
If you order 1kg of Whey Protein Concentrate from VPA as an example (without applying the above discount), it is 25g protein per $1. That stacks up well with almost every other cheap protein source. If you order 5kg, the price improves to 34g protein per $1.
Quality of Protein
Most protein supplements contain high-quality forms of protein that are great for promoting muscle protein synthesis. There are examples of where this isn’t true though, which will be discussed later.
Lack of Micronutrients
Protein supplementation generally doesn’t contain the vitamins and minerals that you would get if you met these needs through food instead. For example, if you consumed steak, you would be getting a significant amount of iron, zinc, B12, potassium, selenium, niacin and other nutrients alongside it. Protein powder misses that unless it is fortified.
If it IS fortified with nutrients, that brings up a whole separate debate about whether there is a disadvantage to reaching your micronutrient targets through supplements instead of food, which is beyond the scope of this article.
If you buy protein powder in a store instead of online, it makes sense that it is going to cost more. Stores have expenses such as staff and rent. It’s rough, but they can’t realistically compete on price with their online counterparts. If you buy one that happens to be significantly more expensive than average, then suddenly it is no longer a cost-effective source of protein.
No Additional Benefits Over Consuming Food
As much as supplement companies might tout the advantages of their specific products, if total protein intake is sufficient and contains a variety of protein sources, there is generally no advantage to choosing a supplement over food. So if you would prefer not to have protein powder for any reason, there is no reason to force yourself to have it.
What to Look for in a Protein Powder
Honestly, if you choose a reputable company in Australia and one of the better products that I will discuss below, the quality of the powder is likely going to be high. Because of that, I won’t discuss stuff about amino acid profiles in this section.
The main mistake I see people make if they don’t know what they are looking for is that they get a product that isn’t low in carbs and fat. If you are specifically looking for a protein powder, you want it to be mostly protein.
Per serve (usually 30-40g of powder), you would likely want it to contain >20g protein, <5g carbs and <5g fat. Looking for a powder that meets that criteria means you won’t get anything like a meal replacement shake or mass gainer that is being marketed like a protein powder.
On the topic of mass gainers, I’m not necessarily a fan. They can have their place for sure, but I think there are better options. Often the main carbohydrate sources are maltodextrin and/or dextrose, which are both similar to sugar. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with that. It is more the fact that they are just cheap carbohydrate sources that are easy to consume, which is why they are added.
You can make your own mass gainer shake easily using your own ingredients (including regular protein powder) in a cheaper and overall more nutritious way if desired.
Types of Powder and Their Pros/Cons
Whey Protein Isolate (WPI)
WPI is the gold standard when it comes to protein powder. It is relatively cheap and does as good of a job or better than all other forms of protein powder when it comes to muscle protein synthesis.
It has an ideal amino acid profile and is close to as low in fat and carbs as you can go with a protein powder.
It also happens the be quite low in lactose even though it is made from dairy since it is processed to the point that minimal carbs are left in the powder.
Lactose is a sugar and sugar is a carb, which means if a product has minimal carbs, it must have minimal lactose by definition.
WPI is very fast absorbing, which is why it is typically recommended to have post-workout during the “anabolic window.” Although it is worthwhile mentioning that the potential importance of the anabolic window may be overstated by some companies in comparison to what the research indicates.
Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC)
WPC is similar to WPI in many ways, but it is the slightly cheaper alternative. It is the cheapest option available. The only difference from WPI is that it has slightly more carbs (including lactose) and fat leftover. It is still low in carbs and fat overall though, just not as low.
For people without lactose intolerance, I typically recommend WPC since it is cheaper, unless money isn’t an issue and somebody wants their supplement to be as low as possible in carbs and fat.
Hydrolysed Whey Protein
Hydrolysed whey is processed even further than WPI to “pre-digest” the protein and make it reportedly even quicker to absorb. There’s minimal evidence that this actually makes it quicker to absorb though and it appears that there is no practical benefit of consuming it over WPI when other variables are matched. It is also more expensive.
Casein protein is also derived from dairy. It is a slow-acting protein source, which is why it is often not recommended post-workout when the goal is a quick-acting protein source. It can potentially have applications when consumed prior to bed, due to that being a 6+ hour window without any protein sources being consumed. The impact of that diminishes when total needs are met and distributed evenly across the day though.
Soy protein is a great plant-based alternative to whey since it also has a complete amino acid profile, unlike some other plant-based options. It is also low in fat and carbs as well. It doesn’t support muscle growth to the same extent as WPI, but if all other variables are matched, it provides relatively similar outcomes.
In the research, pea protein appears to perform relatively similarly to WPI when it comes to muscle protein synthesis. One downside of pea protein is that it is low in the amino acid methionine. For that reason, it is beneficial to combine with another source of protein, such as rice protein, which would address this issue.
Rice protein is not an option I would recommend taking by itself as it is low in lysine and tends to perform poorly in comparison to other options.
Part of the reason it performs poorly is that its leucine content is also relatively low too, so a large amount (~48g) needs to be taken before the optimal amount of leucine for muscle protein synthesis is met. It happens to be high in methionine though. This makes it a good match to go with pea protein and address that aspect.
A lot of plant-based protein powders will include both pea and rice protein for this reason, which makes them great alternatives to whey protein without any downsides apart from a minor increase in price.
Collagen powder appears to be quite poor for promoting muscle growth in comparison to other options. While I wouldn’t recommend it for muscle growth, it might have potential applications when it comes to connective tissue growth and repair if used appropriately.
If your protein intake is relatively evenly distributed and you meet your total daily target from a wide variety of sources, the importance of the type of protein powder drops significantly. I would mostly focus on choosing one based on your preference due to taste, cost and other factors. One possible exception to this is collagen protein powder though, due to its poor impact on MPS.
Meeting total daily protein needs is the priority. Protein powders can be an effective way to help reach this target, but they don’t necessarily offer any benefits over food.
Aidan is a Brisbane based dietitian who prides himself on staying up-to-date with evidence-based approaches to dietetic intervention. Dating back to well before starting uni he has been fascinated by all things nutrition, particularly the effects of different dietary approaches on body composition and sports performance. Due to this passion, he has built up an extensive knowledge base and experience in multiple areas of nutrition and is able to help clients with a variety of conditions. One of Aidan’s main strengths is his ability to adapt plans based on the client’s desires. By having such a thorough understanding of optimal nutrition for different situations he is able to develop detailed meal plans and guidance for clients that can contribute to improving the clients overall quality of life and performance. He offers services both in-person and online.