Which Protein Powders Are Healthiest? A Definitive Ranking
Protein powders can be either animal- or plant-based. Depending on your food preferences and goals, you may want to pay close attention to the source of the protein. Below is my personal list of the top animal- and plant--based protein sources and pro tips on choosing the best ones for you.
1. A fusion of two or more plant-based protein sources
The strongest argument against plant-based protein powders is that they don't provide complete protein or all of the essential amino acids our body can't create and must get through food. While that's true if taken individually, we have learned that when we combine two or more sources (quinoa, pumpkin, hemp, pea, rice, etc.), we actually can get all the amino acids. Ideally, one of the sources involved should have a good amount of leucine (the amino acid that plays a large role in muscle protein synthesis). For example, a protein powder that contains both brown rice and pea protein delivers all the essential amino acids that are found in animal protein, even the branched-chain amino acids needed for muscle recovery and repair. Plant-based proteins that contain just one protein source (such as rice protein alone or pea protein alone) lack all the essential amino acids, which is why animal protein (specifically whey) became so popular. Some common combinations are flax, chia, and hemp; pea and flax, and brown rice, hemp, and pea.
Pro Tip: Choose sprouted rice. Sprouting the rice is intended to decrease the carbohydrate content, increase the protein content, and make the nutrients, including protein, more bioavailable to the body.
Whey isolate, which falls into the dairy category, is heralded to be the superior option for gym-goers because it contains all the essential amino acids and contains the highest amount of protein per serving. It is important to note that it is also the most well-studied of all the protein powders, which is one of the reasons it earned its high ranking in this list. It is known for its quick absorption into the blood and use for muscle growth and recovery, strength improvement, and lean body composition. It should be noted, however, that whey is processed and causes gas in many people who are not lactose intolerant.
Pro Tip: When purchasing a whey protein, look for organic, hormone-free, and grass-fed, keeping in mind that whey comes from an animal that may have been fed hormones and antibiotics to beef up and stay alive. Whey is not well-suited for those with dairy intolerance or lactose intolerance.
Pea protein is made from yellow split peas and has a high amount of the branched-chain amino acids (the specific type important for muscle repair and recovery). It is naturally free of soy, gluten, and lactose and is therefore easy to digest and tolerated by many.
Pro Tip: Opt for certified organic and non GMO to avoid any contamination from fertilizers and chemical solvents. Pea protein contains purine, so if you experience gout, talk to your health care provider before taking it.
Hemp protein comes from the hemp plant and provides a good amount of easily digested fiber. Hemp is also renowned for its rich in anti-inflammatory profile and its perfect omega-3-to-6 ratio. It also works really well in the kitchen as a natural thickener.
Pro Tip: Hemp is a great option if your goal is to pack in nutrients and get a small boost of protein. If muscle growth and synthesis is your goal, keep in mind hemp is lower in protein per serving compared to the others mentioned.
Collagen holds us together. It's found in skin, ligaments, cartilage, muscles, our GI tract and makes up up to 90 percent of our bone mass. Because as we age our collagen naturally decreases, the idea of ingesting collagen to increase its availability in our body came about. Collagen hydrolysate has been studied and has been found to increase skin elasticity in older women. It is also believed to help heal leaky gut. Collagen supplements come in two forms: bovine/porcine and marine. Bovine (or porcine) collagen is sourced from cows (and pigs) and is cheaper than marine collagen. Marine collagen comes from fish, and it is absorbed more quickly by the body. While absorption of marine collagen is better, it's possible that those with shellfish allergies could have an adverse reaction to marine collagen supplements.
Pro Tip: Choose collagen peptides over "hydrolyzed" collagen. Collagen peptides are broken down into smaller molecules for better absorption. Collagen requires vitamin C to do its job, so make sure your vitamin C intake is adequate.
Casein is a dairy product similar to whey, but it takes longer to digest and stays in the body longer to nourish the muscles over time. This is a good evening option for those who are serious about increasing muscle mass (athletes and body builders) and don't want the body to tap into muscle stores for energy overnight when food is unavailable.
Pro Tip: Look for micellar casein, which digests slowly, that is organic, grass-fed, and hormone-free.
7. Soy Protein
Soy protein powders are made from ground soybeans and contain a high amount of the immune-boosting amino acids glutamine and arginine. Despite its bad reputation, soy is an effective plant-derived protein source for building muscle. Soy isolate contains more protein than soy concentrate but also has more isoflavones, which exert estrogen-like effects on the body.
Pro Tip: Until the verdict is decided on whether soy protects us from cancer or is correlated with it, I recommend limiting soy intake to two to three times a week and consuming only sources that are non-GMO and organic. For that reason, it came in at the lowest ranking.
There you have it. Your complete guide to choosing the best protein for you!
Want to learn how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Kelly LeVeque.