A Protein Supplements Guide
Protein supplements are popular among bodybuilders and other athletes. However, they are also used in other sectors of the health industry as protein is extremely important to our health and wellness. This post will explain the different forms and types of protein supplements.
Protein supplements are derived from animal or plant whole foods. They are simply food in concentrated form.
Protein supplements for strength enhancement and sports performance are nothing new. In ancient Greece, athletes were advised to eat lots of meat and drink lots of wine, as this was believed to enhance their strength, vigor and stamina. Herbal concoctions to enhance these can be traced back into the ancient times as well.
Obtaining supplemental protein is recommended for convenience and simplicity. They can help you attain optimal protein intake, without spending countless hours in the kitchen.
Note that we said “supplemental”. You should still get a substantial portion of protein from good old-fashioned food.
The Forms Of Protein Supplements
Protein supplements come in different forms (not to be confused with types which we shall look at shortly). These include:
- Protein powders: This is the most popular form of protein as it is convenient and versatile. These can be mixed with water, juice, or milk. They can also be made into nutritious shakes or smoothies. Quality protein powders can be mixed fairly easily by shaking or using a spoon although using a blender or mixer makes a better, smoother “drink”.
- Protein bars: These are also extremely popular. They easy to carry around, need no mixing, and make a good healthy snack or meal replacement. The downside to bars is that they tend to soften in warm climate or harden in cold. And some bars not only taste terrible, they contain synthetic additives that may not be healthy. Quality protein bars should be made of natural ingredients.
- Protein cookies: Perhaps the most underrated form of protein supplements, cookies have the advantage of being more weather-resistant than powders and bars, as well as being easy to carry around. Making quality, tasty protein bars can be a challenge however, and very few supplements makers succeed.
- Ready to drink shakes: These are pre-mixed, and contain one or more of the available types of protein. They are convenient in that you don’t have to mix them yourself, but they typically cost more. Often, they don’t taste the same as freshly mixed shakes.
- Capsules: Yes, some protein supplements do come in capsule form.
The Types Of Protein Supplements
All the forms of protein supplements are made using certain types of protein, which have different effects on your body. We shall now take a look at some of these below.
Whey protein is the most popular protein, if not the most popular supplement out there. This is because it is used by both athletes and non-athletes and it is a common component in meal replacements for weight loss, weight gain, and muscle building.
When a supplement fills the shelves of the health products aisle of your local grocery or drug store, as whey products do, it means it is extremely popular. This is where problems start. Store shelves are often filled with cheap, denatured whey products.
Information on whey can be long and complex, even when trying to be simple and brief. But hang in there as it is worth it.
Whey is a by-product of milk. It used to go to waste until someone noticed its protein-rich nature. Whey is fast acting protein, meaning that it digests rapidly. It is a good protein in that it contains all the essential amino acids – the term used for this is “complete protein” – and is an excellent source of the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs).
A complete protein source is one that provides all of the essential amino acids. You may also hear these sources called high quality proteins.
Side note: Most animal proteins are complete with the exception of gelatin which is perhaps the only animal protein not considered complete.
Whey can also get a little complicated as it comes in various types:
- Whey protein concentrate (WPC): This is the cheapest form of whey, but this doesn’t mean it is worthless. Granted, it contains lower concentrations of protein per gram compared to isolate (below), as wells as some lactose and fat. This may cause bloating and gas in some people, and certainly not recommended for the lactose intolerant. On the positive side, it may provide important bioactive ingredients that help support muscle growth if you get a good un-denatured product.
- Whey protein isolate (WPI): This type is more expensive than concentrate (above) as it requires a high level of “special care” to process. Quality WPI is processed in low heat and low acid conditions to avoid denaturing. WPI contains higher protein concentrations with virtually no fat or lactose. Higher protein is better, right? Not quite. Ion exchange, for example, involves the use of hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide. While resulting in relatively high protein content, this method results in loss of some important biologically active compounds (called subfractions).
- Whey protein hydrolysate (WPH): This is a form of pre-digested protein. This means that it is partially broken down to facilitate easier (and faster) absorption into the system. Protein hydrolysates have been shown to be absorbed by the body more rapidly than intact proteins. While obviously this is an advantage, protein hydrolysate products cost significantly more than the other forms. Some studies have shown that hydrolysate protein may stimulate muscle growth better when compared to other forms of protein.
Like whey (above), casein is a milk-based protein. It is a complete protein in that it contains all essential amino acids. Casein also contains the minerals calcium and phosphorous. The main difference between casein and whey is that casein is a slow acting protein. This may seem like a disadvantage, but it is actually an advantage in some cases. Why?
It is an advantage because it provides your system with a steady flow of amino acids over a relatively long period of time. This can be beneficial during periods of fasting such as when sleeping. It can also come in handy as a fighting tool against hunger when dieting, cutting, or trying to lose fat.
Perhaps of greater interest for bodybuilders and those who wish to build muscle and strength, is casein’s anti-catabolic effects. In this aspect, it actually beats whey.
Casein may also have advantage over whey when it comes to fat loss. In one study comparing the effects of casein and whey on overweight men, those on casein lost more fat but gained more lean mass and strength.
Casein comes in various forms (called caseinates) including:
- Calcium caseinate
- Sodium caseinate
- Potassium caseinate
- Micellar caseinate
Of these, the best quality is micellar caseinate or simply micellar casein. This is form is not heat-treated and therefore is undenatured. Sodium caseinate should, in most cases, be avoided to reduce salt intake.
Not to be confused with whey or casein, milk protein supplements are becoming popular in the bodybuilding circles and sports in general. Needless to point out, they are derived from whole milk, through a filtration process which removes most carbohydrates, fats and lactose.
The advantage of milk protein is that it leaves biologically valuable components of milk, including proteins, intact. Milk protein supplements offers a you a combination of whey and casein. There are two forms of milk protein supplements:
- Milk protein concentrate (MPC): This contains 40- 85% protein, depending on quality of the product, and may contain some lactose.
- Milk protein isolate (MPI): This typically contains more than 90% protein, with most of the carbs, fat, and lactose eliminated.
Milk protein is complete protein and also contains calcium.
Currently the most popular plant-based protein, soy protein has received bad rap in the bodybuilding circles. It is a fast-digesting protein and classified as a complete protein. This protein is derived from soy beans, also known as soya beans.
There is one problem with most soy beans commercial grown in the US; they are genetically modified to withstand mega doses of pesticides, particularly roundup. 
Soy protein has received bad rap because it is believed to elevate estrogen levels. The reason for this is that soy contains phytoestrogens, compounds that are similar in structure to estrogen. However, phytoestrogens are not estrogen and affect neither estrogen nor testosterone levels.
Soy protein also contains isoflavones, which have a number of health benefits.
Soy protein supplements come in concentrate or isolate form. Of course, isolate is the superior one of the two and, as would be expected, costs more.
Soy protein supplements may be ideal for both vegans and vegetarians. They are among the best protein supplements out there. They are available in powders or bars.
The good old egg is a superfood and, may we add, a super-protein. This is because it is perhaps the most bioavailable protein source known. It is perhaps the oldest of protein supplements.
Egg protein is relatively easy to digest. It is slower than whey but faster than casein. It is also a complete protein. This protein is vegetarian friendly though not vegan friendly.
Of course, the power of the egg is well-recognized in the athletics, muscle and strength building circles. However many egg protein powders out there don’t mix well with water or other liquid. They also tend to have an unpleasant odor. This of course, can depend on quality.
Some companies even promote “cookable” egg protein powders, but the few I’ve tried smelled and tasted terrible.
Egg protein is only available on concentrated form (that is, isolates do not exist). They can be made from whole eggs (fat removed) or egg whites.
One vegetable protein supplement that is fast gaining popularity is hemp protein, derived from the hemp seed. Hemp plant has had bad rap due to being close to the marijuana plant. Fortunately, this appears to be coming to an end. Hemp protein is one of the few complete proteins from a plant source.
For vegans who wish to stay away from soy, hemp protein may be an excellent alternative. Hemp has properties that offer additional health benefits.
For one, hemp contains both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in optimal ratios. It is also has potential immunity-enhancing properties and is rich in antioxidants Because it grows fairly well without pesticides, and as yet commercial growth is at its infancy, hemp is virtually free of synthetic compounds.
Surprisingly, not many people know of colostrum. This is another of the milk proteins, but somewhat different. Colostrum can be defined as “first milk” produced by humans, cows and other mammals shortly after giving birth. It contains higher concentrations of proteins and other nutrients than regular milk and is rich in immune and growth factors.
As colostrum production is short-lived – unlike milk which may be produced continually – supplements can be pricey. The supplements are made from bovine colostrum (that is, from cows) and they come in powder or capsule form.
Other Types Of Protein Supplements
Of course, in this day and age of scientific and technological advances, protein supplements can now be derived from virtually any type of food that contains protein. These include:
- Beef protein: Though it has received a lot of (undeserved) bad press, beef is still a powerful source of protein and other important muscle and performance enhancing nutrients. It is a complete protein.
- Rice protein: Made from brown rice, rice protein is new favorite for vegan and vegetarian bodybuilders and others who wish to boost their protein intake. Like many plant protein sources, it is not a complete protein.
- Pea protein: An easily digested protein, this one is made from yellow peas. Not a complete protein.
Many people ask which protein supplement is best. Well, there is no straight answer to this as your goals, individual preferences, dietary needs, and other variables should be considered when choosing a product. Where budget allows, it is a good idea to mix it up and use various types. Of course, you want to avoid any protein for which you have a known allergy or intolerance.
 CDC: Protein
 JSSM: PROTEIN – WHICH IS BEST? (PDF)
 Dietary Protein and Resistance Exercise (Amazon)
 Power Eating by Susan Kleiner (Amazon)
 The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth by Jonny Bowden (Amazon)
 WebMD: Colostrum
 Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors: Volume II by Randy Roach (Amazon)