Weather you are a fitness guru, or a couch warrior who is about to make the plug into the fitness world, there is one supplement you have heard of—protein powder. The market saturation for protein powder is at an all-time high, it can be confusing trying to understand what you may, or may not need. First lets talk about why protein powder is used at all.

WHY

In my article “Why you aren’t seeing results in the gym”, I explained exercise, supplementation, and nutrition as the foundational pillars of fitness. As part of my supplementation plan, I use a protein powder shake as my recovery drink, immediately following the final rep of my last exercise. Protein powder (with other ingredients) can also be used as a meal replacement when clean food isn’t readily available.

A Whey to understand Protein Powder
Nutrition, supplementation, and exercise are the three pillars of fitness.

Consuming protein in this manner (directly after working out) increases the delivery to the needed areas. A common misconception with protein is that it builds new muscle. Although it contributes to the growth of new muscles, proteins primary function is to repair the damage you inflicted on your muscles during your workout. Carbohydrates are required for new muscle growth, complex carbohydrates should always be used if possible.

TYPES

Protein powder is derived from two major sources; animal (milk [whey, casein], beef and egg whites), and plant (pea, rice, and soy). My personal opinion is animal sourced proteins have the best taste, however there are many reasons why someone may choose plant-based proteins (medical conditions, vegan, etc.). For the purposes of this article I am going to focus on whey protein.

WHEY/CASEIN

What is whey protein? We mentioned it is an animal sourced protein derived from milk. According to Medical News Today, “Milk is made of two proteins, casein and whey. Whey protein can be separated from the casein in milk or formed as a by-product of cheese making. Whey protein is considered a complete protein and contains all 9 essential amino acids and is low in lactose content” (medicalnewstoday.com, 2015).

A Whey to understand protein powder
Whey protein can be separated from the casein in milk or formed as a by-product of cheese making. Image courtesy of sciencedaily.com

They two major categories for whey are concentrate, and isolate (or a blended). Concentrate and isolate go through a filtering process where most of the carbs, fat, and lactose are removed. The major difference between the two is the end purity; concentrate is at 80%, and isolate is at 90%. Does this matter? Depending on your fitness goals, yes it can matter. The largest difference between Whey and casein is the absorption rate. Whey protein is absorbed in the digestive system quickly, whereas casein is absorbed slowly. For how I use protein I prefer the fast absorption rate.

FLAVORS/SWEETENERS

No matter the brands you are looking at (we will get into this), there are almost always a variety of flavors. However there are a few categories to consider; no flavors or sweeteners, all natural flavors/sweeteners, and artificial (or a combination of natural/artificial). Back to the “Why you aren’t see results in the gym” article, the nutritional pillar of fitness is where these little details will matter. If you are cutting (shedding body fat), or bulking (quickly adding muscle sometimes at the cost of adding fat) will guide your decision. There is no wrong choice here, as long as the choice fits your fitness goals.

One other additive I should mention here is enhancements. Some proteins will add things like creatine in. Make sure you read the labels closely so you are only getting what you want.

COST

You can have the greatest protein powder ever imagined and it does nothing if you can’t afford it. With a variety of different brands/container sizes sometimes the cost can be deceiving. Once you have selected the type of protein powder you want (considering the type, how you want to use it, and the additives), it’s time to consider the cost. Look on the label and find the Nutritional Facts section. In this section there will be a serving macro (how much protein), and serving per container. Some brands will offer 15g of protein, while others will offer 25g, we need this information to make an educated choice.

A Whey to understand Protein Powder
Choosing a protein can be confusing with the huge variety. Image courtesy of blackwoodfitness.com

Take the serving per container and divide it by the cost of the brand you are looking at (and evaluate the amount of protein per serving). For example, Ascent Whey Protein is $41.99 for a 2lb bag of Vanilla Bean whey protein powder. Their serving offers 25g of protein and there are about 29 servings per bag. So, 41.99/29 give me a $1.44 per serving of 25g of protein. Lets look at another example so we can see how it varies. Pro Jym Chocolate Cookie would equate to 32.56/23 giving me a $1.41 per serving of 23g of protein. They seem similar, but Ascent would give me a higher per serving of protein, and has more servings. This amount is more apparent when we look at the total protein available between these two products; Ascent 725g of protein per bag, Pro Jym 525g of protein per bag. In short, do your math.

My only other considerations are digestive reactions, and how they mix. No one wants to get bloated, or be unable to mix their drink (no one wants to drink chunks). I decided to compile a list of my top 5 Protein Powder choices. Remember these choices are specific to my fitness plan, and may not be the same for you. If you have any questions about what I have presented here, please feel free to leave a comment in the section below.

TOP 5 Protein Powders

#1 Ascent Whey Vanilla Bean (2lb)

  • Cost $1.44 per serving
  • Serving 25g Protein
  • Protein 725g (per container)
  • Taste 5/5
  • Mixing 5/5
  • Sugar 1g (per serving)

#2 ON Gold Standard Whey Vannila (1.9lb)

  • Cost $1.11 per serving
  • Serving 24g Protein
  • Protein 648g (per container)
  • Taste 4/5
  • Mixing 5/5
  • Sugar 4g (per serving)

#3 ISOPURE Vanilla ZERO Carb (3lb)

  • Cost $1.57-1.84 per serving
  • Serving 50g of Protein
  • Protein 1100g (per container)
  • Taste 3/5
  • Mixing 4/5
  • Sugar 0g (per serving)

#4 PRO Jym Cookie Crunch (2lb)

  • Cost $1.41 per serving
  • Serving 23g Protein
  • Protein 525g (per container)
  • Taste 5/5
  • Mixing 4/5
  • Sugar 2g (per serving)

#5 MP Combat 100% Whey Vanilla (2lb)

  • Cost $0.93
  • Serving 25g Protein
  • Protein 725g (per container)
  • Taste 3/5
  • Mixing 4/5
  • Sugar 1g (per serving)