Protein Supplements Explained

Protein Supplements

Protein supplementThe main sources of protein supplements used today are:

  • Milk
  • Egg
  • Soy

but never fear, there are several options for people with all kinds of dietary requirements, for example, vegans (and most others) are catered for with protein supplements including:

  • Pea protein
  • Brown rice protein
  • Hemp protein

There are a variety of different ways in which a refined powder can be made from these foods which results in different products with individual nutritive compositions.

What also varies product to product is the amino acid balance which can in turn have an effect on the efficacy of the supplement with respect to muscle growth and repair. As such, there are methods by which these supplements can be rated for quality (see Rating Protein Quality).

Of course factors such as digestion, taste, the presence of other nutrients and solubility comes into the equation when deciding what supplement to buy. For example, a whey isolate is ideal for immediately after a training session, whereas micellar casein is effective as a slow digesting protein that can be taken before sleep so that muscles can continue to repair and grow overnight.

protein powders brandsAnother important factor is money. The most expensive protein supplement isn’t necessarily right for you, especially if it’s going to break the bank.

Read the information about each type of protein supplement so that you can make an informed decision.

And if you are worried about your particular needs, don’t forget that basically, there’s an option for everyone. Check out the two most popular – whey and casein – below.

Whey Protein

whey from milkCow’s milk is the source of whey. It is produced in abundance as a bi-product of cheese manufacturing which makes it a low cost yet quality protein source.

Whey has a strong nutrient profile, contains all the essential amino acids and is particularly heavy in those branched chain amino acids we have talked about before. Also, due to its content of sulfur-containing amino acids, the body can process whey a little better than most other protein sources.

Individual “fractions” of proteins are found in whey and today’s technology allows them to be separated from one another. Many of these fractions exhibit health benefits such as:

  • Antiviral properties
  • Anabolism (specifically, growth of muscle tissue)
  • Support of immune system
  • Carcinogen fighting
  • Anti-inflammatory action

Whey is digested by our bodies very quickly and so is considered to be an excellent post-workout supplement so that serum amino acid levels can be replenished thereby reducing exercise-induced muscle tissue breakdown (catabolism).

We will see that to sustain the level of the amino acid pool in our bodies, we may need something of a “slow-burner’ in addition to the fast acting whey protein. In the casein section below we will talk about supplements like micellar casein. First, let’s go over some of the types of whey protein supplements out there.

Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC)

whey powderGenerally, WPC contains around 75% protein by weight and is therefore the least processed out of the protein supplements. That does make it the most economic choice, however lactose intolerants should be aware that 5% of WPC by weight is their worst enemy.

Though it contains a good dose of fat and sugar, WPC still deserves to rank as a viable source of quality protein. Also of note is that WPC has a thick consistency and a strong taste that is difficult to mask.

Whey Protein Isolate (WPI) 

Using more advanced methods of separation, a more purified form of protein called whey protein isolate is manufactured. Isolate has much less lactose and fat (1% by weight) than WPC and is purer to boot (90% protein by weight).

WPI is more expensive than WPC but protein content and taste factors make it a worthy expense for most people.

Whey Protein Hydrolysate (WPH) 

This is essentially protein isolate with smaller peptides as they have been partially digested (hydrolyzed) to break some of the bonds apart. The advantage (if it is indeed a requirement) is that digestion after consumption of WPH is even faster than with whey protein isolate.

The downsides are that it is more expensive than isolate, has a bitter taste and has lost some of the BCAA content due to the processing method. For these reasons, WPH is usually mixed in small quantities with other protein supplements.

Casein Protein

micellar caseinCasein makes up a whopping 80% of milk’s protein content. Its fractions are tiny balls of protein chains called micelles.

As with whey protein, processing of casein yields blends rich in essential, non-essential and branched chain amino acids. The BCAA content is lower as is the rate of biological utilization. The latter of the two, however, makes casein a great choice of protein supplementation for certain periods of the day.

Digestion is slow and the elevation of amino acids can last up to 6 or 7 hours (micellar casein) with less protein being oxidized (wasted). This makes it much more effective in reducing the catabolic effects of training over longer periods of time and with a smoother gradient than whey.

Where whey protein is great immediately after exercise due to its rapid spike of amino acids, casein is best taken at night before going to bed or during periods of a few hours or more without food. This way, our amino acid pools will stay topped up at all times and our muscles can live in an anabolic (tissue growth) state for the majority of the time…

…and none of that hard work in the gym, on the bike or in the pool will go to waste.

Micellar Casein

Generally around 85 – 90% protein by weight, micellar casein collects in the stomach to form a slow digesting lump that can take 6 – 7 hours to be fully utilized. Micellar casein is an isolated form of casein and contains very little fat or lactose. It is usually the most expensive form of casein available though it has the largest percentage of active fractions.

Calcium Caseinate

The micelles which constitute casein protein are broken down during processing to produce a calcium salt. Calcium caseinate is therefore considered an isolated form of casein.

This supplement is 90% protein by weight and contains 1% fat and 1% lactose. It is also less expensive and mixers better than micellar casein.

Potassium Caseinate and Sodium Caseinate

Almost identical to calcium caseinate in their nutritional profiles, just read ‘potassium’ or ‘sodium’ as the attachment. However, both supplements make a thicker protein shake and may be less desirable as a result.

Editor’s Thoughts

That’s it for whey and casein protein supplements. As you can see, there are many types to choose from, and we haven’t even gotten into egg, soy, rice, hemp and pea protein.

If you had to make a decision, and you have no allergies or specific dietary requirements, I would buy 2 proteins:

  1. A fast-acting whey isolate for immediately after exercise (20 minute window)
  2. A slow-burning micellar casein protein to take in the hour before going to bed.

That is the formula that works for a lot of people, especially those that are putting in a full day of work before or after training hard.

…click here to read about the best value proteins


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