What Protein Powder is Best For You?

How to Evaluate Your Protein Supplement

What’s the best protein powder? With all the different protein scoring systems out there, here’s how to know which is best for you.


The Best Protein Powder?

When it comes to evaluating the quality of a protein, it all comes down to bioavailability and amino acid profile.

Bioavailability simply refers to how much of a particular protein people absorb. To figure this out, scientists give test subjects carefully measured amounts of protein to ingest. The scientists then play cards until the test subjects’ poop hits the Tupperware container, at which point they measure how much nitrogen is in it.

They then use the amount of nitrogen detected to calculate how much protein was in the feces and compare it to how much was ingested. The final number is referred to as the BV, or biological value.

Is the BV of a Protein Worth a Crap (Literally)?

How-to-Evaluate-Your-Protein-Powder

The trouble is, the calculation wasn’t very good from the get go because it neglects some basic human dietary mechanics.

First of all, if the protein is “fast acting,” like whey, some of it can be converted to glucose, particularly if the person is a keto madman and is chronically low on carbs (and ipso facto, glycogen). Secondly, bacteria in the gut tend to filch some of the protein.

While BV is kind of outdated, protein manufacturers still use it occasionally to play the “our protein is better than yours” game. The current accepted protein evaluation standard, used by the FDA, is the PDCAAS, or Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score, which combines biological value with a protein’s amino acid profile.

Some proteins have practically everything a human needs to sustain tissue growth. We call them “complete” proteins. They have a nearly perfect blend of essential amino acids (those we can’t make ourselves) and branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are particularly important to muscle growth.

Other proteins are missing certain amino acids or have lousy amounts of BCAAs, so much so that their amino acid profile wouldn’t support the growth of a banana slug.

Unfortunately, the PDCAAS isn’t the best way to gauge a protein’s quality, either. To calculate it, the scientists again measure and calculate excreted nitrogen, but the PDCAAS, like the BV, doesn’t take into account any protein that was eaten up by the bacteria in the gut.

It also requires that test subjects have an empty stomach, which exposes the test to all kinds of inaccuracies. In real life, you might quaff a protein shake, but there’d probably still be a slab of lasagna down there to slow down the protein’s absorption. Equally likely, there might be some Wheat Chex floating around your stomach like inflatable pool toys that might bind up some of that protein because of their high-fiber content.

That leaves a relatively new scale, the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score, or DIAAS. It measures the nitrogen content of the ileum, or small intestine, instead of the nitrogen in the feces. This allows researchers to get a more realistic evaluation of a protein’s bioavailability because the measurement occurs before all those bacteria were able to munch up a lot of the ingested protein. It also takes into account the digestibility of each amino acid instead of the overall protein. It’s currently the best scoring system in use.

Got all that? If not, it doesn’t matter so much. What’s important is to just choose the best protein source based on your needs and our current best guesses as to which support muscle and tissue growth the best.

So, How do the Various Proteins Rate?

Protein

Plant-derived proteins are probably the fastest growing sector in the protein powder business. At first glance, it makes sense they’d be doing fairly well.

Anything associated with plants is instinctively thought to be healthier, but the thinking is a bit two-dimensional: these plant-protein fans aren’t actually eating plants, but the amino acids that are left over when the water, fiber, chlorophyll, polyphenols, vitamins, and minerals – just about everything else in the plant – is extracted. My Hanes cotton underwear are probably closer in composition to an actual plant in nature than a pile of plant-derived protein.

But there remains another truth, this one particularly inconvenient: the amino acid profile of plants is not the same as what you’d find in human muscle. Sure, most of the amino acids are there, but usually not in the amounts you’d need to support optimal growth of muscle.

That being said, there are a couple of plant proteins that come close to being complete: pea protein and soy protein.

The PDCAAS shows pea protein at an impressive 0.893, while soy proteins rates from 0.95 to 1.00, depending on how they were processed. That means that pea protein is damn close to the highly desirable 1.0 score that most animal proteins come close to, while soy protein is neck-and-neck with them.

That’s a little misleading, though. The PDCAAS must grade on a curve or something so animal-derived proteins don’t get swelled heads because they actually truncate the numbers. If they didn’t do that, whey protein isolate would score 1.2 on the scale and milk protein a tad higher, meaning they’re complete-PLUS.

Of course, if you compare proteins on the more sensible DIAAS scale, pea and soy protein get scores of 0.822 and 0.902, respectively, while whey protein isolate and milk protein concentrate score a superior 1.09 and 1.18.

The DIAAS shows pea and soy scoring lower than the two classic milk proteins, whey and casein, because they’re a little short on the amino acid methionine and they don’t quite pack the same BCAA punch as the milk (and meat-based) proteins.

Pea and soy proteins are also really high in sodium, if that’s a concern to you. They use salt in the distillation process and a lot of it remains in the final product.

Meat Proteins are Neither Perfect or Complete

Protein-Shake

Beef protein powders aren’t all that common. Chicken-based protein powders are even rarer, but they do seem to have a loyal customer base consisting mostly of Paleo-diet types. The assumption is that these proteins, being made from the meat of actual animals, are highly suited to building muscle in people who use them.

Not so much. These proteins are usually made mostly of the skin, bone, tendons, and other connective tissues of muscle. What you’re getting is boiled down collagen, the same stuff in the Jell-O dessert with the floating, suspended-in-space marshmallows your grandma used to make on Sunday before she mercifully died and took that recipe with her.

That’s not to say collagen doesn’t have its merits (healthier joints, skin, etc.), but it’s not exactly the best for building muscle and it’s lacking in BCAAs. Chew on these stats: While beef protein from an actual cow has a PDCAAS of .92, collagen has a PDCAAS of 0.00.

So What’s the Verdict?

Whey isolate and milk proteins (casein, specifically) appear to be the best for muscle-building purposes, regardless of what scale you use.

Traditionally, whey protein isolate has been used for peri-workout periods as it’s absorbed rather quickly, whereas casein is often preferred for all other times as it digests slowly and supplies a steady stream of amino acids. Of course, whey protein also contains some interesting immunoglobulins that appear to contribute to human health.

Given all that, it looks like a blend of fast-acting whey protein isolate and slow-digesting micellar casein (like Metabolic Drive®) is best for strength athletes and physique athletes.

Vegetarians, however, would best be served by pea protein, as soy protein often contains phytoestrogens that may affect human physiology. While the amount of these phytoestrogens is very small – much less than you’d find in soy itself or soy flour – the cumulative effects can’t be discounted.

References

References

  1. Hughes GL et al. Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Scores (PDCAAS) for Soy Protein Isolate and Concentrate: Criteria for Evaluation. J Agric Food Chem. 2011 Dec 14;59(23):12707-12. PubMed.
  2. Mathai JK et al. Values for digestible indispensable amino acid scores (DIAAS) for some dairy and plant proteins may better describe protein quality than values calculated using the concept for protein digestibility-corrected amino acid scores (PDCAAS). Br J Nutr. 2017 Feb;117(4):490-499. PubMed.
  3. Marinangeli CPF et al. House Potential impact of the digestible indispensable amino acid score as a measure of protein quality on dietary regulations and health. Nutr Rev. 2017 Aug 1;75(8):658-667. PubMed.
  4. Mathai JK et al. Values for digestible indispensable amino acid scores (DIAAS) for some dairy and plant proteins may better describe protein quality than values calculated using the concept for protein digestibility-corrected amino acid scores (PDCAAS). Br J Nutr. 2017 Feb;117(4):490-499. PubMed.
  5. Schaafsma G. The Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score. TJ Nutr. 2000 Jul;130(7):1865S-7S. PubMed.
  6. Wolfe RR et al. Protein quality as determined by the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score: evaluation of factors underlying the calculation. Nutr Rev. 2016 Sep;74(9):584-99. PubMed.
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I know this will get deleted, but (as much as I love T-Nation and Surge) pick a protein that doesn’t have artificial sweeteners. There is more and more emerging evidence that artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose alter gut microbiome in even small amounts. And, there is more and more evidence that your gut microbiome dramatically effects your well being.

I would gladly buy Metabolic Drive if you removed artificial sweeteners from it.

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The guys at my TRT clinic allege that Peas absorb the pesticides they’re grown in and hence Pea Protein should be avoided. Can you offer up a perspective on that?

Spot on. So many products I’ve been interested in or got excited about but once I read the ingredients and see sucralose or some dye (RED 40) or whatever, kinda defeats the purpose. I was looking at Muscle Milk Pro Series Protein Powder just for the sheer amount of protein per serving, but it also has sucralose.

Also, the whole thing about soy being evil is interesting, I think millions of people have been eating soy for a while and they’re not all growing boobs.

I’ve been using Vega Sport Premium Protein Powder and have used Huel in the past but the Vega tastes good, very mixable with water,and 30g of protein per serving, price point is decent…I think stevia for sweetener maybe.

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This 66-year-old, bodybuilding for over fifty years since 1971, who’s been around long enough to see the legally-factual-yet-efficacy-dishonest marketing hype of the glut of products claiming to be “the-newest-best-supplement-for-incredible-gains!” grades you “100%” on this article too, TC.

For the past twenty years, my advice to young guys I notice shopping for protein supplements has been, “Go with whey, preferably isolate due to its easier digestibility; and know that more-expensive does not at all mean superior quality in the long-term of muscle growth; and, keep in mind that most average-sized, average-gened drug-free beginners can usually get all the protein needed daily from food anyway - - even whey protein supplements are a convenience and an option but not a necessity for optimal gains.”

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A lot of dose dependent activity that most don’t need to concern themselves with unless you have some propensity to migraines, etc.

https://examine.com/articles/artificial-sweeteners-is-the-evidence-as-sweet-as-these-substitutes/

As Alan Aragon says in the weight loss context: “Artificial sweetener scaremongering is a first-world farce. Your messy-ass room is going to kill you before artificial sweeteners do.”

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I hear you, but sugar alters the gut biome, too. So does fructose. Stevia negatively affects the way bacteria in the gut communicate. Processed foods. Even meat. Just about everything effects the gut biome in some potentially negative way, unless perhaps it’s a prebiotic food. You have to pick your gut battles and see if the good in what you’re eating outweighs the potential bad, which is often negligible.

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Off the cuff, I was going to suggest an organic brand, but upon doing a little digging, it looks like even some of the organic brands tested positive for high levels of glyphosphate. However, there appear to be some brands that test for it and now sport a “glyphosphate free” label. You might look at those brands, if indeed we can trust their assertion.

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Stevia also affects the way bacteria in the gut communicate with each other.

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Agreed! I certainly understand I am an outlier on this site, as I avoid artificial colors, flavors, and ultra-processed foods. I also refuse to train through headaches, near-vomit, or injury. For me, training and nutrition around training is one of the battles I choose to fight, though. Luckily there are plenty of options that fit my preference, but of course I’d be happier to support a Biotest product if it were an option.

You’re right on this. I have never been a big fan of the taste but would often have products with stevia by default, but I now avoid this as well. Give me some honey as the sweetener or none at all.

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:sweat: :smiling_face_with_tear: :sleepy:

Thank you for that reply, I think I’ll just stick to whey and milk formulations.

TC, what are your thoughts on whey protein interfering with the absorption of polyphenols?

How many T-Nation articles will repeat the myth about phytoestrogens and soy? The Weston A Price Foundation’s lies did a great job spreading that unsubstantiated lie, but it’s still a lie.

If you are a macho plant, phytoestrogens will affect you. If you’re a human, they will not.

She may be right. You may be right. Time will tell. However, polyphenols are kinda my thing. They have powerful effects, even in minute doses. Just for the hell of it, go to Google Scholar and type in “Phytoestrogens effects on males” and see what comes up.

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In some cases they do, in others they don’t. I just read a study on how combining whey with curcumin positively modulates skeletal muscle inflammation and oxidative damage after exercise, leading to bigger muscle fibers. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about the interactions between various foods and other polyphenols…yet.

Do people actually still get “pea” or “soy” protein? If there’s allergies, sure… but pretty much every companies goto vegan protein these days seems to be blends that make the “not as good as whey” rhetoric pretty null.

I’m a massive outlier though. Whey isolate definitely upsets me, but i’m fine with lactose-free milk. I can’t imagine there are many guys out there mixing their vegan protein powder in milk, heh. Pair that with the fact I still eat meat… i’m not concerned i’m missing out on anything at all considering only around 10-20% of my protein is from the powder.

Yeah, I bought a tub of pea protein a couple of months ago just to see what it’s like. It’s still there, minus two scoops. Not very tasty and mixes poorly.

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It’s not about opinion, it’s about science. There is little to no scientific evidence that phytoestrogens affect humans. I’m a practicing scientist (PhD geochemistry, MS geochemistry, BS biology and chemistry), so I can read and evaluate science quite well. Googling information isn’t the best way to get information, because the most popular articles appear first. There is a lot of misinformation about soy out there. Incidentally, coffee is full of polyphenols.

Yeah I can imagine.

Mines a blend of pea protein, brown rice protein, pumpkin protein, flaxseed powder and quinoa flour. Also comes with digestive enzymes and 2.3g of fiber per serving. It tastes like muddy peas in water, more than palatable with some milk though… which I know defeats the whole point. :upside_down_face:

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