Forearm-sized protein bars, soy protein, BCAAs, whey isolate: if you walked into a nutrition and supplement store, you might be overwhelmed by the sheer number of protein products staring at you from the shelves.
How is one to choose the right protein among the seemingly endless choices?
Well, generally speaking, you don’t necessarily need to use protein supplements if your diet is high in whole-food sources of protein. But the truth is, the proteins and amino acids found in whole-foods like chicken, beef or legumes do not have great bioavailability: the highest bioavailability goes to eggs, but your body can only absorb about half of their protein!
So whether you're lactose intolerant, have certain allergies or simply want to ensure you're taking a balanced, complete and bioavailable protein, you’re about to discover the best protein sources for fuel and/or recovery so that you can make an informed decision regarding which one will work best for your unique body.
Pea Protein Isolate
Pea protein (unlike peas or legumes themselves) contains low levels of gut-irritating lectins and phytic acid while delivering a complete protein profile when it is extracted through a highly effective hydrolysis process. It’s particularly high in lysine, arginine, branched-chain amino acids, enzymes, vitamins and minerals.
One study has shown that pea protein is a potent tactic to increase muscle thickness following resistance training since it’s high in the essential branched-chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine. Another study demonstrated that pea protein rivals dairy-based protein powder in its ability to keep you feeling full and satiated.
Because pea protein is both gluten-free and dairy-free, it’s especially useful for avoiding gastric distress if you have a sensitivity to lactose, gluten or gliadin (another common allergen that usually occurs in wheat-containing grains).
The primary downside of pea protein isolate is that it’s deficient in the amino acid cystine (an oxidized form of cysteine), which is necessary for the synthesis of many proteins, so if you opt for pea protein, it’s essential to incorporate a cystineor cysteine-rich protein source into your diet. One that pairs particularly well with pea protein is rice protein, and you'll often see these two together in vegan protein powder blends.
Rice protein pairs well with pea protein not only because it’s high in cysteine, but also because while rice protein is low in lysine, pea protein contains higher levels, so when taken together, they provide a powerful amino acid profile. In fact, that's why we've added organic rice protein and pea protein isolate to Kion Bar.
The study “ The Effects of 8 Weeks of Whey or Rice Protein Supplementation on Body Composition and Exercise performance” in the Nutrition Journal compared the effects of rice protein isolate and whey protein isolate in 24 college-aged, resistance-trained males. At the end of the study, the researchers found that there were no differences between the rice protein group and the whey protein group: both showed improved body composition and exercise performance. That means that rice protein can be just as effective as whey at improving your post-workout recovery.
Rice protein also shows a faster rate of absorption for leucine, which helps to slow down the deterioration of muscle tissue. It can also improve liver and heart function, as well as help reduce weight gain thanks to the unique peptides that it contains.
If you’ve ever eaten Jello, you’ve eaten gelatin. Gelatin is the product of boiling the skin, bones and connective tissue of an animal, like a cow. In fact, you can often purchase bones at your local butcher or health food store so you can make your own. When you take the collagen derived from skin, bone and connective tissue and boil it, partially hydrolyze it and dry it, you get gelatin powder, which then can be mixed with hot liquids to form a gel-like substance.
Gelatin is a highly bioavailable source of a full spectrum of long-chain amino acids for muscle support. These amino acids also serve as the building blocks of your own connective tissue, including bones, cartilage, skin and tendons.
Not only that, but gelatin is 30% glycine, which is known to improve gut health by repairing the intestinal wall and gut lining, making it a potent tactic to enhance your ability to digest the other superfuels you use. Glycine is also known as an “inhibitory neurotransmitter,” meaning that it helps suppress anxiety and feelings of depression. The equivalent of half a cup of bone broth provides a gut- and brain-nourishing serving of gelatin.
But lest you go galavanting off to purchase some Jello for a post-workout meal, not all gelatin is created equal. Choosing gelatin is like choosing meat – sourcing counts. Many gelatins are treated with extremely high temperatures or are exposed to air that ends up oxidizing them. Most gelatins also come from cows that are not grass-fed. Consuming those gelatins may actually do more harm than good, as they are often treated with chemicals or sourced from chemical-laden cows and void of any of the nutritional benefits of real gelatin. And most of the broth at the store, often labeled as “stock,” is no good either, as it is also highly heated and treated with preservatives and chemicals.
As mentioned, it's best to make your own gelatin with bones purchased from a local butcher or health food market. If you're not in the mood for soup or broth, you can also reap the benefits of gelatin by looking for products containing grass-fed gelatin. Kion Bar, for example, contains roughly the amount of gut nourishing gelatin you'd find in a half-cup of bone broth.
When hydrolyzed in water, collagen breaks down into gelatin (as you already learned), which means that collagen and gelatin contain the same amino acids with a different chemical structure. Collagen is comprised of short-chain amino acids, while gelatin consists of long-chain amino acids.
Research has shown that collagen is extremely beneficial to the health of your immune system. Collagen also directly aids in energy production, maintaining healthy DNA, detoxification, digestion, and the repair of joints, tendons, cartilage, skin, nails, hair and organs.
Collagen protein is made in the same way that bone broth is made, via low and slow heating to preserve the nutrients and amino acids. You may have heard of “hydrolyzed collagen” or “collagen peptides.” These forms are just gelatin that has been more aggressively processed through hydrolysis to provide smaller protein structures, which are more easily broken down and absorbed into your body. Since collagen is odorless and tasteless, it blends well with smoothies, shakes, coffee and tea.
Whey and Casein
Whey protein is the cheapest and most common form of protein powder, although that’s not to say that there aren’t high-quality dairy-based proteins. Whey is produced after a substance like lemon juice or rennet (curdled milk from the stomach of an unweaned calf) is added to milk to make cheese. The acidity of the lemons or rennet causes the casein proteins in the milk to coagulate, resulting in “curds.” Whey is the liquid that separates from the coagulated casein. This liquid is then dried and turned into powder.
One study found that milk from grass-fed cows contains a higher percentage of beneficial fatty acids than milk from industrially raised cows. One of these fatty-acid compounds, conjugated linoleic acid, is known to be beneficial for cardiovascular health and the prevention of certain cancers. The healthier omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids found in grass-fed milk are also well balanced and help reduce inflammation and even depressive behaviors, making grass-fed whey and casein protein powders effective choices for building muscle, reducing fat mass and improving your overall health.
Organic whey or casein may be a good option if you have mild lactose intolerance since it contains considerably less lactose than milk. Organic whey isolates have 99.9% of their lactose removed, which may make them excellent protein sources even if you are severely lactose intolerant.
Your body digests casein more slowly than it digests whey due to a more complex interaction with gastric acids. The result is a slower release of essential proteins and amino acids. In fact, some protein powders combine both whey and casein to capitalize on both of them: whey is absorbed rapidly following a tough workout, while casein provides a slower, sustained release of amino acids.
As a side note, whey and casein are not for everybody. Both are known allergens, and while the lactose content of whey and casein products varies (as mentioned above), it may be better just to avoid dairy-based protein powders if you are lactose intolerant. Given the amino acid content of sources like gelatin, collagen, pea protein and rice protein, you don’t actually have to use whey or casein to build and maintain muscle size and strength.
Here is one of the most potent, readily-absorbed muscle- and brain-supporting sources you could ever use: essential amino acids (EAAs). EAAs are a group of nine amino acids – histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine – that your body is incapable of producing on its own. To enjoy their benefits, you have to incorporate them into your diet.
High-quality essential amino acids are nearly instantly absorbed by the body (in as little as 23 minutes, compared to the several hours it can take to absorb the proteins from whole-foods sources), and support muscle growth and repair as well as healthy neurotransmitter activity for optimized cognitive performance.
While whey, casein, gelatin, collagen, pea protein and rice protein contain some or all of these amino acids, you can easily find EAA supplements to enhance your performance and recovery. Check out this article for more information on EAAs.
There you have it: a simplified guide to the best protein sources on the face of the planet. Pea and rice protein and high-quality gelatin, collagen, whey, casein and EAAs are typically more expensive and harder to find than your average mass gainer. But at the end of the day, these sources are highly bioavailable and possess many potent health benefits beyond simply supporting muscle growth. Gelatin can easily be mixed into a variety of recipes like stir-fries and sauces. Collagen, being tasteless and odorless, can go into anything from tea and coffee to full-on dinners. Pea and rice proteins come in a variety of flavors and mix just like any other protein powder. And EAAs can be taken either in capsule form or as a powder mixed into a liquid of your choice. With these protein and amino acid supplements supporting you, you’ll be ready to conquer your workouts and fuel each hard-charging day.
If you're looking for a delicious on-the-go source of protein, check out the brand new Kion Bar. It's a chocolately-coconut real-food energy bar packed with just the right amount of protein from gelatin, pea isolate and organic rice.