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. Forearm-sized protein bars, soy isolate, BCAAs, casein, whey, collagen... how is one to know which protein to pick among the seemingly endless choices?
Whether you’re paleo, keto, vegan, carnivore, or anything in between, there are a few important factors to consider when choosing a protein powder or supplement:
- Bioavailability: If performance and recovery is your goal, then you’ll want to pick a supplement with a full amino acid profile, which is required for protein synthesis. This is especially important when choosing vegan proteins, as most plant isolates have incomplete amino acid profiles. To get around this issue, plant-based eaters should consider combining proteins with different amino acid profiles to get a full spectrum.
- Ingredient quality: Just like all food and supplements, sourcing is key. Look for protein powders with pure, clean ingredients without added fillers, binders, and sugars. When choosing animal protein, look for organic or grass-fed sources to avoid the added hormones and antibiotics that tend to be used with conventionally-raised animals.
- Intolerances and allergens: Food intolerances or allergies are another factor to consider when choosing a protein powder. Some individuals are sensitive to dairy, grains, nuts, eggs, or other proteins, which can affect what supplemental protein is best.
With those qualities in mind, you’re about to learn about the most popular protein supplements so you can decide which one is best for your body.
Essential Amino Acids (EAAs)
EAAs are a group of nine amino acids – histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine – that are considered essential because they must be obtained through dietary sources.
While whey, casein, gelatin, collagen, pea protein and rice protein contain some or all of these amino acids, EAA supplements are an easier and more effective way to experience the many benefits of protein, as they are one of the most potent, bioavailable protein sources. High-quality EAAs are absorbed by the body in a matter of minutes, compared to the several hours it can take to metabolize proteins from these whole-foods sources.
Additionally, since EAAs are naturally-occurring amino acids in their purest forms, they are typically low-to-zero calorie, allergen-friendly, gluten- and lactose-free, don’t spike blood glucose, and are often made from plant sources. This makes EAAs a great choice for anyone - vegans and carnivores alike - for supporting muscle growth and repair, enhanced athletic performance, and healthy neurotransmitter activity.
If you're interested in EAAs, take a look at Kion Aminos, which check all the boxes for purity and efficacy.
P.S. If you’re surprised we didn’t list BCAAs as a healthy protein source, check out our article on EAAs vs. BCAAs to learn why.
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 cysteine or 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 more complete amino acid profile similar to animal sources. In fact, when combined properly, these plant-based amino acids provide some of the same body composition, exercise performance, and recovery benefits as whey protein isolate without the potential for negative allergenic effects. This is why we've chosen to add a combination of plant-based proteins to the Kion Bar. Rice protein may also support 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.
There you have it: a simplified guide on how to choose the best protein powder. In case you missed it, here’s a recap:
- If you’re looking for a plant-based protein, consider pea protein or rice protein. They are some of the most bioavailable, least allergenic sources available for vegans or vegetarians. Pea and rice protein can even be combined to get a more complete amino acid profile.
- EAAs are another plant-based protein, but unlike pea and rice, they can stand alone as a complete protein source. They are compatible with any diet, highly bioavailable, and virtually zero-calorie.
- When it comes to animal-based protein powders, whey and casein are some of the most common. However, they may cause issues for those sensitive to dairy. More gut-friendly options include gelatin and collagen, which actually support digestive health, as well as promoting healthy skin and joints. Just make sure to get your animal-based protein from organic or grass-fed sources.
If you’re looking for a done-for-you source of clean protein to fuel your next workout, outdoor adventure or mid-day energy slump, the Kion Clean Energy Bar contains just the right amount of protein from gelatin, pea isolate, and organic rice. Oh, and it’s sweetened with all natural, organic honey - not to mention free from artificial sweeteners, preservatives, dairy, soy, and other notorious gut assailants.