While choosing real food sources of protein is always preferable, these supplements can be a convenient way to consume extra protein.
However, are these supplements actually good for you?
That likely depends on the choice you make.
This article will look at the pros and cons of protein powders, examine the different types, and present some of the best (healthy) options.
What Benefits Do Protein Shakes Have?
There are several benefits of using protein shakes, and these include;
- High-quality protein: whey is the predominant type of protein powder on the market, and it offers a highly bioavailable source of protein (1).
- Portability: You can consume protein shakes at home or anywhere from school, to the gym or the office.
- Convenience: It only takes a minute to make a shake; just mix some powder with water/milk, and it’s ready.
- Affordability: Although one tub of a protein supplement may be expensive, the per serving price usually comes to less than a dollar.
- Reduce hunger: Protein is the most satiating of all macronutrients, and consuming enough is essential for proper appetite control (2).
Protein Concentrate, Isolate and Hydrolysate
First of all, all protein powders can either be concentrates, isolates, or hydrolysates;
- Protein Concentrate: This is the most typical form of protein powder, it is cheap to make and (for whey) it’s a by-product of the cheese-making process. Whey concentrate is approximately 75-85% protein by weight.
- Protein Isolate: This type of protein starts as a concentrate, but it then undergoes an isolation process to remove the carbohydrates and fat. Therefore, it contains a higher protein ratio than standard protein concentrates; for whey, this is usually 90-93% protein by weight.
- Protein Hydrolysate: The manufacturing process uses either heat or mild acid to break down the amino acids to produce a hydrolysate. The result is a faster-digesting protein which is somewhere around 90-95% protein.
Before we look at the best protein shake options, let’s take a look at some of the most popular types of protein.
Most of the popular supplements on the market are based around whey or casein, by-products of the cheese-making process.
Whey protein is an easily digestible protein that contains all the essential amino acids (3).
Additionally, the protein ratio varies between 70-95% by weight, and it is low in the dairy sugar lactose.
Further, a systematic review of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) demonstrates that—combined with resistance training—whey helps improve body composition (6).
In like manner to whey, casein is also a by-product of the cheese-making process.
One major difference is that it’s a slow-digesting protein, and it takes longer for the body to assimilate (7).
However, one study directly comparing whey and casein supplementation found no statistically significant differences in body composition or performance (8).
On the other hand, another study shows that a combination of whey and casein leads to the greatest improvements in body composition (9).
Other Protein Powders
There are various other protein supplements, some of which are animal food-based and others are plant-based.
- Beef Protein: This supplement provides a highly bioavailable source of protein with an amino acid profile that matches whey and casein. Studies show that it has a similar effect on performance and body composition to whey (10, 11).
- Brown Rice Protein: Brown rice based supplements offer around 80% protein by weight, with minimal levels of carbohydrate and fat. However, brown rice is not a complete source of protein and only provides some of the essential amino acids. As it is plant-based, it’s a good option for vegans.
- Egg White Protein: Eggs have the highest biological value (94%) out of all forms of protein. This value is a measurement designed to calculate how much of the protein the body can absorb. Therefore, egg white supplements offer one of the best digestibility rates, and they are easy for the body to assimilate (12).
- Hemp Protein: Hemp is another plant-based protein powder which is suitable for vegans. Hemp also contains all the essential amino acids, although not in the same quantity as animal-based proteins. Despite this, the amount of protein is meager; most hemp supplements offer less than 50% protein by weight (13).
- Pea Protein: This one contains approximately 75% protein by weight, although it does not offer a complete source of amino acids. However, it does contain all the essential amino acids making it an excellent choice for vegans.
- Soy Protein: Although soy-based supplements offer a complete source of all the amino acids, they’re difficult to recommend. On the downside, soy protein is rich in phytoestrogens which mimic the effects of the hormone estrogen. These phytoestrogens are linked to a variety of ill effects; for example, hormonal problems, fertility issues, and even an increased cancer risk (14, 15).
Protein Shakes For Weight Loss?
However, it’s important to be aware of possibly misleading advertising regarding protein powders and weight loss. Some protein shakes advertise themselves as weight loss shakes (and charge a much higher price for the privilege).
Despite this, once you look at the ingredients, the product is often nothing more than whey protein and a few standard ingredients.
Here’s the thing; all whey protein powders (without added carbohydrates) will be almost identical in their nutrient profile. As a result, there will be no significant difference in weight loss.
In fact, weight loss is more about your overall diet and lifestyle; how you eat, sleep, and move – and how much you do those things.
The brand of protein certainly doesn’t make a significant difference.
Protein Shakes For Muscle/Weight Gain
The first thing to remember about these products is that they are a combination of protein and carbohydrate.
These products are otherwise known as “mass builders”; they contain massive amounts of calories and often include simple sugars.
In combination with resistance training, large amounts of calories, protein, and carbohydrate will do as the supplements claim – lead to weight gain.
However, this doesn’t mean they are a healthy choice. In reality, mass gainers are little more than protein shakes with the addition of cheap carbs for calories.
Getting protein from real food would be a much healthier—and more satisfying—way to gain weight.
On that note, if you want to see some high protein snacks, there is a guide here.
Best Protein Powders
Not every supplement is made the same way.
While some are nothing other than 100% pure whey, others are a combination of protein, vegetable oils, and artificial colors, flavors and sweeteners.
Here are 5 of the most natural protein powders available, with a choice for all tastes and budgets;
1. PURE Whey Grass Fed Whey Protein
It also contains only one ingredient: whey protein concentrate. Aside from this, there are no additives, and the protein is non-GMO and hormone-free
- Type: Whey concentrate
- Weight: 5lbs (2270g)
- Flavor: Unflavored
- Ingredients: Whey protein concentrate
- Special Points: Grass-fed, GMO-free, hormone-free
- Price: $58.97
- Cost per Pound: $11.79
It’s available from Amazon here.
2. Bodylogix Decadent Chocolate Natural Whey
Furthermore, the supplement uses a cold-processing technique to protect the protein from denaturing.
- Type: Whey isolate
- Weight: 1.85lbs (840g)
- Flavor: “Decadent chocolate”
- Ingredients: Whey protein isolate, natural chocolate flavor, cocoa, organic stevia leaf extract, lecithin, bromelain
- Special Points: Chocolate flavor, grass-fed, cold-processed, free of antibiotics and hormones
- Price: $25.83
- Cost per Pound: 13.96
You can find it online here.
3. Noble Elephant Micellar Casein Powder
There is no flavor, but you can always mix it with something you like; cacao or berries make good options.
- Type: Micellar casein protein
- Weight: 2.2lbs (1kg)
- Flavor: Unflavored
- Ingredients: Casein powder
- Special Points: No fillers or additives
- Price: $31.79
- Cost per Pound: $14.45
4. MRM Natural Whey Strawberry
- Type: Whey concentrate
- Weight: 2lbs (908g)
- Flavor: Strawberry
- Ingredients: Whey protein concentrate, whey isolate, l-glutamine, sunflower lecithin, digestive enzyme blend, natural vanilla flavor, stevia leaf extract, gum thickeners, sea salt, monk fruit extract
- Special Points: Low-temperature processing, hormone-free
- Price: $29.99
- Cost per Pound: $15
5. Opportuniteas Iced Coffee Whey Protein Isolate
Here’s something a little different; a high-protein morning coffee.
This high-protein supplement contains only three ingredients too, one of which is actual coffee.
However… the price is a little high on account of the product using real coffee and whey isolate.
- Type: Whey isolate
- Weight: 1lb (454g)
- Flavor: Coffee
- Ingredients: Whey protein isolate, coffee extract, non-GMO sunflower lecithin
- Special Points: Nothing artificial, real coffee, pure ingredient profile
- Price: $27.52
- Cost per Pound: $27.52
See here for further information.
Caution: Some Protein Powders May Contain Heavy Metals
Turning to the dark side of protein shakes, unfortunately heavy metal contamination can be an issue.
From time to time, there are reports of heavy metal contamination exceeding the acceptable limits. An excess of heavy metals in the diet is toxic to the body and particularly dangerous over the long-term (16, 17).
For example, a Consumer Reports study tested many of the big protein supplement brands.
Unfortunately, many of the supplements were contaminated with heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury. These heavy metals were found in several famous company’s products too such as BSN, GNC, and Muscle Milk.
On the positive side, there’s a great site called Labdoor. This site regularly tests all the big supplement brands for purity and makes the information publicly available.
In fact, you can find purity and health tests for everything from protein powders to omega-3 supplements on Labdoor.
Healthy Protein Smoothie Recipes
The taste of whey or casein isn’t particularly delicious, so if want to make a better-tasting homemade protein shake, here are three simple recipes;
- Chocolate Shake: Add the protein to a blender, and fill with a 50/50 combination of whole milk and water. Drop a teaspoon of cacao powder in, and blend for a chocolatey shake.
- Blueberry and Vanilla Smoothie: Combine protein, 3oz (75g) of blueberries and a touch of vanilla extract. Blend for a delicious shake which contains protein and various antioxidants.
- Mixed Berry Shake: This one’s easy; just buy some frozen mixed berries and blend them with some whey. The result will be a thick, slightly icy protein smoothie.
Are protein shakes good for you?
Well, it’s somewhere in the middle… they aren’t too bad, but they aren’t the best source of protein.
While protein supplements do have a place and give convenience to a lot of people, real food is always best.
A tasty omelet, steak, or roasted salmon fillet beats a whey shake any day of the week.