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Which Protein is Best? A Few Pillars to Keep in Mind When Picking Protein

Picking out a specific supplement can be a very difficult task.  If you walk into a brick-and-mortar supplement shop like GNC or Vitamin Shoppe, you are physically surrounded by distractions.  That’s really all packaging is: a tactic to grab your eye in an aesthetic way so as to distract you not only from that product or brand’s competitors, but perhaps even to distract you from what is inside the packaging.

When my business partner and I started Classified Nutrition, I must admit, I was very naïve with regards to the power of packaging and advertising.  I am by no means an expert now, but I am much more aware of how and why some companies develop their advertising and packaging the way they do.  Many companies, though definitely not all, devote large sums of money to develop aesthetically pleasing packaging and then cut corners and take shortcuts when it comes to the quality of the ingredients their product contains.

For many people, the way a product looks outweighs product quality and effectiveness.  I am glad that this is typically not the case when it comes to athletes.  That being said, here are some things I recommend athletes keep in mind when looking for a high quality protein supplement.

Which Protein is Best? A Few Pillars to Keep in Mind When Picking Protein

1. Protein Type

The first thing to look for is the type of protein used.  Is it a single type, or a combination of different types?  The easiest way to find out this information is to check the ingredient list.  Is one type of protein listed, or is it a blend?  Though not always, combinations are typically heavy on lower quality proteins so as to reduce the supplement company’s product cost.  This does not necessarily mean that a protein blend is of lower quality than a single protein type.

For example, one of my grad school professors was contracted by a supplement company to develop a protein blend that would combine short and long term delivery of amino acids.  This professor used a specific combination of “fast-acting” whey protein and “slow-acting” casein protein.  I used this blend at the end of my day to not only make sure I was hitting my protein goal, but also to limit the amount of time I was in a catabolic state between dinner and breakfast.

The type of protein you use should be directly related to your specific training, lifestyle, and dietary needs.

Do you have a consistent feeding schedule and simply want to add more protein to your diet?  If so, a single protein type may cover your needs.

If you cannot eat at consistent times throughout the day, or there is 12 or more hours between your last meal of the day and the first meal of the following day, then a protein blend with proteins of differing digestive rates may be a better tool for the job.

2. Protein Source

Is it animal-sourced, or is it plant-sourced?  Depending on your dietary needs and preferences, you may want a completely vegan protein, or perhaps the source does not matter to you.  If it is vegan, you’ll want to see what the amino acid profile is since plant-sourced proteins typically do not have the same amino acid profile (quality) in comparison to animal-sourced proteins.

Some research indicates that adding the amino acid Leucine to plant-sourced protein helps to “balance” the amino acid profile and can result in the same muscle protein synthesis effects as animal-sourced protein.  You will probably find more animal-sourced protein options at a supplement shop, though that seems to be changing with more demand for high quality plant based protein.

The most common plant-sourced proteins are soy, pea, hemp, and rice proteins.  Common animal-sourced proteins include whey, casein, and other milk proteins, as well as egg, and meat proteins.  In general, whey protein is easily digestible and has one of the highest concentrations of essential amino acids, specifically leucine, and is therefore considered by many sport nutrition experts as the gold standard for protein supplements.

3. Protein Delivered

This deals with how much protein you are actually getting per serving.  I have seen plenty of protein supplements that only deliver 50% of each serving as protein.  This means that in a 20g scoop of product, only 10 grams were delivered protein.

Due to this, it is very important to check the serving size as well as the amount of protein per serving.  If you are looking for a high quality whey protein, you’ll most likely have to choose between a whey protein concentrate or whey protein isolate.

Typically, concentrates contain more non-protein ingredients and deliver around 80% of total calories from protein, while isolates usually deliver around 90% of calories from protein.  So in general, an equal “scoop serving” of whey protein isolate will deliver more grams of protein than whey protein concentrate.  You can determine the exact percentage of protein delivery by taking the number of grams of protein per serving and dividing it by total serving size, and then multiplying that number by 100.  Let’s say a specific protein powder delivers 20 grams of protein per serving and a single scoop serving size is 25 grams.

20 divided by 25 =  .80

.80 x 100 = 80% delivered protein

In general, the more protein delivered per serving, the better. 

In general, the more protein delivered per serving, the better

4. Other Ingredients?

What else does the product contain?  If you just want protein, then check to make sure that is all you are buying.  Some “protein products” contain large amounts of carbohydrates, fat, and other “fillers” that you may not realize you are paying for and then ingesting. 

Though some natural and artificial colors and sweeteners may be needed, more is not better.  It is for this very reason that some companies sell unflavored and unsweetened protein so you pay only for the protein.  Some additions to a protein product may actually be beneficial by assisting with protein breakdown or utilization.

These are typically specific enzymes, similar to naturally occurring enzymes in your stomach, that help break down peptide bonds connecting individual amino acids, speeding up the digestive process and improving amino acid utilization and transport efficiency.

There are other variables you may consider before deciding on a specific protein product, but these are what I believe to be the most significant.  Perhaps the only other suggestion worth noting with these 4 pillars deals with cost.  You can find good quality protein products and very poor quality protein products at the same price range, so cost is not always the best indicator of quality.

Don’t be afraid to shop around and try a few different products that meet your standard in order to find the one you like best.  If you don’t know where to start, check out Classified Nutrition’s CLEAN PROTEIN, which is non-gmo, cold-filtered (to prevent protein denaturing), whey protein isolate from grass-fed diary cows.  Each scoop delivers 90% protein (25 grams of protein per 28 gram scoop) and comes unflavored so that you have the option of flavoring it yourself or using our Flavor File system for flavor preference and variety.  In summary, you’ll do yourself a big favor by picking a protein based on your specific training and lifestyle needs, as well as what the supplement facts label says and by doing some reputation research on the brand or company.

There are too many options out there now to simply pick the coolest package off the shelf.  You have to do a little homework, and you may have to compare a few different products.  I promise you it is worth it once you find one that not only helps you achieve your goals, but that also tastes decent.  There is nothing worse than mixing up a scoop of chalky farts!

About Kevin Kuhn

Kevin Kuhn, M.S.Ed., CSCS, MFS is a Kinesiologist and Sport Nutrition Coach in Dallas, Texas, as well as the Vice President of Research and Development for Classified Nutrition (ClassifiedNutrition.com).  Before moving to Dallas in 2012, Kevin was the head strength & conditioning coach for the Indiana Invaders professional running club in Indianapolis, Indiana.  Kevin specializes in athletic performance with great interest and experience in running-specific strength & conditioning, corrective exercise, and exercise and sport nutrition.  Kevin has been certified by the National Strength & Conditioning Association as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and as a Master Fitness Specialist by the Cooper Institute.

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