There are many types of protein enjoying success on the market, and they cover a wide array of properties, for example, some proteins have a better amino acid spectrum while others are easier to digest. The best protein is the one that meets the needs of the user at a particular time, so there is no single answer to the question of which protein is the best. With a knowledge of the properties and uses of different protein types, you will always know how to pick the protein that will best complement your activity, diet and lifestyle.
Types of Protein
Let's take a look at some of the most frequently encountered proteins on the market.
Whey is derived from milk, and it is probably the most popular protein today. It has one of the highest biological values of all the proteins, which means that the distribution and concentration of amino acids is optimal for human nutrition, and it is naturally high in muscle-building BCAAs. Whey is considered to be a fast-absorbing protein, making it ideal for situations when a quick protein hit is needed. Because of its great amino acid profile and easy absorption it is included in the majority of commercial blended proteins, products which make up the majority of the market. There are a couple of different types of whey that are worth mentioning:
Whey Protein Isolate (WPI) is a highly purified form of whey which often clocks in at over 90% pure protein, and is almost free from fats and carbohydrates. This not only makes it ideal for anyone watching their weight, but it is often able to be tolerated by many people who have difficulty digesting lactose. The protein in WPI is often broken up into smaller peptides during the purification process, or deliberately, by enzymes (in which case, it is known as Whey Protein Hydrolysate). These smaller molecules are very rapidly absorbed, making this the ideal protein to take after a workout.
Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC) maintains the same muscle building amino acid profile as WPI, but it is a cruder preparation, containing about 70-80% protein on average. This is still a very high protein content, but it is worth noting that WPC contains higher levels of fats and sugars than WPI. In addition, because it is less processed, WPC tends to retain longer individual molecules of protein. This means it digests more slowly than WPI. As we will find out, it can be advantageous to have protein digest over a longer timeframe, and the less rigorous purification process means that WPC can be cheaper than WPI – Some say better value.
Like whey, casein also comes from milk, and is made up of an exceptional blend of amino acids, rich in essential aminos like glutamine and the BCAAs. The most notable property of casein is its slow digestion. While whey is water soluble and is broken down and absorbed rapidly by the body, Casein reacts in the stomach to form an insoluble mass which is then digested very slowly, over a time period of up to seven hours, providing a steady long term source of amino acids. Casein is often known as "Night Protein" because it is taken before bed to fuel muscle growth and recovery overnight. The slow digestion also makes casein very filling, and it may be included in weight loss formulations to curb appetite. Casein is also a common inclusion in commercial blended proteins as a slow release component.
Eggs used to be the gold standard in protein for bodybuilders looking to add muscle, and many people are glad that the ritual of drinking raw eggs has been replaced with a variety of more palatable alternatives. Egg is still highly regarded as an excellent quality protein source, and egg protein is commonly found in blended proteins. It has a slower digestion rate than whey, but is faster than casein, so it occupies a unique niche in these products. Egg protein is generally produced from the egg white, so it is close to fat- and carb-free, and is rich in a number of vitamins and minerals, including B6, B12 and Iron, and it is high in anabolic amino acid leucine. Egg is also a great alternative to dairy proteins for people who have an intolerance or allergy.
Soy is the protein of choice for many vegetarians, vegans and those with milk allergies, as many people find it to be more palatable than egg protein. It is the highest quality plant protein available, and many people are surprised that it has a biological value similar to whey, meaning that it is an excellent source of amino acids that the body is able to efficiently utilise. Soy isolates can contain upward of 90% protein, and are very low in fat, carbs, and contain no cholesterol. On top of this, soy is one of the cheapest proteins on the market. It is not digested as fast as a whey isolate, but a pure soy isolate is rapidly absorbed. Soy protein is occasionally used in blended proteins.
Other Protein Types
There is more to the world of proteins than those listed above, and depending on individual requirements, the best protein for you may be something else entirely, such as Pea or Rice Protein, favoured by many vegetarians who find soy difficult to digest, Hemp Protein, which is high in fat and nutrients, and is a very good all natural meal replacement, or Beef Protein, a lactose free hydrolysed animal protein, personally requested by Arnold Schwarzenegger for the formulation of Iron Mass, an example that serves to illustrate the notion that protein choice is personal and at times, subjective.
With the basics under your belt, it is easy to pick the best type of protein for you.
1. Boirie Y, et al. Slow and fast dietary proteins differently modulate postprandial protein accretion. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 1997;94:14930–5.
2. Layman et al (2009), Egg Protein as a Source of Power, Strength, and Energy. Nutrition today, 44: 43-48