All About Protein Powders

All About Protein Powders
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man scooping protein powders

Your local supplement store will be glad to sell you a wide variety of protein powders, from whey isolate to micellar casein. But what are they, and when should you use them?

If you’ve been to a supplements store for protein formula you may have found the array of options confusing. Not just whey vs casein, but labels proclaiming ‘Concentrate’, ‘Isolate’, ‘Hydrolyzed’ and ‘Blend’. What does all of this mean? Is one of them better than the others? Why does Isolate cost more than Concentrate? And what about MiCellar Casein? In this week’s post, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about protein powders in all their various forms.

But first…

Protein powders available in supplement stores come in two varieties, whey and casein. We’ve already covered what these are and when you should be using each of them in a previous post: Bodybuilding: What You Don't Know About Protein Powders.

Whey Proteins

The most commonly used and commonly available form of protein, whey protein powder is strictly a fast-digesting post-workout protein. But it comes in a number of different forms.

Whey Concentrate

Despite the impressive sounding name, whey concentrate is whey in its most basic form. It has the advantage that it’s relatively cheap, but it contains a lot of stuff that isn’t protein, such as lactose (milk sugar) and fat. The lactose means it’s the protein powder most likely to cause cramping and other digestive discomforts. If you use this stuff, be prepared for your body to take a few days to get used to it. (But as you’ll see in a minute, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it.)

Whey Isolate

This is concentrate with most of the non-protein stuff filtered out. It costs more because of the extra processing, although my understanding is that the processing isn’t that difficult, so it’s also almost certainly a bit of a rip-off.

Hydrolyzed Whey Isolate

A second round of processing takes Isolate and breaks it down further for easier and quicker digestion. It sounds good in theory for a post-workout protein. We want to get that protein to our muscles during the ‘golden hour’ immediately following the workout, but in actual fact, the increased speed of absorption isn’t significant and for most of us doesn’t justify the extra expense, which is even higher than it is for isolate.

Blend

What it sounds like. A blend of the 3 types above, although often of only concentrate and isolate. You’ll need to read the label to find the proportions.

Which One Should You Use?

different protein powders

Knowing what kind of protein powder to use when can be the difference between huge gains and struggling for every ounce of hard-earned muscle.

In my opinion, either Concentrate or Isolate. If you have trouble digesting lactose products, you’ll probably have to spring for the extra expense of isolate. Otherwise, the additional non-protein stuff in concentrate really isn’t harmful in any way. If you can digest the cheap stuff, save yourself some money and go with that.

A blend is also OK but again, it doesn’t really confer any real advantage. Whey protein is a fast-absorption protein by its very nature. Having some extra stuff in there will make very little difference to the absorption rate, and the proteins that are used to build muscles are exactly the same across all the different types.

If you do have problems digesting lactose and you find that even an isolate or hydrolyzed still gives you issues, try switching to a different brand. Not all protein powders are created equal. You may find that your body handles one brand tolerably well, while another will leave you bloated and gassy.

What About Casein Powders?

You’re not likely to see casein isolate or hydrolyzed casein – although given the undeniable fact that the supplements industry is typically long on hype and short on delivery I wouldn’t rule it out. The purpose of casein protein is to be long-digesting, so doing anything to it that speeds digestion would be working at cross-purposes. There are, however, three different types of casein protein. Calcium Caseinate, Micellar Casein, and Milk Protein Isolate.

Calcium Caseinate

I’m including this here just to be thorough. Calcium caseinate isn’t used in powdered form as a supplement. It’s a food additive. To be honest, I’m not even sure what it’s added for but since it has nothing to with building or preserving muscle, we can safely not care.

Micellar Casein

This is the purest form of casein. It digests over a period of up to 8 hours (closer to six if you’re active) and as already mentioned, its purpose is to prevent muscle loss during a cutting cycle or endurance event. I typically take two or three servings per day when I’m intentionally shorting myself calories and it is extremely effective at preventing muscle loss during these periods. If you’re not cutting though, any casein powder is probably not needed, assuming that you’re eating a healthy diet with lots of proteins.

Milk Protein Isolate

Sounds fancy but it’s really just a blend of micellar casein and whey isolate. The concept is that you can take this as a post-workout protein and the whey isolate will feed your muscles during the golden hour, then the casein will prevent muscle loss during the five to seven hours that follow.

If you’re doing your weight training in the morning, then eating a healthy breakfast immediately after, using this stuff is literally just flushing money down the toilet. However, if you’re an evening trainer, there could be some advantage to this, especially if you’re not eating a meal following your workout.

What About BCAAs?

branched chain amino acids

While understanding what Branched Chain Amino Acids are and what they do in the body is interesting, it's not essential knowledge. Whey protein has lots of these little guys, and they help you to build muscle.

I know, I didn’t really talk about BCAAs. I didn’t because it’s not important from a strictly practical standpoint. BCAA stands for Branched Chain Amino Acid. These are the amino acids which are most important for muscle growth. There’s a higher concentration of them in whey protein over casein protein. So why doesn’t it matter? Because if you’re taking casein protein you’re likely cutting and the whole purpose of taking the protein is to prevent muscle loss during the cutting cycle rather than to gain more.

Lower concentrations of BCAAs then are unimportant in this case. Yes, BCAAs are one of the reasons that whey protein works better than casein for building muscle, and especially post-workout, but since you’re already taking whey post-workout for its fast absorption, the BCAA concentration is really just a scientific curiosity for those of us who care about that stuff.

 

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Will Dove

Author
Will is a lifelong fitness nut. He started exercising religiously at the age of 16. Now 52, he still works out 5 times per week and maintains a body fat percentage in the single digits. Will is passionate about helping others to achieve their fitness and body image goals, and believes that most people fail to achieve these goals, not through a lack of self-discipline, but through a simple lack of knowledge.
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