Projected to swell to $21bn globally by 2025, the protein supplement market is a growth industry. Shots of “gunpowder” are downed by pro athletes, massive dudes at your local gym and, increasingly, normal guys who play a bit of sport or want to get fit or be in better shape.
But do protein powders actually work? And even if they do work, do you need to take them? In which case, what type is best? Whey, casein or plant-based? Concentrate, isolate or hydrolysed? When should you take them? And how much should you take?
You can write a scientific journal on this stuff, and indeed scientists – not bro ones – do. We’ve tried to keep it as brief, understandable and unarguable as we can. The science isn’t always 100 per cent conclusive, as it often isn’t, but that’s what comments sections are for. Digest this meaty protein powder guide though and you’ll definitely know what supp.
There’s more scientific proof for the efficacy of protein powders than you can shake a shaker at. Among others, a 2007 study in the journal Amino Acids (more on those later) showed that subjects who consumed whey protein before and after lifting weights increased size and strength over 10 weeks more than participants who took a placebo.
At the same time though, protein powders are not magic. “I haven’t seen any compelling evidence at all that protein powders are better for muscle gain than food is,” says Kamal Patel, director of examine.com, an independent website that assesses nutrition and supplement research. “It’s simply a matter of convenience and people liking to make shakes more and more as the years go by.”
Onboarding pretty much any quality protein source after your workout will do much the same trick. Most studies compare protein powders to other powders, carbs or placebos, not food. And protein powders can also work out more expensive than food. Funny, that.
No, you don’t need to. The clue’s in the word “supplement”. If you’re already meeting your protein needs from food, then powders will be superfluous. Where they can come in useful is when your protein need is elevated – for example, in order to recover from intense exercise, build muscle or both – and you struggle to meet it with food.
“‘Protein’ comes from the Greek word proteios meaning ‘primary’, and you could argue in the case of an exercising individual that having enough protein is the primary goal,” says performance nutritionist Matt Gardner.“There’s growing agreement that higher protein intake supports performance, with evidenced-based guidelines of 1.4-2g protein per kilogram of body weight per day recommended.”
The optimal amount of protein for building muscle, on the other hand, is furiously debated in scientific circles and men’s fitness forums. But as a rule of thumb, aim for the higher end of that scale. “There’s research on going higher, but for the average person, that’s a good place to start,” adds Gardner. Not least because you’ll probably find it difficult initially to consume that much protein if you’re in not already in the habit of carrying Tupperware containers of chicken, rice and broccoli at all times.
While nobody wants to be that guy, spreading your protein throughout the day does have advantages: namely, ensuring a steady supply of muscle-building nutrients, without which your body will down tools. A 2014 study in the Journal of Nutritionshowed that protein synthesis was 25 percent higher in subjects who hit 30g of protein at each of their three daily meals, compared to participants who ate the same total amount but the lion’s share of it at dinner. Meanwhile another study in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed that subjects who consumed 20g of protein six times a day added muscle and lost fat – whether they trained or not. (NB We strongly recommend training.)
You probably don’t want to eat six meals a day either. But three meals and one or two high-protein snacks, say, might be more feasible and palatable. (The actual composition doesn’t matter so much as the quantity and frequency – whatever fits your lifestyle.) Despite how they’re marketed, shakes are not adequate meal replacements, but they can be a handy, portable way of keeping the “gain train” on track until the next helping of food, or topping up the protein content of a meal that’s lacking in said macronutrient.
“A protein shake is a tool to add into your nutritional toolbox on a training day, or on non-training days if you don’t have a whole food protein source readily available, in order to meet your needs,” says Gardner. “For example, 100-120g of meat or fish usually yields 20-25g of protein and a typical protein shake contains around the same.”
Not to mention that mixing a shake is distinctly less antisocial than stinking out your workplace by microwaving the aforementioned tub of chicken, rice and broccoli.
A good one. But we’ll come to that.
The most widespread protein powder is whey, which (along with casein) is one the two proteins derived from milk. It’s a byproduct from making cheese which previously went to waste or to feed piglets, which is maybe something to consider before putting any old powder in your body.
Proteins are made of 20 amino acids, nine of which can’t be produced by your body and have to be consumed in food. Whey contains all nine of these so-called “essential” aminos acids, including a decent whack of leucine, the signal molecule for protein synthesis. It’s also more quickly digested and absorbed than other forms of protein (although the significance of that is a moot point that we’ll explore in more detail).
There are three different types of whey, with varying price points. “Concentrate” is the cheapest and most plentiful, typically containing 80 percent protein with some lactose, water and fat. “Isolate”, which has all the lactose and fat and is therefore considered to be fancier, contains 90 percent protein. The most expensive is “hydrolysed”, which is pre-digested by enzymes so that your stomach doesn’t have to do as much of the heavy lifting.
Do any of these distinctions really make a difference though, or is it just marketing spiel to justify charging more money? “Isolate is better if you have strong lactose intolerance,” says Examine.com’s Patel. “Hydrolysed is better if you have certain gut issues, as it needs less breaking down.” The idea that being more quickly absorbed makes a protein powder “better” is however a less legitimate selling point: “You most definitely don’t need to drink a shake within the minutes or hour after working out, and hydrolysates don’t build muscle better than normal whey.” (Again, we’ll get onto timing in a minute.)
It’s not as simple as higher protein percentage equals front-row gun show tickets. “Isolate goes through an extraction and processing method so harsh that it can’t be certified organic,” says Joe Welstead, founder of Motion Nutrition. “It can also remove some highly beneficial nutrients such as CLA, a naturally occurring healthy fat found in dairy.” Nor is removing lactose, a sugar, necessarily a good thing (unless you’re intolerant). “Your absorption can benefit from a slight insulin response,” continues Welstead. “So having your whey protein with a little carbohydrate may enhance your gains.”
The other protein derived from milk is casein, which is digested and absorbed more slowly than whey. Because of this, it’s considered a “slow-release” protein best taken before bed to drip-feed your muscles overnight. A 2012 study by Maastrict University showed that consuming 40g of casein half an hour before bed increased protein synthesis by 22% and improved recovery. (Although again, this was compared with a placebo.)
Like arguments over rest times or multivitamins, whether whey is better than casein or vice versa depends on which studies you want to put more stock in, and whether you believe it’s important to quickly digest and absorb protein post-workout, but both are beneficial. (Some powders contain a mix of the two.) There are also fancy caseins such as hydrolysates, which kind of cancels out the slow-release-ness, and micellar, which forms a globule in your stomach that takes longer to break down, making it extra slow-release-y, to use the technical term.
Or you can just get casein from food such as cottage cheese, Greek yoghurt or the milk that it came from in the first place.
Plenty of carnivores have been converted to the growing number of vegetarian and vegan protein powders on the market, either because they’re cutting out dairy, reducing it or just not wanting to consume any more than they already are, or because they’re suspicious of the quality and provenance of whey supplements.
“The advantage we see with plant-based protein powders is that so many people find them much easier to digest than whey protein, and that they feel and taste more ‘real’,” says Damian Soong, co-founder of dairy-free supplement brand Form. “That’s before you even consider environment, sustainability or animal welfare issues.” Various studies have shown plant-based protein powders such as rice, pea and soy to be as effective as whey, although men are often recommended to avoid soy because of the potential estrogenic effects of compounds called soy isoflavones. (Most of these are removed from soy protein isolate.)
The disadvantage of getting protein from plants is that you need to eat more of them to get the equivalent payload from an animal source. Plant protein sources are also not “complete”: that is, they don’t contain a full amino acid profile. But it’s possible to make a complete protein by mixing several plant sources together, as quality powders tend to do. “We do this with Form by combining pea, rice, hemp and algae,” adds Soong.
“For some, a plant-based protein powder can be easier to digest,” seconds Motion Nutrition’s Welstead, who manufactures both whey and vegan supplements. “I think this will mainly be true for lactose-intolerant individuals, or if the whey protein you are using contains many additives, making it harder to digest. It may also have a smaller carbon footprint, but this is not as straightforward as it seems, since the amount of plants required to end up with one serving of protein is much greater than the amount of dairy.”
Plant-based protein powders are not necessarily cleaner ingredients-wise either: “Because of their unappetising flavour and texture, brands tend to load these products up with even more sweeteners, thickeners and flavourings than whey protein.”
As we said at the outset, the major keyword is quality. “A rookie error is to think maximum protein for minimum spend,” says Motion Nutrition’s Welstead. “While this may seem like a bargain, your body will respond poorly, defeating the whole purpose.”
“Good protein supplements often have few ingredients, potentially even leaving out sweeteners altogether, although that’s not necessary, and lacking random stuff thrown in there,” says Examine.com’s Patel. “Some are cold processed whey, which can increase glutathione production. Others are grass-fed, which hasn’t shown nutritional benefits but should indicate that the cows are less likely to be treated terribly.”
Motion Nutrition’s protein powders are all certified organic, requiring extensive hoop-jumping, with ingredients traced back to the respective farms (which can’t be too close to polluted areas). But Motion’s capsules can’t be certified organic because they’re fortified with vitamins and minerals, which gave Welstead an eye-opening glimpse into you can can get away with. “If it weren’t for the high standards we set ourselves, there would be no rules ensuring quality or bioavailability,” he says.
“Unscrupulous brands will use cheap sources of ingredients with low absorption rates,” Welstead continues. “They will bulk their products with binders. They will fake mouthfeel with thickeners. And they will cover this all up with sweeteners and flavourings, which have proven negative effects.” Yum. Aside from checking the ingredients list, buying certified organic is one way to avoid all of this, and ensure your whey is at least 60% grass-fed. (“Grass-fed” alone has no binding definition.) Even then, take a second glance before buying organic products imported from the US, where regulation is less strict.
Quality isn’t just about the crap you leave out, but the (non-random) goodies you put in. “Protein powders can be a lot more functional now,” says Form’s Soong. “We include curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, which is a proven anti-inflammatory, and black pepper extract, which aids absorption. You’re not what you eat – you’re what you absorb.”
This brings us to the third of the three nutritional Ts: Total, Type and Timing.
You may be familiar with the concept of the “anabolic window”, which largely originated with some research in the late 1980s. The gist of it is that if you don’t consume protein within seconds of finishing a workout, your gains will be impaired, which in turn is a major selling point for quickly drunk and digested powders. Hence why you see guys in gyms dropping weights and scrambling to grab shakers like their biceps depend on it.
Like a Photoshopped physique, this has been greatly exaggerated. A 2013 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that the anabolic window post-workout is more like 4-6 hours, depending on how long before your workout you last ate, as your body may still be working its way through that: more like anabolic patio doors, then. The researchers admitted that delaying your protein re-up might make a small difference (science can’t yet say definitively), but as long as you eat something in the hour or two following your workout – a shake or a meal – your precious gains should be just fine.
There’s another reason not to frantically shake your protein powder and neck it in one. “By doing this, you’re blending air bubbles into your drink, and potentially causing bloating and discomfort,” says Motion Nutrition’s Welstead. “There’s really no rush.”
A 2009 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (using egg protein) identified that 20g of protein post-workout was enough to maximally stimulate synthesis. Sure, you could consume more, but there doesn’t appear to be much point: a 2009 University of Texas study (using beef patties) showed that consuming 90g of protein didn’t stimulate synthesis any more than 30g. As discussed earlier, you’re better off spreading your protein throughout the day in 20-30g “pulses” to maintain synthesis.
Another answer is that you shouldn’t take as much protein powder as you might think. “Some people veer into meal replacement territory, with half or more of their protein coming from powder,” says Examine.com’s Patel. “This can predispose them to having a bad diet, although it isn’t causative per se. Protein powders are fine, but unless you have a specific reason you’re taking them, eg you’re on the go, then you might want to just eat food instead. It has more nutrients, is more filling and usually tastes better.”
Many protein powders pack extra calories in the form of sugars, which could end up on your abs, not your arms. “Make sure to pick a powder that is 1g or less of sugar per 30g serving,” says nutritionist Gardner. “Then you can dictate when to add carbohydrates – for example, banana and oats.” Low- or no-calorie sweeteners, even natural ones such as stevia, can also be counterproductive. “You may find yourself craving sweeter foods and jumping on sugary snacks,” says Motion Nutrition’s Welstead.
A third and final answer is that you shouldn’t take as much as much protein powder as some manufacturers would have you believe. We said “some”. “It might seem strange for us as a nutrition company to advocate a food-first approach,” says Form’s Soong. “But this is something that people, often men, forget: supplements are supplements.”