The term “protein powder” is a relatively broad one that encompasses many different products. There are different types of proteins, and each powder has its own blend of ingredients designed to help you boost your strength and musculature. Understanding more about protein powder ingredients can help you make the right choice for your unique personal needs.
The Main Ingredient: Protein
The number one ingredient in protein powder is, of course, protein. It’s important to remember that the proteins in these powders come from different sources, which can make a difference on how these products work in your body. There are four main types you’ll find on store shelves and online (though there are now countless others including pea protein, hemp protein and the like).
- Whey and Casein Protein – Both powders are derived from cow’s milk, but they’re very different. Some 80% of the protein in milk is found in the casein, which is the “curd” that forms when making cheese. The other 20% of that protein comes from whey, which is the liquid left behind when the curd is separated from the milk. These proteins work in the same way, and they both contain the same amino acids, but whey protein is absorbed very quickly while casein protein is absorbed slowly and steadily. Whey protein also contains more branched-chain amino acids, which are very important for athletes as they’re the quickest to deplete during exercise. Read more about the differences of whey vs casein here and why you should choose one over the other, both, or a blend.
- Soy protein – Soy protein is typically sold as a vegan alternative to whey and casein based protein powders. It’s heart-healthy, but anyone who has thyroid disease or who has risk factors for thyroid disease should avoid consuming soy based proteins. That’s because they can affect hormones in the body.
- Rice protein – Rice protein is another alternative sold for vegans who cannot consume large amounts of soy. It’s not a complete protein like those found in whey, casein, and soy because it’s lacking isoleucine, an essential amino acid that cannot be made in the human body.
Of course, amino acids are perhaps the most important protein powder ingredients. They’re the building blocks from which your body creates new muscle tissue. Whey, casein, and soy proteins are considered “complete” because they contain all 22 essential, nonessential, and conditional amino acids your body needs. The exception to this is rice protein, which lacks an essential amino acid called isoleucine as mentioned above. Some of the most important amino acids you should look for in your protein powder include:
- Glutamine – Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the human body, and it’s found in every single tissue. Studies have shown that glutamine is responsible for up to 35% of the nitrogen created during the process of protein breakdown, which makes it especially important for athletes and bodybuilders. It’s this abundance of nitrogen that allows the body to process proteins into muscle tissue, so the more nitrogen the body can create, and the more the muscles can retain, the better. Glutamine is a key player in this process.
- Leucine – Leucine is a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) that has been clinically shown to trigger anabolic responses in the human body. Its primary role involves regulating the synthesis of muscle after you exercise. In fact, a study published in the American Journal of Physiology in 1998 proved that leucine is an absolute requirement for maintaining a positive protein balance during and after exercise; without it, the human body is simply unable to create new muscle proteins. That’s why it’s one of the most important protein powder ingredients.
- Isoleucine – Isoleucine is another BCAA that plays a role in muscle formation and health, and it’s the only essential amino acid that isn’t available in rice-based protein powders. It’s very similar to leucine; it’s a primary building block for muscle protein. In the book Biochemistry, written by Drs. Shawn Farrell and Mary Campbell, it’s noted that your body cannot produce many types of hormones, antibodies to fight infections, or muscle tissues without isoleucine. It’s a vital component in your choice of protein powders or BCAA supplemements for this reason. If you’re taking rice protein, then make sure to add a BCAA supplement to your regimen.
- Valine – Finally, valine is one of the most abundant amino acids in muscle tissues, and it’s another essential BCAA that your body cannot produce on its own. Valine, alongside leucine and isoleucine, make up some 70% of the amino acids found in the proteins throughout your body. Because of this, you’ll need to consume them in high quantities to facilitate protein synthesis, which is why it’s an important addition to protein powders.
Read more about the complete essential amino acids list here.
Creatine isn’t found in all protein powders, but it is a relatively common additive. To put it simply, it’s a compound that forms naturally when your body metabolizes protein and breaks it down into its respective amino acids. In order for your muscles to contract, they need a steady supply of creatine. While some studies show that the body can produce all the creatine it needs for muscle strength and supplementation isn’t necessary, there are other studies listed by the Mayo Clinic to show that athletes who supplement with creatine have more strength, power, and endurance than those who do not.
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals are also common protein powder ingredients. You’ll find that many of the most popular products out there have been fortified with the equivalent of a multivitamin in an effort to make a shake or smoothie an optimal meal replacement. While many athletes and bodybuilders choose to consume protein powder in addition to their normal diets, those who are in cutting phases and trying to shed body fat will replace meals, instead. The addition of these vitamins and minerals attempts to make up for any nutritional loss that comes from skipping meals, though it’s always best to eat a well-balanced diet. The most common vitamins found in protein powders are B-vitamins, though it’s not uncommon to find A through K and several minerals, as well.
Finally, calcium is one of the most important protein powder ingredients for one very important reason. Your body cannot adequately break down proteins into amino acids without an ample supply of calcium. In some cases, this calcium is added in the form of a “creamer”, which gives these powders their smoothie- or shake-like texture and feel in the mouth. In others, such as in a casein-based protein, the calcium is found naturally in the product. Before purchasing a protein powder, check the nutritional facts to see how much calcium is in that product. If it’s more than 8% of the recommended daily allowance, it’s enough to help your body break down the protein efficiently.
Protein powder ingredients can vary from brand to brand, so it’s important to understand which of these ingredients are most important and how they’ll affect your body. Powders that are fortified with vitamins and minerals are vital for anyone who is using their shakes or smoothies as meal replacement, and you should also look for a powder that contains ample calcium for breaking the proteins down.