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You probably know there are a number of different kinds of protein in foods and supplements. But do you know what they do? We’ve put together an article to help–just in time for National Protein Day on 2/27!

Types of Protein and Benefits of Each

Written By Rachel Kreider, MPH, RD

If you have health goals related to building muscle mass or strength, then you probably already know that getting enough protein in your diet is a must. Protein is also a critical nutrient for those trying to lose or maintain weight as protein helps to satisfy hunger longer than other nutrients, plus it protects your lean, calorie-burning muscle.

It can be difficult to get enough protein through a standard diet, leading many people to look to protein powders to increase their intake. This may lead some people to ask the question "how do I know which protein powder is right for me?" The number of options can be overwhelming!

Let’s dig into the world of protein to figure out which ones may be right for you and your health goals.

Defining The Levels Of Protein Purity

Protein powders can come from many different sources like dairy, plants, beef, heck, even crickets! Before they become protein powder, these foods contain other nutrients like carbohydrates and fat. To get the protein to the shelf, the raw material is processed to separate the protein away from the other nutrients. This leads us to some important definitions regarding protein powders. You will frequently see the terms “concentrate,” “isolate,” and “hydrolysate” on protein powders. These terms refer to the “purity” of a protein product. Let’s quickly define them:


Protein concentrates have been stripped of some of their non-protein components (fat, carbohydrate, minerals, and water) to yield a product that is 70-80% protein. Since they have more carbohydrates and fats, concentrates often have a richer flavor and creamier mouth feel compared to protein isolates.


Protein isolates have had most of the fat, carbohydrate, minerals and water removed, leaving behind 90% or more pure protein. These tend to be a bit thinner in texture and have less of a rich, creamy mouth feel compared to protein concentrates. You’ll often see protein isolates in fruit juice flavors because of this thinner texture.


Protein hydrolysate has been “hydrolyzed” or partially digested using enzymes. This process takes a long chain of amino acids (protein) and turns them in to a bunch of shorter proteins called peptides. Peptides are absorbed more easily than long proteins because some of the work of digestion has already been done.

Types of Protein

Once armed with a bit of knowledge, it will be easy to pick what types of protein are best suited to your goals and tastes. Here are some of the most common types of protein along with the benefits of each. I’ll provide some recommendations for who would benefit most from each type.

Animal-Derived Proteins

1. Whey Protein

Whey is available in concentrate, isolate and hydrolysate form. You might consider selecting whey protein isolate if you are trying to limit calories, fat, and carbohydrates. Whey protein hydrolysate has the benefit of being more easily absorbed because the proteins have been partially digested.

Whey is a complete protein, meaning it provides all the amino acids that the body needs. The amino acids and peptides from whey protein have been shown to be absorbed more rapidly versus other types of protein.1

Plus, there is research to show that whey protein can enhance muscle protein synthesis and enhance recovery when combined with resistance or strength training.23

Whey proteins are associated with successful weight management because it appears that they help to maintain lean tissue during weight loss. This lean tissue burns more calories, so it is beneficial for the weight loss process. Whey proteins have also been found to have a satiating effect, potentially helping a dieter to reduce their calorie intake when used in place of other foods.4 Some researchers believe that whey protein’s benefits for muscle growth and maintenance are related to its high content of leucine. Leucine is an amino acid that is highly involved in the synthesis of muscle tissue.5, 6 Read more about whey protein for weight management, here.

Since whey proteins are dairy based, if you’re lactose intolerant or you have a dairy allergy, steer clear. There are lactose free whey proteins available, so just read your labels. For those who are weight training, trying to shed some unwanted pounds or those looking to maintain their muscle mass, whey protein is an excellent choice. The variety of flavors and nutrient profiles are incredible, so shop around and look for one with a flavor that you love and the nutrition fact panel that is most in line with your goals. The sky is the limit when it comes to whey protein.

2. Casein Protein

Another dairy protein, casein is the main type of protein found in cow’s milk. Casein and whey protein have a similar amino acid make-up, though casein contains slightly less of muscle builder’s favorite amino acid, leucine.7 Like whey, casein is a complete protein.

Casein is absorbed more slowly compared to whey protein,8 and this slower absorption results in a steady stream of amino acids versus the quicker spike of amino acids seen with whey consumption. Many athletes use casein before bed because it delivers amino acids to the muscles for a longer time during sleep.9 In their position statement on nutrient timing, The International Society of Sports Nutrition states that consuming 30-40g of casein before sleep can increase muscle protein synthesis and metabolic rate through the night.10

Being that casein is dairy based, you’ll want to avoid it if you have any sensitivities to dairy or lactose.

3. Milk Protein

Milk proteins are a common dairy protein that are processed from milk rather than from liquid whey as their start material. This protein is nature’s blend of whey and casein, as it naturally provides about 80% casein and 20% whey.11 If you are looking to get the combined benefits of casein and whey, then pick up a tub of milk protein to get a 2-in-1.

4. Egg Protein

Egg proteins are a dairy-free source of protein that happen to have an amazing amino acid profile and digestibility rating.12 Egg protein provides nearly as much leucine as whey protein.13

Egg proteins are a perfect option if you are looking for an easily absorbed protein but have a dairy sensitivity. Eggs are often the standard against which other protein sources are compared because its digestibility and protein quality are so good.12 You might want to consider adding this wonder-food, whether in whole or powder form, to your diet. Egg protein also has a rich texture, so it can really feel like a treat. If you’re looking for something to get out of a whey protein rut, give this egg-cellent option a try!

Plant-Derived Proteins

The rise in popularity of plant-forward diets has resulted in an abundance of plant protein options. While there may not be as much science to document the benefits of plant-based protein,14 there are plenty of reasons to work these options into your rotation. If you are vegan, have food allergies or are just wanting to reduce your intake of animal-derived foods, plant proteins have come a long way. Gone are the days of plant proteins that taste like paper. They are so delicious and creamy you’ll never miss the milk or egg.

Except for soy protein, most plant proteins are not complete which means they do not supply all the essential amino acids needed by the human body. By eating these proteins as part of a balanced diet, you will still be sure to get all the essential aminos needed, so fear not! A lot of protein supplements combine amino acids that complement one another’s amino acid profile to make the final protein blend a complete protein. Click here for a few to check out.

1. Rice

When you think about the nutrients found in rice, protein is probably not the first one that comes to mind. Rice naturally contains about 7% protein,15 and through a process using enzymes, the protein can be isolated from the carbohydrates to yield 80-90% protein. This is great news for vegans, vegetarians, and those with food allergies and sensitivities. Rice tends to be a very easy to digest and non-allergenic protein source.

Rice protein may not have the gravitas of whey protein in terms of research and reputation, but there is evidence that it can be a beneficial source of protein for athletes. A 2013 study found that young male athletes given 48g/day of rice protein or whey protein saw similar benefits for exercise performance (bench and leg press strength) and body composition.16

Though a lot more work needs to be done to confirm whether rice protein can hold its own when compared to whey protein, early indicators show that rice protein may be a good substitute if you need or want to be plant-based!

2. Pea

Made from yellow peas, pea protein is another great option for vegans, those with allergies or people who want to include more plant foods in their diet. Pea proteins can be found in isolate and concentrate form.

Similar to rice, research on pea protein and its health benefits is in the early stages. One study found that pea protein performed similarly to whey protein for its benefits to muscle growth.17 Though pea proteins are not complete, they contain a good amount of branched chain amino acids.17

3. Hemp

Hemp seeds naturally consist of about 20% protein,18 but the protein can be isolated by treatment with enzymes, making it another unique plant protein option. Hemp protein has a nutty flavor that works really well in a lot of protein powders. The research on hemp is in early stages also, but as interest grows in plant proteins, we’ll continue to learn how these guys stack up against animal-based proteins.

Protein Blends

Protein blends take multiple types of protein and combine them into one product, allowing you to reap the benefits of the various types of protein with just one product. In the plant protein world, multiple types of proteins might be combined to make proteins that have incomplete amino acid profiles into complete proteins. You may also find products that blend dairy and plant-based proteins into one product to mimic the nutrition of a meal. The blending of protein types is often done strategically to help complement the lacking attributes in the proteins being combined.18 Look to blends when you have multiple benefits on your mind to make your shopping process easier!

Protein For All Priorities

With so many choices like animal or plant, plus isolates, concentrates and hydrolysates; you’ve got to know your stuff to select one that will work best for you. Your dietary preferences, food sensitivities and allergies, health goals and lifestyle will dictate the best type of protein powder for you.

If you are most concerned about the amino acid content of a protein and animal-based proteins fit your health and lifestyle needs, then dairy and egg proteins are the best bet.19 If you have sensitivities to dairy or eggs or prefer to avoid those foods in your diet, then select from the growing list of plant protein options.20 Pick a protein based on your health and lifestyle priorities, I promise, there is an option for you!

Posted from GNC Mansfield Towne Crossing 

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