Choosing the Protein Powder to Meet Your Daily Needs

Whey, Casein, Soy: Sorting through Protein Options

By Michael Ormsbee, PhDFlorida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Protein supplements can be a great way to build muscle, especially if you’re sick of eggs—plus they often taste delicious. But choosing the right one can take hours. Professor Ormsbee helps you narrow down your options so you can save money and time.

Protein powder with tape measure
High levels of protein consumption through powdered protein shakes before bedtime builds increased muscle and strength for the body. Photo by 9dream studio / Shutterstock

Types of Protein Powders

To achieve your optimal body composition results, Professor Ormsbee recommends increasing your daily protein intake and consuming high amounts of protein multiple times a day. However, eating a lot of high-protein meals can be time-consuming and can lead to feeling uncomfortably full. An easy way to add extra protein is in the form of protein powders.

There are many types of protein powders on the market, so here are a few things that Professor Ormsbee recommends you look for before you purchase one. First, there are many forms of protein. Whey protein isolate, which is derived from milk, is considered the most pure form of protein. 

Hydrolyzed whey protein isolate is the most expensive because of the purity and the process involved to make it. However, whey protein concentrate has less filtering and, therefore, more natural carbohydrates and fats from milk, making the protein content lower in most cases—about 35% to 80% protein, depending on what you buy. 

The other two common sources and types of protein powders are from casein (also from milk) and soy protein. Although these proteins also increase muscle protein synthesis, or muscle growth, whey is usually considered best, especially post-workout. This is because of whey’s higher leucine content—the essential branched-chain amino acid that contributes the most to muscle protein synthesis.

Casein is a good option for people who don’t like whey and want something that is slower digesting, while vegetarians might choose soy. Many other sources exist such as hemp, pea, and even bug proteins, but less research exists on those. 

As a source of protein, milk has been found to increase lean body mass greater than soy protein after 12 weeks of a resistance-training program. Keep in mind, though, that milk also contains both carbohydrates and fat.

Evaluating Supplement Labels

What do you look for on the label of a supplement? You want the highest percent of protein per scoop. 

You ideally want a powder with more than 80% protein in each scoop. For example, 25 grams (g) of protein in a 28-g serving scoop equates to 90% protein—the optimal amount. 

Take caution, though, when reading labels on protein powders. Many powders have added proteins that our body cannot use toward building muscle even if they contribute to the total nitrogen content of the product. 

Some examples of protein fillers are l-glycine and l-taurine. Supplement companies cleverly market these fillers to make them look like they will help you out, but they probably won’t give you any real benefits. 

Protein Powders at Bedtime

You can drink protein power before you go to bed. Contrary to popular belief, consuming a snack before bedtime is not necessarily unhealthy and can even benefit your health if it is a small, protein-dense snack.

We looked at this over a four–week period where overweight and obese young women had a carbohydrate, whey, or casein snack before bed every night, and they also exercised three days per week,” Professor Ormsbee said. “Although nobody lost weight, all three groups increased their muscle mass in the study.”

Additionally, the whey and casein groups tended to decrease fat mass, whereas the carbohydrate group had no change. These differences were very small and not statistically significant, but it has pushed Ormsbee and his team to look further into new research to see exactly what is going on.

The first study to evaluate 12 weeks of exercise training that included nighttime eating before sleep found that drinking a protein shake before bedtime resulted in improved muscle size and strength. It appears that small, 150-calorie protein drinks before bed are the best option. However, more research is needed in this area.

“Overall, protein powders can be a convenient way to increase protein intake, and most of them taste great,” Professor Ormsbee said. “You can’t beat the great effects on body composition with the addition of this supplement.”

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.

About Kate Findley 231 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.