The "Best" Protein Powder? Not So Fast!
What's the best protein powder? Well, the Men's Health website recently posted an article that listed what they thought were the 15 best protein powders to "help you build muscle."
Presumably, the two co-authors sampled the entire spectrum of powders in the protein universe and chose the ones they thought were the healthiest and most effective in building muscle. That, or they just went to Amazon and picked up a bunch of protein powders based on whether the label descriptions and ingredients appealed to their opinions or biases.
I suspect it's the latter. Anyhow, I don't know if their choices are backed by the editors of Men's Health, but there's a statement above the article that reads:
"Our product picks are editor-tested, expert-approved. We may earn a commission through links on our site."
I have no issue with them earning a commission through the links. That's the way the Internet market often works. However, I have issues with the "expert-approved" part of the disclaimer because their list is largely horse pucky.
Maybe that's too harsh. I'm sure they did their best, but they just prioritized the wrong things, and they clearly harbor a few common but erroneous assumptions about protein powders in general.
Let's address those erroneous assumptions so that you, the consumer, can truly pick the best protein powders for your needs, or at least avoid the products based on misconceptions.
I admit, this kind of protein powder sounds great. Sure, protein derived from the milk of virginal cows that graze contentedly on orchard grass all day long and quench their thirst from rainwater collected in natural oak cisterns and retire at night to the sound of crickets and loons sounds delightful. Makes me want to be a cow, too, but it's deceiving.
First, who the hell knows what the term "grass-fed" means, anyhow? It's not regulated by the FDA. For all we know, it could mean that some agro-farm minion tossed a handful of lawn clippings into the largely indigestible corn that constitutes the bulk of the cows' feed.
But forget that. The supposed allure of getting protein powder from grass-fed cows has to do with the notion that it's chock-full of omega-3 fatty acids and CLA, the fat-burning and cardiovascular-health promoting fatty acid.
It's true. The milk from grass-fed cows has a better fatty-acid profile than milk from corn or grain-fed cows. A 100-gram sample of milk from grass-fed cows contains about 32 mg. of omega-3 fatty acids, compared to the 19.8 mg. of essential fatty acids found in regular milk.
That's a difference of 12.2 mg. of omega-3 fatty acids, which is negligible. Also, dietitian Sean Casey points out that manufacturers take out almost all the fat in the processing of standard whey protein, leaving maybe about 2 grams per serving.
He calculates that the average 25-gram serving of protein from the milk of grass-fed cows would contain roughly 8 mg. more essential fatty acids than an equivalent amount of protein powder derived from conventional cows.
If you consider that a serving of high-quality, concentrated fish oil capsules contains over 3,000 mg. of essential fatty acids, 8 extra mg. of essential fatty acids is hardly enough to thump your chest about.
Okay, you're thinking, but what about companies that add the fatty acids to the protein powder after processing? Fine, but think about it. Aren't the fatty acid supplements you're familiar with always sold in airtight capsules, refrigerated, and kept in the dark? Fatty acids are fragile things, prone to oxidation and degradation, and they would degrade like Thanos' victims if not handled like the largely fragile things they are.
Beyond all that, protein from "grass-fed" cows wouldn't have an amino acid profile that was any different from the protein derived from agro farm cows, so really, what's the point in paying extra for these products?
Again, this concept sounds great. You can love the Earth AND grow muscle! Well, maybe the first thing, but not so much the second. Plant-derived protein makes sense if you're vegan, allergic to dairy, or your dad owns a legume farm and you get freebies, but otherwise, there's no real reason to switch from dairy proteins (whey and casein) to plant-based proteins.
Instinctively, you might believe that plant proteins are somehow more healthful or nutritious than dairy proteins, but it's not true. Plant proteins are missing the vast majority of the vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, and phytochemicals intrinsic to the whole plant, although soy protein, specifically, might contain just enough isoflavones to possibly cause problems.
Of course, dairy-based protein powders aren't exactly chockfull of vitamins and minerals, either, but in the case of whey, they at least contain immunoglobulins that can fortify human health.
But when it comes to the all-important issue of muscle protein synthesis, plant proteins don't pack on muscle the way dairy-based proteins do. Their biological value (BV) is just too low. BV is a measure of how efficiently the body utilizes protein.
While the Incredible Hulk is pea-green, it's unlikely that he got that way from pea protein, or for that matter, any other plant proteins. The results of a recent study on the anabolic effects of wheat protein, derived from turning gluten into free amino acids, seem to confirm this.
The unfortunate truth is that wheat protein and all other known plant proteins simply have poorer biological values than animal proteins. Plant proteins either have lower digestibility or are missing one or more crucial amino acids, specifically leucine, lysine, and/or methionine.
You'd have to eat a ton more of them to get the same effects as proteins from dairy or meat sources.
The authors of the Men's Health article were high on a protein that contained 30 grams of protein per serving. "Go big with 30 g of protein, the biggest number on the list," they wrote. "A choice for advanced athletes." Oh brother.
What did the manufacturers do, manipulate time and space to somehow condense protein molecules? Did they go Dumbledore on it and magically make protein denser or more powerful?
Look, unscrupulous supplement manufacturers have been practicing this charade for as long as I can remember. They simply put a bigger scoop in the pouch or container, one that holds 30, 40, or even 50 grams of protein "per serving."
Why not take a Big Hoss sandbag that can hold 3,000 pounds of sand, and fill it full of protein? Sure, include a shovel with every bag and claim 800 grams of protein per serving. Sheesh.
The authors recommended a "native" whey powder (the least processed form), stating that "whey is the consensus-MVP protein for building muscle."
First, the good. Native whey, or whey concentrate, or even whey isolate (albeit to a lesser degree than the first two types of whey listed) are super interesting because they contain immunoglobulins that might play a role in bolstering the human immune system.
Now the bad. In no way is whey the "consensus-MVP protein for building muscle." It's a fast-acting protein that's valuable in pre- and post-workout formulas, and it's certainly no sluggard when it comes to actual muscle protein synthesis, but quality caseins are better muscle builders, better strength builders, and even better fat burners.
Casein results in greater deposition of protein than whey, which simply means more muscle. Whey causes protein synthesis to increase rapidly and to a high degree, but it doesn't last long. There's an increase in protein synthesis and protein oxidation, but there's no positive change in protein breakdown.
That last point is a huge negative for whey. Contrast that with casein, which, like whey, increases protein synthesis but also inhibits breakdown to a large degree.
One study using weight-trained subjects showed a doubling of lean mass gains and 50% greater fat loss over that of the whey group. The casein group also increased bench, shoulder press, and leg extension strength by a collective 59%, whereas the whey group only had a 28% increase in strength (Boire, 1997).
Another study with burn patients showed that 70-75 grams of casein outperformed the same amount of whey. The casein group gained lean muscle twice as fast as the whey group, despite having to deal with the incredibly high metabolism and increased protein oxidation from injuries (Demling, 1998).
Those two are just a very small sampling of studies that have shown the superiority of generic casein. There are, however, sophisticated caseins whose muscle-building properties go much further than the generic, garden-variety caseins, which I'll describe a little later.
The Men's Health writers were also high on various other protein concoctions, one of which was blended with organic spinach, alfalfa grass, broccoli, and other vegetables. Since I'm high on vegetables and polyphenols in general, the idea of this product, at least, appeals to me. In practice, maybe not so much.
I worry that combining desiccated plant matter with protein would do neither a favor; the protein powder would likely lead to oxidation of the vegetables, and the vegetables would likely lead to peroxidation of any fats in the protein powder. (I also kind of cringe at the idea of drinking a broccoli-flavored protein drink, if that's indeed what it tastes like.) I'd much rather keep my protein powder and vegetables, desiccated or otherwise, separate until mealtime.
Another one they liked had specialized formulas for those 18 to 49, those 50 and older, and even a pregnancy and post-partum formula. I have to tell you, I had to look at the supplement labels of these products for a long time before I could tell how they were different. I finally saw a difference – the three formulas varied slightly in the amount of choline (yeah, choline) they contained, and not by a lot.
The pregnancy/post-partum formula contained 100 more milligrams than the 18-plus formula. The old person formula was pretty much identical to the other two, but it contained 50 fewer milligrams of choline than the preg/post-partum formula. Oh yeah, the oldster formula also had 50 more milligrams of calcium than the 18-plus formula, in addition to containing a bit of HMB, the ho-hum leucine metabolite that's supposed to build muscle.
Can you imagine anything less significant, health-wise, than a few extra grams of choline or an extra smattering of calcium? Or why such minor differences would make a protein powder age-specific or more suited for obstetric purposes? Good Lord!
This is like me coming out with a specialized line of uni-sex underwear for different populations, but rather than designing anything useful that would actually help these populations, simply putting a picture of a stork on the crotch of the underwear for pregnant women, a picture of a jigsaw puzzle on the crotch of the underwear for old people, and a picture of a can of Bud Light on the underwear for the 18-plus group.
Having been in the supplement industry for 30 years, I fully understand the competitive nature of the business; nearly everyone's looking for an edge or, at the very least, a marketing ploy. Unfortunately, most of the protein powders described in this article are guilty of doing just that – employing marketing ploys.
Here's where we turn to science. The true "consensus-MVP for building muscle" is something called micellar casein. Micellar casein is composed of soap-bubble-like molecules (micelles) that form a bolus in the stomach when consumed. That makes them digest slowly, ensuring a steady and long-lasting supply of amino acids in the bloodstream – amino acids the muscles need to grow.
It's hard to make a protein powder from micellar casein – hence their relative rarity and higher price. You have to process it carefully to leave the milk proteins largely unmolested. Manufacturing micellar casein is almost like catching snowflakes in Maine and shipping them intact to California using a truck driver who stops outside a bar in the Mojave Desert to slam down a few tequilas.
The few extra pennies are well worth it, though, because micellar casein is the only protein shown to be anti-catabolic (Boire, 1997), meaning not only does it increase protein synthesis, it also helps prevent muscle breakdown during and after intense exercise.
That's why it's the main protein in Biotest's Metabolic Drive® Protein. (Men's Health magazine named it "best tasting protein" several years back, so it makes me feel kind of bad for stomping on this article of theirs.)
Metabolic Drive® also contains a hefty amount of whey isolate, which is, for most purposes, the best choice of the three types of whey protein (concentrate, hydrolysate, and isolate). While not as expensive as whey hydrolysate, whey isolate is just as fast-acting while still retaining some immunoglobulins.
That's the only "marketing ploy" used by Metabolic Drive® – just a blend of two superior, muscle-building proteins. No proteins from virgin cows, no guava or other plant-based proteins, no giant scoop protein-serving shenanigans, and no supposedly tailored blends for old bastards or pregnant women.
Beyond that, any list of supposedly superior proteins powders for building muscle that doesn't include products with micellar casein is tragically wrong.