Navigating Protein Powders

by Elizabeth Vennefron, RDN, LD

Last Updated: April 22, 2021

It can be a very overwhelming process to pick out a protein powder. You could easily spend ten minutes just looking at the different varieties. This article will break down the different types of protein powder, what makes them unique, and highlight who can benefit from using protein powder.

All About Protein
Protein is one of three macronutrients and is essential to building muscle mass. Protein is composed of amino acids. Some amino acids can be made by the body, while others cannot. There are nine amino acids the body cannot produce and are therefore known as “essential” amino acids, as they must come from our diet. Animal-based proteins are considered complete proteins because they provide all nine essential amino acids. Plant-based proteins are incomplete proteins as they are missing one or more essential amino acids. However, when two incomplete plant proteins are consumed together, they are referred to as complementary proteins.

What to Consider When Choosing a Protein Powder
What sets different protein powders apart from one another is their digestibility, form, source, availability, and timing. Consider the following when trying to choose which protein powder is right for you.

Digestibility - Digestibility is important for muscle recovery, so it’s crucial to know how fast or slow it breaks down. Fast-digesting proteins are broken down and absorbed within one to two hours of consumption. A slow-digesting protein takes more than 4 hours to break down and be utilized within the body. Some brands use a combination of slow and fast digesting proteins in their blends.

Form - A protein’s form is also something to consider. Proteins can come in three different forms – concentrates, isolates, and hydrolysates. Concentrates have a lower percentage of protein compared to isolates because they contain some carbohydrates and fat. Isolates are the purest form of protein powders, as they contain a protein concentration of ninety percent. Protein hydrolysate powders have been treated with heat, acid, or enzymes, meaning the protein has been partially broken down for easier digestion.

Source and Availability - Is the protein powder made of animal-based proteins or plant-based proteins? Remember that plant-based protein powders may need to be consumed with other complementary plant proteins to provide all nine essential amino acids.

Timing - Knowing when to take protein powder is just as important as choosing the right powder to take. There are three main time frames when protein powder can be beneficial – post-workout, between meals, and before bed.

Protein taken post workout does not build muscle but can aid protein synthesis or the recovery process. Our bodies can only break down so much protein at one time, so we must consume additional snacks between meals to hit daily protein goals. Newer research indicates protein taken before sleep may help regulate muscle protein metabolism.

Protein Powder Options
Individuals browsing the protein powder aisle are likely there for a reason. Before just grabbing any protein powder, think about what you need the protein powder for muscle recovery? Meal replacement? A simple late-night snack? If you are following a vegetarian or vegan diet, there are protein powders that can fit into your dietary pattern. Below you’ll find the many different options available to you.

Casein – Casein is the solid portion of milk when separated. It is a slow-digesting protein. Casein is considered a complete protein and is best taken before bed or used in a meal replacement shake to ensure you stay full and satisfied until your next meal.

Whey – Whey is the liquid portion of milk when separated. It is an easily digestible protein. Whey is considered a complete protein and widely available, making it a perfect post-workout choice for athletes or the average joe.

Egg White – Egg white is an easily digestible protein made from dehydrated egg whites and is considered a complete protein. Pasteurization is key in the production process because it inactivates Avidin – a protein found in egg whites that can lead to a deficiency in nutrients required for healthy hair, skin, and nails.

Collagen – Collagen is a part of connective tissue naturally found in our body that helps attach muscle to bone, form joints, and is a structural component to skin. It is not considered a complete protein. Collagen can be beneficial to promote healing and skin elasticity.

Pea – This easily digestible protein is derived from peas and perfect in a post-workout shake. Pea protein is not considered a complete protein because it is plant-based. Pea protein is a great option for those following a gluten-free diet or sensitive to dairy products, as it contains no dairy. This popular protein can be found in energy bars, meal-replacement shakes, veggie burgers, and even cereals.

Brown Rice – Brown rice protein is easily digestible. It’s also a hypoallergenic protein ideal for those with egg, milk, or soy allergies and following a vegetarian diet. It is considered an incomplete protein, but when combined with pea protein, it can become a complementary protein.

Soy – Unlike the other plant-based proteins, soy is a complete protein. This easily digestible protein is a good option for those with high cholesterol, as it contains minimal saturated fat content. There are some perceived drawbacks to utilizing soy protein as it contains phytates, isoflavones, and phytoestrogens. However, evidence is weak and suggests that most people can consume soy with no issues.

Hemp – This plant-based protein also contains omega-3 fatty acids and dietary fiber. This allergy-friendly alternative to soy protein is a complete protein and easily digestible. Hemp’s nutty taste makes it a great flour alternative in baked goods.

Protein powders are a great option for those looking to increase their protein intake if consuming whole foods is difficult or inconvenient. Whole foods still reign supreme when it comes to optimizing nutrition. Consuming a well-balanced diet provides most of the nutrients a healthy adult needs. To assess your nutrient needs and which approach will help you, schedule a free virtual Telenutrition appointment today with a Kroger Registered Dietitian for an individualized strategy.

Disclaimer: This information is educational only and not providing healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.


Elizabeth Vennefron, RDN, LD

Elizabeth Vennefron, RDN, LD

Elizabeth loves being a dietitian because it connects her two passions- helping people, and healthy living. She’s a walking encyclopedia of better for you foods, meals, and culinary hacks to ensure her patients are enjoying the flavors they love while eating and staying well.