What are Protein Shakes exactly? How do I differentiate the good ones from the garbage ones?
Protein powders are made of protein extracted from real food. They are mistakenly confused with steroids mostly because of the hype that marketeers create around their products promising huge gains. These protein powders are only supplements and aimed at fulfilling your nutrition gaps. Unlike steroids they have NO influence over your hormones.
Having said that, not all protein shakes are created equal. The quality depends on the source of the raw material, the process used to extract the proteins and the components added to complete the powder.
Whey, Casein, Soy, etc – Which One You Should Chose:
The most popular protein powders are the ones formed by extracting the protein content from milk – they are called whey and casein. 80% of the protein in milk is casein while 20% is whey.
There are other protein powders also made from peas, soy, rice etc. You would want to go for these if you are lactose intolerant. Otherwise, milk protein is the most preferable because of its complete amino profile (i.e. they contain all the essential amino acids) and have the highest BV (biological value, it defines how easily a protein can be absorbed by the body and used for protein synthesis). Refer table below where whey rates above all in most parameters.
Comparison of protein sources based on their amino profiles, efficiency ratio (how effective it is in stimulating growth) and net protein utilisation.**
Whey clearly comes out on top. Casein, the milk protein cousin of whey, is not too far down the line. But due to the faster absorption rate of Whey, it is more popular and commonly used.
Whey and Casein
Studies indicate Whey creates a net positive protein synthesis in the body immediately following a workout. The whey you consume will be used up by the body within 3-4 hours.
While casein does not create as high a peak for protein synthesis as whey, it is slow releasing and its effects can last for longer – upto 10 hours. You would want this kind of protein if you are considering taking protein before bed or on your non-training days.
The debate about which is more preferable to have after your workout is split equally between the two. If you want the best of both worlds (and this is what most people, including me, do as well) buy a whey protein and have it with milk instead of water. Milk has 80% casein and therefore in a way it balances things out between peak levels and longer duration. There was a study by Kerksick’s team that concluded that blend of whey and casein is superior to only whey supplementation even with BCAAs and glutamine. (Ref1)
Which Whey is the The Right Whey?:
When you are selecting whey protein powders, one of the choices you would have to make is if you should buy it in Concentrate form or Isolate form.
In the concentrate form the supplement would contain anywhere from 30% to 80% concentration of protein, i.e. if your serving size is 100g say, then upto 80% of it will be proteins while the remaining will be made up of lactose, fats, etc.
The isolate form is the absinthe of protein, literally! You get pure protein of upto 90% to 95% in isolate forms.
The catch though is that to get to this purity it has to treated further from its concentrate form to such high levels that it is said to lose its bioactive components that provide a boost to immunity, insulin levels, lipid profile, anti-oxidants, etc. It is much like the white rice and brown rice situation. You want to go for the brown rice that has all the vitamins, minerals and bioactive properties intact.
To benefit from all the advantages that whey has to offer, it is advisable to look for the concentrate form of whey in your supplements (one with preferably 70% – 80% protein concentration).
There is another form of whey – hydrolysed whey in which the protein bonds are broken down into shorter chains which makes it easy to digest and absorbed by the body. It is again a highly processed form and is very expensive. Largely used in baby formulas and specialised medical products, they are also making their appearance in muscle building supplements. However, being highly processed and heavy on the pocket, unless you are specially prescribed this by your physician, you can ignore this when it comes to taking protein supplements for your daily recreational use.
How Different Processing Methods Impact your Whey:
Now lets go into the specifics of how the protein is extracted from its source. Whey is a byproduct of cheese making. The water left behind by milk after it curdles contains whey and is separated. It is then treated further to convert it into powder form.
There are two popular commercial methods to do this – ionisation and filtration (micro filtration /ultra-filtration, reverse osmosis, etc). Ionisation method is as much as 1/5 times cheaper than filtration. All the cheap protein brands can afford to give you supplements at the rate that they do because they are saving money using the ionisation method.
And why is that so bad? Ionisation is a chemical method where protein is treated with harsh solvents and uses high heat to separate out the proteins. In 2010 a popular study by Consumer Reports found 3 of 15 brands to have high levels of harmful chemicals in protein powders (Ref2). Ionisation was identified as one of the possible sources of contamination.
Filtration is a cleaner method of separating whey proteins into a concentrated form. All the components of whey that are beneficial to the body are kept intact in this kind of processing. All supplements that employ the filtration method will clearly mention it on their website else do not bother buying from the company.
So, now you know why you want (1) whey in (2) concentrate form that is (3) not treated with chemicals in its extraction process.
Now that all the basics are covered, you have narrowed down the universe of protein shakes to about 100 odd brands. The next set of criteria are the good to have’s and will set apart the great ones from the ‘ok’ ones. Continue Reading- Part 2: The Good To Haves
Ref1: Kerksick, et al. The effects of protein and amino acid supplementation on performance and training adaptations during ten weeks of resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2006 Aug;20(3):643-53.
Ref2: Consumer Reports 2010. http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine-archive/2010/july/food/protein-drinks/what-our-tests-found/index.htm; Last accessed: May 2015