Which Protein Powder Should You Choose?

When it comes to breakfast, deciding what to eat can be a struggle. A bowl of cereal spikes insulin levels and can leave you hangry in two hours, but many of us don’t have the time or appetite to make a nourishing early morning scramble. That’s why so many people start their days with smoothies. Jam in a bunch of nourishing fruits and veggies, toss in a little protein and some adaptogens, and you’re ready to start your day!

But have you ever walked down an aisle of protein powders trying to decide which to buy? There are hundreds of options, all of them a little different—all of them pretty expensive.

While I can’t help you decide specifically which powder is right for you, I can help you navigate the different types of protein powders out there. Here is a comparison of the five most popular forms of protein powder on the market and how they stack up in a morning smoothie.

Whey or Casein Protein

Derived from milk, both whey and casein protein have been chemically processed to create an isolate.

In general, whey is the liquid protein that separates from the curd when making cheese, digests very quickly, and is great for workout recovery. Casein is the protein left within the curd and digests much more slowly in the body, making it ideal for early morning or nighttime consumption.

The wonderful thing about these proteins is that they blend well into smoothies and tend to be creamy with a very slight hint of nuttiness. This is the classic protein powder used by gym-goers for years, but that doesn’t mean you should buy any old powder. It’s important to always opt for grass-fed/pastured when choosing dairy products.

If you have an unknown dairy sensitivity, whey and casein may not be the most digestible forms of protein for you—they may even be inflammatory to your body, which is obviously undesirable. And of course, this is a no-go for vegans and people who are lactose intolerant.

Soy Protein

On its own, soy protein is a rare plant-based complete protein, so it has a solid amino acid profile with all the amino acids the body needs. It’s also not digested quickly, but at more of a medium speed, making it great for breakfast. Plus, it’s safe for vegans and the lactose intolerant.

However, it can have an unpleasant ‘soy’ flavor and a very chalky texture. And then there are those who are allergic to soy or choose to avoid soy due to its likely GMO contamination. If you do choose soy protein isolates, prioritize organic.

Pea Protein

With a wonderful amino acid profile and rich protein content, peas are a no brainer when it come to plant-based sources of protein. Unlike soy protein, which is chemically processed into an isolate, peas are mechanically processed—dried, ground, and soaked in a saline solution to create a protein-dense compound.

Pea protein is rich in muscle-building branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), making it great for post-workout recovery. Still an incomplete protein due to its lack of essential amino acids tryptophan and methionine, as long as you are eating other forms of protein besides peas throughout the day, things should balance out naturally (or just blend it with a bit of rice protein—beans and rice create a complete protein!).

In terms of environmental sustainability, peas are way lighter on the environment than animal products and even require less water than other protein sources like soy.

But there is one problem—pea isn’t a flavor most of us desire in our smoothies. Most companies mask this with chocolate or vanilla flavorings, but those with sensitive palates may find the pea flavor overwhelming. If you’re really not in to peas, hemp or brown rice might be a better choice.

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Hemp (or Other Seed Proteins)

Lots of protein powders on the market now blend seed-based proteins together, like chia, hemp, and pumpkin. The wonderful thing about hemp protein powder is its favorable 3:1 ratio of omega 3 fatty acids to omega 6s, which can help fight inflammation in the body. It’s also rich in nutrients like magnesium, potassium, and fiber.

A lot of people do find this powder very gritty and unpleasant if taken alone. However, when blended with other protein sources, like chia and mung bean, it can be the perfect option, especially if you’re a person who stirs in whole chia or hemp seeds once you’ve finished blending and doesn’t mind a little texture.

Hemp is not a complete protein, but you can blend it with other protein powders to compensate.

Brown Rice

The best part about rice protein? It’s very hypoallergenic, so if you have loads of allergies and sensitivities, odds are you will be able to tolerate this protein powder.

Out of the plant-based protein powders, I find the rice-like taste of this one most palatable, but it tends to also be the grittiest. If you don’t mind a little added texture, brown rice protein adds a nice earthiness and important B vitamins and minerals to any smoothie.

If you want to create a complete protein, blend in some pea or some seed protein powders to balance out the amino acid profile.

Collagen Peptides

Collagen peptides are becoming an increasingly popular addition to smoothies and drinks, thanks to all the research coming out about collagen supplementation. It has been shown to reduce joint pain in athletes as well as increase muscle and bone mass in the elderly when paired with resistance training.

With lots of easily digestible protein and the full spectrum of essential amino acids to keep skin, hair, joints, and nails healthy, collagen peptides are nearly tasteless and doesn’t have any major effect on texture—unless you let your smoothie sit for a long time. Then it coagulates and becomes a little jelly-like.

The downside is that most collagen powders are not vegan. However, there are vegan collagen powders on the market. It may just take little bit more legwork to track them down.

What protein powder do you prefer to use in your smoothies? Is there something that I missed? Share your insights with the community in the comments section below!     

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