Beginner's Guide to Protein Supplements

February 2016

Protein supplements are not essential but are highly useful if you're wanting to make muscle size and strength gains. We don't need them in order to gain muscle, but they do make life considerably easier and out of all supplements they probably are the most fundamental that any bodybuilder will use. It's confusing though isn't it? There are literally hundreds of different products out there! Well, thankfully many are just different brand's variations on the same theme, although there are different types based on different protein sources, and the quality can vary between different brands.

Some popular reputable brands who sell protein at competitive prices include Myprotein, Bulk Powders, Bodybuilding Warehouse, Protein Dynamix, Gym Fuel, Go Nutrition and TheProteinWorks.

Whey protein is usually the first choice out of all the protein supplements, although in some circumstances it's preferable to have a more slowly acting formula containing different protein sources. There are protein powders available which are made up of a combination of two or more sources of protein. These often include whey, but other sources as well, so there is a more staged digestion of the protein. For example whey, soy isolate, wheat, egg white, casein (the slowest digested protein), beef or even pea protein. The formulas are ideally consumed mixed with skimmed milk last thing at night when it will be many hours before you can consume more protein, or if you are a shift-worker and have long periods of work without a tea-break.

Other useful protein supplements available are those based on casein alone (for night time shakes) and soya isolate, pea or hemp protein for the vegan bodybuilder.

However, if you're on a budget then whey is the number one choice and a 5lb tub of good quality whey will cost around £35-£40 and will last the best part of a month. Make up the remainder of your protein requirements by good quality food. Whey protein supplements are the biggest selling nutritional supplements for bodybuilders and strength athletes; most meal plans you read suggest including a whey protein drink at least once a day. The time most bodybuilders consume protein supplements is immediately after their intense workout.

Protein supplements are invaluable to the bodybuilder as it is often impractical to eat the amount of high protein food required for optimal gains. Ideally they should be consumed in between or as a compliment to meals. But don't forget the other nutrients too: carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, fibre and even fats are all crucial to optimum muscle gains.

Which is the best protein powder?
The best protein powder is not always the most expensive. It's not also the one in the prettiest packing or with the best marketing, despite what the adverts would have you believe. Other articles on this site have discussed the different types of protein formulas available, but here are a few reasons why whey is the number one choice:

  • Whey has a high biological value (BV) which refers to how much actual protein from food is absorbed and retained by the body.
  • Whey is made up of amino acids similar to that of human muscle tissue.
  • Whey contains all of the nine essential amino acids including the three branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) – leucine, isoleucine and valine – essential for muscle growth and repair.
  • Whey is naturally high in the amino acid glutamine. Glutamine is found in high quantities in human muscle tissue and is also the preferred source of fuel for intestinal cells.
  • Whey is naturally comprised of short chains peptides of amino acids which are quicker to digest than long complex proteins.
  • Studies have indicated that whey protein may help reduce the risk and improve disease outcome in certain cancers, improve immune function and reduce blood pressure.

When choosing which whey to buy you have to consider the aspects which are important to you as an individual. If price is a factor a good quality whey protein concentrate is perfectly adequate. You may also want to initially try different brands to find out a flavour and consistency which suits you.

A good healthy diet with a good protein intake from 'real food' is far more important than using even the best protein powders. Taking this very important point into consideration, for most of us wanting to gain muscle and strength, a good quality whey concentrate powder will be fine (look for one which is over 75% protein, though).

For the best protein powder you will have to do some research into different brands. Look at the ingredients list and see what the protein source is and make sure it's high in good quality protein.

Which type of whey protein powder?
Whey protein powder is the most fundamental nutritional supplement that a bodybuilding or strength training enthusiast should include in their daily meal plan. There are loads of different supplements available so, if your supplement budget is tight, just stick to whey. As there are literally hundreds of whey protein formulas out there, which one should you choose? What makes one better than another or are they all basically the same?

The first thing to do when buying a tub of whey protein powder is to look at the nutritional breakdown on the tub. A good formula will be at least 70g protein per 100g powder; preferably 80% or more. Don't look at the amount 'per serving', this figure may look high, but the serving size may be big and not comparable to other brands. Higher percentage proteins will typically be more expensive as producing good quality whey isn't cheap, and the bad news is whey isn't getting any cheaper!

Also, look at the type of whey used in the ingredients; there are different types of whey used in formulas according to the filtration process the whey has undergone.

Whey Protein Concentrate
Whey protein concentrate is the least processed form of whey protein. However, for many of us, concentrates are still perfectly sufficient to supplement our protein intake, as long as you choose a good formula.

The first filtration process in the production of whey protein is known as ultrafiltration. Here pressure and a porous membrane are used to separate fat and lactose from whey. Varying degrees of pressure are used to force small whey particles through the porous membrane. Large particles remain unfiltered which may then go though further processing.

Whey protein concentrate is generally classed as the most basic form of supplemental whey protein, though in itself the protein amount per 100g can vary considerably, from 35-85%. There is a huge variance in the quality of different powders which depends on the extent of the filtering.

Most popular whey protein concentrate powders are generally 68-80%. Although concentrates aren't the purest proteins due to the fact that they are less processed, if the brand is good, it can still be a very high quality protein powder, just with the presence of some fat and carbohydrate and will be perfectly adequate for a keen recreational trainer.

One benefit of whey protein concentrate is that the less processing means that most of the beneficial whey protein fractions are still undamaged; some believe there is a nutritional benefit to this. Also whey concentrate formulas are generally less expensive than whey protein isolate or hydrolysate.

Whey protein concentrate powders are the most popular type of protein supplements and will be perfectly adequate to supplement a protein intake from a range of food protein sources.

Whey Protein Isolate
Whey isolate has undergone longer processing, and is therefore more pure, than whey protein concentrate. Whey is a by-product of cheese manufacture and, in its original form, is a liquid; it takes several stages of processing before we get whey protein supplements. As a rule of thumb, the more processing, the higher the concentration of protein in whey.

There are several manufacturing processes involved when whey protein supplements are produced. Ultrafiltration uses pressure and a porous membrane to separate fat and lactose from whey. Pressure forces the liquid protein through a porous membrane with minute holes allowing only water, soluble components, smaller minerals and organic molecules through. Larger proteins can't pass through and are collected for further processing.

Cross-Flow Microfiltration (CFM) is a low temperature process using ceramic filters which retain the majority of the beneficial whey protein fragments. CFM removes large fat globules, leaving total fat less than 1%.

Ion-Exchange (IE) is a method that uses ionically charged clay resins to bind with the protein and separate it from other whey constituents. Chemicals are added which adjust the pH, such as sodium hydroxide and hydrochloric acid. This produces the purest form of whey protein isolate, washing free impurities such as lactose, minerals and fat. One drawback is that some of the beneficial whey protein fractions may be lost. Industrial Chromatography is a more in-depth and expensive process and produces almost pure forms of individual protein fractions.

In the production of whey protein isolate, there is longer ultrafiltration than in the production of whey protein concentrate and also the involvement of CFM, IE and, in some formulas, industrial chromatography, depending on the formula. The end result is a formula which may be as high as 85-95% protein and is a lot purer than whey concentrate.

Whey protein isolate supplements are a good choice for those on a strict diet involving either a low fat or low carbohydrate intake. It would also be a better choice for diabetics and for those with more severe lactose intolerance as the level of lactose in whey isolate formulas is trace.

Whey Protein Hydrolysate
Whey protein hydrolysate, also known as hydrolysed whey protein, is the purest form of whey protein powder supplement. When whey protein concentrate or whey protein isolate are put through a further process, called hydrolysis, the longer protein chains (polypeptides) are broken down into even smaller peptides.

Hydrolysis is the separation of already pure protein into short chain proteins called oligopeptides. The structure of the protein is broken and bonds between amino acids in the chain are hydrolysed, allowing the protein to be more easily digested and absorbed.

Whey is already made up of fairly short peptides, but hydrolysis makes these even smaller and is like 'pre-digesting' the protein. This is even easier on the digestive system and there is a higher percentage of the protein is absorbed. Whey protein hydrolysate can have as much as half of the amino acid bonds broken during hydrolysis. Taste can be a good indicator of whether the product you're using has a higher amount of hydrolysed bonds, as protein powders with smaller protein fragments tend to have a bitter flavour.

Whey protein hydrolysates are claimed to be the best post-workout protein formulas available. However, formulas taste foul, are expensive and contain virtually no biologically active protein fractions as all are destroyed during the hydrolysis.

When looking for a hydrolysed whey protein formula make sure the product indicates the degree of hydrolysis applied to the protein. The higher the percentage the more hydrolysis that has taken place and the more bitter it will taste. The packaging should display a table listing the molecular weights of the peptides measured in Daltons, as well as the percentage of peptides; for example: MW 20,000-40,000 Daltons 40%.

In theory, whey protein hydrolysate is the ultimate protein to take immediately after a workout, as it is absorbed very quickly, due to the fact that it's more digested than other types of whey. However, the fact that there are virtually no biologically active protein fractions could be viewed as a drawback. For this reason, it's generally recommended that hydrolysed whey protein is used only pre- or post-workout. Use whey concentrate or isolate at other times of the day.

Whey protein hydrolysate is also used clinically in tube feeds because it's both absorbed more easily and because it is hypoallergenic. Some critically ill people and babies are allergic to certain fractions, and a way around this is to hydrolyse the protein, thus breaking down the allergen part of the protein making it better tolerated.

Micellar Casein
Micellar casein is the protein casein in its natural form and is one of the main proteins in found in milk. Casein is also used in cheese manufacture. As a sports supplement, micellar casein is becoming increasing popular over the past several years, although it has been consumed as part of milk protein formula powders for decades.

The word 'micelle' is a chemistry term referring to a complex structure of molecules which remains suspended in water. In this case the structure consists of amigo acids, the simplest forms of protein. Whey is the other main protein found in milk, but as it's so small it does not form micelles. Casein is much larger and its molecules aggregate together in water to form a micelle. Micellar casein is the natural structure of casein in milk and is comprised of the different types of casein, i.e. alpha-, beta-, gamma-, delta- and kappa caseins as well as some minerals like calcium and phosphorus.

Until recently casein micelles couldn't be isolated from milk whilst being kept intact, so casein protein supplements were simply inferior, non-micellar forms. Micellar casein is casein in its natural structure; if you see the terms 'casein' and 'caseinates' on ingredients lists these refer to the non-natural, less bioactive forms. Several years ago the term 'micellar casein' started to be used to try to differentiate the natural, bioactive form from the artificial curd form of casein on ingredient lists and micellar casein protein powder was born.

The main benefit of micellar casein is that it is casein in its natural form and, through evolution, our digestive systems have been designed to deal with natural forms better. The peptic enzymes which digest proteins in the stomach act readily on the casein micelles and provide the materials for hormones, the immune systems, mineral absorptions and, of course, muscle growth. Micellar casein is slowly digested and absorbed, therefore making it the ideal choice for those who go a long time between meals and for the protein drink last thing at night.

Micellar casein side effects are few as it's merely a natural foodstuff. However, if you consume too much in one go, you may experience temporary bloating. Of course, if you have an intolerance to milk or dairy products then casein should be avoided. It's also a good idea to consume micellar casein protein powders directly after mixing them as, if allowed to settle, then can get rather thick.

If your casein product contains micellar casein it will be noted on the ingredients list as 'micellar casein or 'milk protein'; these are the only terms which apply to the natural form. If it doesn't, the casein will merely be labelled 'casein' or 'caseinates'. As always, check ingredients lists to make sure you're buying a quality product.

As there are multiple brands available, make sure the brand you're choosing is reputable: check out feedback on internet discussion forums, or ask people in the know whose opinion you trust. If the price is cheap and the claimed protein amount is high, then the product is likely to be of dubious quality and it's definitely worth checking it out before spending your money!

For optimal gains and recovery, including whey protein powder in your nutrition plan is going to be beneficial, but use these simple pointers to make sure the one you purchase is the best value for money.

For more detailed information on whey protein, read our article The Complete Guide to Whey Protein Supplements in Health & Fitness