Smart Guide to Buying and Using Protein Powders

Tod Cooperman, MD, President of ConsumerLab.com, offers advice for smarter shopping.

Posted on | By Tod Cooperman, MD | Comments ()
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Oz Investigates: Protein Powder, Pt 1 (3:54)

Consumerlab.com is offering a 24-hour free pass to Dr. Oz viewers. Visit ConsumerLab.com/DoctorOz now and get immediate access to ConsumerLab.com’s unbiased testing of protein powders and shakes, including the protein products discussed on the show and others, as well as its tests of multivitamins and vitamin D supplements.

Here are a few key points to remember to help you choose the best protein powder or shake based on ConsumerLab.com’s extensive testing. Use the pass above to see ConsumerLab.com’s full report.

Why Use a Protein Powder or Shake?
Protein is necessary to build, maintain and repair muscle. To increase protein in the diet, you could turn to meats, which are complete protein sources because they provide all the essential amino acids. The downside to meats, especially red meat, is that they can also provide significant amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol. Another way to increase protein intake is by combining servings of incomplete proteins such as legumes and grains, but this can increase carbohydrate and calorie intake. Some powders and drinks can offer a protein alternative without significantly increasing consumption of fats, carbohydrates, cholesterol or calories.

Protein supplementation before, during and/or after resistance-type exercising can increase post-exercise muscle protein synthesis and inhibit muscle protein breakdown.

What Type to Use?
There are four main types of protein in powders and shakes – whey, casein, soy and/or rice. Whey and casein are both derived from milk (the protein in milk is 80% casein and 20% whey). Most protein products are made with whey, which is a “complete” protein and contains the highest branched chain amino acid (BCAA) content found in nature. The branched chain amino acids tend to become depleted following exercise and are needed for the maintenance of muscle tissue. Whey protein is believed to be digested faster than casein and more completely than soy protein. So whey is often your best bet. Before bed, however, some athletes choose casein due to its slower metabolism – potentially supplying amino acids throughout the evening.

Meanwhile, soy and rice tend to be the only two sources acceptable to vegetarians. Soy is also the most "heart healthy" source of protein, as eating 25 grams a day (in addition to a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet) can reduce the risk of heart disease. Anyone with thyroid disease or a predisposition to thyroid dysfunction, however, should limit the intake of soy-based protein food, due to its potential to affect hormone balance. Rice protein is not a complete protein because it lacks one of the essential amino acids, isoleucine. However, it can be combined with other protein sources to provide all the essential amino acids needed in your diet.

Article written by Tod Cooperman, MD
President of ConsumerLab.com