A Guide to Choosing a Protein Powder

Apr 22, 2024 | by Ellyn Johnson

In recent years, the popularity of protein powders has skyrocketed due to a growing emphasis on health and fitness, driving people to seek convenient ways to boost their protein intake. Protein powders offer accessibility and convenience, fitting into busy lifestyles and providing an easy way to meet protein requirements for a range of goals without extensive food preparation. Health and wellness trends, along with social media and influencer marketing, have further propelled the popularity of these products. As such, the market has expanded, offering diverse options to cater to different dietary preferences and health and fitness goals. 

Head to any sports supplement shop or online store and prepare to have your mind blown at the supplement options available. You’d think it’d get a little easier if you’re simply searching for a protein powder, but it doesn’t. The endless options can lead to confusion over which protein powder is right for you. Fear not – as we’re going to step through a purchasing guide to better equip you to choose the best protein powder for your dietary preferences and fitness goals. 

What is Protein?

We’ve all heard of protein as an important part of a balanced diet. But can you actually describe what it is? Protein is one of the three essential macronutrients required by the human body, alongside carbohydrates and fats. It serves as a fundamental building block for various tissues, organs, enzymes, hormones, and immune molecules. Proteins are made of smaller building blocks called amino acids which are crucial for the growth, repair, and maintenance of cells, making them essential for overall health and function. There are 20 different amino acids, nine of which are classified as essential because the body cannot produce them and must obtain them from external dietary sources. These essential amino acids must be consumed in adequate amounts throughout the diet to support protein synthesis and meet the body’s physiological needs. Foods rich in protein include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy products.

In addition to its structural role, protein plays various functional roles in the body, including:

  • Forming enzymes that facilitate biochemical reactions.
  • Transporting nutrients and molecules throughout the body.
  • Contributing to the immune system’s defence mechanisms. 

Protein also provides a source of energy, though it is not the body’s preferred fuel source under normal circumstances. When carbohydrate and fat stores are depleted, protein can be broken down into amino acids and converted into glucose to provide energy. As such, adequate protein intake is essential for supporting growth, repair, and overall health, making it a vital component of a balanced diet. So this then leads us to where protein powder supplementation fits in. Why even bother with protein powder you ask? Let’s take a look.

Why Bother?

Now that we have an understanding of what protein is and why it’s important in our diet, let’s continue by exploring whether or not you might need to consider a protein powder supplement on top of the whole-food sources you’re already consuming. Let’s start by exploring the protein intake recommendations described in the Eat For Health program. This program is a national initiative developed by the Australian Government to provide evidence-based dietary guidelines and resources to promote healthy eating and reduce the risk of diet-related diseases among Australians. 

The table below outlines the daily protein intake recommendations for adult men and women aged 19-70 years

The table below outlines the daily protein intake recommendations for adult men and women aged over 70 years

Additional Protein Requirements

These Australian dietary protein intake recommendations, like those in many other countries, may be considered too low by some health and nutrition experts. Some research suggests that these recommendations may not be sufficient for certain populations, particularly older adults, athletes, and individuals engaging in regular resistance training.

For optimal health and muscle maintenance, especially as people age or engage in physical activity, a higher protein intake may be beneficial. Studies have shown that older adults, in particular, may require higher protein intake to preserve muscle mass, strength, and function (Campbell et al., 1994; Nowson & O’Connell, 2015). Additionally, athletes and individuals engaging in regular exercise may have increased protein requirements to support muscle repair, recovery, and adaptation to training (Phillips et al., 2016; Lemon et al, 1998; Phillips, 2012).

The optimal daily protein intake for adults can vary depending on factors such as age, sex, body composition, activity level, and health status. Many health and fitness professionals recommend a higher protein intake, ranging from 1.2-2.2 g/kg/day to support overall health, muscle maintenance, and physical performance. Therefore, individuals should consider their unique needs and goals when determining their daily protein intake and may benefit from consulting with a healthcare provider or dietitian for personalised recommendations.

Do you think you’re meeting your protein requirements each day? Most of us aren’t! If not, then a protein powder supplement might be beneficial for you. In addition to simply not eating enough whole-food sources of protein in your diet, you may choose to start taking protein powder as a dietary or sports supplement for several reasons. Firstly, protein is essential for muscle repair, growth, and overall muscle maintenance, particularly for those engaged in regular exercise, strength training or sport. Protein powders offer a convenient and efficient way to increase protein intake, especially for people with busy lifestyles or dietary restrictions that make it challenging to consume adequate protein from whole foods alone. Some people use protein powder as a post-workout recovery aid to replenish glycogen stores and promote muscle recovery, helping to reduce soreness and enhance exercise performance. Protein supplements can also support weight management goals by promoting satiety and preserving lean muscle mass, which aids in fat loss and body composition improvements when combined with regular exercise and a balanced diet.

A Guide to Choosing the Right Protein Powder

When choosing a protein powder that’s right for you, you first need to consider the type of protein source that’s best for you. Given the ‘boom’ of protein powders in recent years, there are numerous options to choose from. Each type of protein powder is derived from distinct protein sources, resulting in varied nutritional profiles and benefits. Understanding the differences between these protein powders can help you make informed choices to best meet your health and fitness goals and nutritional needs. Let’s explore some of the most popular options on the market. 

Please note that the information that follows does not take into account highly nuanced nutritional needs such as allergies, medical conditions, or highly specific dietary requirements. It is essential to consult with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian before incorporating protein powders into your diet, especially if you have any underlying health concerns or dietary restrictions. Additionally, individual responses to protein supplements may vary, and what works well for one person may not have the same effect on another. Always read the labels carefully and choose protein powders from reputable brands that undergo third-party testing for quality and safety. While protein supplements can be a convenient way to boost protein intake, they should not replace whole food sources of protein in a balanced diet. Remember to prioritise whole, nutrient-dense foods and maintain a varied diet to meet your nutritional needs adequately.

Whey Protein

Whey protein is derived from milk during the cheese-making process and is one of the most popular forms of protein supplementation due to its high biological value and rich amino acid profile. When a protein has a “high biological value,” it means that a large portion of the protein is effectively utilised by the body for various functions. In the context of whey protein, having a high biological value indicates that it provides a rich source of essential amino acids that the body can readily absorb and utilise efficiently. This makes whey protein an excellent choice for people looking to meet their protein needs, particularly those engaged in physical activity or seeking muscle recovery and growth.

To complicate things a little, whey protein comes in three primary forms: whey protein concentrate (WPC), whey protein isolate (WPI), and whey protein hydrolysate (WPH). This is where a lot of confusion arises when selecting an appropriate protein powder as many people are unaware of the differences between them. The differences primarily lie in the amount of processing each undergoes, which results in key differences in their resulting nutrient profile. Let’s take a look at each one in more detail.

Whey Protein Concentrate

Whey protein concentrate (WPC) is the least processed form of whey protein, retaining more of the naturally occurring fats, carbohydrates, and lactose found in whey. WPC typically contains around 70-80% protein by weight, along with varying amounts of fat and carbohydrates. While WPC may not be as high in protein content as WPI, it retains more of the beneficial nutrients and bioactive compounds naturally present in whey, such as immunoglobulins and lactoferrin. This can provide additional health benefits beyond just protein supplementation, making WPC a popular choice for general health and wellness purposes. This also makes it a more economical option for those looking to supplement their protein intake without strict macronutrient considerations.

Key Points:
– The least processed form of whey protein
– Retains more fat, carbohydrate, and lactose
– Usually a cheaper form of protein compared to WPI or WPH

Whey Protein Isolate

Whey protein isolate (WPI) undergoes a more extensive filtration process than WPC, resulting in a product that is typically around 90% or more protein by weight. During processing, most of the fat, lactose, and other non-protein components are removed, leaving behind a highly purified protein powder. This filtration process helps to isolate the protein molecules, making WPI an excellent option for people looking to increase their protein intake without additional calories from fat or carbohydrates. Due to its lower carbohydrate content, WPI is ideal for people following low-carb or ketogenic diets.  This form of whey protein is commonly used by athletes, bodybuilders, and fitness enthusiasts seeking a high-quality protein source to support muscle growth, recovery, and performance. It’s also important to note that WPI tends to have a lower lactose content compared to WPC, making it suitable for those with lactose intolerance. Another key consideration that can’t be ignored is the cost. WPI is typically more expensive than WPC due to its higher protein content and more extensive processing.

Key Points:
– A highly purified protein powder
– A popular form of protein used by fitness enthusiasts and athletes 
– Minimal fat and carbohydrate content
– Minimal lactose content – suitable for those with mild lactose intolerance 
– Usually more expensive than WPC

Whey Protein Hydrolysate

Whey protein hydrolysate (WPH) is a type of whey protein that undergoes the most processing compared to WPC and WPI. During the manufacturing process, WPH undergoes enzymatic hydrolysis, which breaks down the protein molecules into smaller peptides and amino acids. Remember that amino acids are the building blocks of protein molecules. WPH has been further processed so these protein molecules have been predigested, meaning that they have been broken down further into smaller molecules, making it easier for the body to absorb and utilise.

WPH is often considered the most easily digestible and rapidly absorbed form of whey protein due to this pre-digestion. Because the protein molecules are broken down into smaller fragments, they require less digestion in the stomach and intestines, allowing for quicker absorption into the bloodstream. This rapid absorption makes WPH an ideal choice for individuals looking to quickly replenish amino acids after intense exercise or for those with digestive issues who may struggle to digest whole proteins effectively. Additionally, some research suggests that WPH may have potential benefits for promoting muscle recovery and reducing muscle soreness post-exercise due to its rapid absorption and bioavailability. One of the main downsides to WPH is its cost. It is often the most expensive whey protein option due to its specialised processing method and rapid absorption properties. 

Key Points:
– The most processed form of whey protein
– Predigestion means it’s absorbed quicker and utilised more effectively by the body
– Ideal for people with digestive issues
– A good choice for athletes and fitness enthusiasts who require rapid protein absorption for muscle recovery and repair after intense workouts
– Usually the most expensive whey protein option on the market

Just when you thought there were already too many protein powder options on the market, let’s explore the alternate sources of protein commonly used to manufacture protein powders. These alternatives cater to various dietary preferences and restrictions, including dairy-free, vegan, and vegetarian diets. 

Casein Protein

Casein protein is a type of protein found in milk and dairy products. It makes up about 80% of the protein in cow’s milk and is commonly extracted as a supplement. Unlike whey protein, which is quickly absorbed by the body, casein protein is absorbed more slowly. The slow digestion and absorption of casein protein are due to its unique molecular structure. When consumed, casein forms a gel-like substance in the stomach, which slows down the rate at which it is broken down into amino acids and released into the bloodstream. This slow-release effect provides a sustained supply of amino acids to the muscles over a longer period, making casein protein an ideal choice for situations where a steady supply of nutrients is desired, such as before bedtime or between meals. Additionally, some research suggests that the slow digestion of casein may promote feelings of fullness and help regulate appetite, making it a potential aid in weight management.

There are different forms of casein protein available on the market. The two primary forms of casein protein are micellar casein and casein hydrolysate. Micellar casein is the most common form, which is derived from milk and undergoes minimal processing to preserve its natural structure. It forms micelles in the stomach, leading to a slow and sustained release of amino acids into the bloodstream. On the other hand, casein hydrolysate, also known as hydrolyzed casein, is enzymatically predigested to break down the protein into smaller peptides and amino acids. This process results in faster digestion and absorption compared to micellar casein (similar to WPH), making it suitable for post-workout recovery when rapid delivery of amino acids to the muscles is desired.

Soy Protein

Soy protein is a plant-based protein powder derived from soybeans. It is a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids in adequate amounts. Soy protein is an excellent option for vegetarians and vegans or individuals with dairy allergies or intolerances. It has been shown to have similar effects on muscle protein synthesis as whey protein and may offer additional health benefits, such as supporting heart health and reducing cholesterol levels. Soy protein, like whey protein, is available in various forms, including soy protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, and textured soy protein. 

Pea Protein

Pea protein is a plant-based protein derived from yellow peas, also known as Pisum sativum. It’s considered a high-quality source of protein and is particularly popular among individuals following vegetarian, vegan, or dairy-free diets. Pea protein is rich in essential amino acids, including lysine, arginine, and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are important for muscle repair, growth, and overall health. It’s also naturally free from common allergens like gluten, dairy, and soy, making it suitable for those with food sensitivities or allergies. Pea protein technically qualifies as a complete protein as it contains all nine essential amino acids (EAAs). However, some argue against its complete status due to its relatively lower levels of methionine and cysteine. This subject remains debated. 

Rice Protein

Rice protein is derived from brown rice and is another plant-based protein powder option. While rice protein is not a complete protein on its own, it can be combined with other plant-based proteins, such as pea protein, to create a complete amino acid profile. Rice protein is easily digestible and hypoallergenic, making it suitable for individuals with dietary restrictions or sensitivities. Rice protein is also available in various forms, including rice protein isolate and rice protein concentrate. 

Other Considerations

As you delve into the world of protein supplementation, it’s essential to navigate through a range of options to find the perfect fit for your dietary and fitness needs. Numerous factors come into play when choosing the ideal protein powder, each aspect contributing to the overall quality and effectiveness of the supplement. Let’s explore the key considerations to keep in mind as you decide on the right protein powder to support your health and fitness goals.

Protein SourceConsider whether the protein powder is derived from animal-based sources like whey or casein, or plant-based sources like soy, pea, or rice.
Protein ContentLook at the protein content per serving to ensure it aligns with your dietary and fitness goals.
Processing MethodUnderstand the processing method used to manufacture the protein powder, such as concentrate, isolate, or hydrolysate, as this can impact its nutrient profile and absorption rate.
Allergen InformationCheck for potential allergens like dairy, soy, gluten, or nuts, especially if you have known food sensitivities or allergies.
Additives and FillersReview the ingredient list to identify any additives, fillers, or artificial sweeteners, and opt for products with minimal or no additives for a cleaner supplement.
Flavour OptionsConsider the available flavour options to ensure you enjoy consuming the protein powder, enhancing adherence to your supplementation regimen.
Texture and MixabilityAssess the texture and mixability of the protein powder to ensure it blends well with liquids and does not clump or leave a gritty residue. Unfortunately, this might take some trial and error. Try and get your hands on some sample packs to try out a few before purchasing in larger quantities! 
Brand ReputationResearch the brand’s reputation, including its manufacturing practices, quality control measures, and third-party testing for purity and potency.
CostCompare the cost per serving of different protein powders to find one that fits within your budget without compromising quality.
Dietary PreferencesChoose a protein powder that aligns with your dietary preferences, whether you follow a vegetarian, vegan, paleo, or keto diet.
Goal SpecificitySelect a protein powder tailored to your specific goals, such as muscle building, weight loss, recovery, or overall health and wellness.
CertificationsLook for certifications, like NSF Certified for Sport, to ensure the product has undergone rigorous testing for banned substances and meets high-quality standards.
Reviews and RecommendationsRead customer reviews and seek recommendations from trusted sources, such as fitness professionals or dietitians, to gauge the product’s effectiveness and satisfaction levels.
Personal ToleranceConsider your personal tolerance to certain ingredients or flavours and choose a protein powder that agrees with your digestive system and taste preferences.

I hope the information outlined within this article has helped shed light on the various protein powder options available to you. Understanding the similarities and differences between each can help inform your decisions when it comes to selecting the right protein for your individual needs. It pays to take your time and use the right criteria to select an appropriate supplement. It’s tempting to be swayed by the strategic branding and marketing tactics employed by numerous companies. However, this proves ineffective in selecting a protein supplement that best suits your goals. The right protein powder can be the missing piece in your health and fitness puzzle, so choose wisely and fuel your success!


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  • Campbell, W. W., Crim, M. C., Dallal, G. E., Young, V. R., & Evans, W. J. (1994). Increased protein requirements in elderly people: new data and retrospective reassessments. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 60(4), 501–509. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/60.4.501
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  • Phillips, S. M., Chevalier, S., & Leidy, H. J. (2016). Protein “requirements” beyond the RDA: implications for optimizing health. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism = Physiologie appliquee, nutrition et metabolisme, 41(5), 565–572. https://doi.org/10.1139/apnm-2015-0550
  • Lemon P. W. (1998). Effects of exercise on dietary protein requirements. International journal of sport nutrition, 8(4), 426–447. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsn.8.4.426
  • Phillips S. M. (2012). Dietary protein requirements and adaptive advantages in athletes. The British journal of nutrition, 108 Suppl 2, S158–S167. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007114512002516
  • Sánchez-Oliver, J., Contreras-Calderón, J., Puya-Braza, J. M., & Guerra-Hernández, E. (2018). Quality analysis of commercial protein powder supplements and relation to characteristics declared by manufacturer. LWT, 97, 100-108. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lwt.2018.06.047
Ellyn Johnson

Ellyn Johnson

Ellyn is an Exercise Scientist specialising in youth Strength and Conditioning. She holds her Bachelor's degrees in Science and Exercise and Sports Science. She has previously worked as a Strength and Conditioning Coach for Academy level athletes at the Brisbane Lions Football Club. She has a background in Personal Training, coaching a range of clientele with diverse goals, including weight loss, body recomposition as well as recreational endurance athletes. In addition to her Strength and Conditioning experience, Ellyn currently works as a Learning Designer at the Australian Institute of Fitness. Here she works as a subject matter expert in the design and implementation of a range of health- and fitness-related courses and learning materials.

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