Protein supplements are of great importance to anyone who is training with the intention of building muscle or increasing athletic performance. Protein, or more importantly the amino acids that it supplies to the body, are fundamental in maintaining and building lean muscle tissue (protein synthesis).
Protein is present in many foods such as eggs, meat, poultry and fish in abundant amounts and these foods should be incorporated into any healthy diet. The nutritional requirements of someone who trains with weights for athletic gain are higher than that of the average sedentary person though, so to meet these requirements its not always possible and/or practical to get the necessary amount of protein from regular foods alone.
This is where protein supplements become truly valuable. Not only are they super convenient – there are protein powders, bars, puddings and cereals now – but they are generally engineered to such a high standard that they surpass regular foods in nutritional profile and in bioavailability/ease of absorption.
Of all the different protein supplements available, each type has their own advantages/disadvantages:
Whey protein is a by-product of the cheese manufacturing process. The clear liquid whey is drained off from the cheese and dried into a powder. On the biological value scale, whey is rated at 159 in isolate form and 104 in concentrate form. The next closest to this is egg whites (88). Because of this high bioavailability, whey protein is the supplement of choice for most bodybuilders and athletes. Most whey protein supplements come in a 5lb container and are predominantly whey protein concentrate often with some whey protein isolate mixed in. Whey concentrate is essentially the ‘entry-level’ of whey protein.
Typically it has 60-75% protein content with the remainder made up of carbohydrates (usually as lactose – which many people have problems digesting) and small amounts of fat. Whey concentrate supplements and whey blends are generally the best selling version of whey protein due to the lower cost (typically 32-40 GBP for a good 5lb tub). Best selling products in this category include Optimum 100% Whey Protein, Reflex Instant Whey and Dymatize Elite Whey.
Whey Protein Isolate
Whey protein isolate is the next step up from whey concentrate. The powder is further refined to remove excess lactose and produce a cleaner, better absorbed and virtually lactose free protein supplement with typical protein contents of 85% upwards at an average price of around 25 GBP for a 2lb tub.
Whey Protein Hydrolysates
The most refined protein currently available is whey protein hydrolysates, also known as hydrolyzed whey isolate. This kind of protein powder undergoes manufacturing processes which produce a pre-digested partially hydrolyzed product that takes very little digestion and is absorbed by the body extremely quickly with barely any fats or carbs. Possibly the most well known and best selling supplement of this type is AST VP2, which retails in the UK at between 28-35 GBP for a 2lb tub.
Whey is not the only by-product of cheese manufacture. More abundant in fact is casein. Casein is possibly the second most popular protein source after whey. What makes casein a popular choice is that it is the opposite to whey protein in terms of absorption rates. Whilst fast absorption is generally more favoured than slow at most times, some people argue that whey is digested too fast for optimal results as a between-meal snack or before bed.
Casein on the other hand takes far longer to digest, which may make it a great choice for before bed as it could sustain the flow of amino acids to the muscles for much longer during sleep. Of particular interest is micellar casein, which is thought to form a gel in the gut resulting in a particularly slow, sustained release of amino acids into the bloodstream.
Two of the most popular supplements containing predominantly casein are Pro Peptide by CNP and Muscle Milk by Cytosport. Whilst whey protein is thought to have the most profound effect on protein synthesis (muscle building), casein is widely considered the best protein source for preventing muscle catabolism (breakdown of muscle tissue caused by dieting or over-training).
Some feel that the best of both worlds of protein supplementation comes in the form of a blend/mix of both fast digesting and slow digesting proteins, which they argue creates a time-released effect, with the various protein sources being used at their own rates of absorptions.
Others counter-claim that a blended protein will all absorb at the rate of its slowest digesting protein source, but as yet no research has conclusively proved which school of thought is correct. Popular South African supplement manufacturer USN use a protein blend, USN Pure Protein, as their flagship protein supplement.
Meal replacements are a mix of proteins (often whey or whey with casein) and carbohydrates (usually maltodextrin or barley and oats), often with added ingredients such as digestive enzymes and vitamin/mineral blends added in. They are designed to either replace a meal or act as an extra meal for those looking to gain muscle size.
They are engineered to provide an ideal ratio of protein, carbs, fats and nutrients. Many MRPs (meal replacement powders), like Met-Rx, come in boxes of pre-measured sachets – making them ultra convenient for taking to the office or to the gym. You can also get them in standard tubs – e.g. USN Muscle Fuel.
Protein Bars, Snacks, Puddings, etc..
The protein supplement market is ever expanding with new and unique ways of getting your protein intake frequently coming onto the market. Protein bars are almost as widely available now as their powdered counterparts and many taste as good as most candy bars.
In the past few years several companies such as Instone, CNP and PVL have made protein puddings – delicious high protein desserts that are either ready to eat out of a can or powders that are mixed into a pudding consistency. Even more recent developments have been high protein breakfast cereals and ‘single-shot’ liquid whey protein in tubes.
The final type of protein supplement is the all-in-one muscle building product. The pioneer of this range was Maximuscle Cyclone – a mix of high quality whey protein, dextrose, creatine, glutamine, HMB and several other muscle building ingredients. Whilst all of these ingredients can be bought seperately, these all-in-one bodybuilding supplements eliminates the need to buy multiple products and allows you to get all the nutrients you want in one convenient protein shake.
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