Different Types of Protein Powders Explained

Protein powders:

When it comes to meeting our protein goals, protein powder can be a great supplement. But with thousands of different protein powders on the market, choosing the right one can be difficult!

Before diving into the different types of protein powders, it is important to know the basics. 

Whey Protein 101:

Milk contains two main types of proteins which include whey (80%) and casein (20%). Both include all the essential amino acids our bodies need, making them a complete protein source. 

Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) include leucine, isoleucine, and valine, which are three of the essential amino acids. They make up a majority of muscle proteins (30-40%). Research has found that leucine is the most significant when looking at muscle protein synthesis and exercise recovery.

When milk is curdled and strained, it produces a liquid byproduct which is known as whey. This liquid whey is then filtered and dried to be used as a powder. The curdled, solid byproduct produced during the production of cheese is known as casein. Whey can be further processed to produce whey protein isolate. This has a higher protein concentration compared to whey and casein since more carbohydrate and fat is filtered out. Additionally, most of the milk sugar lactose is removed in the process.

Now that we know the basics, let’s take a deeper look at the different types of whey protein powders!

Types of whey protein powders:

  • Whey Protein Concentrate - rapidly digested by the body making it a good pre- or post-workout option to aid in muscle growth.

  • Whey Protein Isolate - higher concentration of protein compared to whey protein concentrate but is usually more expensive since it undergoes more processing. Whey protein isolate may be better for lactose-intolerant individuals since most of the lactose is removed in the processing. However, it is still a milk-derived protein so it is not recommended if you have a milk allergy. 

  • Casein - digested more slowly than whey protein making it a better option if consuming close to bedtime. Because casein takes longer to digest, it can help keep you fuller longer and prevent muscle breakdown.

What about plant-based protein powders?

An alternative to whey-based protein powders include ones that are plant-based. Plant-based protein powders are derived from various types of plants such as soy, pea, hemp, and brown rice. Soy is the only plant protein from these types that is considered a complete protein since it contains all the essential amino acids. Plant-based protein powders are recommended for those with a milk allergy, vegans, vegetarians, or those with certain food sensitivities. However, they can also be used based on personal taste and preference. 

Compared to whey protein powders, plant-based protein powders contain a similar amount of grams of protein per serving. They usually contain fewer BCAA’s. Although soy is considered a complete protein, the BCAA concentration is still lower compared to whey. 

Additionally, it is important to briefly discuss the scientific method for ranking protein quality called Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS). This is essentially how well the source of protein can aid in healthy growth or maintenance of body mass. A high quality protein will contain all the essential amino acids in a good ratio to achieve high digestibility. For reference, whey protein has a score of 1.0, which is the highest score that can be given. When looking at other plant proteins, the PDCAAS for soy is 0.99 and pea is 0.82 respectively. 

Bottom Line: Both whey-based and plant-based protein powders can be sufficient for muscle growth and recovery when used properly in the diet!

Whey protein contains more BCAAs, but plant-based is a good option for those with food allergies and sensitivities. When looking at PDCAAS, whey is the clear winner here for muscle building capabilities, but plant-based protein can still help with muscle growth. When using a plant-based protein powder, it may be ideal to also take an amino acid supplement to improve the protein quality. 

Any protein powder can be helpful to meeting your daily protein goals, just make sure you choose a good quality protein that you enjoy! 


Berrazaga, I., Micard, V., Gueugneau, M., & Walrand, S. (2019). The Role of the Anabolic Properties of Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Sources in Supporting Muscle Mass Maintenance: A Critical Review. Nutrients, 11(8), 1825. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11081825

Jäger, R., Kerksick, C. M., Campbell, B. I., Cribb, P. J., Wells, S. D., Skwiat, T. M., Purpura, M., Ziegenfuss, T. N., Ferrando, A. A., Arent, S. M., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Stout, J. R., Arciero, P. J., Ormsbee, M. J., Taylor, L. W., Wilborn, C. D., Kalman, D. S., Kreider, R. B., Willoughby, D. S., Hoffman, J. R., … Antonio, J. (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14, 20. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8

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