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There is no doubt that high quality protein supplements cost more to produce than low-grade products. This translates to higher costs for the consumer and/or smaller profit margins for the manufacturers. But what if we told you that some of today's most trendy, expensive, and best selling "specialized" protein supplements were actually composed of inferior protein sources? In fact, the market is currently flooded with such products and they are flying off the shelf!
How do you make an inferior product and sell it at a high cost? Well, first you need to capitalize on the research of others, misinterpret it, use that misinterpretation to lower manufacturing costs, and then market the heck out of it. This is what is currently going on in the "blended" protein supplement market. These products include protein sources of varying absorption rates united under the philosophy that these blends will promote both the anabolic characteristics of fast digesting proteins and the anti-catabolic characteristics of slow-digesting proteins. Unfortunately, as we shall see, the "blended" protein movement has acted as a shield for unscrupulous manufacturers to hide poor-quality protein content in a lengthy laundry list of ingredients.
A Shaky Scientific Basis for Wide Spectrum Proteins
A recent study published in The Journal of Nutrition provides some of the first evidence supporting protein blends as muscle builders (J Nutr. 2013 Apr;143(4):410-6. doi: 10.3945/jn.112.168021). The researchers concluded that isolated soy protein blended with milk protein sustains amino acid levels and markers of protein synthesis after exercise better than whey protein isolate. However, the study used a questionable research design and a close look at the data suggests that the differences were modest at best. Regardless, this work marked a first step toward identifying blended protein supplements as muscle builders.
At this time there is no published evidence to show that any of the wide-spectrum protein formulas (which are generally proprietary) actually produce longer-lasting amino acid release into the bloodstream than basic micellar casein (the protein source with the slowest absorption). In fact, calling this class of products "sustained release" is a misnomer, where they seem to be more accurately described as "timed release" protein supplements (some companies have adopted this nomenclature).
Peer reviewed research directly comparing the anabolic efficacy of blended protein powders to more specifically targeted protein supplements is sparse. The concept of blending research assumed as a matter of course that high-quality muscle-building proteins would be used, in an effort to exploit their different absorption characteristics. However, currently, the biggest problem with blended protein powders is the lack of products that contain high quality protein sources. In fact, if you investigate the ingredients in this class of supplements, you will notice that most companies use the most inferior sources of protein--a cheap way for companies to boost protein content and increase profit. Remarkably, many companies use these inferior sources as the first ingredients in their blend!
The One-Size-Fits-All Approach
to Protein Supplementation
Generally speaking, blended protein supplements are popular because they offer something to everyone. You want fast-acting? They're fast-acting! You want extended release of aminos into the bloodstream? Hey, they do that, too. Unfortunately, even if these products contained only the highest-quality protein source content, this kind of all-round efficacy would be difficult to achieve in the 20-25 grams per serving of a typical protein supplement. And many of these products do not contain high-quality proteins.
Regardless of whether you prefer taking many different types of protein supplements throughout the day or if you are seeking a "jack of all trades" blended protein powder, we think that we should set the record straight on what constitutes a high quality protein supplement. In an effort to help you decide if a particular product is worth the money, we have created the following list with descriptions of the most common proteins used in all popular bodybuilding supplements today. We have categorized them based on the source and absorption speed and compared them based on cost/quality.
High Quality Protein Sources
Whey Protein Hydrolysate
Otherwise known as hydrolyzed whey protein, this ingredient is processed from whey protein isolate, whereby enzymes are used to "pre-digest" the protein so that it forms low molecular weight di- and tri-peptide fractions (short chains of amino acids). The remarkably greater rate of absorption of di- and tri-peptides compared to amino acid cocktails is a result of the body being a better transporter of small peptides than an amino acid carrier system, thus minimizing competition between substrates. Compared to all other protein sources, hydrolyzed whey is absorbed and cleared from the body the fastest, making it ideal as a post-workout protein source which promotes anabolism, increased cell volumization, and faster recovery.
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Whey Protein Isolate
This is the purest source of protein on the market and, as such, contains approximately 90% protein and only about 0.5% fat and 0.5% lactose. Whey isolate is absorbed relatively fast, albeit not as rapidly as hydrolyzed whey protein. Several studies have illustrated the anabolic prowess of pure whey protein isolate in resistance-trained athletes. In fact, research has shown that whey protein isolate supplements promote greater lean mass and strength gains than supplementing with the same amount of casein protein (by virtue of its speed). Beyond lean mass gains, it has been shown that taking whey protein isolate decreases fat mass.
For years now, the NytroWhey brand has been synonymous with quality in the whey protein isolate category. In fact, the original NytroWhey revolutionized the category with its ultra-pure, crossflow-microfiltrated whey protein isolate processed in a superior fashion that preserved the growth factors (alphalactalbumin, lactoferrin, and glycomacropeptides) so essential to anabolism. Today, NytroWhey Ultra Elite has continued the advancement of protein technology with a protein blend that actually achieves what inferior products only pretend to attain.
NytroWhey Ultra Elite contains a growth-factor-rich crossflow microfiltration whey protein isolate that provides maximum bioavailability and combines it with an ultra-rapid action whey protein hydrolysate designed to flood aminos into the bloodstream immediately upon ingestion. NytroWhey Ultra Elite also contains a crossflow nanofiltration protein rich in a leucine-bound leucine peptide essential to switching on anabolism. Note that all three of these protein sources put the emphasis on speed and super-premium quality, making NytroWhey Ultra Elite that opposite of bargain basement proteins in every way possible.
Egg Protein (Albumin)
For years, eggs were the gold standard to which all other proteins were compared. Egg protein isolate supplements contain very little fat and cholesterol and maintain an abundance of amino acids from its native form. Egg protein isolate is well tolerated in moderation and digests completely, but it can cause bloating and gas if used in excess. Egg protein isolate is considered "medium speed," thus elevating amino acids at a moderate rate and maintaining them for about 2–3 hours.
A micelle is a large colloidal particle and micellar casein is the purest form casein protein. Its unique ability to form a gel in the stomach makes it a very efficient supplier of nutrients over an extended period of time. Like whey protein isolate, micellar casein is isolated using microfiltration and is therefore undenatured and retains its native structural properties. Casein is most noted for its anti-catabolic properties and its slow release of amino acids into blood circulation (for up to 7 hours). Micellar casein promotes a slight increase in anabolism and blunts catabolism by over 30%.
The key with micellar casein is that it should be used as an overnight protein source to support muscle growth over the long term. Mixing it with fast-acting protein content serves little purpose. And, of course, purchasing low-quality micellar casein serves no purpose at all. Unfortunately, that's often what you get in this category.
BioQuest's Ultimate Casein is the industry's first elite-quality micellar casein product, with a superior amino acid profile that has also been enhanced with added BCAAs for even greater anabolism. As is the case with the-high quality whey isolate found in NytroWhey, specialized processing makes Ultimate Casein more expensive than other sources, but you get what you pay for.
Lower Quality Protein Sources
Whey Protein Concentrate
This is the cheapest form of whey protein, as it requires limited processing to manufacture the final product. Being the most affordable to produce, whey protein concentrate is also the most common first ingredient in blended protein supplements. This keeps profit margins high for the manufacturer, but protein quality low for the consumer.
WPC is absorbed slower than whey protein isolate, but whey protein concentrate is made from whey, the liquid "co-product" of cheese manufacturing and its gets separated from curd (casein) in the cheese production process. The liquid whey (not to be mistaken for pure whey protein) that's detached from curd is 0.8 to 0.9% protein and the remainder is mainly water, lactose, and a small percentage of vitamins. In an effort to concentrate the whey protein fraction, the liquid whey is subjected to spray drying (under low temperatures) or ultrafiltration. Depending on the quality of the product, whey protein concentrate can range from 35% to over 80% protein (on average about 75%) and contains varying amounts of lactose and fat.
Milk Protein Concentrate
Milk protein concentrate contains both whey and casein proteins. So, you could argue that milk protein isolate offers the additive contributions of amino acids from both milk protein sources. Milk protein concentrate has an absorption rate somewhere between that of whey protein isolate and micellar casein.
Because of limited processing, milk protein concentrate is cheaper to produce than isolated protein sources. Milk protein concentrate is a common ingredient in protein bars and meal-replacement powders because of the low cost to produce, decent amino acid profile, and creamier taste and texture compared to other proteins. The quality of milk protein concentrate can vary from product to product and so can the amounts of fat and lactose. As a consumer, you are paying for that variability and losing out on the protein content.
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Casein makes up the largest proportion of protein in cow's milk (about 80%) and is a very slow digesting protein. Casein in this form is very stable at high heat and is prepared either by rennet coagulation (a process that uses enzymes to coagulate milk in cheese production) or by isoelectric precipitation with an acid (also used in cheese production) to form calcium caseinate or sodium caseinate. These methods of purification are less expensive than microfiltration, but require heat and chemicals to yield product. As such, casein protein is less pure and less bioactive than micellar casein. The cost of producing this stuff is much less than micellar casein, thus you will commonly see this inferior protein source listed among the top ingredients in blended protein powders.
So, now it is up to you to decide which protein supplements are best for you. Our advice is to carefully read the ingredients to be certain that the product you choose uses the highest quality protein sources (as indicated in this article) in its formulation. It is common to see inferior proteins listed as the first ingredients in many blended protein supplements! Remember that blended ("sustained release" or "timed release") protein powders are generally priced similar to other protein powders, but gram for gram they tend to contain less total protein, so you want to be sure you are buying a product that uses only the best protein sources!
What is the first thing YOU look for in a protein supplement? Let us know in the comment field below!