Our protein requirements have changed little in the last few thousand years. However, the options at our disposal in meeting this requirements continues to grow. If you have recently scanned the pages of any fitness magazine or browsed through the website of any supplement distributor, you can be forgiven to being confused by the vast array of different protein. Understanding the differences between these products makes choosing that much easier.
Ensuring your protein intake meets your requirements is one of the cornerstones of a good diet, and one of the first things I seek to address with clients. Health-conscious clients often fall prey to the cynical marketing of the food manufacturers, which encourages a ‘low fat’ intake; this generally means a low protein protein. Protein is required to supply your body with a pool of amino acids, which are needed to form and repair each and every cell in the body, be that your muscles and organs, your skin and hair, but also enzymes, neurotransmitters and peptide hormones. Particular amino acids are the precursors of many essential compounds in the body that effect many functions, including the immune and cardiovascular systems. When the body is not supplied with the amino acids is requires, the metabolic rate drops and the immune system is impaired. Things don’t work the way they should.
As I have explored in previous articles, my recommendations will differ according to the individual concerned, their lean mass and their aims, although I regularly suggest a protein intake of 100-125g for the average woman with 50kg lean mass, whilst a larger male with 70kg mass might get 140-175g, So what is the best way to achieve your ideal protein intake, and what constitutes ‘good quality protein’? The traditional protein sources include meat, eggs, fish, which are considered ‘complete proteins’. A complete protein includes adequate amounts of all eight essential amino acids, so-called because the body cannot produce them itself and must obtain them from the diet. However, some amino acids are considered conditionally essential; this is relevant when the body can produce them, but not in sufficient quantities during times of stress. Glutamine falls into this category. Generally, the body makes better use of complete proteins than it does incomplete proteins, such as plant proteins. These complete proteins have higher bioavailability (measured on the ABV scale, one of several methods of calculating protein quality), whereas that from vegetarian sources often disappoints. The higher the bioavailability, the better the body holds onto the amino acids.
It is noteworthy that not all complete proteins perform alike in the body. Their value is very much dictated by the individual blend of amino acids, which particular amino acids working out better for particular aims. For body composition and muscle building, a decent concentration of the branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), which includes valine, leucine and isoleucine, should be present. A healthy amount of glutamine also helps in this regard. Some protein forms demonstrate the ability to boost the immune system; those that do typically contain good amounts of cysteine. These subtle differences in amino acid balance have kept the supplement industry on the lookout for new protein sources.
One of the newer proteins that has garnered attention in recent years is hemp protein. The cannabis sativa plant, the same herb loved by university students the world over, yields a dark green product that is around 47% protein, 12% carbohydrates, 13% fat and 21% fibre. This represents a high fibre content for any protein powder and, considering almost all of it is insoluble fibre, represents a useful protein drink for cleaning out the digestive tract and increasing toxic elimination. The chlorophyll content, beyond imparting the pigmentation in the powder, also provides a nutritional boost beyond simply the protein content. Additionally, 65% of the protein in hemp comes in the form of edistin, a globulin protein that the body recognises well. Unfortunately, this does not equate so well to bioavailability, especially for athletes; a low count of cysteine and BCAAs means that hemp protein is unlikely to be the primary protein source for Mr Olympia any time soon. The taste of hemp protein is one that I would describe as very ‘green’ but tolerable. As a single protein source, hemp is limited. However, it does serve a useful purpose and those with sluggish elimination and other digestive concerns may stand to gain some benefit.
Pea protein has also come to the fore of late as one of the more popular plant-based proteins. However, one taste of it is enough to seriously question why. As a professional with more than five years commitment to sports nutrition, I have tried almost every supplement under the sun at various points and pride myself on my tolerance of a range of questionable tasting items. Pea protein is the single, worst-tasting supplement I have ever come across and, over the course of a two-week trial, there was no acquiring of the taste; it just got worse. Interestingly enough, adding it to soups as a thickener was OK. Nutritionally speaking, pea protein is fairly impressive for a plant-based protein, with reasonable amounts of valine, leucine, isoleucine and glutamic acid – just a shame about the taste.
Rice protein, specifically the patented Orytazein, may offer some benefit here. It competes with pea protein for the content of BCAAs and glutamic acid, yet the taste is actually fairly pleasant. Although it comes with a gritty texture, the flavour is mild and slightly sweet; the most drinkable plant protein by a mile, in my humble opinion. The manufacturers advertise that the amino acid profile of sprouted rice protein comes in as a close match to that found in mothers milk. Which it does. Rice protein is beaten on BCAA content and cysteine content by it’s whey counterparts, but only just; it’s beaten in fibre content by the hemp protein, but not by far; all in all, a legitimate contender. However, rice protein is low in lysine, an essential amino acid; this means that those using rice protein must either consume complete proteins each day (eg meat, fish, eggs) or begin ‘food combining’, choosing other foods with a good lysine content. Adding rice protein to an evolutionary diet should be nothing but beneficial, though.
While rice protein stakes a claim as a legitimate protein source, the two heavyweight choices remain egg white and whey protein. Of all proteins, egg protein remains the gold standard at which the ABV bioavailability scale is based upon. Although egg white powders do not quite provide the same level of bioavailability as the complete egg, they score well in terms of BCAAs, cysteine and glutamine. These levels are largely comparable to rice protein, although egg white represents a complete protein as it contains good amount of the essential amino acids. That’s not to say it tastes nice, though.
For all their merits, other protein sources still take a back seat to whey protein in terms of digestibility and bioavailability. Casein, the most abundant protein in whole milk, finishes a distant second in this regard do to the inability of humans to properly break it down. Interestingly, a study looked into the effects of whey and casein on the body composition of volunteers; they found that they group consuming the whey protein recorded more muscular gains and less fat loss. These benefits of whey protein appear to result from excellent digestibility and an impressive amino acid profile, with levels of the BCAAs sitting at the highest of all natural food sources.
Beyond this favourable amino acid profile, whey protein also appears to have a measurable effect on immune system function. It represents a good source of lactoferrin, an anti-microbial that supports the elimination of bacteria, viruses and fungi. Several studies also conclude that whey protein also increases intracellular levels of the antioxidant glutathione through the donation of cysteine. This endogenous anti-oxidant is used heavily by both the immune system and liver, with low levels increasing the risk of infections and chronic disease.
At this point, some may point out that I have left soy protein out of the review. I have done so for good reason; I regard it as poisonous and has no part to play in human nutrition. The estrogenic nature of soy, plus the phytic acid content that robs the body of minerals, makes it the least healthy ‘health food’ that big food corporations ever inflicted upon the public. Mary Enig, a nutritional researcher for the Weston A Price foundation, calculates that 100g of soy protein has the same estrogenic impact as the contraceptive pill. I passed on soy; if you choose to take this product, don’t be surprised if you start crying at the more emotional scenes in Eastenders.
Soy aside, all of these protein powders have a potential application in practice. However, whether the cleansing benefits of hemp protein justify it’s choice above the a proven whey product is highly debatable. Equally, sprouted rice protein stands out as a surprisingly legitimate choice among the outsiders, but cannot compete with whey’s impressive impact on body composition and immune system function. In cases of whey/egg intolerance, rice protein remains a good choice but, this aside, whey protein still stands out from the pack and represents the preferred choice for humans who seek improved body composition, health and performance.