Protein Powder Throwdown–Which is Right for You?




There are so many protein powders on the market today it can make your head spin! To name a few: Whey, soy, hemp, pea, rice, egg white, and, one that is new to me, pumpkin seed.

I thought it would be interesting to do a little look into some the different types of protein powders and provide a side-by-side comparison of their vital stats. I didn’t hit them all, but I have sort of mini-reviewed many of the protein powders I have personally used.

But, before we get to that, do you need to supplement with protein powder? In my opinion, this is really only a decision you  (and maybe your doctor) can make. I am not a doctor, nutritionist, or otherwise informed when it comes to what is “right” for you. Personally, I use protein powder 3-5 times a week – usually in a smoothie or stirred into oatmeal, and usually after a hard workout. I eat a 95% vegetarian diet of mostly whole foods, so I don’t really feel the need to add protein “just because.” But, I have found that supplementing with protein after a workout reduces soreness and improves recovery time, so that is my basis for why I use it!

It is worth noting that it is pretty well documented that the average American eats way too much protein for what our bodies need to survive and thrive, and too much protein can lead to all sorts of problems, including liver and kidney failure in extreme cases. We can thank a variety of high-protein diet crazes for the thought that we must consume crazy amounts of protein in our day, which is just not true. But, there are some benefits to carefully supplementing with protein, especially for athletes or vegetarians that rely too heavily on processed carbs for their diet.

There are lots of articles around the internet about the right ratio of protein for your body type, weight, and dietary objectives. This one from Ben Greenfield is particularly good (as is most everything he writes – add that one to your RSS reader if you are interested in fitness and nutrition topics). This one from Susan over at No Meat Athlete is a good one too, if you think maybe you are not getting enough protein.

Now, getting to the comparison. I am giving you a chart of calorie and protein comparison up front in case you are interested in the stats but do not want to read my lengthy discourse on this topic! And, that is fair warning that this is a long blog post!

ProductBrandCalories Per ServingProtein Per ServingOmega 3 & 6?Added Vitamins?Length of Ingredients ListAverage cost per oz for vanilla or plain
Whey ProteinDesigner Whey10018 gNoYes, but not 100% RDA on any28$.53
Hemp ProteinLiving Harvest12013 gYesNo, but full complement of amino acids1$.70
Blend ProteinSpiru-Tein8014 gNoYes, 100% RDA on many42$.78
Soy ProteinGeniSoy11025 gNoYes, 25% RDA on many23$.51
Pumpkin Seed ProteinOmega Nutrition5510 gOmega 6 and Omega 9No, but full complement of amino acids1$.61

WHEY PROTEIN

With the overview chart out of the way, let’s start with probably the most common protein supplement: Whey protein.

Whey protein is made from a by product of the cheese-making process, and of course, is from cow’s milk. I chose a popular brand to pull the nutrition label – Designer Whey – but in looking across many brands, they are really very similar. I grabbed this label from from www.designerwhey.com.

And, while this is “whey” protein, it should be noted that it also contains soy. I have more to say on the soy topic later in the post!

So, in a nutshell, one scoop has 18 grams of protein in 100 calories, with only 2 grams of sugar. However, it is worth looking at the ingredients list, as it is much longer that you might expect. This is a lot of ingredients!

I have used plenty of whey protein in my time, and, I think its biggest advantage is it dissolves really well – it’s not gritty at all.

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HEMP PROTEIN

Next, we’ll take a look a common vegan protein powder, Hemp Protein.

I’ll admit it up front: Hemp protein is an acquired taste that I have not really acquired. Hulled hemp seeds are much  more up my alley and are really good stirred into oatmeal. But that is a topic for another day.

Personal preference aside, the big benefit to hemp protein is that it contains Omega 3 EFAs, or Essential Fatty Acids. This is really key for vegetarians and vegans that do not each fish, as the body does not make Omega 3 fatty acids. It is also a source of Omega 6 fatty acids, which are usually recommended to be ingested in about a 4:1 (or even less) ratio with Omega 3s, of which hemp falls into, making it an ideal source of those EFAs. Omega 6 fatty acids are much more available in our food supply than Omega 3, so is worth noting that the average American usually has somewhere between a 14:1 to 25:1 ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 consumption – not really a good thing. Read more about Omega 3s/6s.

Hemp also has a wide complement of amino acids, commonly called “the building blocks of protein.” Our bodies need amino acids to fully utilize proteins and cannot create many of them on its own.

Below is the nutrition label for Tempt Organic Hemp Protein Powder. You’ll see that the protein value is about 2/3 that of whey protein, but the calories are slightly more. So, this is a trade off for minimal processing and a vegan option. The only thing that is in this protein powder is hemp, unlike the whey protein which has a very long list of ingredients!

The main detractor for me with hemp protein is that it is somewhat gritty, and it does not dissolve completely. It also turns everything in your smoothie green, which may or may not be a detractor for you.

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PROTEIN BLEND

Moving along, let’s take a look at at a Protein Blend, which includes multiple proteins.

I have to admit, this used to be one of my favorites. The best (tastiest) brand I have found is called Spiru-tein. It is a blend of pea, rice, and soy proteins, and it makes super creamy delicious smoothies. Each serving has 100% of recommended daily value of vitamins A, B12, C, D, and E. For those that don’t eat animal protein, this is a pretty good benefit – as you know a lot of your essential vitamins are taken care of with your morning smoothie. It’s called “Spiru-tein” because spirulina is one of the key ingredients (spirulina = basically algae).

However, Spiru-tein is a lot like whey protein in that it comes with quite a few ingredients. In fact, it has more! Forty-two to whey’s 28. It is also higher in sugar than all the other powers, with 8 grams.

Ingredients in Vanilla Flavor: Proprietary non-GMO protein blend (rice protein, pea protein, and soy [isolated soy protein and fermented soy]), maltodextrin, tri-calcium phosphate, natural vanilla flavor, potassium citrate, magnesium oxide, guar gum, psyllium, oat bran, microcrystalline cellulose, spirulina, vitamin C, vitamin E acetate, choline bitartrate, inositol, apple pectin, bee pollen, niacinamide, vitamin A palmitate, zinc oxide, manganese sulfate, ferrous fumarate, calcium pantothenate, lecithin, lemon bioflavonoids, papaya, bromelain, chlorophyll, pyridoxine HCl, riboflavin, thiamine HCl, vitamin B12, vitamin D, folic acid, biotin, potassium iodide, chromium chloride, sodium selenite, sodium molybdate.

In looking at the nutrition label, you can see that this blended protein is slightly higher in protein than hemp, with 14 grams, but lower than whey’s 18 grams, and it has fewer calories than both whey and hemp.

One factor to consider is that it basically acts as a multivitamin as well, as they have added a bevy of vitamins so that you get to your full RDA on most essential vitamins. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

SOY PROTEIN

So, two of the three protein powders we’ve looked at so far contain some soy. What about true Soy Protein?

Many people have very strong opinions about whether or not one should consume soy. Personally, it falls into my “in moderation” bucket, as I eat tofu and tempeh from time to time, and, I do enjoy a soy milk latte here and there. (Though my Project: Food Budget followers know I am cutting back on the coffee!)

Why is soy so controversial? Well, it is one of the most genetically-modified foods (GMO) in our food supply. It’s estimated that 62 percent to 89 percent of all soy crops in the United States are from GMO stock. We don’t really know the full impacts of GMO crops because it is a relatively new practice in the history of food.

And, you may not have noticed, but soy is in just about everything these days. If you look at the label of most any processed food, odds are you’ll find some soy in there somewhere. In fact, soy is a common protein source in energy bars and cereals, and comes up as “soy protein isolate.” Because soy is used in so many foods, you can see why the high GMO stature might cause concern.

A popular soy protein, and one I’ve used, is from GeniSoy. The ingredients are fairly lengthy, but only because they add vitamins. Like with the Spiru-tein, it’s up to you to decide if you find the added vitamins valuable or not.

Ingredients: Soy protein isolate, two percent or less of the following: tricalcium phosphate, canola oil, rice flour, magnesium oxide, natural flavors, ascorbic acid, ferrous fumarate, dicalcium phosphate, vitamin E acetate, niacinamide, zinc oxide, copper gluconate, d-calcium pantothenate, pyrixone hydrochloride (vitamin B6), riboflavin, thiamine hydrochloride, vitamin A palmitate, folic acid, d-biotin, selenomethionine, potassium iodide, cyanocobalamin (vitamin B12).

Here is the nutrition label for the vanilla protein powder. As you can see, the soy protein has the most protein per serving of any of the powders we have reviewed with 25 grams.

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I feel I have saved the best for last. At least, it’s the best in my opinion right now.

Pumpkin Seed Protein Powder is made from defatted pumpkin seeds. I just learned of this powder a few weeks ago as I was browsing the aisle of Whole Foods, and I found this powder from Omega Nutrition.

I have mentioned before that pumpkin seeds are nutritional powerhouses. The are packed with lots of vitamins and minerals and contain all the amino acids. This protein powder definitely packs the most punch with the fewest calories, as one serving only has 55 calories but 10 grams of protein. Double that to get to the average calorie count of most other powders in this comparison and you get a whopping 20 grams of protein.

And, like the hemp powder, you can’t argue with the ingredients list on this one!

Ingredients: Organic pumpkin seeds.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find a nutrition label that has a full nutritional breakdown like the others, but this is still a pretty good snapshot.

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And that, my friends, is a shallow dive into the world of protein powders. If you made it this far, I am sending you an internet high five! Thanks for reading and I hope you found this look into protein powders helpful.

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