Protein is important for all types of things. But specifically protein is an important factor for muscle building. There are multiple types of protein supplements on the market today. For example, whey, pea protein, hemp, soy, and then there is also collagen, which is sometimes used as a protein supplement. With all the different types of supplements on the market it can be hard to pick the best option. For this post I am going to compare whey, plant, and collagen supplements and how each is going to contribute to muscle building. Also, I am going to go over what to look for when purchasing, average prices, etc.
First we are going to start with a background on protein. Protein is made up of amino acids. There are 9 essential amino acids that we have to consume through foods because the body does not make them. 11 amino acids are considered non essential. For a protein to be considered a complete protein it needs the 9 essential amino acids. If a protein source is missing one or more of the 9 essential amino acids it is considered an incomplete protein. For muscle building purposes we want complete proteins. We especially want a protein powder with a high leucine content. Leucine is important for growth and repair of muscle and bone tissue. During resistance training you are literally tearing muscle tissues. There is also something called the leucine threshold, which will be important to note for later. The leucine threshold is important because it stimulates muscle protein synthesis. Muscle protein synthesis is the process that repairs muscle damage caused by resistance training (basically muscle building). The leucine threshold is set at about 2.7-3g. Again, because you damage muscle during resistance training we want muscle protein synthesis to happen. There RDA for protein is anywhere between 0.8-1.2g. However, many argue the RDA is too low especially when it comes to those who resistance train. When it comes to building muscle you need more protein than the amount in the protein supplement. Protein supplements can contribute to the RDA. Excess protein is very rarely stored as fat in the body. Research studies have not come to a conclusion on the amount of protein a person should consume for muscle building purposes. There was one study conducted where the subjects were given around 3g of protein per kg of body weight and there was very minimal fat gain. There was also a study that was specifically done on resistance trained females. Females has a high protein diet at about 2.5g/kg of body weight compared to a low protein diet at 0.9g/kg. The high protein diet increased muscle mass by 4.5 pounds and decreased their body fat by 2.5 pounds in 8 weeks. The highest amount of protein that has been used for research purposed is 4.4g/kg. Research wise some suggest there is no benefits to consuming more than 1.6g/kg while others suggest there is a benefit. In my opinion, whether it is beneficial or not is going to be person dependent. Research also has not found the total amount of protein that your body can absorb at one time. Research has however, found that a minimum of 20g of protein is needed for muscle protein synthesis. Again, we want muscle protein synthesis to happen.
Collagen as a Protein Supplement
Collagen is the most abundant protein in our bodies. Our bodies actually produce collagen. Collagen is rich in the amino acids glycine and proline and these two amino acids combine with vitamin C to produce collagen in the body. Collagen supplements may help with skin elasticity, signs of aging, improve hair and nails, and improve joint pain. Studies for these claims are very minimal and the need to supplement with collagen has not yet been shown to be something that is necessary. More research is needed about the benefits of supplementing with collagen. I will say that if you want better hair, skin, and nails stay hydrated, eat your micro and macronutrients, sleep, wear sunscreen, have healthy habits (no smoking minimal alcohol), exercise, and manage your stress. Collagen supplements have also been used due to whey being hard on some stomachs ( I will discuss this later). A lot of collagen supplements are also unflavored which is another reason some prefer it.
All collagen comes from animals. Bovine collagen comes from cows and it is considered a high quality source of collagen. Because all collagen comes from animals, there is no such thing as vegan collagen. There are supplements that claim to boost collagen and these supplements are mostly made of vitamins but evidence that these supplements actually do what they say is weak and considering these supplements do not contain animal or dairy products they are considered vegan. However, that’s really nothing special and I would argue that saying something is vegan is a way companies market their products as better and better for you. Vegan doesn’t automatically mean better for you and more nutritious, Oreos are vegan. Collagen supplements are sold in powder form and liquid form but ultimately all collagen is consumed in the form of a liquid. Collagen is taken from animals then during processing it is made into a powder. Consumers pour the powder into a liquid. It really does not matter if you buy liquid or powder collagen. What does matter is how much collagen that supplement contains. The clinical dosage of collagen is between 15-20g. I have yet to see a liquid form of collagen on the market that is clinically dosed. Most powders are clinically dosed. Why does a clinical dosage matter? Since there may be benefits to collagen your going to want the amount of collagen that has been researched to possibly show benefits right? Collagen bought in powder form may be a waste of money but liquid collagen that only contains like 5g of collagen is defiantly a waste of money. There’s some companies that market liquid collagen is better than its powder because “it absorbs better” (considering all collagen will eventually be a liquid this claim is nothing special) yet their product only has 5g of collagen and they sell it for $70 and to make it worse collagen is not even the first ingredient. The first ingredient listed is the most abundant. If you are going to purchase collagen make sure the first ingredient is collagen. Companies can make claims about their supplements because supplements are not closely regulated by the FDA. These claims do not have to be true. If a supplement is not clinically dosed there’s a high possibility it’s a waste of money. The average price of collagen supplements on the market are anywhere between $20-$45. Higher price does not mean higher/better product.
Collagen is a crap protein supplement. While it may have some benefits, like those mentioned above, it is not going to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Collagen is an incomplete protein. Meaning it lacks all 9 essential amino acids plus the amino acids it does contain are pretty low quality. To obtain the amount of leucine present in other protein supplements, for example whey, you would need around 4-5 servings of collagen in comparison to 1 serving of whey. While collagen can contribute to your daily protein intake, it is not beneficial post workout because it is not going to help repair the muscles. Collagen also lacks the amount of leucine needed for the leucine threshold.
Take home message about collagen:
It’s a crap protein source, it may help with hair skin and nails but so will a healthy diet and lifestyle, it isn’t vegan, and liquid collagen is not magical like companies promote it to be. If you’re going to purchase collagen make sure the first ingredient is collagen, it has at least 15g, and use it for the claims of hair, skin, nail, and joint health not as a protein supplement.
Plant Protein Supplements
Plant protein supplements usually come in the form of pea, rice, hemp, or soy protein sources. Pea and rice protein are usually superior to hemp or soy because of the amino acid content. However, the leucine content is lower than the leucine content in whey protein sources. You can work around this. You would just simply need more. To get the necessary leucine content for the leucine threshold of 2.7g you would need around 37 to 38 grams of pea and brown rice protein compared to only 25 grams of whey protein. Since many plant protein supplements contain 20 grams of protein you would most likely need 2 servings of the plant protein. This amount changes based off of what type of plant protein source is used. Pea and rice are two very common plant sources and are closer to the leucine content of whey than other plant protein sources. For example, oat you would need 47g of protein from a supplement and for hemp you would need 54g compared to 25 grams of whey.
Compared to collagen as a protein supplement plant protein powders are not crap. The only issue is many plant protein supplements are on the higher end of fats and carbohydrates and low on the protein. Look for minimal fat, 3 or less grams, minimal carbs, less than 7, and higher on the protein, at least 20 grams. Its not a carbohydrate powder it’s a protein powder so you want it to be mostly protein. Next, look at the ingredient list. The first ingredient should be the type of protein you are buying. For example, pea protein. Also look at the sugar content, specifically added sugars. There is no daily value for total sugars however there is for added sugars. The daily value for added sugars is 50g per 2000 calories. When looking at the nutrition facts label 5% DV or less is considered a low source of added sugars. Sugar occurs naturally in many foods however added sugars are added to foods during processing. There is no reason for including added sugars into protein powder except for if maybe the product tastes like crap. Adding sugar is probably the only way they can get it to taste good.
Another thing to look for in plant protein sources is added nutrients, especially if you follow a vegan diet. Most people who follow a vegan diet lack vitamin D, B12, calcium, iron, zinc, and omega 3 fatty acids. Make sure to look at the amount of added nutrients. 100mg of added “super foods” is not going to do anything for you. While a protein supplement with added nutrients is not necessary it could be helpful. The average protein powder price on the market is $20-$50. Higher price does not mean higher quality/better product. I have yet to see a higher priced protein powder where the price actually fits the quality. Some of the worst quality protein powders I have seen are $60-$70+. Shoot me an email if you want to prove me wrong. I have seen a lot of high quality protein powders that are around $40 and they have added nutrients in them. Just because there are added nutrients does not mean you have to pay more.
Take Home Message on Plant Protein Supplements
If you’re looking for a plant based protein powder a rice and pea protein combination would be your best bet. Unlike collagen plant protein powders are considered a complete protein. You do however, need more of the supplement to reach the amino acid content of whey and at least 20g of protein to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. These are two important non negotiable things about plant protein powders. You can do without added nutrients but added nutrients would not be considered a bad thing. Higher price does not equal higher quality.
Whey Protein Supplements
Whey protein supplements differ from plant protein supplements because whey protein is made from milk. There are three types of whey protein. These are whey concentrate, whey isolate, and whey hydrolysate. Whey concentrate is the cheapest form of whey and less processed than whey isolate. Whey isolate is more processed but this is due to the removal of lactose and fat. The lactose content in whey supplements sometimes causes upset stomachs, bloating, gas, etc. Due to the extra processing whey isolates usually cost more than whey concentrates. It also contains more protein by weight than whey concentrates, which is a good thing. You want a powder to be mostly protein instead of mostly other things like cheap fillers. Examples of cheap fillers are maltodextrin or cheap amino acids. For example, alanine is considered a cheap amino acid. Adding in cheap amino acids are a way companies can increase the price of their supplement without adding any extra benefit to the consumer. Whey hydrolysate is more processed than other forms of whey. The extra processing of whey hydrolysate makes it easier to digest. Whey hydrolysate can be made from either a whey concentrate or a whey isolate.
Just like with plant protein there are things to look for when it comes to purchasing whey protein. Look for the same macronutrient profile as the plant protein. Look for minimal fat, 3 or less grams, minimal carbs, less than 7, and higher on the protein, at least 20 grams. Again, it’s a protein powder not a carb powder or a fat powder. I personally would rather eat carbohydrates than drink them (for more information on carbohydrates, check out my post 5 Nutrition Myths Explained). Just like with plant protein, look at the added sugar content. Sugar is going to occur naturally added sugars are not. Next, look at the serving size located at the top of the Nutrition Facts Panel. You want the serving size to be close to the amount of protein in the supplement. For example, if the serving size is 42g but there’s only 17g of protein that’s probably not all protein in the supplement and it most likely contains a lot of cheap fillers. The closer the amount of protein is to the serving size the better. You also want at least 20g of protein in the supplement because 20g is needed for muscle protein synthesis. Next check out the ingredient list. The first ingredient should be whey protein. The first ingredient is always the most abundant. This also goes for protein bars. The first ingredient should be some form of protein. Also you do not want any proprietary blends. Sometimes companies will add super food blends, protein blends, or probiotic blends. This is a great way to bump up the price and to have a consumer pay more for no added benefit. Companies are not required to put the clinical dosage of ingredients in their products so most of the time they do not. If you want added veggies in your protein powder go buy some spinach at the store and blend it with protein powder. It’s much cheaper than $100 “super food” protein powder and if you use the typical 85g serving size you’ll actually get the nutrients. Lastly, think about the taste and keep track of how it digests. I personally like things to taste good and digest well. A whey concentrate might not digest as well as a whey isolate due to the lactose. Whey isolate is also going to be a higher quality than whey concentrate. However, this does not mean that you need to purchase a $100 tub of whey isolate protein powder. Higher price does not mean higher quality. Same with plant protein I have yet to see a protein supplement that costs $60+ and the price match the quality. A whey protein supplement usually costs around $20-$50.
Take Home Message on Whey Protein
Whey isolate is going to be a higher quality than whey concentrate. When purchasing a whey protein supplement look at the macronutrient profile, serving size, added sugars, and ingredient list. You do not need any type of “super food” blend included in whey protein as these are usually not dosed effectively. The average price of whey protein supplements are anywhere between $20-$50.
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