By Steven Ashton

Protein supplementation seems to be the rage at most gyms. Every gym seems to promote and sell their favorite pet brand and tout it as the best.  Selecting a quality protein can be a complex matter and can easily go deeper than the scope of this article. This article will help to explain in lay terms what some of the labels mean and how to avoid wasting money on inferior products. For more detailed discussions of protein supplements, refer to the resources listed at the bottom of this article.

Why take protein supplements?

Protein is the most biologically active and satiating macronutrient. Protein helps to stimulate metabolism, build and rebuild muscle, lower stress and regulate blood sugar. The amino acids in protein provide the foundations for many critical processes in the body. While I don’t recommend substituting whole foods with bars and powders because they might not have as many of the cofactors and enzymes. I think supplementing with a high quality protein in addition to eating a whole foods based diet can be an effective strategy for weight loss, muscle gain and disease recovery.  Supplements are exactly that and should not regularly be substituted for real food. Supplementation is meant to enhance a healthful diet.

Deciphering the labels

Your protein supplement should be affordable, and not contain sucralose, splenda, sugar or any artificial color, flavor or sweetener. Sweeteners should be natural such as stevia or fruit based. Look for grass-fed, antibiotic and hormone free, non-GMO.

Watch out for amino acid spiking

If your favorite protein powder has singular non-essential amino acids added to the ingredient list it means it has been spiked with cheap aminos to boost the total protein content. This is not a complete protein source and should be avoided. Look for  glutamine, creatine, glycine, taurine, valine, and isoleucine on the ingredients list.

Plant or Animal?

Animal  proteins

Full Spectrum Hydrolyzed beef protein is partially broken down or predigested beef that is easier to absorb than chewing a steak. This is a complete protein containing collagen that is gluten-free, dairy-free and legume-free and a whopping 97% protein.  This is especially helpful in muscle recovery and recovering from chronic stress. This is from a supplement company that I use  called Designs for Health.

Hydrolyzed collagen is made from bones, cartilage and skin. This is the same thing as good old fashioned gelatin and contains all the amino acids and is easily absorbed by the digestive system. Contains 90% protein. Easily dissolves in cold or or hot water and can be added to smoothies or juice. One of the best collagen supplements and the one I use in my family is Great Lakes hydrolyzed collagen

This is a high quality grass fed collagen protein from pasture raised cattle and contains a high amount of glycine and all the other collagen peptides.

Whey protein is one of the most bioavailable and popular forms of protein but may not be well tolerated by some, especially those with gluten sensitivities.

Casein protein is the predominant protein in milk. Generally only available as an isolate. Sometimes it’s shown on the label as caseinate or micellar casein. This is a slow digesting protein and is often taken at bedtime as a snack. It is also good as a meal replacement if you want to get filled up. Since it is slow to absorb, it is not ideal for immediate post workout recovery. Watch casein labels carefully as they tend to have added sugar.

Egg protein is an excellent protein source for vegetarians and is more absorbable without the antinutrients present in plant based proteins.

Fish protein –Great news for pescatarians! Fish protein is actually being produced by AminoMarine, A company based in Missouri. It’s called “raw fish powder” and is produced from wild cod minus the fish oil. They market it as PaleoOcean. Although I have not tried this one, I will be soon and will write about it in upcoming articles. This protein supplement is hypoallergenic and may be a good option for those with egg allergies or lactose intolerances.

Isolate or Concentrate?

When whey protein is separated from the milk through a process known as ion exchange or filtering, it is dried into a powder. This powder contains some of the original minerals, trace amounts of lactose and fats and becomes more absorbable.

Whey protein concentrate is about 80% protein and is the least processed and the least expensive of the two types.

Whey protein isolate is further processed by removing the remaining fats and lactose rendering about 90% protein.

What’s in the other 10% or 20%? Moisture, fat, carbs and minerals.

When comparing the two, keep in mind that the concentrates are less processed or denatured and in a more natural state, which is easier on the gut. Just because concentrates are less expensive does not make them inferior. For those that are lactose intolerant, isolate may work better.

Plant  proteins

Vegetarians note that biologically speaking, animal based proteins are superior to plant based proteins in that they are more bioavailable, meaning more readily absorbed and the most concentrated per serving.(refer to charts in Chris Kresser’s book, pgs 133-136).

Some common plant proteins are pea, hemp, rice, soy. Note that soy is not a recommended protein source due to genetic modifications.


BCAA’s make you hungry and allow you to eat more. If you care to know the details as to why read on:

Branched chain amino acids are but three amino acids (Valine, Leucine, Isoleucine)that are usually plentiful in the amino acid profile of most proteins. These three amino acids account for 35% of the essential amino acids found in muscle proteins. Some products use just these specific amino acids and market them as BCAA’s. BCAA’s work by diminishing tryptophan release into the brain which causes a decrease in serotonin concentrations. This causes an effect of reducing satiety and increases appetite, allowing one to eat more. This is great for those wanting to gain weight and eat more than they normally would, but not really necessary to take as a separate supplement otherwise.

Alternative Protein sources

The US is about the only country that doesn’t regularly use bugs as a food source. That is now changing thanks to the availability of cricket flour. Cricket flour is produced from drying out the whole insect and then grinding into a fine powder. This powder is being put into bars and shakes and carries a pretty impressive amino acid profile and is probably more sustainable than most other protein sources (see info graphic). I regularly eat Exo bars and enjoy the taste and texture and I have not chirped once.

How much Protein to take? 1-1.5g per pound of body weight, 50-100 grams/day on a 2,000 calorie diet or 15-35% of total calories is a general guideline. The upper level should be for those on extreme weight loss programs or extreme level athletics. Athletes and people training at moderate levels should be at at the mid range of 25-30% protein. 20-25% for the elderly, chronically ill, and people under a lot of stress.


Experiment with different protein supplements and find one that works for you. It is a good idea to rotate amongst several types of proteins to add some variety in your supplementation.

I prefer and recommend whey protein concentrate which works well for most, even those with lactose issues. If whey concentrate causes problems try switching to a quality isolate. If isolate causes problems, try the beef or egg or better yet, insect protein. When it comes to protein, it’s all about the quality and arming yourself with the knowledge of how to read those labels.


Kresser, C. (2013). The Paleo Cure. New York, Little, Brown and Company.

Photos by Steven Ashton