In this article, we’ll be focusing on the best protein powders for building muscle.  We’ll be going over the pros and cons of a number of popular protein powders, including both those derived from plants and animals.  

The question “what is the best protein powder for muscle gain?” is one that we get all the time here at Dioxyme.  While it may sound simple enough, it’s not such an easy question to answer. Ultimately there are a number of factors that go into assessing the quality of a protein.  

So before we get to the results, let’s first go over how we actually came up with our rankings. If you’d like to avoid some of the more technical aspects of the topic, you may want to skip ahead.

Rating Protein Quality

Our Ranking System

We’ve broken down our protein quality evaluation into 5 key elements: amino acid profile, biological value, DIAA score, MPS effect, and protein absorption.  Each element has been given a ranking ranging from 0.25 – 1, with the ranking of 1 being represented by a full star and 0.25 being represented by a quarter star.  

The best possible rating a protein powder could get would be 5 stars, which signifies that the protein did excellent in every quality measurements we considered.  A mixed score of 3.5 stars, on the other hand, may signify that the protein performed well on certain tests but not so much on others. A score below 3 stars might tell us that the protein isn’t all that effective when it comes to building muscle.  However, a low rating could also reflect missing data.

The unfortunate reality is that some types of proteins have yet to be thoroughly studied, which means that all of the different quality scores we’re taking into consideration aren’t going to be available for every protein.  As such a low rating doesn’t necessarily mean that the protein is inferior; it could simply mean there isn’t enough data to draw conclusions from.

  • What is Amino Acid Profile?

    One way scientists evaluate the efficacy of different protein sources is by looking at their amino acid profiles.  Believe it or not, different types of protein actually affect your body in different ways. Proteins are made up of amino acids (AAs) and different kinds of proteins contain different quantities of amino acids.  

    Essential amino acids (EAAs) cannot be produced within your body and can only be obtained through dietary sources.  Some proteins contain all 9 EAAs, while others do not. Proteins with a full profile of essential amino acids are known as complete proteins (CPs), while those that are missing some EAAs are considered incomplete proteins (IPs) — this list only includes complete proteins. (1)

    Even amongst complete proteins, amino acid balances can vary significantly.  While complete proteins may be better than IPs when it comes to building muscle, some CPs have better amino acid balances than others.(2)

    In addition to its amino acid profile, there are also a number of other factors that affect how well a particular protein works once it enters your body.  Over the years, scientists have developed several different techniques for evaluating how well your body uses protein, both biochemically and metabolically speaking.

  • What is Bological Value?

    Biological value (BV) is one of the more common measurements scientists use to assess protein quality.  Essentially, BV measures how much of the protein actually gets used by your body to form new tissues.  More specifically, biological value looks at nitrogen balance in humans as a means of assessing the digestibility of a protein source. (3)(4)

    The highest biological value found in all naturally occurring foods is found in eggs, which have a BV of 100. Other protein sources that have high biological values include cow’s milk at 91, beef at 80 and poultry at around 79. Vegetable proteins often have lower BVs, more regularly measuring in the 50s and 60s.

    It is important to point out, however, that as a rating system, biological value doesn’t necessarily take into account every single factor related to protein quality. Directly measuring nitrogen balances in humans can also be difficult, which has lead to the adoption of several other techniques for assessing protein quality.

  • What is DIAAS?

    Another measure for protein quality that’s become popular amongst researchers in recent years is the digestible indispensable amino acid score (DIAAS).  DIAAS primarily evaluates protein quality by assessing the amino acids that make up a protein. DIAAS particularly looks at the ileal digestibility of the amino acids in a protein, which basically means that scientists are looking at the AAs digested before the colon. (5)

    Through looking at a protein’s amino acid content, DIAAS attempts to identify any limiting amino acids that exist in a protein source.  AAs can potentially be limiting for a number of different reasons; a shortage or overabundance of certain types of amino acids can both negatively affect the quality of a protein. (6)

    A high DIAAS score (near or above 1.0) indicates a high digestibility and ultimately reflects the absence of potentially limiting amino acids, while a low score indicates that the protein is of poor quality and contains at least one amino acid that limits its digestibility.

  • What is MPS?

    Building muscle is ultimately dependent upon activating a biochemical process within your body known as muscle protein synthesis (MPS). There are numerous chemical pathways which are nutritionally, hormonally, and enzymatically dependent on MPS.   

    Different proteins and their different amino acid profiles affect the rate and degree of MPS differently. (7) Obviously, the greater the amount and the greater the rate at which a protein stimulates MPS, the better the muscle building effect.

  • What is Protein Absorption?

    Some proteins are absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract rather quickly and some much more slowly. The greatest stimulus for building muscle seems to be the unique combination of resistance exercise with a large protein feeding.

    Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefit of a rapidly absorbed protein dose within a short window of time following the training. (8)(9)(10)

    Though nutrient timing and timing windows are still debated in some scientific forums and online communities, the preponderance of evidence seems to support a benefit in using rapid absorption proteins.

What’s The Best Protein Powder for Building Muscle?

Animal-Based Protein Powders

Pros

Even amongst animal-based proteins, different proteins have different benefits.  For example, whey is high in BCAAs, which are important for muscle growth. Collagen protein is high in arginine glycine and alanine, known more for immune and digestive support.  

Animal-based protein powders are considered complete proteins, which means that they contain all 9 essential amino acids (EAAs).  Your body uses EAAs to repair and rebuild muscle tissue (along with a number of other things).

Proteins derived from animal sources on average have higher biological values when compared to plant-based proteins. Additionally, animal-based proteins are usually higher in vitamins and minerals like B12, Vitamin D, Omega-3, and iron.  

Cons

Animal-based proteins do contain higher concentrations of the amino acid methionine.  Your methionine levels have been found to have a direct relationship with your homocysteine levels. Elevated homocysteine levels are directly correlated with cardiovascular disease as well as blood clots.  

Whey Protein

5 Stars

Whey makes up about 20% of the proteins in milk, while casein makes up the other 80%.  While it may only make up a small portion of the protein in milk, whey is often considered a superfood.

It’s been consistently rated as the best, or among the best protein sources in just about every study on protein quality in which it’s been included.   With that being said, there are some important differences between whey concentrate and whey isolate that should be noted.

Whey Concentrate

Whey protein concentrate (WPC) is a concentrated powder that has been separated from the casein protein that’s also in milk.  Once extracted, the biological value of WPC goes up to 104, surpassing even egg protein.

WPC has many biologically active proteins that support muscle growth, immune function, and iron levels in blood cells. It does contain lactose, so many manufacturers also put beneficial digestive enzymes in their powders to help with digestion. WPC usually passes through digestion within 2-3 hours.

Whey Isolate

To create whey protein isolate (WPI), whey concentrate is purified by removing the fat and lactose, which is a complex sugar that many people have trouble digesting.  

The benefits are that WPI is absorbed even quicker than whey concentrate and on top of that, has an even higher biological value — closer to 140!  The one downside to WPI is that the purification process does remove several other biologically active and beneficial proteins.

Both plant and animal-based protein powders can come in either concentrated or isolated forms and in some instances, the two forms may actually be mixed together.

Casein Protein

4 Stars

On the flip side of whey, there’s casein, which as we already know, makes up the majority of the protein found in milk.  Casein is actually one of the first protein powders, originally hitting the market back in the 1950s.

Its digestion profile is very slow, usually taking between 6-8 hours to fully digest, which isn’t exactly ideal if we’re talking about resupplying your muscles with protein following an intense workout.  Casein’s biological value of 77 is also significantly lower than that of whey. While it may not be as effective as whey when it comes to building muscle, some athletes prefer the characteristics of casein for recovery purposes.  

Egg Protein

4 Stars

While whole eggs have a biological value of 100, most egg protein powders are made from egg whites rather than whole eggs.  When separated from the yoke, the biological value of egg whites drops to 88, which is still pretty good, but not nearly as good as whey.  

Collagen Protein

3.5 Stars

Collagen protein powders are derived from the bones, skin, and cartilage of animals.  
Collagen hydrolysate is an isolated, purified version that can come from a variety of different sources.  

Collagen does not have a particularly well-balanced amino acid profile being low in BCAAs, which play an important role in several aspects of the muscle-building process.  Collagen protein powders are however high in glycine, which plays an important part in cell signaling.

Several studies have shown that collagen powders may help with joint pain and arthritis, however, they may not be as effective when it comes to building muscle when compared to other animal-based protein powders.

Plant-Based Protein Powders

Pros

As opposed to animal-derived protein sources, protein powders that come from plants tend to have significantly lower methionine levels.  Again, lowering your methionine levels has been found to reduce the risk of a number of cardiovascular-related conditions.

Cons

On top of having lower biological values, another potential downside to plant-based proteins is that many are not complete proteins.  In fact, besides the proteins on this list, there may not be many other complete plant-based proteins out there.

Vegetable protein powder blends use a variety of different vegetable sources to balance their amino acid profile and thus provide a complete protein profile. Typically, blends will combine proteins from sources like pea, quinoa, and pumpkin seed.  Vegetable powders usually also have higher quantities of carbohydrates and fats than animal-derived powders.

Soy Protein

4.5 Stars

Soy is one of the few plant-based proteins with a well-balanced amino acid profile.  As such, it’s arguably the most popular protein source amongst vegans. Soy protein powder also has a healthy supply of BCAA’s, in addition to containing high levels of isoflavones.

As far as biological value goes, soy is amongst the best plant-based protein sources out there, with a biological value of 74 — that’s in the same league as casein.  On top of that, it also has an impressive absorption rate, comparable to whey isolate.

It is important to point out though that soy is high in phytoestrogens, which are essentially plant hormones that mimic estrogen in the human body.  Ultimately, that’s why even some vegan bodybuilders tend to favor protein sources other than soy.     

Rice Protein

3.75 Stars

Rice protein powders, which are often derived from brown rice, have become popular in some circles, however, most agree that they’re not as effective as animal-based proteins when it comes to building size and strength.

Rice protein powders are low in certain nutrients like lysine, which contributes to a less than ideal amino acid profile, when taken on its own.  Rice protein powders also have a relatively low biological value. While the BV may vary slightly depending on the type of rice used, rice protein powders are usually in the 60s.      

Quinoa Protein

3.5 Stars

Quinoa protein is derived from a plant grain of the same name.   Along with the others on this list, it’s one of the few plant-based protein powders that contain all 9 essential acids.

It also has a biological value of around 72, which isn’t jaw-dropping, but it’s pretty good as far as plant-based proteins go.  Based on the current evidence, quinoa appears to be moderately effective as a muscle-building plant-based protein powder.    

Pea Protein

3.25 Stars

Another popular plant-based protein powder is pea protein, which is usually derived from yellow split peas but can also come from a few other types of peas as well.  It’s become especially popular amongst those who cannot or do not eat dairy.

While pea protein is considered a complete protein, it doesn’t contain very much leucine or isoleucine (2 of the 3 BCAAs).  On top of that, it has a relatively pedestrian biological value at about 65.

Pumpkin Seed Protein

2.5 Stars

Pumpkin seed protein (PSP) is one of the most common ingredients found in vegetable protein blends.  While it may contain all 9 essential amino acids, pumpkin seed protein has a relatively short supply of the amino acids threonine.  

Additionally, it hasn’t been studied to the degree that most of the other proteins on this list have. The quality of pumpkin seed protein has yet to be quantified using standardized measurement systems like biological value or the DIAAS.  As such, it’s difficult to say with any certainty just how effective PSP is when it comes to building muscle.

Sacha Inchi Protein

2.5 Stars

Sacha inchi protein (SIP) powder is derived from a plant seed of the same name that originally comes from South America.  While it has high concentrations of some essential amino acids like arginine, it contains very low amounts of others like lysine.   

Because sacha inchi protein has only recently risen in popularity, it has yet to be thoroughly investigated.  Like with pumpkin seed protein, information on its biological value and DIAA score are unable to be obtained, which makes assessing its efficacy as a muscle-building supplement difficult.  

Hemp Protein

1 Stars

Protein powders derived from hemp have been growing in popularity in recent years here in the U.S.  Although a close relative to marijuana, hemp-based protein does not contain THC and therefore has no psychoactive properties.  

Hemp protein may technically be a complete protein, however, it’s short on leucine, which plays an important role in the muscle-building process.  On top of that, we weren’t able to uncover reliable values for anything other than the amino acid profile of hemp. As such, we can’t really make any definitive conclusions as to the overall quality of hemp protein.    

Wrap Up

Determining what the best type of protein powder is for building muscle is not as straightforward as one might think.  There are many factors involved in assessing protein quality and ultimately no one measurement system really tells us everything.  

On top of all that, a number of protein powders have yet to be thoroughly investigated by scientists, making it even more difficult to come to a definitive conclusion on the matter.  However, from what we do know, whey protein appears to be the most effective protein powder when it comes to building muscle.

That’s not to say however that vegetable proteins cannot also be effective for putting on size and strength as well.  While there may be some inherent limitations when it comes to biological value, plant-based proteins can certainly still help you build muscle, especially once their amino acid profiles have been balanced out.