[Part 3] The Perfect Protein Blend
Remember that in the last post, I reviewed the most popular protein types among strength athletes (whey, casein, soy and egg (albumen)), and ultimately recommended a whey/casein blend for the foundation of your protein supplementation. (By "foundation," I mean what you'd use either as a meal replacement or supplemental protein between meals, or both.)
In this 3rd and final post of the series, I'm going to answer the BIG question (what to choose?) by revealing what I believe is the perfect protein blend for building muscle and strength, consistently over time.
First: Let's identify the highest-quality forms of whey and casein.
In the last post, I noted the following 3 types of commercially available forms of whey:
- Whey protein isolate (WPI)
- Whey protein concentrate (WPC)
- Whey protein hydrolysate (WPH)
Without reviewing what was previously written about each, I'll restate that as part of your protein foundation, WPI is the highest-quality form of whey, featuring 90% or more protein by weight, with virtually no lactose or fat. Protein isolates, in general, are the cleanest and most effective proteins, and WPI is no exception.
(Note that for peri-workout protein (i.e. before, during and to a lesser extent, after training), WPH is a fantastic protein source because it's even more rapidly digested than other forms of whey, so amino acids can be delivered more quickly to reduce muscle degradation during training, as well as kick-start muscle building after training.)
The majority of casein on the protein powder market today, for cost reasons, comes in the form of (calcium and sodium) caseinates. In fact, most of the whey/casein blends contain these forms of casein, which one can understand from a business perspective. These (products dubiously) claim the benefits of casein while keeping product costs low. (Caseinates are much less expensive ingredients than unadulterated casein (i.e. micellar casein -- which I'll address below.)
(This is part of a larger trend in the sports nutrition industry -- particularly with respect to protein -- to formulate new products (and reformulate existing products) with lower cost, lower quality ingredients to meet consumer demand at reduced price points but higher profit margins.)
However, from a performance perspective, caseinates are NOT what we're interested in for the perfect protein blend.
Casein is also commercially available as micellar casein or casein hydrolysate (or "hydrolyzed casein"), which are both extraordinary proteins, although the latter, while having great potential for peri-workout nutrition, won't serve anyone well as an anti-catabolic protein because, like WPH, it is partially pre-digested for faster digestion.
Thus the best casein for our blend, which I alluded to in the last post, is micellar casein, hands down.
Micellar casein exists in the same form as casein in milk, as micelles.
You'll recall from the previous post that after ingestion, micelles form a gel or clot in the stomach, which makes casein very efficient in nutrient supply, for it is this clot that is responsible for casein's sustained, slow release of amino acids into the blood stream.
In other words, the micelle is key to casein's famed anti-catabolic action, and is unique to micellar casein.
Caseinates, by contrast, have been shown in research studies to release amino acids into the blood stream at a rate consistent with whey protein, which completely neutralizes the value of casein as a "slow release" protein with nitrogen retention and protein-sparing properties. [Reitelseder et al. 2011]
Next: Digestion and Absorption
Even the best-quality proteins are all but useless if they’re not readily absorbed, supplying amino acids to trigger and support protein synthesis.
Absorption refers to the process of digesting protein (i.e. ‘hydrolysis’) in the stomach into polypeptides (chains of amino acids forming the structure of protein molecules) and further into free form amino acids in the small intestine, where they ultimately get absorbed into the blood stream and eventually delivered to various cells throughout the body in accordance with metabolic needs.
For strength athletes, who incur muscle cell damage during weight training, protein absorption and amino acid uptake is absolutely critical for muscle growth and repair.
Unfortunately, (particularly with respect to whey) there is a limit to how much protein can be absorbed in the amount of time available for digestion. After protein passes through the digestive tract, the window of opportunity for absorption has closed. While the speed with which certain proteins pass through the digestive tract is debatable, what is widely accepted is that the more quickly proteins are hydrolyzed (digested), the greater the elevation in amino acid concentrations in the blood following ingestion — meaning more signaling of protein synthesis via BCAAs (particularly leucine) and more building blocks available for muscle tissue growth and repair.
Enter proteolytic (protein-digesting) enzymes.
Proteolytic enzymes (such as, for example, protease, bromelain, papain, etc.) are key because they help hydrolyze proteins, speeding the rate of digestion and increasing the absorption of amino acids for signaling (and supplying the building blocks for) protein synthesis.
Now, if you've been paying attention, you might wonder about the effect of these enzymes on casein, which we covet in the perfect protein blend for its anti-catabolic properties attributable to the slow, steady rate of amino acid absorption.
While the sports nutrition research in this area has only focused on whey protein, from a theoretical perspective, the clots formed in the stomach by casein micelles aren't going to be materially affected by the presence of practical quantities of enzymes found in commercially available protein powders. Remember that whey naturally passes through the digestive tract quickly, making digestive aids both very useful and also, due to high susceptibility, quite effective.
By contrast, with casein, the clotting of micelles causes a natural rate of digestion that is very slow, so the presence of milligram-doses of enzymes aren't likely to materially alter the benefits of casein as a slow and steady supplier of amino acids.
(Note that, although sports nutrition research here centers on whey, casein has been used in other areas of study, for many decades, as a "substrate" for testing the effectiveness of various proteases (protein-digesting enzymes), and this research supports the theoretical position described above.) [Miller et al. 1964]
Finally -- Putting This All Together For The Perfect Protein Blend
OK, stay with me. Let's quickly recap what we need for the perfect protein blend:
- Highest-quality proteins:
- Whey protein isolate
- Micellar casein
- Nothing else!... (Having more protein types means less of the better/best proteins, gram-for-gram... This is clearly an area where less is more.)
- Digestibility (proteolytic enzymes)
- Nothing else (Again, what we're interested in is the perfect protein to build muscle and strength (as well as promote fat loss). Anything else in your protein formula is ancillary nonsense. If you want creatine (you should), then supplement with it separately, don't look for it in your protein powder. The same goes for free form amino acids. If you haven't heard, there is currently a widespread industry practice/deception of tossing a bunch of free form amino acids in a "protein" formula and counting the gram quantities of these aminos as "protein" on the label, fooling consumers into believing the protein powder actually consists of complete proteins. This saves unscrupulous companies on product costs because free aminos are much cheaper than complete proteins.)
So, we want a really clean formula containing only the best protein isolates and protein-digesting enzymes, and ideally, we'd like it to be pleasant to consume, meaning great flavor, texture and consistency.
Does one exist?
Only one that I'm aware of, and it's brand new.
It has the cleanest formula, containing only whey protein isolate and micellar casein in the ideal raio, and what I believe is the industry's largest quantity (by a landslide) of one of the most effective protein-digesting enzymes, bromelain (a pineapple-derived "hydrolase").
Additionally, it's all-natural (no artificial flavors or sweeteners), and tastes phenomenal (clean, with no faux-flavor or aftertaste), is silky smooth, and mixes instantly (which is especially remarkable given its high micellar casein content, which tends to be very chalky).
How do I know this?
Well, as I'm sure you've guessed, my company (Emergent Nutrition) created it.
It's called SYNERGY-XP™, aptly-named for the synergistic complement of whey isolate, micellar casein and digestive support.
Sales pitch aside, I'm really proud of this product. I truly believe it is the absolute best protein powder on the market, and, without a doubt in my mind, the most perfect protein supplement that can be developed with current protein and manufacturing technology.
I (and others) poured our souls into developing this protein blend, and it's something I've literally been conceiving over 20 years.
I've been using protein powders for 21 years (beginning way back when MET-Rx was first introduced), when it completely revolutionized the protein powder and even the entire nutritional supplement industry. It truly did. When considering the history of the industry, at the most basic level, there are two periods that stand out: pre-MET-Rx and post-MET-Rx; that's how pivotal this new protein was (it spawned the category of "meal replacement powder" and truly set a new standard).
For its time, it was the best protein shake, hands down. (In fact, there is a fair bit of evidence that the original product was even better than the vast majority of what exists on the market today.)
That was over 20 years ago, though, and protein technology has markedly improved, as have production techniques. The protein isolates that made (the original) MET-Rx so effective are a lot less expensive to produce (although much more expensive than the cheaper proteins used in most protein formulas), and are much more readily available.
So, why haven't we seen a notable improvement in protein quality since that time?
Simply because there are much cheaper ingredients available to lower product costs, and a regulatory environment so lax on nutritional supplement companies that labels can be designed to be very deceiving, giving the impression of quality when in fact the formulas haven't advanced in the last 20-25 years.
Until now. :)
Seriously, I feel the same way about SYNERGY-XP™ that I did 21 years ago about MET-Rx. I believe it to be a game-changer.