HomeFitnessThe best protein supplements of 2024 – but do they work?

The best protein supplements of 2024 – but do they work?

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Creatine, a compound that is stored in muscle tissue and the brain, has attracted growing interest for its ability to rapidly regenerate adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a chemical that cells use as energy.

As a result, creatine supplements are thought to be potentially valuable for muscle performance and providing bursts of energy during workouts. 

While people who eat a high-protein diet will already have more than enough creatine in their muscles, as the substance is commonly found in seafood and red meat, some studies have suggested that people who eat a plant-based diet, or those who are relatively new to exercising, may benefit from creatine supplements.

In some cases, research has shown it can improve the amount of weight people can lift by up to 32 per cent and increase muscle mass by 7.2 per cent, particularly in the upper body.

One review paper from 2021 indicated that creatine may be especially effective for women when used in combination with resistance exercises. Because some creatine is stored in the brain, the review also suggested that it could help boost mood and cognitive function.

For vegetarians and vegans, animal-derived supplements such as whey protein and casein may be off-limits. Dr David Rogerson, a researcher in the Academy of Sport and Physical Activity at Sheffield Hallam University, also points out that these supplements may not be suitable for people with certain allergies.

“Some people experience issues with dairy products in terms of their tolerability,” he says. “Whey and casein can aggravate that, and so they might find a plant-based source easier to consume.”

Soy is arguably the most heavily researched alternative to animal protein supplements, and last year a review paper found that in some cases, soy can be just as good at promoting muscle growth as whey protein. 

Rogerson feels that for the majority of people, the differences between animal and plant-based protein supplements are likely to be relatively negligible. “Whether whey protein, for example, is better than another type of protein, it’s marginal at best,” he says. “So what someone chooses to use really comes down to personal preference.”

Along with soy, pea protein is another popular plant-based protein supplement. Sarkar describes it as being quite easily digestible, while Deane says that it does contain the same nine essential amino acids as whey protein and casein, but in smaller quantities.

“You would need to have a lot more of it to get the same response as something like whey,” says Deane. “This means it might cost more for people, because they’re having to take larger amounts, and with older people who don’t want to eat as much, they might not adhere to that.”

Collagen, a type of protein, is present in astonishing abundance in our skin, cartilage and other connective tissues. Nearly a third of all the proteins in the human body are various types of collagen, but from our 20s onwards, our ability to produce them ourselves dwindles, making us progressively wrinklier and stiffer.

This has created an enormous market for collagen supplements, many of which are targeted at skin health. While the jury is still out on whether these supplements can really help retain youthful skin tone and elasticity, scientists are interested in whether they can help prevent frailty. Researchers at Liverpool John Moores University are currently examining whether they can make older adults less vulnerable to tripping and falling.

“Collagen is a poor source of the nine essential amino acids, so it isn’t as efficacious for helping to maintain or grow muscle as things like whey or pea protein for example,” says Deane. “But it’s rich in the other 11 amino acids so there may be benefits in these other areas.”

Rogerson says that blended protein powders, sometimes containing a mixture of whey, casein and egg proteins or different plant-based proteins, are becoming increasingly popular.

One of the best-known blended brands is Huel, but as with many other blends, Rogerson says he would categorise the product as more of a high-protein meal replacement than a supplement.

“Different blends of proteins have been around for a while now, and they’re often higher in calories because they contain carbohydrates and fat,” he says. “Some of the benefits are that they’re processed to be easy to consume, super convenient and they contain things like fibre and other nutrients. But if you’re not careful, they can really increase your calorie intake if you’re having them on top of meals. They should also be an occasional choice rather than a full replacement for a proper meal.”

What to watch out for with protein supplements: calories, chemicals, kidney issues

While supplements are a good way of boosting your protein intake, Rogerson urges consumers to always check the ingredient list carefully as many manufacturers will add in extra sugars to increase the palatability of their product.

“You don’t want these extras that are adding calories,” he says. “If you’re not careful, some of these supplements can be quite high in carbohydrates.”

Two years ago, a report from a US-based non-profit organisation called the Clean Label Project drew attention to the issue of contamination within protein supplements. After screening 134 different products, it found that many supplements contained heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury, a chemical found in plastics called bisphenol-A (BPA), pesticides or other known carcinogens. The levels of these contaminants was often dangerously high, with one particular protein powder containing 25 times the allowed limit of BPA.

“This created a bit of controversy,” says Rogerson. “But my perception is if you’re buying quality products, you probably don’t need to worry about it as much.”

The other consideration, particularly for older adults with underlying kidney problems, is to be careful of consuming higher amounts of protein without careful consultation with a doctor or dietitian. This is because removing the waste products from protein is stressful for the kidneys and forces them to work harder, and so people with chronic kidney disease are often encouraged to eat a low-protein diet.

“We need to be really cautious about recommending higher amounts of protein to older people if they have kidney problems,” says Rogerson.

Are there any other benefits in protein supplements?

Increasing the amount of protein in your diet can also have other benefits for your health, other than muscle mass and function.

“There is a little bit of evidence that suggests having protein supplements before a meal could help with things like blood glucose regulation,” says Rogerson. “Some pieces of research have looked at whether this can help curb appetite in people who are overweight or obese. Protein in general, as a nutrient, we do know that it’s helpful in a weight loss context, because it’s a really complex thing to digest and absorb. So it tends to make people feel fuller for longer.”

Verdict

While supplements can be a useful option, overall experts feel that consumers are best advised to try to get their protein requirements from their diet. “In general, I would say that you can get all the proteins that you’re looking for from a natural diet,” says Sarkar. “And as your requirements rise with age, you just increase the amount of protein that you’re eating to around half of your plate.”

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