Hydrolyzed protein powders contain "pre-digested proteins," so they're easier to absorb (bye, upset stomach) and may help speed up post-workout muscle recovery.

By Tiffany Ayuda
June 18, 2020
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Whether you're lifting heavy or HIIT-ing it hard, one of the best ways to help your body recover after a tough workout is to consume some protein. Maybe you add a scoop of protein powder to water or blend it into a smoothie.

But for some people—especially those with tummy troubles—chasing down a protein shake doesn't feel so great and can cause an upset stomach. This is where hydrolyzed protein powder can help; this quick-absorbing protein might offer faster recovery, better digestion, and an easier time hitting your macros. Here's what you should know.

What the Heck Is Hydrolyzed Protein Powder?

If you've researched protein powders before, you've probably heard of protein concentrate (which contains fats and carbs and is lower in protein) and isolate (in which fats and carbs are reduced, so protein content is higher). But there's a new protein formulation that's becoming popular for its super-fast absorption: hydrolyzed, or hydrolysate, proteins.

"Hydrolyzed means that it's been broken down to some degree and is quicker to digest," explains Brittany Michels, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N., a nutrition expert for The Vitamin Shoppe. "The hydrolysis process normally includes either protein digestive enzymes or heating a protein with acid. Both help to break proteins down into singular or smaller-chained amino acids for easier digestion and absorption."

Let's back up: Amino acids are the building blocks of all proteins. And by breaking down the protein into even smaller chains of amino acids, called peptides, hydrolysis essentially makes these proteins pre-digested so it's easier for your body to absorb the protein more quickly.

"Smaller di- and tripeptides are absorbed as they are. Larger peptides require further breakdown prior to absorption," says Marie Spano, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S., C.S.S.D., consulting sports nutritionist for the Atlanta Braves and lead author of Nutrition for Sport, Exercise, and Health. "I like to think of hydrolyzed protein as a car versus non-hydrolyzed protein as a truck that transports several cars at the same time. Both have the same engine. The car will go a lot faster than a bigger truck with several cars on it. Or you can think of it like cars going through a toll booth. Hydrolyzed proteins have an EZ pass and cruise right through, while non-hydrolyzed proteins have to stop and pay a toll, another process that slows them down," she says.

If you're considering adding hydrolyzed protein powder into your diet, here are some things to consider before picking up a tub of this stuff.

The Benefits of Hydrolyzed Protein Powder

It's easier on your stomach.

Good news: Hydrolyzed protein powders are less likely to cause a stomachache and gut issues. The lactose in traditional whey protein powders can cause digestive distress, such as bloating, diarrhea, and cramping, especially in people who are lactose intolerant. But "the hydrolysis process results in a whey protein powder that is lower in lactose, as well as lower in fat and carbs," says Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N., an expert for The Vitamin Shoppe. That said, if you have a more severe dairy allergy or intolerance, you may do better with a plant-based hydrolyzed protein, according to Blakely. "Even though the hydrolysis process typically results in a lower lactose product—sometimes even lactose-free—a whey product will still contain milk proteins, which isn't a good option for those with a dairy allergy," says Blakely.

It's lower in carbs and fats.

The hydrolysis process results in a whey protein powder that's more concentrated protein, making it lower in fat and carbs as well, says Blakely. Due to its lower fat and carb content, Michels says hydrolyzed protein powders are also great for those following low-carb and low-fat diets.

It might help you recover faster.

Turns out, faster absorption may mean faster recovery, too. Because hydrolyzed protein powder contains smaller peptides than non-hydrolyzed protein, it's more rapidly absorbed in the GI tract and more readily available for use by the body, making recovery post-workout more efficient, says Blakely. "Not only does this result in a quicker supply of nutrients to your strained muscles, but it may result in overall better absorption of protein for some individuals. This can potentially improve recovery time and reduce muscle soreness," she says.

A little extra background: When you work out, you create small tears in your muscles, which results in the breakdown of protein. Amino acids are needed to help repair those tissues. There are non-essential amino acids, which your body can make on its own, and then there are essential amino acids, which you need to get from food or supplements. Certain essential amino acids called branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)—leucine, valine, and isoleucine—are stored in the muscles for energy and play a significant role in muscle recovery.

"Without proper intake of protein and uptake of digested amino acids, muscle recovery would be prolonged," says Michels. "The hydrolyzed process breaks down protein into smaller-chained amino acids, which promotes speedier absorption and allows for quicker muscle repair and rebuild," she says. Because hydrolyzed protein has faster absorption, it might supply BCAAs to your muscles more quickly. "Hydrolyzed protein powders don't necessarily have higher quantities of BCAAs unless the manufacturer has added extra amino acids during processing," says Blakely. "The branch chain amino acids in the protein will just be more quickly accessible due to the decreased absorption time."

Research On Hydrolyzed Protein

This all makes sense in theory, but what does science say about hydrolyzed protein? The short answer is that there isn't enough research. "There are relatively few well-designed studies examining hydrolyzed protein versus non-hydrolyzed protein," says Spano. "I suspect hydrolyzed forms may be superior to non-hydrolyzed forms for slower-digesting proteins, like casein, but we don't know the magnitude of the benefit, if any, over time," she explains. Moreover, research hasn't delved into the differences between hydrolyzed whey, casein, collagen, soy, and other plant-based proteins and their effectiveness for recovery compared to their non-hydrolyzed counterparts.

A small 2010 study in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport compared the recovery effects of hydrolysate whey protein versus whey protein isolate. In the study, 28 participants consumed either 25 grams of hydrolysate whey protein in flavored water or 25 grams of whey protein isolate in flavored water. Results showed that the participants who consumed the hydrolysate whey protein powder recovered their muscle power better and faster than those who consumed the flavored water with whey protein isolate after an intense workout. However, there was no difference in muscle soreness between the two whey proteins. "Based on this study, it's possible hydrolyzed whey protein may have some benefits over whey protein isolate, especially if you're an athlete who trains hard one day and has to recover fast before the next day," says Spano.

Research has shown that hydrolyzed protein powder can also help with restoring glycogen post-workout. (FYI, your body uses glycogen for energy, which is stored in your liver and muscles.) Restoring glycogen after a workout is essential so you have fuel for your next workout and to limit post-workout muscle damage, according to a 2004 article in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine.

According to a small 2000 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, adding protein hydrolysate to a carbohydrate drink provides the same glycogen-replenishing benefits as drinking a higher-carb drink. Participants drank their beverages every 30 minutes, and five hours post-exercise, muscle biopsies were taken. This study backs up previous research that adding protein to low-dose carbs can promote faster glycogen synthesis, aka the process of restoring glycogen, says Spano.

"The addition of protein can help restore glycogen stores in the muscles post-workout, as opposed to having high amounts of carbohydrates only," says Blakely. In fact, a September 2004 study in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine demonstrated that consuming a protein supplement in addition to a carbohydrate one after exercise can help improve the rate of replenishing muscle glycogen; the study showed that adding protein to a carbohydrate supplement increased the rate of glycogen storage by approximately 38 percent over the first four hours of recovery. "This may be due to the synergistic effect the two macronutrients (protein and carbohydrates) have on insulin response and muscle repair," explains Blakely.

That's because the majority of the carbs you eat are converted into glucose for fuel and when you aren't using it, it's converted into glycogen. For glucose to convert into glycogen, insulin is needed to direct glucose from your blood to your liver and muscles. And hydrolyzed protein has been shown to have a faster insulin response than non-hydrolyzed proteins because the proteins are already broken down and it's absorbed into the body so quickly, says Michels. "Glycogen storage is turned on during this stimulated insulin response," she says. An October 2015 review in the World Journal of Diabetes suggests that hydrolysate whey protein stimulates insulin secretion at a greater rate than intact whey protein and whey isolate.

If hydrolyzed protein might help you repair muscles and recover glycogen faster, it makes sense that it can give you an athletic edge over non-hydrolyzed protein, right? Time and more research will tell. "Yes, hydrolyzed protein is absorbed faster, so it leads to a faster rise in amino acids and sooner peak in muscle protein synthesis, but does this make a difference when training over time? We don't know. It may be beneficial for very long duration workouts, where ease of digestion and fast absorption are more tolerable," says Spano. So if you're racking up miles for marathon or triathlon training, or gearing up for a bodybuilding competition, for instance, hydrolyzed protein powder may help, due to your increased performance and recovery demands, says Michels.

Hydrolyzed Whey vs. Plant-Based Protein Blends

When it comes to building strength and lean muscle mass, whey protein powder is the gold standard. In a September 2016 review in Nutrition & Metabolism, researchers measured the level of leucine—one of the BCAAs needed for muscle repair—in different types of protein powders, including soy, pea protein, and rice protein, and found that whey protein had the highest concentration of leucine.

But for hydrolyzed protein powders, it's hard to say which one comes out on top. For one thing, each protein powder product has its own method of hydrolyzing, which yields different varieties of protein breakdown, says Michels. "For example, one hydrolyzed whey company may have more singular amino acids present than another. And because all types of protein have varying amino acid profiles and hydrolysis processes, it's hard to say one is superior," explains Michels.

However, research shows that non-hydrolyzed whey has superior absorption rates over non-hydrolyzed plant proteins, says Michels. "It would be safe to predict that if this is the case with non-hydrolyzed whey, that it would ring true with hydrolyzed whey as well," she says.

Moreover, based on protein digestibility-corrected amino acid scores (PDCASS), which rates protein quality based on amino acid profile and digestibility, whey protein (and other animal proteins) have a better PDCASS score than plant-based proteins. That's because—with the exception of soy—plant proteins are incomplete proteins, meaning they don't contain sufficient amounts of all essential amino acids, whereas whey (and other animal proteins) do. "A plant-based protein powder can provide all the essential amino acids, though, by combining various plant sources to make complete proteins," says Blakely. (Related: Vegan Protein Powders That Don't Taste Like Dirt)

The main thing you want to focus on between protein powders is the source of protein. "You will get a different breakdown of peptides and amino acids depending on the original protein source," says Blakely. "Whey and soy are complete proteins, whereas pea protein is not complete. That doesn't make pea protein a bad option, but you'll want to make sure you're getting other complete proteins in your diet," she says. For example, an August 2018 study in Amino Acids found that while plant-based protein isolates don't have sufficient amounts of the muscle-building amino acids leucine, lysine, and methionine, combining different plant-based proteins or blending plant-based proteins with animal-based ones can provide the ideal essential amino acid profile you want.

All that said, whey appears to be the only hydrolyzed protein powder available on the market right now; interestingly, hydrolyzed soy is sometimes used as an additive in food (and can even appear as baby formula). But it's unclear why hydrolyzed soy protein powders aren't really available in the market, says Spano. This could be due to how new hydrolyzed protein supplements are, and also due to the fact that people don't have the same trouble digesting soy as they do with whey.

Who Should Try Hydrolyzed Protein Powder?

Spano recommends hydrolyzed protein powders for people who have issues digesting regular protein powders. "Those who try a pretty pure—meaning, few ingredients—protein isolate and still get an upset stomach should try a hydrolyzed protein," says Spano. "These may be especially helpful for those with malabsorption issues, like a person with IBS," she says. As pointed out earlier, hydrolyzed whey or hydrolyzed plant-based proteins may also be a good option for those who don't do well with whey.

Both Michels and Blakely also recommend hydrolyzed protein powders for those who want to gain lean muscle, do intense exercise, and/or have higher recovery demands. "Individuals looking for a competitive edge may benefit from the use of a hydrolyzed protein powder, as they may be able to utilize a larger percentage of the amino acids for muscle building and repair," says Blakely. "Those looking for quicker recovery between workouts may also want to consider it," she adds.

How often you should consume hydrolyzed protein depends on your own recovery and muscle-building needs, but you can consume it as you would with other protein powders. "It can be used pre- or post-workout daily for muscle maintenance and recovery, and also be used to help meet your daily protein needs," says Blakely. "I generally recommend using it no more than once to twice daily. Aim to get the rest of your proteins from whole food sources," she says. (Related: Here's How Much Protein You Actually Need Each Day)

If you're using hydrolyzed protein to replace protein in a meal, Blakely suggests combining it with fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats for a balanced and complete nutrient profile. "For an athlete looking for gains, coupling hydrolyzed protein with healthy carbohydrates may be of benefit," says Michels, especially if you're seeking better muscle recovery. "But those using it for non-exercise functions, such as improved digestion, may not benefit from coupling it with other foods," she says.

As always, it's best to consult a registered dietitian about how to safely and effectively incorporate hydrolyzed protein powder in your diet—and remember that getting added protein through supplements is by no means necessary. Most people can meet their protein needs through whole foods alone.

How to Shop for Hydrolyzed Protein Powder

When choosing a hydrolyzed protein powder, you should look for "100-percent hydrolyzed" on the label for the fastest absorption, says Blakely. Some protein powders contain both hydrolyzed and non-hydrolyzed protein, so if you're looking for a powder that contains only hydrolyzed protein, verify it on the label. The hydrolyzed protein should also be the first ingredient on the list, which indicates that it's the ingredient in the greatest amount in the product. (Related: Should You Be Taking Pre-Workout Supplements?)

"Some labels will provide BCAA and amino acid profiles, which can be additional factors to compare, based on your own needs," says Michels. Lastly, you want to choose hydrolyzed protein powders that have minimal, clean ingredients; ideally, one that's certified organic and is free of artificial colors and sweeteners. Keep in mind that hydrolyzed protein powders tend to be pricier than concentrate and isolate. Before you buy, it's good practice to check if the product is certified by an independent, not-for-profit organization, like NSF International, which ensures that it does, in fact, contain what it claims to have on the label and doesn't have prohibited substances and unsafe levels of contaminants. (Related: The Best Protein Powders for Women, According to Nutritionists)

Hydrolyzed Protein Powders to Try

Left: Amazon
Center: Amazon
Right: Amazon

Optimum Nutrition Platinum Hydro Whey Protein Isolate contains extra BCAAs, including leucine for faster recovery. (Buy It: Optimum Nutrition Platinum Hydro Whey Protein Isolate, $52 per 3.5lb tub, amazon.com)

Sascha Fitness Hydrolyzed Whey Protein Isolate is 100-percent isolate and hydrolyzed grass-fed protein, has zero carbs, fat, and sugar, and is sweetened with Stevia. (Buy It: Sascha Fitness Hydrolyzed Whey Protein Isolate, $40 per 2lb tub, amazon.com)

ISO100 Hydrolyzed 100% Whey Protein Isolate has, yep, 100-percent whey protein isolate, plus 2.7 grams of Leucine per serving and less than 1 gram of fat and sugar per serving. (Buy It: ISO100 Hydrolyzed 100% Whey Protein Isolate, $43 per 3-pound tub, amazon.com)

Vital Proteins Collagen Whey Protein contains a mix of grass-fed whey (which, to be clear, is not hydrolyzed) and full hydrolyzed collagen peptides for super easy digestion. (Buy It: Vital Proteins Collagen Whey Protein, $44 per 1.3lb tub, amazon.com)

BodyTech Hydrolyzed Whey Protein Isolate provides 30g of protein per serving from hydrolyzed whey protein isolate and only 1g of sugar and fat. (Buy It: BodyTech Hydrolyzed Whey Protein Isolate, $30 per 1.67-pound tub, amazon.com)

Muscle Feast Grass-Fed & Hormone-Free Hydrolyzed Whey Protein is hormone- and antibiotic-free, contains no artificial flavors, and is sweetened with Stevia. (Buy It: Muscle Feast Grass-Fed & Hormone-Free Hydrolyzed Whey Protein, $65 per 5lb tub, amazon.com)

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