9 plant-based whey protein alternatives and their effectivenessUPDATED ON Jul 12, 2022
Whey protein has been the dominant source of protein powders since they really became a thing, but are they really the best choice? Whey is a byproduct of dairy farming and whether you feel that this business is ethically wrong or not, environmentally it does take up a lot of resources in order to produce. These days plant based protein powders are readily available and their cost is often on a similar scale to that of whey protein. So if you feel like being more environmentally friendly or even just want to try something new, let’s have a look at what’s out there.
Soy protein is a rare plant protein in that it is a complete protein. What this means is that it has all 9 essential amino acids, which are required to build and repair muscle tissues. It is also rich in BCAA’s and can help to lower cholesterol, so many people will use this as their first choice when switching off an animal product protein source, as we all know they can clog your arteries with bad cholesterol.
Soy was the first break out protein powder in the plant based world, but recently less people are choosing this option due to allergies and the fact most soy is now genetically modified. However there are still many brands you can buy non GMO-soy from and if you don’t have a soy allergy, it’s one of, if not the cheapest plant based proteins you can buy.
Soy protein averages 22 grams of protein per 28 gram serving with around 95 calories. This made it a great every day protein powder, however we now understand that like anything we should use a variety of different plant protein powders and soy is a great one to cycle into your week. Soy should definitely be in your weekly rotation of supplements as its a truly great protein source and really cost effective.
Pea protein is one of the best protein sources you can get. Just like when you add more beans to your diet, using pea protein can help you feel fuller longer, lower your blood pressure and get your daily protein and BCAA needs easily. The BCAAs in pea protein support muscle building and research shows that pea protein is just as effective as whey protein to increase muscle development.
Pea protein consists of yellow split peas. A 28 gram serving of pea protein powder has 22 grams of protein and around 100 calories. The extra benefit of pea protein is that it is high in BCAAs, Branched Chain Amino Acids are the building blocks which help fuel your body to make muscle protein and are very often added to other protein sources to help increase your body’s ability to use that type of protein.
Peas are a really sustainable crop, so you get the added benefit of helping the environment. Peas can grow in almost all climates and over the last century were used as a rotational harvest to break disease cycles in other crops or as an alternative summer crop to increase the yield available to cereal and oilseed crops. Peas not only give us an alternative to meat, but even help other vegetables along the way.
Pumpkin Seed Protein
Pumpkin seeds are both high in protein and fat, however when processing the seeds, most of the fat is removed lowering the overall calories. A 28 gram serving of pumpkin seed protein has around 18 grams of protein and 103 calories, putting this on the lower side of protein to calorie ratio.
Whilst pumpkin seeds are a very nutritious protein being high in magnesium, zinc, iron and other minerals, however it is not a complete protein and is low in essential amino acids threonine and lysine. On the bright side, pumpkin seeds have been found to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which is great for your intestinal health.
As pumpkin seeds are a byproduct of an already readily available vegetable they have essentially no environmental impact. The seeds themselves can be stored for a long time too, so it’s a great product to stockpile when there is a great harvest. Pumpkin seeds are a great protein source, however I would not recommend them as your main go to protein powder, but definitely one that should be on your shelf to get some of the extra vitamins and gut health benefits it provides into your system.
Rice is one of the most plentiful foods in the world, so it’s easy to see why rice protein is readily available and fairly cheap. Brown rice protein has around 22 grams of protein per 28 gram serving and 108 calories. Putting it roughly in the middle for protein to calorie ratio. It is not a complete protein, lacking lysine, but it is a good source of BCAAs. It has been found that although brown rice protein has lower amounts of protein than whey, due to its high amount of BCAAs you can get a similar amount of muscle growth even with the lower overall protein.
As we all know rice is a sustainable crop found everywhere, however brown rice can have a potential for contamination with the heavy metal arsenic, due to some farming tactics. Therefore it is important when purchasing this protein to check if they test for arsenic levels before adding it into your daily routine.
Sacha Inchi Protein
Never heard of this protein? You’re not alone. Sacha inchi protein comes from the sachi inchi seed, which is only grown in Peru. This makes it not widely well known and also fairly costly. Per 28 gram serving it only has 17 grams of protein and has a whopping 120 calories. This put it at the very high end of protein to calorie ratio. It is also not a complete protein, lacking lysine, but is fairly high in all other essential amino acids.
So if it’s costly and doesn’t have a good calorie to protein ratio, why use it? Studies have shown that even though it has a lower amount of protein, sacha inchi protein can yield the same muscle growth performance as soy protein powder. Furthermore it also has some additional health benefits. Sacha inchi protein is high in arginine, which your body uses to make nitric oxide, which triggers your arteries to expand and increase blood flow and lower blood pressure. It is also high in ALA omega 3 fat, hence the high calories, which is great for your heart. Sacha inchi protein is great for athletes for these reasons and can be used in a highly active diet.
Chia Seed Protein
Chia seeds originally come from South America, but are now widely used in many countries for drinks and baked goods. Chia seeds are low in protein with only 10 grams per 28 gram serving, however they are also low in calories at 50 grams and a whopping 8 grams of fibre. I wouldn’t recommend chia seed protein as an everyday protein, however it has enormous benefits to digestion, so it’s a great supplement to add to other proteins or to just your food in general.
Sunflower seed protein is a relatively new protein powder and like many other seed proteins it lacks lysine, but is high in other essential amino acids. At just 13 grams of protein and 91 calories per 28 gram serving, it’s also not got the best ratio out there. However on the sustainability side, it has very minimal environmental impact. I would say that the jury is still out on sunflower protein as there are other seed based proteins with more benefits, but give it a try as you might find that its naturally nutty taste is something you like.
Yes, another great use for the cannabis plant! Hemp comes from a variety of the cannabis plant bred only to contain trace amounts of THC, the psychoactive component of the plant, so it won’t make you high. With only 12 grams of protein per 28 gram serving and 108 calories it doesn’t have a great ratio, but comes with lots of additional health benefits. Hemp is a great source of fiber, iron, zinc, magnesium and ALA omega 3 fats and has been linked to lowering blood pressure. As hemp is a by product of an already in use plant, it has very little environmental impact. Hemp would not be my first choice of plant based protein powder, however given all it’s benefits it is a great option if you can find a brand you like.
Alfalfa has been grown for animal feed and used as medicinal herbs for centuries, but it is very new when it comes to protein powders. It doesn’t have a great protein to calorie ratio with 16 grams of protein per 28 gram serving and 120 calories. However when using alfalfa supplements we aren’t just looking for straight up muscle gaining properties as alfalfa has a wide variety of health benefits.
Alfalfa is high in vitamin K, vitamin C, copper, manganese and folate. This combined with the fact it has a high content of bioactive plant compounds, makes it an ideal supplement to get any nutrients you may be missing. To top it off it has been shown alfalfa can lower your cholesterol and increase your metabolic rate. Alfalfa protein should be used in addition to other sources of protein rather than alone, but makes a great addition to a well balanced diet.
Is plant based protein really the best option?
The short answer is yes. From a sustainability standpoint it’s a no brainer, all plant based proteins are better for the environment. From a nutritional standpoint all plant based proteins provide more nutrients than animal proteins. Unfortunately on a cost perspective whey protein is still the cheapest option and as you can see with all plant based protein you do need to consume more in order to get the same protein levels as whey. So what’s the answer? I think if you’re a vegan, plant based protein will provide you with everything you need to live a healthy life, no matter whether you are a doctor, teacher or athlete. But make sure you take more than just one type of powder so you can get well rounded results. However for everyone that isn’t vegan, you should definitely give plant based proteins a go even if you just use them to supplement extra nutrients along with your whey powder. The more people that use plant based pro powders, the cheaper they will become and the better for the environment.
Let me know if there was any plant based proteins I missed or if you have tried some of these and come to different conclusions.