A Guide For Choosing a Quality Plant-based Protein Powder

Plant-based protein powders can be a convenient way to meet your protein requirements and help you achieve your health goals. But there are some things to consider to find a quality supplement.
Posted on Dec 10, 2021 By Sarah Appleford Sarah Appleford

One of the pitfalls of a vegan or vegetarian diet is that it can be difficult to consume enough quality protein each day, especially if you have high demands such as in the case of athletes. Plant-based protein powder can be a good option to ensure you are meeting your protein requirements.

With more plant-based protein powders on the market, finding the right brand and type can be overwhelming. So let’s sort through your options! This guide shares some advice on what to look for when finding the right plant-based protein powder for you and what to avoid.

What is Plant-based Protein Powder?

Plant-based protein powder is a supplement consisting of amino acids and proteins that are derived from vegetarian sources such as rice, legumes, nuts and seeds.

Unlike typical animal-based protein powders, plant-based protein powders are completely free of animal products like eggs, casein or whey.

Forms of Protein Powders

Protein powders are commonly available in three main forms:

  1. Protein concentrate – approx 70% pure protein extracted using heat and enzymes from the source.
  2. Protein isolate – approx 90% pure protein extracts any carbohydrates or fat in the protein concentrate to create the isolate. This is a more purified form of protein.
  3. Protein hydrolysates – enzymes are exposed to the isolate and break down the amino acids to give you the highest amount of absorbable protein. This form is rapidly absorbed and easily digested at a higher rate than protein concentrate and isolate.

Twenty amino acids make a protein compound. Our body’s make eleven of them and the remaining nine come from our diet. These are known as “essential” amino acids and when a food contains all nine, it’s referred to as “complete”.

Animal proteins contain all essential amino acids in optimal ratios. Whereas, plant-based protein sources tend to have reduced levels and suboptimal ratios of the essential amino acids. However, by consuming all the amino acids throughout the day, you can achieve your adequate complete protein intake. It just takes a little more consideration.

Types of Plant-based Protein Powders

There are four common types of plant-based protein supplements.

Soy Protein

Soy protein isolate is one of the most popular and well known plant-based protein powders. It is a complete protein source and also very high in Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs), which can support muscle growth and strength. Most soy protein powders provide about 257grams of protein isolate per 30g serve.

Soy protein is cheap and easy to manufacture which is why it is often used in plant-based products. However, in recent years soy protein has been a source of controversy with concerns high soy consumption may be linked to hormone imbalances, thyroid dysregulation and some form of cancers. The evidence is still very much divided on the safety of soy.

Soy does contain phytates which can reduce the availability of nutrients such as iron and zinc when consumed in high amounts. It’s also worth investigating where your soy comes from as a large majority is now genetically modified (GMO).

Pea Protein

Pea protein has skyrocketed in popularity as it contains all nine essential amino acids and is a great source of BCAAs. Pea protein is also high in iron which is great for those living a vegetarian or vegan diet and is hypoallergenic.

Pea protein is associated with increased muscle growth, reduce appetite and healthy heart function. It does contain higher amounts of sodium than some other protein sources, which is something to consider if you need to monitor your sodium intake for health reasons.

A typical serving of pea protein powder contains approximately 25 grams of protein isolate per 30g serve.

Brown Rice

Brown rice protein powder contains all nine essential amino acids, however, the low amount of lysine makes it considered an incomplete protein source. It contains about 24 grams of protein isolate per 30g serve.

Brown rice is a good source of fibre and contains beneficial micronutrients including iron, calcium and vitamin C. It’s also hypoallergenic making it a popular option for those with allergies or stomach issues after eating whey, soy or pea protein as it doesn’t contain lactose.

When brown rice protein has been compared to whey protein, there is no notable difference in body composition and exercise performance between the supplements.

Hemp

Hemp is a plant-based protein that’s gaining momentum thanks to its nutrient profile. Hemp protein contains all nine essential amino acids and is high in fibre and omega-3 fatty acids.

Hemp protein is also less processed than many plant proteins on the market which is great if you’re wanting to consume a largely whole food diet. It is also easy to digest and absorb and found to be very gentle on the gastrointestinal system.

At approximately 15 grams per 30g serve, it does contain less protein than soy or pea protein and offers fewer BCAA’s than you’ll consume in pea protein. As it isn’t as processed, the texture and taste is a little gritter and chalkier than many protein powders which can be off-putting.

Other plant-based protein powders include quinoa, chickpea, pumpkin seed, sunflower seed or a combination such as brown rice, pea, chia seed and flax seeds. A combination plant-based protein powder can help ensure you’re getting adequate amino acids and benefiting from the nutrient variety.

There can be a big difference in the quality of plant-based protein supplements as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate protein powders. Some brands have been found to contain dangerous levels of heavy metals including lead and arsenic. Researching the supplement brand is just as important as the protein type.

Plant-based Protein vs Animal Protein Powder

The biggest difference between a plant-based protein and animal protein powder is the protein source with the latter coming from whey, casein or egg.

Let’s look at how they compare when it comes to nutrition, digestion and taste.

Plant-based protein powders

Nutrition

The difference and similarities between protein powders can vary so these are just general comparisons:

Calories – very little difference
Carbohydrates – very little difference, however, highly dependent on the inclusion of sweeteners and flavours.
Fats – fairly equivalent, however, often higher in those plant-based proteins that include seeds and nuts.
Protein – animal-based protein powders tend to be slightly higher per serve and contain all nine amino acids.
Micronutrients – plant-proteins can often contain a more varied amount of micronutrients and are higher in some like fibre and iron. They also contain more fibre per serve. However, animal protein powders tend to be lower in sodium and higher in calcium and potassium.

Digestion and absorption

Most plant-based proteins don’t contain lactose which can make them easier to digest than animal-based protein powders such as whey and casein. This makes them often a good option for those who have gastrointestinal sensitivities. Just look out for sneaky dairy inclusions by reading the ingredients and looking for a “vegan” label.

Whey protein powder, however, tends to be absorbed faster than plant-based protein.

Taste and texture

Plant-based protein powders, especially pea and hemp, tend to have an earthy flavour and a gritty, chalky texture. It also doesn’t typically dissolve well in water alone so often contains agents, additives and flavours to mask the flavour and make it more palatable.

Animal-based protein powders such as whey generally have a more acceptable texture and taste, however, this is often dependant on whether additional ingredients such as sweeteners and flavours are added.

What To Look For In A Plant-based Protein Powder

When looking for a plant-based protein powder, it’s worth identifying why you’re consuming it in the first place and your individual needs. Are you looking to simply increase your protein consumption? Do you want to enhance your athletic performance? Are you sensitive to ingredients such as lactose or fibre?

Look for a product that contains very few ingredients and ones that you can easily recognise so you can find the cleanest/purest plant-based protein powder available.

Here are some points to look for:

Protein content – opting for a complete protein powder can make your nutrient intake easier to keep track of, particularly if you’re a vegan or a plant-based athlete. You’ll also want to assess your protein requirements and how much protein per serve.
Protein source – plant proteins can be high in pesticides and contain GMO ingredients which can be harmful to your gut microbiome as well as the planet. Look for organic or non-GMO protein powders.
Nutrient density – if you’re vegan and using a protein powder to fill some of your nutrient gaps, consider the micronutrient content in addition to the protein. Some brands will add more nutrients but stick with those in whole food forms such as flax seeds, chia seeds, almonds, cacao, maca or coconut. Avoid synthetic vitamins and minerals.
Ingredient quality – opt for a protein powder that contains whole food ingredients. Many include fillers, oils, artificial flours and flavours, and sweeteners to improve the taste and texture. You can purchase plant protein with just the one ingredient which can give you a lot of versatility when using it.
Heavy metal tested – heavy metals such as arsenic and lead can be found in plant-based protein powders. Looking for a product that has been heavy metal tested can be a good indication that it’s a safe product to consume.

Look at the protein amount per 100g when comparing between brands and protein powder types as the serving size can differ. When it comes to plant-based protein, it’s more about the quantity of protein than the type if you’re consuming it to achieve a weight goal, appetite regulation or exercise performance.

Ingredients To Avoid In A Plant-based Protein Powder

Protein powders in general vary in their ingredients and quality. Stick to a reputable brand and choose a protein powder that contains very few ingredients (three or less).

There are several ingredients to consider or avoid in a plant-based protein powder.

Casein – derived from whey protein, casein can sneak into plant-based protein powders. If you’re a vegan, you’ll obviously want to avoid casein, but it’s also not well absorbed in the gut and can cause bloating and stomach upset.

Skim milk powder/milk solids – another animal-based ingredient that can be used in plant-based protein supplements as a cheap filler. It can cause bloating and constipation, particularly in lactose sensitive individuals and isn’t vegan.

Gluten – if you’re coeliac or gluten-sensitive you need to be mindful some plant-based proteins, particularly grain sources, contain gluten. Gluten is used as a filler but doesn’t offer any nutritional benefits and instead, can cause negative side effects such as inflammation.

Dextrins/maltodextrin – dextrins are a processed starch source that can raise your glycemic load. These are used as a filler and help the protein powder mix better with the liquid. Dextrins can contribute to fat storage and lead to gut upset.

Artificial sweeteners – common in protein powders, artificial sweeteners can lead to gut upset, headaches and weight gain. Stevia is one sweetener that may be okay, but you can also add your own sugar such as fruit or raw honey to improve the taste.

Vegetable oils – vegetable oils are often added to improve the texture and make the protein powder more creamy. These are harmful, oxidised fats that contribute to poor cholesterol balance and inflammation.

Pros And Cons Of A Plant-based Protein Powder

Pros

  • Just as effective as whey protein on body composition and performance
  • A convenient way to help you reach your protein requirements
  • Can increase your micronutrient intake
  • Typically lower in sugars than animal-based protein powders although varies between brand to brand
  • It may be easier to digest than animal-based protein so great for those with gastrointestinal issues
  • Typically hypoallergenic

Cons

  • Can vary in the amount of protein and BCAA content
  • Serving size may need to be greater to achieve similar protein.
  • Can be costly especially if buying in small quantities or choosing organic.
  • Protein powders can contain fillers like added sugars and artificial sweeteners.
  • Can be made of GMO ingredients
Sarah Appleford
Sarah Appleford
Sarah Appleford is a registered clinical nutritionist who believes achieving optimal health and wellbeing relies on living with intention.
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