The increasing popularity of plant protein powders has created a variety of questions the curious supplement shopper will want answered.
What’s the best one?
Is there a best one?
Does the type of plant protein powder you’ll want change with your diet and fitness goals?
And there’s probably a whole lot more.
Here’s a brief guide to help you navigate the waters.
A Quick Primer on Protein And What It Does For You
Any discussion about the relative merits of different protein powders should begin with the health benefits of protein itself and how your body uses it.
For a more complete overview of this subject I strongly recommend you to read my previous article on protein in the vegetarian diet.
Dietary protein is comprised of 20 different amino acids. Your body naturally makes 12 of them, while the other 8 must be had through your diet. They’re called “essential” amino acids. For the vast majority of westerners getting enough protein isn’t a problem, including the essential amino acids. Your body is very efficient at making use of the essential amino acids and if you receive adequate amounts of protein then you’ll almost definitely get enough of these essential amino acids by default.
Most people need about 35-60 grams of protein a day in order to thrive. That’s not very much in most diets.
Important Points About Protein Supplements
From these insights there are a few take home points anyone will want to consider before buying a protein supplement.
- You don’t “have” to have a protein supplement. If you’re like 99.9% of the western world then you get more than enough protein and you’re at no risk of deficiency if you don’t get additional protein from supplements.
- The importance of consuming a “complete” protein isn’t all that important. Your body breaks all protein into individual amino acids in the intestine which then get transported through the bloodstream to perform their various functions. The only thing that matters is if the pool of amino acids in its entirety is sufficient for your physiological functions. Your body really can’t tell a difference between complete and incomplete proteins from different food sources.
- Protein Supplements Are More Alike Than They Are Different. For these reasons the nutritional value of different protein powders is less variable than supplements like greens powders, which have a far greater diversity of nutrients. All protein powders are different arrangements of amino acids. There’s no amino acid that you can’t easily get through your diet.
With that being said there are some good reasons why you might want to take a protein supplement anyway.
Why It Might Be A Good Idea To Take A Protein Supplement
I strongly believe that a protein supplement is not necessary for the vast majority of people.
That said….I still take one myself.
They help for the following reasons:
- They Help You Feel Full. I’ve got a big ol’ appetite, and taking protein in the morning helps me feel full and satiated throughout the day.
- They’re Useful After A Workout. Muscle repair is particularly important right after you’re done exercising and a little protein after a run or weight lifting session does a lot of good.
- They Taste Good. IMO protein powders have some of the best mouth sensations of any supplement, and I like their shake-like flavor. Sometimes adhering to a good diet can leave you wanting for a little sweetness and savory mouthfeel, and a good chocolate flavored protein powder can do the trick.
Hydrolysate vs Concentrate vs Isolate
The protein in a supplement will usually be a protein isolate, protein hydrolysate, or protein concentrate.
These types of protein pertain to how they’re purified and manufactured and mean slightly different things for your health.
- Protein Isolate - These are the most “pure” proteins, and by weight contain about 97-98% amino acids and very little by products, oils, or other additives. Protein isolates enter the digestive system very slowly and some people like to take them before they go to bed to prevent muscle catalysis. They’re also useful for reducing hunger. They’re also less likely to have allergens.
- Protein Hydrolysate - Protein hydrolysates are proteins that are soaked in water. This means the individual bonds between the amino acids have been cleaved and have undergone enzymatic activity. These proteins are digested more quickly and perhaps more useful for muscle repair.
- Protein Concentrate: This is simply condensed protein. It’s the least processed and least concentrated. It’s usually about 85-90% protein by weight.
In my opinion the differences between these types of protein is not all that important for most people. Unless you’re a bodybuilder looking to optimize his performance then it’s best to focus on things like taste or manufacturing details (raw, sprouted, etc).
Be weary of patented technologies or harvesting techniques that claim to add unique health benefits to a food. Amino acids are amino acids.
What To Consider When Choosing A Plant Protein Powder
In my opinion the following characteristics should be considered when choosing a plant protein:
- Cost: Since all proteins by definition consist of the same stuff, it’s perfectly reasonable to discriminate based on price. Different plant proteins will differ in their amino acid composition, but for most people this distinction is not all that important.
- Taste/Texture: Here’s where the type of plant protein you use will have the biggest impact. Certain protein sources naturally lend themseles to different textures.
- Use of additives: many protein manufacturers mix their powders with different bulking agents, preservatives, or artificial sweeteners which can detract from the nutritional value of the supplement.
- Organic/Inorganic: The big issue here is that any food with a high oil content (like soy or hemp) is usually processed with hexane to extract different ingredients. Protein powders are purified, but hexane is a fairly toxic substance and also doesn’t differentiate between many different food compounds and leads to a lower % of protein extraction compared to other solvents. Hexane is not allowed to be used in organic foods.
Animal Protein vs. Plant Protein
All protein is comprised of different amino acids, but animal and plant proteins differ in the types of amino acids they usually have.
If you want to know more about this issue in depth then you need to read my comparison between plant and animal proteins.
Animal proteins contain more sulfur containing amino acids like methionine. These metabolize into sulfuric acid, which your body has to neutralize. Excessive intake of acidic food without the corresponding nutrients to compensate can create metabolic imbalances, which can create health problems like weakened bones.
It’s commonly believed that animal protein is necessary to provide the 8 essential amino acids but this isn’t true. Many plant proteins such as soy or hemp provide enough.
The Different Types of Plant Protein
So, with all that being said, here’s an overview of the different sources of plant protein and their different health benefits.
Soy Protein - Probably the most common form of plant protein. It’s come under fire recently due to the issue with GMO’s and different processing techniques but in my opinion these concerns are overblown. Soy is probably the most complete plant protein and if you’re just talking about protein, then the difference between a GMO and non-GMO product is not significant. For all the hoopla around GMO’s there’s still very little evidence they’re bad for you. Soy protein also has a long track record of unique health benefits like lowering cholesterol, delaying menopause, and help lower blood pressure. Health concerns over soy are a red herring.
Hemp - Hemp protein has an amino acid profile similar to soy, but not quite as robust. It’s texture is fairly grainy and compared to other mixtures it seems to be the least dense. However hemp protein is easier to find as organic and/or raw. Like brown rice, the protein part of hemp can be extracted fairly easily.
Sprouted Brown Rice Protein - Protein that’s taken from the bran of sprouted brown rice. When a bean is sprouted it means it’s soaked in water and is beginning to germinate. In a sense sprouted brown rice protein is basically brown rice protein hydrolysate, and has the same benefits. Brown rice protein has a gentler extraction process than soy protein, and also has a smoother texture than hemp. For people who insist on organic and/or raw foods, then this is the best choice in my opinion.
If you look at the table below you’ll notice a big difference in price between basic brown rice proteins and higher end proteins which use brown rice protein that’s been fermented and sprouted. In my opinion they’re both pretty much the same, but the sprouted/raw kind does have a much smoother texture.
Sacha Inchi Protein - You see this popping up more and more. It’s also known as Savi Seed. Sacha inchi is a plant that’s grown in mountainous regions in South America and is increasingly being used for commercial purposes. To be honest there’s not a whole lot of information about it, despite some of its claims. Nutritionally it seems to be similar to hemp, in that the plant has a wide variety of EFA’s and a high protein content. I’ve never tried sacha inchi myself, so I can’t say one thing or the other about its taste and texture. It’s not found by itself but is showing up in mixed plant proteins and as part of meal replacement powders.
Pea Protein - You see it being used more and more……but for reasons that might surprise you. It’s often touted as a new high quality protein, but the truth is it’s often used because it doesn’t cost very much. The great recession has put a lot of stress on high end food manufacturers, so pea protein is a good way to maintain a minimum standard of quality while reducing costs. Other pea products are commonly used in dog food. Different manufacturing processes can result in very different amounts of phytic acid, which can effect nutrient absorption. Here’s a good read on this issue.
Putting It All Together
In general I’m a fan of finding the least expensive protein powder that has the taste/manufacturing qualities that you desire. If you’re not picky then going with an inexpensive soy protein powder is a good choice. If you prefer raw or organic then sprouted brown rice protein or hemp is a good choice. Hemp if you’re price sensitive, sprouted brown rice if you prioritize taste and texture.
In my opinion there’s not a compelling reason to buy sacha inchi or pea protein isolate at this time.
Here’s a table comparing the different aspects of the different proteins and the lowest price at different retail outlets:
|Type||# amino acids||Pros||Cons||Best For||iHerb (2lb)||Amazon||GNC||Vitacost|
|Soy||20||very complete, soy provides additional health benefits||Hard to find raw or organic, some concerned due to high presence of GMO’s||People looking for a good plant protein on a budget||$19.11||15.18||37.99||11.81|
|Hemp||20||complete protein, easy to find raw/organic, hemp has lots of other health benefits||gritty taste, expensive||raw foodist, someone concerned about processign techniqes of soy||$9.65(1 lb)||10.44||N/A||7.95|
|Rice||18||nice texture, fermented/sprouted brown rice makes it easier to digest||not a complete protein, expensive||raw foodist, someone concerned about the extraction techniqes of soy protein||15.11||14.03||N/A||14.03|
|Sacha Inchi||20||Complete protein, sacha inchi seems to be good for you in other ways….similar to hemp||N/A||Too soon to say||N/A*||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Pea||18||N/A||N/A||Too soon to say||$17.35||$19.69||N/A||18.59|
Comparing High Quality Brands
Because most proteins don’t differ very much from one another I think shopping based on price is perfectly fine and suitable for most people. Find a big tub for less than $20 and have at it. Discriminate based on taste as necessary.
However, some people, either due to allergens, a preference for raw/vegan/organic certifications or brand loyalty prefer higher end brands. These protein powders are almost always more expensive than companies like Jarrow Formula’s or Now Foods, but might have a mix of different proteins, sprout their plants before processing, or add in some additional nutrients.
If you’re one of those people then here’s a handy comparison of some different premium brands and their different characteristics.
|Brand||Type||Cost||# servings||g protein/serving||$/oz||Price on Website||Price on Amazon||Certifications|
|Boku Super Protein (600g)||Sprouted Brown Rice/Mixed (No Soy)||$46.95||20||25||$2.22||$46.95||N/A||Raw, Vegan, Organic, Kosher, Non-GMO|
|Vega Sport Performance Protein (829g)||Mixed (No Soy)||$64.99||22||26||$2.24||$64.99||49.99||Vegan|
|HealthForce Warrior Food (1000g – 2.2 lb)||Sprouted Brown Rice/Hemp (contains enzymes and additional nutrients)||$59.95||45||15.4||$1.71||$59.95||$49.95||Vegan, Raw, Non-GMO, TruGanic|
|SunWarrior Protein (1000g – 2.2 lb)||Sprouted Brown Rice||$48.95||47||15||$1.39||$48.95||$39.49||Raw, Vegan,|
Hope this helps!