Making a protein smoothie is a joyful experience. The bright colors of the fruits blended with the greens and the variety of added powders like maca, matcha or spirulina that promise to fill you up, make you glowy and boost your metabolism has us reaching for them even if we did not workout. That said, when it comes to actually buying the right protein powder at the grocery store, there are too many options. In fact, Nestle, one of the largest food companies in the world, predicts that the “plant-based” food trend will continue to grow and is pretty much here to stay. Out of animal-based protein powders, the most popular ones, whey and casein (both a byproduct of milk) dominate the shelves, and then there is plant-based pea, hemp, rice and a lot of questionable soy.
Protein is comprised of 20 amino acids. While we need a balance of all of them, our bodies can’t produce nine.
One of the main differences between plant-based protein and animal-based protein is their amino acid content. Protein is comprised of 20 amino acids, all of which are essential for proper bodily function. While we need a balance of all of them, our bodies can’t produce nine: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. So, when a food contains all nine of these, it is called a complete protein. Many of the common sources of animal-based protein, such as eggs, dairy products and meat are complete sources of protein, while most plant-protein — with the exception of some like quinoa — are incomplete. Therefore, it becomes important for vegans and vegetarians to mix it up so they make sure to get them all.
As for non-vegan or non-vegetarian people, it is still good to consume plant-based protein as it is typically more nutrient-dense than, say, whey, which is derived from milk. They also have many other vitamins and minerals, fiber and digestive enzymes that help with digestion and absorption. Although consuming too much protein has been associated with cancer because it stimulates growth hormones, research has found that association does not stretch to plant-based protein.
And in that spirit, here is our guide to choosing the right plant-based protein powder for you.
Which Ones Are The Most Popular Plant-Based Protein Powders?
Pea protein has generally been dubbed the non-dairy muscle builder. It is made from the yellow split pea, which is a high-fiber legume that has all but one of the essential amino acids and is a more complete protein. In 2015, the Journal of the International Sports and Nutrition found that pea protein is just as effective at promoting muscle growth as whey protein, which may be due to its high quantities of the amino acid L-arginine. It is also a good protein powder for weight-loss because it aids in helping you feel fuller longer. Additionally, it helps balance blood sugar levels, which is important if you are trying to prevent overeating.
Hemp protein is also one of the most popular varieties, made by grinding pressed hemp seeds from the hemp plant, Cannabis sativa, into a powder. It only contains trace amounts of the psychoactive agents in marijuana. One of its biggest distinctions is its earthy, nutty taste, which can sometimes be tasted no matter how you blend your smoothie or shake. It is so highly regarded because it is a complete protein — it has all nine of those amino acids we can’t produce. Additionally, it contains about 7-8 grams per ¼ cup of fiber — important for digestive health — which is about 18-28 percent of the daily intake for men and women. It also contains lignanamide compounds, which have strong antioxidant properties.
Rice protein is usually made from brown rice that has been treated to separate its carbohydrates from its protein. It is typically preferred by people with food sensitivities or allergies, since rice is generally hypoallergenic. But it is not a complete protein — it lacks the amino acids lysine and threonine. Aside from that, research suggests that rice protein may offers similar benefits to whey protein, including its faster rate of absorption and digestion. Rice protein powder contains lots of other healthy vitamins and minerals like iron, vitamin C and calcium, as well as antioxidants like phenolic acids, flavonoids, and others which help protect cells from free radicals. When it comes to taste, it has a subtle, slightly sweet flavor similar to that of rice milk. Often times, pea and rice proteins are blended to get all amino acids.
Soy is slightly controversial. The general consensus around it is that it has a high phytoestrogen content, which disrupts the endocrine system, as well as harmful additives like aluminum and hexane. “One problem with soy is that most of it is not organic and it’s a mostly GMO food,” says dietician and celebrity nutritionist Keri Glassman, who works with Rachel Ray, the “Today Show,” “Good Morning America,” among others. “Aside from that, even if you found an organic one, it’s still super processed, so that doesn’t necessarily make it better.” The USDA says 90 percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified. Soy protein isolate is defatted soy beans that have been washed, dehydrated and turned into powder. Although it is a complete protein, some of these harmful chemicals have most vegans and vegetarians opting for other types of plant-based protein. This being said, studies have also linked it to improve heart health and cholesterol. Additionally, it is high in isoflavones, which helps prevent certain types of cancer, and B vitamins, iron, zinc and an array of antioxidants.
How Do You Choose The Right One?
With the exception of hemp, most all other plant-based protein powders are not complete proteins, so nutritionists opt to mix and match or select blends of different types of plant protein. “Most companies make protein powders that are a mix of plant-based sources, combining pea or hemp, for example, and sunflower, flax, chia, etc.,” adds Glassman. Plus, you can now create your own blend with companies like iFit Nourish ($79 per month) or Gainful ($49). You just have to pay attention to the ingredients to make sure they’re not also blending in lots of preservatives or fillers.” Glassman recommends watching out for artificial flavors and sweeteners like Splenda or sucralose, and other fillers like coconut flower, psyllium, sugar, etc. Then, it is a matter of finding the cleanest one with the best flavor, whether this is pea protein or hemp. “I like to look at someone’s complete diet and whether they’re getting protein from different plant-based sources,” adds Glassman. “Then, it doesn’t matter that much which one they’d choose.” If you are vegan or vegetarian, it is a little more important to be conscious of getting enough protein in your diet, since you are not getting it from the most common complete protein sources like meat or dairy.
How Much Should You Be Having?
Glassman says that about 50 grams, or about 15 percent of your daily calories, is enough protein to meet the body’s basic needs. And you should have it throughout the entire day, as opposed to only at evening, since protein helps you feel full faster and longer. Of course, if you are more active, you should eat more, especially post-workout to help your muscles recover faster and grow. And as you age, you should also increase your intake, since it becomes harder to keep muscle mass. It is always a good idea to visit a nutritionist or doctor who can help you monitor your intake and build a meal plan.
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