Whether your goal is to build muscle, quell your appetite, or simply make sure you’re getting enough protein each day, a plant-based protein powder can help.
If you're new to the world of protein powders or have always just opted for whichever kind you can find at your local store, choosing a plant-based protein powder can seem daunting. First, you have to decide which type of plant-based protein is right for you. Does it have the nutritional supplementation you need? Is it palatable? Are there any additives in the powder that you wish to embrace or avoid?
While most people consume protein powder in shake form – added to milk or water – you can also sprinkle it over yogurt or breakfast cereal or add it to baked goods to boost your protein intake.
Why choose a plant-based protein powder?
If you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, you've probably heard the question, "Where do you get your protein?" Well, if you're worried about your protein intake, a plant-based protein powder will help you out.
Even if you're not vegan or vegetarian, however, you can benefit from this type of supplement. Plant-based proteins are effective at building muscle, and they're more environmentally friendly than foods that contain animal products.
As a dietitian, I practice “food first,” meaning that I believe that we shouldget our nutrition through food, and we shouldturn to supplements as what their name suggests: a supplement to what we are consuming through food. Having said that, there are situations in which protein powder is helpful. For example, if you're frequently on the go, your work keeps you busy through mealtimes, or you struggle to get enough protein, then protein powdercan be a helpful supplement.
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Types of plant-based protein powders
Plant-based protein powders use various vegan sources of protein. Some of the most common sources are soy, peas, brown rice, and hemp, though these are by no means the only types available.
Soy protein powder
Soy protein isolate is an extremely common protein source for plant-based protein powders. It consists of 90% protein, from which much of the fat, carbohydrates, and other non-protein ingredients have been removed. As a result, soy protein has a neutral flavor that blends well with many other ingredients.
Pea protein powder
Containing plenty of soluble fiber and branched-chain amino acids, pea protein powder is another excellent protein source for plant-based protein powders. Although it's slightly less protein-rich than soy, it's ideal for people who are allergic to soy or grains or who choose to avoid them.
Brown rice protein powder
While rice is naturally high in carbs and not especially high in protein, brown rice protein powder is created by removing about 80% of the starch from brown rice. Consequently, brown rice protein powder is high in protein and free of most allergens. Although brown rice protein powder contains an essential amino acid called methionine, it lacks other amino acids, so if you opt for it, make sure you eat a variety of other proteins as well.
Hemp protein powder
One of the few plant-based sources that contain20 amino acids, including all nine essential amino acids, hemp protein powder is undoubtedly good for you. It also contains omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. On the downside, it has quite a strong taste that can be difficult to mask with other flavors.
Mixed protein powder
Many plant-based protein powders contain multiple protein sources rather than just one. Blending different types of protein gives you a more complete nutrient and amino acid profile, and it can improve the texture of a protein shake.
When people hear of plant-based protein powders, they might think that it sounds counter-intuitive, but plants like soy, peas, brown rice, and chia seeds all contain protein.
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Considerations for selecting a plant-based protein powder
While you can find unflavored plant-based protein powders, most come pre-flavored. Vanilla and chocolate are perhaps the two most common protein powder flavors, but there is a wide range of other options as well, from peanut butter to fruity flavors.
If you only intend to make simple shakes with non-dairy milk or water, just choose the flavor that most appeals to you. However, if you'll be adding your protein powder to smoothies, consider the flavor profile you're going for. For instance, chocolate protein powder might be nice in a smoothie with banana and nut butter, but it would taste out of place in a green smoothie.
Since the whole point of protein powder is to consume more protein, you’ll of course want to consider the protein content of your chosen brand. Ideally, you should choose a brand that offers at least 20 grams of protein per serving. If you're trying to build a lot of muscle, however, you may wish to investigate options that have 30 grams of protein or more per serving. Also look at the serving size, as some brands may seem to have more protein than others while, in truth, the label is depicting a larger serving size.
It's rare for plant-based protein powders to contain refined sugar, but flavored options usually contain some kind of sweetener. These usually fall into one of two categories: natural sugars and artificial sweeteners.
Natural sugars such as coconut sugar, maple syrup, molasses, fructose, and monk fruit may be slightly healthier than refined white sugar, but they are still essentially sugar, albeit in different forms.
Artificial sweeteners such as xylitol and aspartame are sweet, but they don't contain sugar or add calories. However, many people prefer to avoid artificial sweeteners due to the taste and/or the unknown impact of artificial sweeteners on human health.
Stevia is a natural sweetener made from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant. It bridges the gap between natural sugars and artificial sweeteners, as it's completely natural but doesn't contain calories or affect blood sugar.
Other nutritional content
Plant-based protein powders aren't 100% protein. They should also contain nutrients such as fiber, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. Check the nutritional information to see what you're getting from your protein powder. You may also want to check the calorie count.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are nine essential amino acids, meaning that our bodies cannot make these amino acids and we have to get them from food. Having a combination of plant proteins helps ensure that we have a complete protein profile to help with muscle repair and growth.
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Plant-based protein powder prices
Since plant-based protein powders come in a variety of sizes, look at the price by weight to figure out if you're getting a good deal. The most affordable options work out to be less than $10 per pound, whereas the most expensive options can cost up to $30 per pound.
Look for plant-based protein powders that contain branched-chain amino acids. These help to speed up post-workout recovery.
Consider whether your chosen plant-based protein powder is sustainably sourced. If you choose to eat a plant-based diet for environmental reasons, this might be important to you.
Decide whether you want an all-natural option. You can find various all-natural and even raw plant-based protein powders, which is great if you try to avoid artificial additives.
Think about flavor. You might choose a plant-based protein powder with the best nutritional content, but if it tastes too bad to consume, it's money wasted. Check user reviews to find out how palatable your chosen option is.
If you’re concerned about the environment and looking for a healthy meat alternative, consider a plant-based protein powder. Plant agriculture produces fewer greenhouse gases and requires less water and land than animal agriculture.
Q. How much protein powder should I consume each day?
A. The average person should probably only consume one serving of plant-based protein powder each day. However, if you exercise heavily or are looking to gain muscle as part of a workout routine, you may wish to consume two or three servings per day to help meet your protein requirements. Serving sizes vary between brands, so check the packaging to find out the appropriate amount to drink in each shake.
Q. Can I replace meals with plant-based protein powder shakes?
A. Protein powders are designed to be drunk in addition to a regular, healthy diet, particularly before or after workouts, to help meet the additional protein requirements for building muscle. You shouldn't replace full meals with protein powder alone because it doesn't contain the proper balance of nutrients (such as fiber, carbohydrates, and vitamins) to sustain your body. However, it's a fairly common practice to drink a smoothie for breakfast with a scoop or two of protein powder added in. If your plant-based protein powder is blended with fruits and/or veggies, you'll get enough nutrients to see you through to your next meal.
Q. Can you buy grain-free protein powder?
A. The vast majority of protein powders are grain free. Simply avoid brown rice protein, and your choice will most likely be free of any grains.