Deciding what plant-based protein to buy can be super confusing… There are so many different choices and it can be so hard to know what to pick!
The good news is that plant-based protein powders can be just as effective as animal-based protein powders, plus you’ll have the added benefit of knowing you’re doing the environment a massive favour!
Whether you take protein powder for energy, recovery, muscle gain, weight loss, or overall health, plant-based proteins have got you covered! Let’s compare the different protein powders so you can choose what’s right for you!
HEMP SEED PROTEIN
When it comes to plant-based proteins, hemp would have to be the most diverse in terms of nutrient profile.
It contains all 9 essential amino acids, while hemp protein contains slightly less overall protein than other protein powders, it is highly digestible (approximately 91–98%) that may be a concern found in certain other plant-based protein powders (1). It is believed that proteins edestin and albumin found in hemp seeds can explain its high rate of absorption that can help your body really utilise these amino acids for recovery and repair.
Hemp seed protein also contains a really large amount fibre. Diets high in fibre have been are associated with a plethora of health benefits such as improved blood sugar, gut health, and reduced risk of bowel cancer (2)(3)(4). Hemp seed protein contains the perfect ratio of omega 3:omega 6 fatty acids (1:3) that is considered to be essential for health by regulating inflammation in the body (5).
You’ll also get the added benefit of antioxidants and essential minerals that include phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, iron, manganese, zinc and copper that all have various important roles in the body such as bone health, energy production, immune function and may help to prevent and support diseases such as heart disease and diabetes(6)(7). Hemp seed protein could be considered best for overall health while also still being able to produce similar results for muscle growth, recovery and other health problems.
Soy is also a ‘complete’ protein (contains all nine essential amino acids) and contains essential minerals like iron, phosphorus, copper and manganese. Although soy protein contains the BCAA leucine that can enhance muscle protein synthesis, it appears to be inferior to whey protein for building muscle.
A 2009 study by the Journal of Applied Physiology found that soy was inferior to whey protein in muscle protein synthesis. This may be due to maybe soy protein powders slower digestion rate or lower leucine content (amino acid required for muscle protein synthesis) (10). Another 2009 study by the Journal of the American College of Nutrition supported this claim and found that whey is still superior to soy for muscle protein synthesis (11).
Soy protein contains phytoestrogens (compounds that act like oestrogen, the main female hormone in the body). Some studies suggest that soy protein may reduce breast and prostate cancer (12), (13), while other studies have suggested that soy protein may accelerate cancer growth in certain types of breast cancer (14).
A 2003 study published in the Journal of Perinatal Education found soy protein is particularly good for women and stated that “Soy protein products offer benefits to women in various life stages. Benefits include improved diet and cardiovascular status, prevention of certain types of cancer, improved health following menopause, obesity prevention/control, and more options for food variety,” (15).
One of the major problems of soy protein powder is that a lot of people struggle to digest it. It also contains a compound called phytic acid (aka phytates) that may inhibit the absorption of other nutrients such as iron, zinc and calcium, but this may be only be dose-dependent meaning having soy protein in really high amounts! (16)(17).
Soy protein powder may be a good choice for menopausal women due to its phytoestrogen content. However, considering its ability to cause potential digestive issues and nutrient depletion soy may not be the best choice for protein powder and it may be better to get your soy from foods.
Pea protein is a high-quality source protein and a great source of iron. Pea protein can aid in muscle growth, weight loss and even heart health. In terms of overall protein content, pea protein contains almost the same as whey protein. One of the other benefits of pea protein is that it its free from common allergens such as lactose and soy.
A 2019 study published by the Swiss journal Sports, explained that pea protein can produce similar outcomes in body composition, muscle growth, performance and strength in participants who completed 8 weeks of high intensity training (8). While another study conducted in 2015 by the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that pea protein produced similar results to whey protein in increasing muscle size and strength after 12-weeks of resistance training (9).
Despite having a large amount of protein, pea protein has low amounts of important amino acids cysteine (for skin health via collagen production) and methionine (helps to produce antioxidants) but high in lysine (helps with bone and skin health). Meanwhile, rice protein (that we’ll discuss in more detail) is high in cysteine and methionine and low lysine, meaning combining the two could be the best way to consume these two proteins.
Pea protein is another great source of plant-based protein. It has high overall protein content and iron, however, does lack many other nutrients such as fibre, healthy fats, vitamins, & minerals.
Rice protein is another popular plant-based protein. It contains all 9 essential amino acids, fibre, and B vitamins – so a rather diverse range of nutrients.
A 2013 study published in Nutrition Journal compared whey protein to rice protein in an 8-week study to assess body composition and exercise performance and found that rice protein was as effective as whey protein in both muscle gain and recovery (18) .
Rice protein is also easily digestible making it a good choice from those who suffer from allergens. Rice protein is high in the sulphur-containing amino acids, cysteine and methionine, but unfortunately low in lysine, however this can be resolved by combining pea protein as discussed earlier.
Rice protein could also be considered a good source of plant-based protein when combined with pea protein and could be a good source of protein particularly for muscle growth and recovery.
What’s the take home message?
You don’t have to be a vegan to benefit from plant-based proteins. They are all complete proteins and have many added benefits through other nutrients. Even better you’ll be doing mother nature a favour by helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Choosing what plant-based protein really depends on what you are looking to get out it whether that be muscle growth or improving your overall health.
Pea, rice and soy protein are all great for having high protein content and can go almost go pound for pound with whey protein particularly for muscle growth and recovery. Hemp seed protein however has a great amino acid profile, while also containing essential nutrients that include essential fatty acids, fibre, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, iron, manganese, zinc and copper and could be considered a better all-round protein.