Charlotte Willis gives us her ultimate guide to choosing your ideal plant-based protein powder…
Protein powders have come a long way from the odd-looking, milk-based chalks found pre-mixed into the workout shakes of the super-fit. They are now available to everybody and can suit every recipe and every individual’s nutritional needs.
Rethinking protein powder
The idea of ‘clean eating’ is something that doesn’t entirely sit well with me. I wholeheartedly endorse the need for balance in everyday life (dark chocolate at the end of a long day? I’ll take the bar, thanks), but I also feel that categorising specific foods and food groups as ‘clean’ or otherwise ‘unhealthy’ makes many of us sceptical, scared and often unwilling to experiment with alternative ingredients. One such example is protein powder.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no doubt that soy protein isolate doesn’t fall onto your average weekly shopping list, but maybe it should do. Far from being an exclusive necessity to the gym-addicted few, the incredible versatility and usability of plant-based protein powder is vastly overlooked in our everyday cooking. Something as simple as adding a tablespoon of pea protein to an average meal will increase your protein intake by almost 10g! But it isn’t all about the protein content. Powdered plants bring our bodies a diverse range of health benefits, give us energy and keep us fuller and satisfied throughout the day. It’s about time we stopped segregating these super-powders and unleashed their powers into our food.
The powerful plants
Contrary to popular belief, plant-based protein powders are far superior to their whey-based predecessors in terms of our health. Vegan protein powders contain absolutely no cholesterol and lower levels of saturated fats. What’s more, the greater digestibility of plants allows for higher absorption of those all-important essential amino acids per serving. Vegan protein powders are also good news for allergy-prone individuals.
The greater level of fibre in plant-based powders eases the digestive action in the stomach and colon, whereas whey protein is synonymous with flatulence and bloating. And despite what some naïve gym bunnies may have you believe, plant-based protein powder combinations provide all of your essential and non-essential amino acids in one easy serving, making them complete sources of protein on level grounds to that found in whey and casein.
In fact, a revolutionary study in 2013 found that brown rice protein isolate (rich in essential amino acid Leucine) provided muscle recovery and synthesis equalling that of whey! Yet another reason to leave dairy alone.
Beyond the smoothie bowls
When faced with a packet of protein powder, many of us will choose to simply blend with cold soya milk, maybe a banana or two, and drink up. This is all good and well, but truly incorporating protein powders into your diet goes far beyond your Vitamix (or budget versions, I’m guilty).
Don’t limit yourself to the obvious choices. Thinking outside the box, alongside trial and error, has led me to discover some fantastic and diverse ways to incorporate protein powders into my regular daily diet. Some favourites include: replacing half of the flour in a savoury dumpling recipe with rice protein isolate, supercharging a lower-protein soup dish with pea protein powder.
I use plant protein powders to thicken sauces too. I also combine soya and pea protein powders into my overnight-oats every morning, helping transform the watery mixture into a mousse-like pudding texture. I regularly snack on hemp protein-infused coconut yogurt with berries or blitz up the endless possibilities of dates, nut butters and protein powder to create a DIY protein bar at a fraction of the retail price! In fact, I rarely make protein shakes from day to day, only as a quick refuel when I’m in a monumental rush.
Plant-based protein powders come in many different forms and flavours. On closer inspection of the tubs and sachets, you’ll find that most vegan powders will contain the same basic combination of ingredients that are simply blended together in varied ratios. The four plant-based sources that are most likely to be used are soya, hemp, pea and rice.
Why these four? Each of the above sources are naturally abundant in those muscle-building and vital amino acids. These become available when the fat, carbohydrates and various fibrous structures surrounding the plants are minimised by a process called isolation. This involves the extraction of the plant seed, bean or grain, which is often freeze-dried or cold-pressed in vast machines to leave us with protein-packed powders bursting with fuel!
Because each source of protein is as unique as the plant from which it is derived, the constitute amino acid profiles of each powder will vary. Vegan bodybuilding nutrition 101 (I wish there was a degree in this – I digress) teaches us that we must combine nuts, seeds or legumes with a source of grain at each meal to ensure we provide our bodies with a complete amino acid pool (a meal that contains all of the essential and non-essential amino acids needed for optimum nutrition). The same goes for protein powders. You should always try to obtain an equal ratio of protein sources in every serving, so opting for a blended protein or making your own from various powdered isolates, will ensure your muscles are getting everything they need to function, grow and flex!
Prime your pantry
The take-home message is buy unflavoured protein powders to set yourself up for success. These are the most versatile, natural and often cheapest powders on the market, and they’ll soon become staples in your everyday recipes. Wherever possible, try to buy in bulk. I buy large 5kg bags of rice and pea protein every three months, saving myself an average of £20 by choosing to invest in larger sizes as opposed to frequently purchasing smaller sachets (but let’s not mention the cupboard bursting with bulk-bought staples…).
Most pre-mixed brands will contain sweeteners or flavourings, which is great if you want to create a delicious treat or sweeter dish such as protein cupcakes (yep, protein cupcakes. Try it!). I keep a supply of a sweetened branded protein powder in stock for this very reason. If you’d rather go DIY, I would recommend blending two or more types of unflavoured protein powder with cinnamon, vanilla powder or cocoa powder, and why not experiment with superfood powders such as maca or lacuma to create your own unique blend.
Raw? Organic? Cold pressed?
When making a purchase, it’s important to know just how the protein powder has been manufactured. Be wary of those that have been extracted using chemical solvents as these could be processed using non-vegan ingredients. Opting for cold-pressed (non heat-treated) or raw powders should ensure chemical processing is minimal.
I would always advise to purchase non GMO powders whenever possible, especially for soya protein, while organic powders are certified to be free of chemical contaminants. If you are going to use protein powders more often, it is worth investing in an organic batch – chances are you’ll be getting a higher quality product with a dense nutritional profile.
- Sourced From: Most commonly dried yellow split peas (not sweeter garden peas) as these have higher protein and can be processed into a powder with ease.
- Percentage Protein: 82% easily digestible protein.
- Nutrition per 100g: 82g protein; 0.8g carbohydrate; 1.7g fat; 0g sugar; 2.4g fibre; 350Kcal.
- Delivers: High levels of glutamic acid, which is needed by the body to convert glucose into usable energy. Rich in Arginine, an essential amino acid required for the immune system and hormone synthesis. Good levels of branched chain amino acids needed for muscle recovery and synthesis.
- Taste/Texture: Very plain and unflavoured, only a small accent of pea. Creamy and thick consistency when blended with liquid.
- Use With: A complementary grain or grain-based protein powder such as rice – this will provide the essential amino acid methionine.
- Cook In: Pea protein can be used in an array of both sweet and savoury dishes due to its odourless and colourless nature. Best used raw or at lower temperature cooking to preserve the benefits of the amino acids. I use it to thicken sauces, smoothies, yogurts and more.
- Sourced From: Wholegrain brown rice that has been powdered, with the protein being extracted to omit the majority of the carbohydrates.
- Percentage Protein: 80%.
- Nutrition per 100g: 80g protein; 2g carbohydrate;1g fat;0g sugar; 8g fibre. 353Kcal.
- Delivers: Brown rice provides you with a high level of B vitamins needed to help with the nervous system and energise your body. Brown rice protein is also rich in iron and calcium.
- Taste/Texture: This is probably the most powdery protein, with a slightly grainy texture. Rice protein is naturally flavourless and odourless, but may require some work to blend into a smooth paste.
- Use With: Grains are naturally lower in the amino acid Lysine, so combine your rice protein with a legume or seed source of protein, as this will provide you with a complete profile of amino acids.
- Cook In: Best used in savoury dishes such as pancakes and baked goods. Try substituting a couple of tablespoons of regular flour for this protein-rich powder, just remember to add a tsp of baking soda and remember the texture of your dish will become slightly denser.
- Sourced from: The humble soya or edamame bean. The dried beans are powdered and de-fattened to produce soya flour, from which soya protein isolate is extracted.
- Percentage Protein: 90%.
- Nutrition per 100g: 90g protein; 1g carbohydrate; 2.9g fat; 0g sugar; 0.5g fibre; 389Kcal.
- Delivers: Soya contains high levels of Leucine, a branched-chain amino acid required for skeletal muscle building. Similar to pea, soya is also rich in Arginine.
- Taste/texture: Plain taste with a creamy consistency. Mixes well into water or plant-based milks but can become lumpy. Doesn’t thicken well.
- Use with: A complementary grain-based powder, such as brown rice to provide higher levels of the essential methionine amino acid.
- Cook in: I use soya protein in most sweet dishes. Soya mixes in well and adds a creamy texture, so would be ideal to combine into a mousse, creamy milkshake or ‘cheezecake’.
- Take note: Always ensure your soya protein is non-GMO (genetically modified). Soya is one of the most commonplace genetically modified plants grown, and while there is question over the safety of such agriculture, I would buy organic and non-GMO if possible.
- Sourced From: The seeds of the hemp plant (not the leaves).
- Percentage Protein: 50-51%.
- Nutrition per 100g: 51g protein; 5.3g carbohydrate; 10.4g fat; 5.3g sugar; 17.2g fibre; 353Kcal.
- Delivers: If you’re looking for the perfect nutritional package for optimum health, look no further than hemp protein. Not only is hemp a complete protein, containing all of the essential amino acids, but this green powder boasts a range of macro and micronutrients worthy of a place in every health-foodie’s pantry. Hemp protein is rich in vitamin E, calcium, iron, magnesium and essential fatty acids omega 3 & 6.
- Taste/Texture: Hemp protein alone is of similar taste to that of sunflower or pumpkin seeds, slightly nutty and mild with a light but grainy texture.
- Use With: Hemp protein is a complete protein source, but works well with a higher protein content powder such as pea or soya if your goals are to increase muscle mass.
- Cook In: Hemp protein is distinctly green in colour! It works really well in a green smoothie (or any other smoothie if you don’t mind the colour). Its nutty taste lends itself well to nut- and seed-based protein balls or flapjacks, but can be added to almost every recipe to enhance your nutrition.
About the author
Charlotte is a freelance journalist and health writer who has worked with the Vegan Society and other online vegan publications. Her fields of expertise and interest include vegan nutrition, holistic healthcare, mindfulness and fitness. She is currently researching and studying the various links between food and psychological health while perusing a doctorate degree in counselling.