Part 3: How to Choose a Protein Powder
But what if you’re not into dairy? Maybe dairy products tie your tummy into a painful pretzel, veil your brain in an impenetrable fog, or the thought of consuming them makes you throw up a little bit in your mouth. You’re going to want to go for a veggie-based protein powder. And now the real tough decisions come into play.
There are probably hundreds of different options for vegan protein powders, but it generally comes down to a few major ones: hemp, soy, pea or rice. There are some other unique ones too, like pumpkin seed or quinoa, and there are some that get thrown into protein blends (although you don’t often see them on their own as protein supplements), like alfalfa, sancha inchi, cranberry or spirulina. And I’m probably missing a dozen or so.
There are probably hundreds of different options for vegan protein powders, but it generally comes down to a few major ones: hemp, soy, pea or rice.
One of the first choices you need to make here has to do with the nature of vegetable-sourced proteins. Proteins are long chains made up of amino acids. Although there are 20 different amino acids, 9 of them are considered essential, meaning the body has to get them from food sources. Unlike animal proteins, vegetable based proteins are not complete proteins, ie. they don’t contain enough of all 9 essential amino acids (some sources will tell you of miracle plants that do contain sufficient quantity of all 9, but whether they are truly complete or simply come close usually depends on how you define your terms).
So what we do when turning to the vegetable kingdom for our protein is combine protein sources. By combining, say, a nut and a seed, what the nut lacks in aminos, the seed makes up for. And vice-versa. Many vegan protein supplements adhere to this principle by combining a few different protein sources in one supplement. These are usually referred to as blends and may combine any number of grains, legumes, seeds or nuts in order to get a well-rounded amino acid profile. If you’re just looking to mix with water or juice and go, these blends would be a good option.
Single source protein powders are just that – they only come from one veggie type.
So it may just be hemp or rice protein on the ingredients list. And this is fine if you’re planning on adding some protein-containing elements yourself. Making a hemp protein smoothie with some almond butter added in is an example. Or adding hemp seeds to your rice protein.
I’ve run out of space to go into details on advantages and disadvantages of vegan protein sources, but I did want to make a note on soy. Soy has fallen out of vogue as a health food in the last decade or so, and quite honestly I’m glad to see it go. Soy is so overwhelmingly prevalent in the North American diet thanks to its overuse in the processed foods industry that I really see no reason to supplement it. It’s estimated that 20% of the calories in the average North American diet comes from soybean oil! I’m sure I’ll have people arguing the merits of fermented soy in the comments section, but I just don’t see a need for it. There are so many other options, why stick with one that’s so potentially problematic?
My own feeling in regards to vegan proteins, is that you want to avoid anti-nutrients as much as possible. Again, this is my own slant (being a Paleo enthusiast, as I am), and others may disagree. But in my years as a nutritionist I have encountered enough people who can’t handle grains or legumes to recommend avoiding them in your protein powders. That nixes rice, pea and soy, narrowing the choice considerably. When I do a protein powder (which, admittedly isn’t too often) I go for hemp or pumpkin seed. They’re both decent protein sources and are hypoallergenic enough to suit almost anyone.
At the end of the day, the best way to determine which protein powder is right for you is by trying them out.
A lot of protein powders come in single serving sizes, so you can try out a couple of varieties before committing to a giant tub of the stuff. It’s better to go this way than to find out after investing $50 in a mega-tub of protein that it makes your bloat.
Admittedly, there’s a lot more to talk about in terms of vegan protein powders. I could talk about fermentation, sprouting, the inclusion of enzymes and probiotics and any number of other things that come into play in choosing what protein supplement is right for you. But this series was meant to cover the basics to help to at least narrow down your many options in proteins.
By Doug DiPasquale Certified Holistic Nutritionist