You already know that protein—which aids in muscle recovery and boosts satiety, among other things—is a crucial part of your diet. If you’ve got a crazy schedule, a protein powder can help you meet your needs conveniently.
Though a plant-based protein can be a solid swap-in for the original dairy, there are a few things to look out for when selecting your tub. Here’s how to choose the right plant-based protein for your needs.
What To Look For In A Plant-Based Protein
Not all plant-based protein powders are created equal. Keep the following four factors in mind when hunting for your best fit.
1. Protein Source(s)
The first thing to consider when selecting a plant-based protein is where its protein comes from.
Whey protein is considered a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids for muscle repair and body function. For the most part, plant proteins are incomplete—with the exception of soy protein.
Soy contains all nine of the essential amino acids, and is considered high-quality (meaning it’s easy for the gut to absorb), says says dietitian Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN. This makes soy a good bet, especially for vegans or avid intense exercisers.
Otherwise, “If your protein powder is the sole protein source of a meal or snack, it should contain at least two food sources,” she explains.
Consuming pea protein is an excellent way to re-fuel post-workout. “While pea protein is lower than whey in the amino acid leucine, which is known to be an important trigger for muscle repair, studies have actually shown pea protein to be just as effective as whey protein in muscle repair and growth,” says Jones. Though more research is needed to determine the mechanisms, pea protein encourages greater repair after strenuous resistance training.
2. Grams Of Protein
Beyond that, Jones recommends checking out a protein powder’s label to ensure it provides the number of grams of protein you’re looking for.
“I always recommend 15 grams of protein minimum at meals and 10 to 12 grams at snack time to the general population,” says Jones.
3. Source of Sugar
You might also want to consider how a plant-based protein powder is sweetened.
“I advise clients to steer clear of artificial sweeteners,” says Jones. (She believes they can increase cravings and alter your sense of taste for natural sweetness.) “Instead, choose options that are sweetened with a small amount of real sugar, or natural, no-calorie sweeteners, such as stevia or monk fruit extract.”
Just note that these natural, zero-calorie sweeteners can cause GI upset in some people. “As with any food, if someone is reacting to their supplement with digestive symptoms, they may want to assess if stevia or monk fruit are the culprit,” says Jones.
4. Digestive Enzymes
If plant-based protein sources like legumes aren’t a regular part of your diet, you may also want to consider a protein powder that contains digestive enzymes. (Many people experience some digestive reactions—namely gas and bloating—while their microbiome adjusts to the introduction or increase of plant foods like legumes or whole grains, Jones says.)
While you shouldn’t need a plant protein that contains digestive enzymes for the long run, it can be helpful at first.
6 Plant-Based Proteins Worth Trying
Not sure which plant-based protein to choose? Try on of these dietitian-approved options.
Protein per serving: 15 grams
Price per serving: $1.05
This legume-heavy blend leans on pea protein, as well sprouted navy bean, sprouted lentil bean, and sprouted garbanzo bean protein.
“One standout factor is that this one contains 2.5 grams of leucine, the amino acid likely responsible for triggering muscle protein synthesis after exercise,” says Jones. (Muscle protein synthesis, or MPS, is the process through which muscles repair and grow in response to exercise.) This is right on par with the amount of leucine (two to three grams) research suggests is optimal.
It also offers iron, calcium, and zinc—three nutrients important for plant-based or vegan eaters to focus on.
Sweetened with natural ingredients like stevia, this one is also certified organic.
Protein per serving: 19 grams
Price per serving: $0.95
Another organic pick, Jones like this one for endurance athletes, because it provides both iron and sodium. (Endurance athletes need adequate iron to transport much-needed oxygen throughout their bodies, and tend to lose electrolytes like sodium through sweat.) It’s a great option for smoothies after sweaty workouts.
Like most natural or organic protein powders, it is sweetened with stevia. This one does contain coconut, a food that some individuals with tree nut allergies may react to, though, Jones notes.
Protein per serving: 21 grams
Price per serving: $1.09
Orgain’s organic vegan protein offers a great blend of pea and brown rice protein with some seeds, as well. “A nutritional benefit is that it also offers four grams of fat, which helps signal the body’s release of satiety hormones so you feel full when you eat,” says Jones.
What’s more, it contains five grams of fiber, helping to promote satiety and benefit gut health.
“This product is also good for those who don’t love the taste of stevia,” Jones adds. “However, this may not sit well for individuals with IBS, as sugar alcohols are known to cause digestive discomfort in that population.”
Protein per serving: 20 grams
Price per serving: $1.50
This vegan protein powder is made of pea protein, brown rice protein, and quinoa protein, making it a complete protein. You can get full recovery post-workout and the total benefits in just one shake.
“It is sweetened with erythritol and probably would not be for someone who is sensitive to sugar alcohols,” says Maggie Michalczyk, MS, RD. It’s gluten-free, though, making it a good possible option for those sensitive to or avoiding gluten.
Protein per serving: 22 grams
Price per serving: $1.50
This vegan protein powder is a good option for those looking to avoid gluten and dairy.
This gluten-free and vegan option “contains 22 grams of protein per serving and is made from pea protein and rice protein,” says Michalcyzk. “It would not be for those who do not tolerate those well.”
One thing to note: In addition to stevia, this one contains the artificial sweetener sucralose. “It’s a very small amount, however, it’s something to keep in mind for those who do not tolerate artificial sweeteners well,” Michalczyk says.
That said, this pick does have some gut benefits, according to Michalczyk. The carob powder in the mix promotes positive gut flora in the digestive tract.
Protein per serving: 19 grams
Price per serving: $1.18
This powder gets its protein from a pea protein blend that includes cranberry seed, chia seed, and sacha inchi seed proteins.
Though lower in protein than some other picks, it’s gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, and nut-free.
“I also like that it contains a little bit of fiber (which helps to keep you full) and it contains a quality promise seal,” Michalczyk says. (The Vitamin Shoppe’s quality promise seal reflects a rigorous purity and potency testing process, detailed product specifications, and scientific evidence-backed ingredients.)
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