It used to be that plant-based proteins were thought of as sub-par.
“Nutritionally and taste-wise, they didn’t really compare,” says Molly Kimball, a sports dietician with Ochsner’s Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans, LA. But those days are over—and building mass without meat is not only plausible, but incredibly effective.
“The taste, texture, and dissolvability [of plant-based protein powders] has really come a long way—so has the technology of how protein can be isolated,” she says.
Even beyond protein, plant-based powders are packed with probiotics, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and omega-3s, says Sharon Palmer, R.D.N., author of Plant-Powered for Life. And though science and the average athlete remain apprehensive about making the switch in favor of plant-based powders, research suggests the green stuff is just as good as whey.
Choosing the perfect powder could matter to Olympic athletes or bodybuilders, says Matt Ruscigno, M.P.H., R.D. But a few extra grams of lysine—found in various amounts in vegan and vegetarian powders—or not, is not going to affect the life, training, or muscle-building abilities of the average guy, he explains. That means that picking from the slew of options—from hemp to soy and pea—ultimately comes down to preference. After all, supplemental protein powders should be just that: supplemental. That’s why Ruscigno also suggests choosing a plant-based protein that’s different from what you eat: “If you eat tofu and drink soy milk, don’t do soy protein powder. Add variety.”
Plus, some big-name stores like GNC sell smaller, trial packages that are single servings—a good way to test a product to find out if you like it. Many (including GNC) also have policies where, if you open a powder, try it, and don’t like it, you can bring it back and return it if you have your receipt, says Kimball.
Rich in healthy fats, such as omega-3s and fiber, along with other nutrients, hemp protein powder comes right from hemp seed, says Palmer. But check the labels. Sometimes hemp protein powder just 50 percent protein—high in calories and fat, says Kimball, so you’d need to eat more to get the same amount of protein that you would from other options. If your goal is to slim down, this may not be your best bet. Palmer’s go-to brand, Manitoba Harvest Hemp Powder, does offer a higher-protein option in addition to the original flavor.
You might notice that pea protein is popping up on more and more shelves. That could be because it’s easy to grow and less costly to produce—and it’s very versatile for food makers, says Palmer. “Pea protein also has an excellent amino acid profile,” says Ruscigno. “It comes from peas, which are one of the most important protein sources in the entire world. So for athletes who want to up their calories that come from protein, this is a great way to do it.”
Brands like Growing Naturals offer pea proteins that are also USDA certified organic. If you align yourself with an organic philosophy in what you eat, it might make sense to get protein powder with that same philosophy, says Ruscigno.
“We don’t think of rice as being high in protein—brown rice is just 5 to 8 percent proteins from calories. But you have to remember with rice protein, you’re removing everything else and getting just the proteins,” says Ruscigno. Rice protein also has a higher digestibility—which means the protein is absorbed by your body better, says Palmer. And if your stomach is sensitive, rice may be your best bet: “It’s easier for some people to tolerate if they have GI issues or food sensitivities,” Palmer says. Try NAKED Nutrition organic brown rice protein powder.
Combo Protein Powders / Blends
Companies like Vega and Sun Warrior (a solid option) are larger companies that offer many plant-based protein blends. What’s the benefit? From one scoop, you have more complete proteins and more variety, says Kimball, who adds that these blends are like going back to the idea of eating red beans with rice to make sure you’re getting a complete protein. “There’s a broader nutrient and amino acid profile, too,” she adds. Blends are great if you’re worried about getting all of your amino acids, adds Ruscigno. The downside: Make sure you’re still getting what you’re going after: protein. Some blends can rack up the carbs and sugars. Stick to Kimball’s rule of thumb and make sure there’s no more than 3 grams of sugar for every 20 grams of protein.