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Protein powders derived from plants, such a pea, rice, or hemp, are growing in popularity. In addition to being a convenient source of vegan protein, they are less likely to trigger food sensitivities.
“Plant-based protein powders are more easily digestible and have a more balanced phytonutrient profile,” says Lauren Beardsley, ND, a naturopathic doctor at Integrative Health in Scottsdale, Ariz. If your system is too acidic, she says, “They can help balance the pH, encouraging detoxification and limiting inflammation.”
These, says Beardsley, are some of the special characteristics of each type:
Popular among athletes, pea protein is a good source of branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) that are broken down in the muscle tissue to produce energy.
In addition, it is high in lysine, an amino acid that converts into carnitine, a molecule responsible for building energy and lowering cholesterol. And, one serving may provide about 30 percent of a day’s iron requirements, although iron content varies among products.
A clinical trial, published in Nutrition Journal, found that a specific organic, sprouted rice protein-called Oryzatein and found in a variety of rice protein brands-was found to be especially effective for building lean muscle and strength, and promoting recovery after resistance exercise, qualities previously believed to be unique to whey protein. Although the two proteins contain different amounts of individual amino acids, both equally enhanced the results of resistance exercise.
Available in hemp seeds, oil, milk, butter, and powders, this potent plant protein has been popular among vegan athletes for many years. In addition to protein, hemp is rich in fiber, B vitamins, and a combination of healthy fats, including omega-3s. When unflavored, the protein powder has a pleasant nutty taste that works well in salad dressings, dips, soups, or sprinkled on vegetables.
The FDA considers soy a heart-healthy food, and it is a longstanding, popular vegan protein. But most soy in the United States is genetically modified and often highly processed with a variety of chemicals. To avoid these problems, Beardsley recommends choosing non-GMO, organic soy protein powders, and cautions that phytoestrogens in soy can disrupt estrogen and thyroid hormones.
Other Plant Proteins
Some products combine proteins from a variety of sources, including sprouted seeds and grains, cranberries, and algae, such as spirulina. “Many manufacturers are utilizing this approach to create a comprehensive blend of vitamins, fatty acids, and fiber that offers a myriad of health benefits,” says Beardsley.
As an example, spirulina consists of up to 70 percent protein and is one of the few plant sources of vitamin B12, as well as other vitamins and minerals. “It offers many health benefits,” Beardsley adds, “including immune boosting properties, anticancer benefits, and it can help lower blood pressure.” In addition to protein, sprouted seeds and grains contain fiber, iron, and chlorophyll-good for detoxification and appetite control.
Cooking with Protein Powders
Always popular in smoothies, protein powders can also be used in cooking and baking. Anna Sward, author of The Ultimate Protein Pow(d)er Cookbook, points out that powders such as hemp, rice, and pea absorb a lot of liquid. “Add moisturizing ingredients to a batter,” she suggests-bananas, pumpkin purée, and cooked sweet potatoes and beets are her personal favorites. Rice protein, she says, is well suited for pancakes, and hemp works well with strong flavors, such as chocolate. For pea protein, try this recipe:
Related: Chocolate Protein Cookies
Look for 15-20 grams of protein per serving, without artificial flavors or chemical additives. If you have food sensitivities-or thyroid or other hormonal issues-choose soy-free plant proteins. To prevent food sensitivities in the future, make a habit of varying protein sources.