According to industry research firm Mordor Intelligence, the global whey protein market generated $6.1 billion in revenue last year. The giant chunk of change now lining manufacturers’ pockets has been driven by two factors: general consumers’ heightened awareness of protein’s many benefits, and a wider availability of products.
Over the last few years, as dozens of companies jumped to fill the demand and cash in on the trend, the quality of whey protein has taken a nosedive. Some of the cheaper preparations/versions are loaded with all manner of unnecesary chemicals, including artificial sweeteners. And that doesn’t even take into account the often overlooked allergenicity of whey.
This may be one reason for the growing interest in plant-based protein powders, according to a new report from 1010data, a discovery and data-sharing platform. Their intel showed that plant protein continues to erode whey’s market share, and gain traction. Amazon, the top online seller of protein powder, saw an increase in searches for alternatives to whey in 2016. (Check out these top level athletes you had no idea were vegan.)
Here are a couple more things you should know.
Even if you’re not lactose intolerant, you could be allergic to dairy
“Whey is the most bio-available form of protein and therefore a [good] source for supplementation,” said Dr. Jaime Schehr, ND, RD, CDN. But of course, if you’re lactose intolerant, or have any type of dairy sensitivities, “this would not be the best choice. A plant-based protein is preferable for someone with multiple food sensitivities, who’s allergic to milk, or is vegan or vegetarian.”
According to the National Institute of Health (NIH) around 65 percent of us have some trouble digesting lactose after infancy. Plenty of people who aren’t severely allergic to milk products still have issues digesting them, and may also be sensitive to their various components. When you don’t properly digest lactose, “the undigested sugars end up in the colon, where they begin to ferment, producing gas that can cause cramping, bloating, nausea, flatulence and diarrhea,” reported USA Today. Not a state you want to find yourself in.
“Though I’ve never had any problems, I have heard about people getting an upset stomach after drinking a whey protein shake,” said Dylan Gutheil, NSCA-CSCS, co-owner of Flight Performance & Fitness. “They seem to do better with the plant-based protein." Tim Blake, a strength coach and founder of SuperFitDads, said the same: “One of my clients finds that whey makes him feel bloated, so he uses pea protein instead.”
Cheaper brands of whey may contain toxic heavy metals
Consumer Reports tested 15 whey protein powders and drinks for the presence of arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury. Three products in particular contained alarmingly high levels. The amount of lead in a single daily serving for eight of the supplements tested would require a warning label in California (dietary supplements don’t have to undergo pre-market FDA testing like prescription drugs). Rather than encourage muscle growth, these supplements can pose serious health risks.
The plus sides of plant protein
There are five good reasons to opt for plant protein powders:
- They’re more easily digestible, and won’t cause bloating, an upset stomach or gas
- They’re lower in cholesterol and sodium than animal protein sources
- They’re far less likely to contain unnecessary ingredients
- They’re anti-inflammatory
In terms of building muscle, a 2013 study published in Nutrition Journal, University of Tampa researchers found that rice protein was just as effective as whey in building muscle and strength among men who worked out frequently. “Although rice protein, like most other plant proteins, lacks specific essential amino acids, there is research supporting its use to stimulate muscle protein synthesis,” wrote Richard LaFountain, MS, CSCS. “[It] was [linked] with improvements in body composition, strength and power comparable to whey isolate supplementation.”
Of course single plant-based varieties aren’t complete proteins, so if that’s a concern, look for plant blends (for instance, pea, hemp, cranberry and pumpkin seeds) which will round out the profile. And make sure to get your complete proteins through your diet, throughout the day.
Kyle Kranz, a running coach who’s used dairy-based protein powders in the past, now scoops a plant-based powder to supplement. “I grew up on a dairy farm and made a decision to not support such an industry. When I do purchase eggs or dairy I select products from humanely [run] farms. I've been a vegetarian for a decade now. The leg muscles I developed as a meat-eating weight lifter have not decreased in size since becoming a plant-based endurance athlete a decade later.”
Tips for choosing high quality plant protein
Manufacturers continue to tinker with plant formulas, so keep your eyes peeled for new brands and formulations. In the meantime, these guidelines will help you choose a high-quality protein powder:
Look for BCAAs
Choose a plant protein with branched-chain amino acids — the body needs these to stimulate protein synthesis, increase blood flow to aid in muscle growth and reduce fatigue. And know that you don’t have to settle for a lower protein count when choosing a vegan supplement. “I always tell my clients to check the protein levels in their product. They should still offer like amounts to milk based,” said Dr. Schehr.
Avoid products with artificial sweeteners and additives
“Read the label and understand what ingredients are in there,” said Kirsty Godso, Nike Master Trainer. Choose a brand that’s free of synthetic ingredients and uses a natural sweetener like stevia, if any. Steer clear of products with artificial colors and dyes. Schehr also recommends products that are low in sugar, with none added.
Most important: listen to your body
At the end of the day, we all respond differently to what we put in our mouths.
“If someone wanted to try the vegan route, we’d look at the protein use like we would the rest of the diet to make sure it’s complete,” said Robert S. Herbst, personal trainer, power lifter, 18-time World Champion, and member of the AAU Strength Sports Hall of Fame. “We’d [check] the brand to see what’s missing and then [figure out how] we could make up the deficit, for instance, by mixing it into a smoothie [with] vegetables or fruit.”
Ultimately, you should always steer clear of anything that leads to bloating or discomfort.
If “the key purpose of protein is to fuel your recovery, the idea is to find one that your body processes easily, and not make you feel worse in any way,” said Godso. “How does your body digest it? Pay honest attention. You shouldn't feel bloated or uncomfortable afterwards. Often it’s a process of trial and error to determine your best option, but it's worth doing the research. When you find [the right] one, it will make an enormous difference to your training recovery.”