Plant-based protein isn’t new to the fitness community. In fact it’s been around for years, but as of more recent studies, science has found an overwhelming amount of proven health benefits this type of protein holds and thus, gaining a lot of popularity.
So now you’re convinced -- you’re going to try plant-based...but where do you start? Over the years with increased popularity and advancement in science, there are now several different plant-based protein sources on the market, so which one is the best?
To eliminate the frustrating and time consuming, trial and error process, let’s take the time to go over the differences between the most popular plant-based protein sources.
Pea protein is an isolate protein extracted from yellow peas. It is very high in protein which makes it quite popular on the market. Pea protein is a good source of many different vitamins and minerals, including iron and calcium.
Although very high in protein, pea protein is incomplete protein -- meaning it does not include all nine of the essential amino acids that the human body cannot produce on its own. Pea protein lacks the essential amino acid methionine. Pea protein is often found mixed with several other supporting protein sources in attempt to make up the difference. Methionine can be found in foods people generally eat such as chicken, eggs, and oats. But if the athlete was relying on the protein alone for their nutrients, pea protein would need the support of another product to make up for this lost essential amino acid.
Although pea protein does lack the essential amino acid methionine, it is very rich in the remaining eight essential amino acids -- particularly in leucine, which is the essential amino acid responsible for muscle building. Pea protein also contributes to weight gain. For these two reasons, pea protein is especially popular among male athletes hoping to build muscle and gain weight.
Unfortunately, pea protein is becoming a growing allergy concern with doctors constantly reporting the identification of a pea allergy in some of their athletes. An allergy or intolerance to peas can cause anything from cramping, to gas, to inflammation, to gastrointestinal damage.
Furthermore, according to Dr. Robert Pastore, pea protein is very high in glutamate. Glutamate reduces fatigue -- this sounds great for when you are working out but not so great when you’re trying to sleep at night.
Lastly, pea protein is an incredibly cheap protein source that is notoriously contaminated with heavy metals. You have to really be certain the pea protein being consumed is NSF certified for sport AND at a high enough dose of protein per pea. Meaning, pea at a standard quality protein dose fails NSF Sport testing due to its high lead content. Almost all pea proteins sold in the state of California have (or should have) Proposition 65 (Prop-65) warnings on their label. Prop-65 is legally required by the state of California for dietary supplements which expose you to levels of one or more chemicals that may harm to your body.
Soy protein is known as a complete protein, meaning it includes the nine essential amino acids a human body cannot produce on its own. With a high amount of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) to support muscle growth and the fact it is very rare for a plant-based protein to be a complete protein, soy protein was very popular for some time.
Unfortunately, soy protein lost its popularity in recent years due to the genetic modification in many brands. It is actually uncommon to find a brand with soy protein that does not genetically modify the protein prior to putting it on the shelves. Moreover, another major issue with soy protein is it is one of the eight most common allergies world wide, therefore it is not an option for many people.
Brown rice protein is commonly used as a protein alternative for people with a lactose intolerance. Brown rice has a low-allergen profile compared to soy, gluten, and dairy allergies. What is interesting about brown rice protein is that it is commonly used in foods due to its density which is a great option for those who rather eat their protein over drinking it. Additionally, brown rice protein provides the body with fiber, carbohydrates, and vitamins E and B. And unlike many other protein powders, rice protein lacks sugar, fat, sodium, and cholesterol.
Moreover, brown rice protein is an incomplete protein as it is missing the essential amino acid lysine. Although it does contain the other eight essential amino acids, it is actually a fairly low amount compared to other plant-based proteins. As a protein having low amounts of amino acids, it is not optimal for muscle building.
One very alarming con to brown rice protein is the risk of contamination from arsenic. Arsenic is a heavy metal that can naturally end up in soil and grow with crops. It is thought that pesticides that have now been banned from the 1980s have left higher than natural levels of arsenic in the soil. What makes rice a crop particularly higher at risk is due to the fact rice is grown in water-flooded conditions, which allows for arsenic to make its way to the roots in the soil and eventually stored into the actual grain of rice.
Hemp protein is found in the seeds of the cannabis plant. Hemp is an excellent source of amino acids -- a near complete protein just missing the essential amino acid lysine. Hemp also contains many essential fatty acids as well as a healthy serving of fiber making it a favourable choice of protein.
Unfortunately, there are also several cons to hemp protein powder. The lack of lysine can result in many side effects for an athlete if they are solely relying on their protein for nutrients, as it is a necessary amino acid for building muscle protein and the formation of collagen for healthy connective tissue within joints! Furthermore, hemp protein contains a higher level in carbohydrates compared to other plant-based sources. Where this protein does contain the other eight essential amino acids, they are not absorbed in the body as much as other proteins due to the protein as a whole having a low absorbability rate. This has also been reported to lead to a low amount of vitamins and minerals, which are essential for optimal health.
Pumpkin seed protein not only is a complete protein but also contains what scientists believe to be an additional essential amino acid -- arginine. Pumpkin seed protein also offers many other vitamins and nutrients, such as magnesium, manganese, zinc, iron, calcium, potassium, as well as B vitamins.
Unlike pea protein, pumpkin seeds are an incredible source of tryptophan, an essential amino acid found to keep cholesterol levels normal and lowering glutamine to ensure that good-night sleep! Additionally, this protein has been found to have polyunsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants, as well as anti-inflammatory properties, making it a quality choice of protein.
Cranberry seed protein is also a complete protein. Furthermore, this protein provides daily fiber, BCAA’s, potassium, potent antioxidants, and fatty acids. Cranberry seed protein provides many health benefits but compared to other plant-based proteins it does not have very high protein content. In fact where most proteins contain between 90-50% protein, cranberry seed protein only contains 25%. Therefore, cranberry seed is often found in a blend with other proteins to make up for this lack of content while also adding the variety of benefits it contains to the other protein it is mixed with.
Cranberry seed protein is a popular choice of protein due to its extremely high fiber content making it a preferable choice for easy digestion. With all essential amino acids and the added nutrients and vitamins included in the protein, cranberry seed protein is classified as a full amino acid profile meaning there is no need for additional BCAAs with this protein.
Making a Final Decision
When it comes to choosing a plant-based protein it is extremely important to thoroughly read the label. This ensures that you are aware of everything going in your body that is beneficial and potentially harmful. The label will allow you to not only see what vitamins and nutrients the protein contains but will also provide you with knowledge of the quality and safety of the product. To learn more about quality and safety assurance in protein check out Are There Heavy Metals in Your Protein?