The last few years have seen an explosion of plant based proteins on the shelves. There is more choice than ever. It’s encouraging to see the growth of the category and more plant based protein options for consumers. However, it’s a little overwhelming when having to choose one to add to smoothies or into baking recipes.
A quick primer on plant protein
The key to protein quality lies in the building blocks of protein- amino acids. The body can make some amino acids itself but there are 9 amino acids that are considered essential because they have to be delivered to the body through food. Another seven amino acids are “conditionally essential” meaning that they are essential for folks like children, elite athletes, or those suffering from illness.
All proteins vary in their amino acid composition, so a balanced diet with plant proteins from a variety of sources is necessary to maintain the circulating amino acid pool. For example, grains are generally limited in some amino acids, while most legumes are limited in other ones, and corn in even different ones. Some beans are considered a complete protein while others are not.
So how do you choose the best plant based protein?
Blended and balanced is best. A blended powder with a variety of plant proteins is critical to ensure a complete, balanced protein – the 9 essential amino acid building blocks in the right proportions. Steer clear of plant based proteins from a single source.
Get a full nutritional profile. Look for co-factors such as vitamins, minerals, fibre and healthy fats… all of which will help aid digestion and minimize bloating and upset tummies. They also maximize the amount of potential protein that the body absorbs from that precious scoop of plant protein. There isn’t much point in taking protein if you aren’t absorbing it.
Make it Organic. Non-GMO isn’t the same as organic. As with any food, but all the more important in nutrient dense powders, don’t settle for non-GMO. Make it organic to ensure that it’s free from toxic pesticides and herbicides and that it’s sustainable.
Sources of plant protein
There are many sources of plant based protein powders. Let’s have a look:
Soybeans are considered a complete protein but unfortunately non-GMO soy is increasingly rare, and soy is a very common allergen. For both of these reasons soy is steadily decreasing in popularity.
Hemp seeds, like most other nuts and seeds, are limited by lysine, but if balanced by a complementary plant protein can be a good source of vegan protein. The flavour is quite strong and so it’s not for everyone.
Brown rice protein is a good source of most amino acids with the exception of lysine. Because brown rice may be difficult for some people to digest look for a protein from sprouted and/or fermented brown rice to improve absorbability of amino acids.
Pea protein is versatile and inexpensive. As a stand-alone supplement it’s lacking in methionine, but this may be overcome through the addition of a complementary protein source. The texture may be somewhat gritty, and it may cause gas and bloating in some people due to poor digestibility.
Coconut is a versatile food with an excellent protein profile. Like most nuts it is limited in lysine but otherwise supplies both essential and non-essential amino acids along with beneficial medium chain triglyceride (MCT) fats, fibre, and a range of nutrients.
Quinoa is a pseudocereal – it looks like a grain and is cooked similarly to grains, but does not come from a grass plant. Cereal grains are all limited in lysine, but quinoa is a complete protein supplying adequate levels of lysine as well as the other essential amino acids.
So now you’re armed and ready to tackle that growing plant based protein powder section and make a great choice. If you have more questions, your local health food store staff should be able to guide you further based on your health needs and concerns.