What are the best vegan protein powder benefits? How does plant-based protein stack-up against whey protein? What are the best kinds of vegan protein powders for optimal nutrition and athletic recovery?
If you’re seeking answers to these questions, then you have come to the right place. Here, our mission is to dissect plant-based products and educate consumers on how to make better decisions. In doing so, we go deep in uncovering the nutritional composition of vegan protein powders.
Whether you want to accelerate recovery or find a cleaner alternative to whey; whatever benefits you’re exploring with vegan protein powder, this article is intended to help those benefits align with your health and fitness goals.
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Primer: Vegan Protein Powders All The Rave
Health-minded consumers are becoming more conscious and educated of the sources of their food. With the vegan diet now all the rave, many individuals are realizing a wealth of advantages in choosing plant-based protein powder vs whey protein and animal-based alternatives. In turn, the last few years has seen a dramatic increase in awareness of vegan protein powder benefits.
And it’s more than just a fad. There’s valid science that supports the consumption of a diet rich in plants. In fact, some of the world’s top athletes are experimenting with plant-based nutrition, and they’re seeing profound benefits as a result. From accelerated recovery to reduced inflammation, using the right types of vegan protein powders can help optimize athletic performance in more ways than one.
But what are the specific benefits of consuming plant-based proteins over animal proteins? Putting all moral aspects surrounding vegan-ism aside, below we explore some of the most profound, science-supported benefits of vegan protein powder.
Benefits of Vegan Protein Powder vs Whey?
Is plant protein as good as whey? This is a common question that comes up all the time in the world of vegan protein powders. Plant-based protein is often viewed as inferior to whey. In other words, most uneducated individuals assume whey is better and offer more benefits than plant protein.
This is particularly the case in the bodybuilding community, as whey protein (as well as egg white protein) has a more complete amino acid profile. As a result, some individuals find it more efficient (both biologically and financially) to consumer animal-based proteins that offer a greater density of essential amino acids.
However, lately, with the increased popularity in plant-based protein supplements, many companies are producing vegan protein powders with all essential amino acids… a high density of them.
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of scientific research surrounding plant-based proteins, let alone the vegan diet. Having been a dietary cornerstone in the fitness world for decades, whey protein has seen much more attention from the sports science community. For instance, this reputable study concluded that whey was a more effective source of protein supplementation to promote gains in lean body mass for individuals undergoing resistance training. However, that study also compared whey protein to soy protein (and soy protein is not the best source of plant protein when it comes to aminos and building lean muscle mass).
Conversely, a compelling study conducted in 2013 looked at the effects of whey versus rice protein supplementation on body composition and exercise performance over an 8 week period in 24 college-aged males. In my opinion, that’s a rather small sample. Yet, the study concluded that brown rice protein was clinically shown to match the effectiveness of whey protein in terms of building strength, muscle mass, and facilitating recovery.
This in itself is very fascinating, because brown rice protein alone is not considered “complete.” In other words, a grain source of plant protein must be combined with a legume source to create a complete protein with all essential amino acids. Whey itself is a complete protein, whereas vegan protein requires the proper combination of plant-based sources to create an optimal amino acid profile.
Vegan Protein Powders: All About Amino Acids
The vital building blocks that define the quality of a protein are amino acids. Amino acids are essential for muscle repair and are used to make immune cells and neurotransmitters. Protein supplements that have all essential amino acids constitute a “complete protein.” These essential amino acids are those that the body cannot make on its own. So in turn, we need consume them through the food we eat.
The concentration or density of amino acids found in a particular protein powder depends on the sources of protein. As mentioned above, having the right combination of plant protein is critical to achieve the optimal blend of essential amino acids. Among the most common is the combination of grain and legume protein sources. These together make a complete protein with all essential amino acids. However, incorporating other amino acid-rich protein sources (like hemp seed protein and chia seed protein) can provide greater benefits from vegan protein powder supplements, especially for athletic recovery and performance.
Notably, the branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine, and valine are highly concentrated in muscle tissue. According to Scarlett Blandon, registered dietitian for Axiom Foods, “BCAAs play a special role in muscles because they can be metabolized within the muscles—rather than in the liver, where all other aminos are metabolized—and be used for energy.” BCAAs are an important consideration when consuming protein powder supplements for optimal recovery. In fact, Studies have shown that BCAAs are important components in muscle synthesis, athletic recovery, and sports performance.
In addition to digestibility and recovery-enhancing benefits, amino acids are a pivotal variable that enables vegan protein powder products to out-compete whey protein. Certain products like Vega Sport Protein Powder and Garden of Life Organic Sport Plant-Based Protein Powder pack over 5 grams of BCAAs per serving. Combined with a serving size of 30 grams of protein, these performance products rival most whey and animal-based protein powders.
As an interesting example, the role amino acids play in muscle synthesis is a testament to the ketogenic diet. While the ketogenic diet is typically not combined with the vegan diet (although it can be), the ketogenic diet is very high in fat, while being low in protein and very low in carbohydrates. The main benefits of the ketogenic diets are enhanced ability to burn fat and improved cognitive functioning.
But how do athletes still continue to grow and maintain muscle mass on such a low protein diet? The answer lies in consuming just enough protein to remain and not get kicked out of ketosis, moreover, consuming a high volume of essential and branched chain amino acids.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, individuals on a fruitarian diet (which a macronutrient calorie ratio of 80% carbohydrates, 10% fat, and 10% protein, or “80/10/10”) have been reported to thrive, even at the elite level athletically.
There’s no mystery to why fruitarian athletes thrive eating mostly fruit.. While it’s certainly a matter of personal preference and self-experimentation, properly embracing a fruitarian diet means getting the proper balance of essential amino acids. Of course, there’s more considerations to being a healthy, high-performing raw vegan fruitarian, but the fact of the matter is many people are thriving on these more primal diets.
Digestibility Benefits of Vegan Protein Powder
One of the key benefits of using vegan protein powder is that plants (even concentrated fruits and vegetables) are rich in healthy fibers. Fiber naturally improves digestion. And healthy digestion is important for everyone, especially high-level athletes working to perform optimally. But beyond athletic performance, poor digestion can lend to a weakened immunity and fatigue.
Unlike plant-based sources, whey protein powder contains lactose (the sugar found in milk). While many individuals can consume lactose without any issues, lactose is problematic for an increasing number of us. It’s typically the lactose in whey that leads to feeling bloated and gassy after drinking a whey protein shake. And unfortunately, it’s a misconception that the lactose in whey is eliminated during the extraction process. Even with high-quality whey protein isolates, that is not the case.
It has been researched that as much as 65% of the human population has a limited ability to digest lactose after infancy. While this statistic may be more lenient when looking at the American population, it only takes a small amount of lactose in your digestive tract to trigger adverse reactions (many of which are digestion related).
This alone has inspired many individuals to explore the bloat-free benefits of vegan protein powder. Even carnivorous bodybuilders are experimenting with plant-based protein supplements because of the digestibility issues they are having with whey. Fortunately, nutrition supplement companies have responded to the market demand by creating a plethora of products for all types of active lifestyles.
Allergen-free Plant-based Protein Sources
Even for individuals with a very mild allergy to milk protein, whey protein can have a deleterious effect on their immune system. Further, some individuals who do not have a milk allergy, or are are not lactose intolerant, can potentially develop an allergy to whey protein when heavily consumed over time.
Without going into the science behind it all, which you can find here (or continuing to rip on whey protein), the important thing to know is that a number of common protein sources found in vegan protein powders are allergy-free. These allergy-free, plant-based sources of protein include hemp, chia, pea, spirulina, and various ancient grain-like seeds, such as quinoa, teff, amaranth, buckwheat, and millet.
With the exception of brown rice protein (which is a very common source), most manufacturers of vegan protein powders use these allergy-free plants. Garden of Life does a great job at producing such high-quality products, many of which taste delicious.
Buffer Inflammation and Improve Mobility
Consuming a plant-based diet, especially anti-inflammatory foods, can help improve joint mobility, reduce inflammation, and reduce the effects of arthritis. Certain meat and dairy products have been shown to do the opposite: cause inflammation. And whey protein is no exception. Most serious athletes are fully aware of the deleterious effects of inflammation and how it can inhibit training and overall performance. Especially after rigorous exercise, the last thing you want to consume as a high-performing athlete is inflammatory dairy products.
Not only are most plant-based protein powders naturally free of inflammatory ingredients, but several products are infused with powerful anti-inflammatories. For instance, the two latter mentioned sport/performance products (Vega Sport Protein Powder and Garden of Life Organic Sport Protein) contain ingredients like tart cherry, turmeric, and other antioxidants. To effectively buffer inflammation and maximize long-term health, vegan protein powders offer the greatest benefits.
Last Word on Vegan Protein Powders
If you’ve made it this far in the article, then hopefully you have a good grasp on the benefits of vegan protein powder. But while plant-based proteins can be profoundly beneficial in many ways, for some of us, the flavor and taste of a product is the most important factor.
Unfortunately, a lot of products on the market are not the best tasting. This is especially the case when it comes to raw, single-sourced protein powders. For instance, just hemp protein by itself is quite earthy and gritty on the palate. The same goes for a lot of products that are solely brown rice protein or just pea protein. While they serve their purpose nutritionally, most taste-conscious consumers would balk after the first sip.
This where we’re here to help. Just in the last couple years alone, plant-based supplement companies and vegan protein powder manufacturers have made concerted efforts to produce better tasting products (in addition to products with better ingredients). For instance, Garden of Life Raw Organic Protein went through a massive overhaul. Once a mediocre vegan protein powder that was slightly chalky and overly sweetened with stevia is now one of the best tasting vegan protein powders on the market. Further, they’ve added the amino acid profile to the label and emphasize 4 grams of BCAAs per serving.
In doing our research and taste-testing of various vegan protein powder products, we set out to provide honest perspectives regarding the nutritional profiles, taste/texture, and overall value with respect to product cost and volume of protein. As a result, we thoroughly review each product and help consumers pinpoint the best choices that align with their taste preferences and fitness goals. So whether you’re searching for the most delicious vegan protein powder with no stevia or a performance blend that’s rich in BCAAs, here at WiseJug, we’ve done the heavy lifting for you.