How to Choose a Plant-Based Protein Powder
1. Pea protein or sprouted brown rice are going to provide the highest branch chain amino acids, while hemp will also provide a good amino acid profile along with other unique compounds.
Look for a complete amino acid profile with an emphasis on higher amounts of essential amino acids. Amino acids are split into essential and non-essential amino acids. Your body makes the non-essential amino acids (although genetics reveal some of these are produced in lower amounts in some individuals), but you need to obtain the essential amino acids from your diet. These include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
Whey is naturally high in all the amino acids. For plant protein powder, you want to look for higher amounts of isoleucine, leucine, valine, lysine and tryptophan. Isoleucine, leucine, and valine are the branch chain amino acids required for healthy muscle. Lysine is often lacking in plants and plays an import role in collagen (skin and tendons), muscle tissue repair, production of L-carnitine for fat metabolism, as an anti-viral, and for the absorption of calcium. Tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin and melatonin, beneficial for mood and sleep.
As you can see, whey protein is superior when it comes to the branch chain amino acid profile and pea protein comes in second. Pure pea protein can be chalky and an acquired taste. To compromise between taste and profile, you will be happiest with a blend of different plants.
2. If you are female, you want a higher fiber profile. Fiber is more important for women than men because it is beneficial for increasing sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG on blood tests) to normalize estrogen levels and target delivery along with regulating daily elimination. For men, too much fiber negatively affects SHBG levels and can lead to lower testosterone. For this reason, I recommend men use the lower fiber options for plant-based protein or grass-fed whey protein.
3. Third, it needs to taste good, mix well and be cost effective. The major challenge companies face, is making a plant-based protein powder delicious, minimize grittiness and make it worth the expense. The common complaint is that the powder “tastes like dirt.” The trick is how you prepare it because if you put plant protein in water, mix it with a spoon and expect it to taste like a milkshake, your morning will be ruined. Understand that reviews on taste are going to range drastically with plant-based protein powder.
I recommend making a smoothie with banana, cacao, berries, coconut water, nut or seed milk or kefir and your plant-based protein for the best taste. Add your own anti-inflammatory additions like ginger and turmeric if needed, and grind fresh flax seed if you need more fiber.
What to Avoid in Plant-Based Protein Powders
1. Avoid the usual suspects. When analyzing a label, you want to avoid the usual suspects like artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners, food dyes and synthetic folic acid. This isn’t as common in plant protein powders like it is in whey protein powders.
2. Avoid non-sprouted grains. If it contains grains they should be sprouted, and if brown rice is used you want verification that is cold processed without chemicals and low in heavy metals. Grains that have not been sprouted contain higher levels of phytic acid, which binds to calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium and copper. For example, quinoa is high in phytic acid and should always be sprouted.
3. Avoid ground flax seed that has been milled into a powder. First off, flaxseed is an amazing source of lignans and protective against estrogen-positive breast cancer. So what is the problem? Flax seeds contain high amounts of the omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and low antioxidant activity. This increases the risk of oxygenation and rancidity once the seed is opened and exposed to oxygen for an extended period of time. Companies who do use milled flax seeds might claim that flash pasteurization prevents oxidation. According to this study, “Pasteurized flaxseed milled under refrigerated temperatures (10 – 18 °C) did not exhibit any significant improvement in oxidative stability. Flaxseed pasteurization at 148 °C for 16.25 minutes using dry heat was found to be detrimental to the oxidative stability flaxseed once milled. ”
The best way to consume flax seeds is to mill them fresh with a coffee grinder and add them to your shake.
What about hemp seeds? Hemp seeds do not contain any phytic acid, are low in ALA, high in the antioxidants C, beta-carotene and vitamin E (including tocotrienols) to protect against rancidity, and are an incredible source of manganese, magnesium and GLA (excellent for female hormones). Vitamin E is used with fish oil and cod liver oil to keep it fresh.
What about chia seeds? Chia seeds are also actually higher in ALA than flax. This would make you think that chia would be more sensitive to oxidation than flax. However, chia seeds have high antioxidant activity and contain polyphenols, chlorogenic and caffeic acids, myricetin, quercetin and kaempferol that appear to help protect against rancidity. In a study comparing chia to flax, chia had almost nine times more antioxidant capacity according to a FRAP assay.
I recommend keeping all plant-based protein that includes chia or hemp in the refrigerator to decrease oxidation.
Best Plant-Based Protein Powders
Cost: $2.50 per serving
Protein: 20 grams
Pure Food Plant Based Protein uses organic sprouted brown rice protein, organic pea protein, organic hemp protein, organic mesquite powder, organic lucuma powder, organic vanilla bean and organic stevia. It has a total of 20 grams of protein, rivaling whey protein. It is higher in sodium (258mg), so this is a good post-workout shake after losing some sweat.
The bonus feature of this formula are the probiotics, mesquite powder, and raw cacao. Mesquite is a pod that grows in the desert and has been found to be an excellent source of fiber, minerals, and lysine. It also has a delicious flavor. Raw cacao boosts the antioxidant profile and one study found that dietary flavanols from cocoa contribute to endogenous photoprotection (sun protection), improves dermal (skin) blood flow, hydration, and complexion.
Recommendation: Best for workouts that lead to sweat loss for men and women, especially out in the sun.
Cost: $3.80 per serving
Protein: 12 grams
mBreakfast is a product I analyzed for months and tested on myself for a month. I spoke with Charles Barber, the founder of Crucial Four, and I was extremely impressed with his knowledge, approach, and sourcing of the product. Charles is the first person I would go to if I wanted to know where to get the most pristine, wild or organic ingredients. This is also why the doctors working with cancer trust him and his products.
The name Crucial Four represents the four missing food groups — superior herbs, medicinal mushrooms, algae, and biotic extracts. Since I am a major fan of wild ingredients and mushrooms, this had my name all over it.
The formulation contains a 5000-year-old South American medicinal base formula and 8 years of intensive wellness center practice with medical doctors and leading health experts. The protein blend contains hemp protein and brazil nut powder. While it doesn’t use pea or brown rice for protein (it use to until they secured a brazil nut powder source powdered within a week of harvest with negligible aflatoxin), the blend of hemp and brazil nuts is sufficient in amino acids while providing a host of other nutrients.
This formula is more than a protein powder. Brazil nuts are known for selenium and ellagic acid (cancer fighters) and this is one of the few clean sources I have seen. It contains 12 grams of protein, 8.5 grams of fat and 21 grams of carbohydrates, making it closer to a nutrient dense meal. It contains raw cacao, ashwagandha, maca, wild astragalus, pine pollen, colostrum, spirulina, cordyceps, reishi, chaga, turkey tail and maitake to name a few of the superfoods in this blend.
Recommendation: If you are looking for very high quality ingredients and a more complete meal shake, this one is worth the price. If you have any food sensitivities, check the label on this one first.
Cost: $1.46 per serving
Protein: 12 grams
This is a unique blend of pea protein, hemp, chia, chlorella and potato in the concentrate form. Chlorella boosts the tocotrienol, tocopherol, and carotenoid profile, while potato protein increases the BCAA total. Acacia, inulin (prebiotic), bamboo and apple provide different types of fiber to help diversify gut bacteria, which may increase fat loss. Enzymes are also added to improve digestion. Stevia and Lo Han Guo are used to sweeten it.
Recommendation: For those partaking in light to moderate exercise for weight loss, wanting grain-free and needing higher fiber. For many serious athletes, protein levels are going to need to be higher. Or you can boost it by adding protein rich ingredients to a shake.
Protein: 20 grams
This plant protein uses pea, chia, pumpkin, sunflower, hemp and sanchi inchi to produce 20 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber. It contains digestive enzymes, a billion count of a probiotic strain, and 30 superfoods. I prefer it when companies use fewer superfoods in meaningful amounts instead of a ton in tiny amounts. You also increase the chances of someone reacting poorly to an ingredient when you add so many. I do appreciate this company using ingredients like reishi, shiitake, hawthorn berries and baobab. If it was me, I would stick with these four. Note that this product does have a small amount of dextrose, which is glucose.
Recommendation: Moderate to heavy exercise and sweat loss.
Cost: $1.12 per serving
Protein: 17 grams
This product uses a blend of organic pea, hemp, and goji berry protein. The other ingredients include organic vanilla flavor, organic guar gum, sea salt, organic stevia extract and organic whole ground coconut.
Along with 18 grams of protein, it has 4 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram of fiber, 0 grams of sugar and a good amino acid profile. This is formulated with sufficient branch chain amino acids while also being low in glutamic acid. This may be beneficial for those who are sensitive to higher levels of glutamic acid (glutamate). If you eat a predominately plant-based diet, your taste buds will most likely be acclimated to the flavor. If you are new to plant-based protein, I would try a different product on this list first.
Recommendation: Light to moderate exercise, or as a light breakfast smoothie.
Cost: $2.64 per serving
Protein: 28 grams
This formula is high in plant-based sprouted protein (28 grams) and contains 6 grams of fiber, 4 grams of carbohydrates, 120mcg of chromium, 350mg of magnesium and 1,000IU of vitamin D. It also contains the adaptogen ashwagandha, enzymes and two strains of probiotics.
This protein powder is marketed for weight loss, but I would market this towards female athletes engaging in intense training. Blending this with a banana and other fruit would give you a very substantial breakfast or post-workout shake for heavy workouts. Be aware that taste may be a factor for this one and if you are picky, it probably won’t work.
A few years ago Garden of Life RawFit tested high in lead, cadmium, and tungsten due to the brown rice protein. However, they responded with a swift and rigorous change to sourcing and testing to ensure purity in their present formula.
Recommendation: This is a heavy hitter for athletes working out 5-7 times a week.
How this could be improved: There are only 10 servings per container, and this should be increased to at least 15 servings.
Submit Your Plant-Based Protein Powder for Review
If you have a plant-based protein powder you would like me to analyze, submit it in the comment section and I’ll research it for you.