Plant-Based Protein Powders and How to Choose One

Plant based protein powders IG post*Note: I am not a doctor or medical professional. I am studying nutrition and on the path to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN). Please, contact a practing RDN or other healthcare professional with any questions or concerns before adapting a new way of eating.

Good afternoon friends! ๐Ÿ™‚ Every week I receive multiple questions in my Instagram inbox about eating plant-based or being a plant-based athlete, so I figured it was time to start addressing those questions here on the good ‘ol blog!  As a future Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and an aspiring sub-elite runner, I am drawing on both research AND my personal experiences to share this information with you, so as usual, contact a licensed healthcare professional with any questions or concerns! Once I am a licensed and practicing RDN I will be more than happy to help you, though! ๐Ÿ™‚

So without further ado, let’s get to it! Today’s topic is plant-based protein powders.๐ŸŒฑ I want to start off by saying a protein powder should never be a replacement for a food in your diet, rather it should be an ENHANCEMENT or a SUPPLEMENT to your current diet. It is always best to get most of your daily calories and protein from whole, real foods (1). A protein shake is not meant to replace dinner or breakfast. Although, no judgment if you’ve done that before, as we have all been there ๐Ÿ˜› But generally protein powder does not make a very complete or balanced meal unless it is added to a smoothie with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, etc. Of course there are certain times when a protein powder may be appropriate: during a major illness where you need extra protein to help you heal, during a heavy training phase as an athlete, or when you are struggling to meet your daily calorie and protein needs with food alone (2). Always talk to your healthcare provider before beginning a supplement, because yes, protein powder is considered a supplement!

 

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There are a variety of reasons why an athlete might chose a plant-based protein powder: dairy allergy, vegan diet, or taste preferences. I personally am vegan and whey never sat well with me even when I ate dairy, so that is why I chose to consume a plant-based protein powder. I did not start consuming protein powder until 2019 because I used to be against it to be honest. But after running my highest weekly volume ever this summer to train for my second ever marathon (the Chicago Marathon this October), I can attest to the recovery benefits of consuming a high-protein shake or smoothie after a long run or tough training session when my stomach is otherwise not ready to eat a full meal rich in carbohydrates and protein. All I have to do is dump some water or almond milk and protein powder into my Blender Bottle, shake well, and sip as I stretch and foam roll.

So what are some key differences between whey based and plant-based protein powders? Well for starters, whey protein is a complete protein, meaning it has all 9 of the essential amino acids that your body cannot produce on it’s own (3). All animal based proteins are complete, but only quinoa and soy products are complete plant-based proteins (3,4). So before you panic, remember that you do not need to eat complete proteins at every single meal and snack, but rather throughout the day. Or you could do some good ol’ fashioned food pairing, i.e. the classic combination of rice and beans together contain all 9 of the essential amino acids in the proper amounts! So how does this relate to plant-based protein powders? Well, unless you are consuming a soy protein powder, which is already complete,  most plant-based protein powders will achieve a complete amino acid profile through the pairing of multiple plant protein sources, i.e. pea protein, chia seeds, cranberry protein, pumpkin seeds (4). The use of multiple protein sources just adds to the nutritional benefits of the protein powder! Whey protein powder is relatively low in nutrients besides protein, but a plant-based protein powder will often have some iron and other minerals, such as phosphorous or zinc (4). Pea protein powder is among the most common plant-based protein powders, but I’ve seen many types over the years, from hemp seed to combination plant protein powders.

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As an athlete there are two additional considerations I use when choosing a protein powder. I check the ingredients to see if the plant-based protein powder contains sugar alcohols and if it is NSF Certified for Sport or Informed Choice (6,7). I check for sugar alcohols because for me and many others, they cause GI distress (5). I cannot even chew gum because of the sugar alcohols! I am fine with stevia though, but I honestly wish more protein powders just used a bit of regular sugar…but that’s a topic for another day ๐Ÿ˜›

I then check if the protein powder is NSF Certified for Sport or Informed Choice because supplements are not regulated by the FDA, so how do we know that our supplements actually contain what they say they contain (6,7)? The NSF Internationalโ€™s Certified for Sport program was created to test supplements and make sure they do not contain any banned or illegal substances, contaminants, and that they actually contain what they say they contain (6).  To receive the NSF mark the supplement has to be tested twice in a calendar year (6). I also love that NSF has an app with a barcode scanner, so I can check supplements easily when I am on the go or at a store.

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Informed Choice is similar in that third party tests supplements for banned substances, but it is not the gold standard or recognized by major athletics teams, such as the MLB, like NSF certified for Sport (7). NSF Certified for Sport is especially important for elite athletes who are subject to random testings before/during/after competitions, because how would it feel to get disqualified because of your protein powder? I may be exaggerating here, but it’s still good to know exactly what is in our supplements, so even as an aspiring sub-elite athlete, I will only consume supplements from brands I trust and ones that are preferably NSF Certified, but at least Informed Choice so I know that they have been tested by a third party.

All 3 of my recommended protein powders below are NSF Certified or Informed Choice!

My top 3 favorite protein powders (in order) are linked below with pros and cons. 

 

1. Garden of Life Sport Organic Plant-Based Protein Powder: Chocolate or Vanilla

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  • Pros:NSF Certified for Sport
    • Informed Choice
    • The chocolate is tasty in milk or water
    • Contains all the essential amino acids (complete protein)
    • 30 g protein per serving

 

  • Cons:Expensive, but at least it lasts a while
    • Vanilla only tastes good in smoothies in my opinion
    • Contains stevia, which I am not sensitive to, but some of you might be or you may not like the taste of
    • Can be hard to mix unless you use a shaker bottle or a blender

2. Tailwind Rebuild Recovery Chocolate or Vanilla

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  • Pros:Informed Choice
    • Tastes good even in just water (I prefer chocolate over vanilla in plain water)
    • Easy to transport if you get the single serving packs
    • Mixes very easily just by shaking
    • Contains electrolytes in addition to carbohydrates and protein, perfect for immediately after a run or athletic event
    • No artificial sweeteners

 

  • Cons:Not NSF Certified
    • Most expensive option
    • Vanilla is not very tasty in my opinion but some may like it
    • Not as high in protein as other options (only 10 g)
    • High in sugar compared to other protein powders (39 g)

 

3. Vega Sport Premium Protein in Chocolate, Vanilla, Berry, or Mocha

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  • Pros:Informed Choice
    • Can buy as a tub or individual serving packets
    • Tastes decent even mixed with just water, but is best in smoothies
    • 30% DV of iron
    • 30 g of protein

 

  • Cons:Not NSF Certified
    • Vanilla only tastes good in smoothies in my opinion
    • Contains stevia, which I am not sensitive to, but some of you might be or you may not like the taste of
    • Can be hard to mix unless you use a shaker bottle or a blender.

 

Do you use plant-based protein powder? If so, which brand and why? Do you have a question you want to see on here next? Do next hesitate to comment below, contact me on Instagram, or e-mail me at blackbeanqueen@gmail.com ! ๐Ÿ™‚

 References

  1. Plant-Based Sports Nutrition by D.Enette Larson-Meyer, PhD, RDN & Matt Ruscigno, MPH, RDN
  2. Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook by Nancy Clark, MS, RD
  3. What is a complete amino acid profile? by Kelli Shallal, MPH, RD
  4. Whey Vs. Plant Protein by Abbey Howarth
  5. Artificial Sweeteners and Other Sugar Substitutes by Mayo Clinic 
  6. NSF International Certified for Sport 
  7. Informed Choice

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