Choose the Right Protein Powder (Part 2: Plant-Based)

sarah cuff Macronutrients, Run Recovery, Supplements 6 Comments

I spoke in part 1 about how to choose the right whey protein powder and made it clear there (and would like to reiterate here) that I don’t believe most athletes NEED a protein powder. However protein powder can definitely make life a lot easier when it comes to successfully meeting ones daily protein requirement. That said, integrating the right protein powder is incredibly important – as the wrong one could be subtly damaging your health.

So while part 1 covered dairy-based (whey) protein powder, this blog will cover what to look for when choosing a high-quality plant-based protein powder for yourself.

5 Things to look for in Plant-Based Protein Powder

1. Consider amount of protein per serving 

Many years ago I used a plant-based protein powder that contained 10 grams of protein per scoop (15g). The label told me 2 scoops equaled one serving, but that made my shakes taste chalky so I just used one scoop. I finally realized I could simply use 3 Tbsp (30g) of hemp hearts (which I found totally palatable) and get the exact same amount of protein. This is because 3 Tbsp of hemp hearts provides 10g protein and I was thrilled because it meant using a whole, real food instead of a processed protein powder. So for a good time after that I simply used hemp hearts as my ‘protein powder’ in shakes.

I’ve seen some protein powders that offer little more than 15g of protein per serving. In that case, I’d be more inclined to simply opt for a whole, real food (hemp hearts) instead of a processed powder. Typically, you’re looking for a protein powder to provide you with about 20 grams or more protein per serving (and the full serving be palatable) – less than that, I’d just go with hemp hearts.

2. A balanced amino acid profile

You also want your protein to be complete, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids (the branch chain amino acids isoleucine, leucine, valine as well as histidine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine and tryptophan) in optimal amounts.

In the plant world, soy, hemp and quinoa are considered sources of complete protein (although hemp seeds are just slightly too low in leucine to be considered ‘officially’ complete). If your protein powder isn’t made of soy, hemp or quinoa – simply mixing other limited amino acid protein sources together, such as rice and pea, will lead to a complete amino acid profile.

Of course, most soy is GMO (unless it very specifically states organic and non-GMO) so I generally avoid it. Additionally, the phytoestrogens found in soy proteins mimics estrogen and can exacerbate health conditions in a world where many people are estrogen dominated (which can be potentially damaging to our health). Therefore, its’s best to avoid processed soy of any sort including soy protein (use only whole soy such as endamame and traditionally prepared soy such as tempeh, tofu and tamari).

For the sake of comparison, I created a chart (below) showing the recommended essential amino acid profile (as recommended by the Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board – note arginine and glutamic acid are not considered essential amino acids) versus Ergogenics Hemp protein powder versus a top selling protein powder I used to use (adjusted to show nutrition for 30 grams of powder). And I threw in Ergogenics whey isolate just for fun – it’s interesting to see the difference between plant-based and whey protein powders.

You can see each of these exceeds minimum requirements, some far surpassing them. Just like I always look for an amino acid profile of any whey protein, I absolutely am looking for the amino acid profile of any plant-based protein powder. When looking at a plant-based protein powder, I would suggest comparing it against the optimal profile of amino acids.

As you can also see, Ergogenics hemp protein also contains a favorable amount of glutamic acid, a neurotransmitter that helps people deal with stress. Glutamic acid is a precursor to glutamine, which is essential to a strong immune system and found to be depleted after intense exercise.

3. Processed without chemicals and heat

The downside to many legume proteins, such as soy and pea but also quinoa, is that the extraction process uses chemicals (such as hexane and hydrochloric acid) and heat – although there is recent research showing it’s possible to use a method including dry separation followed by water fractionation and finally ultrafiltration. Therefore, you’d want to be sure any quinoa, soy or pea protein uses the non-chemical methods of extraction. High heat should be avoided in processing as it destroys the enzyme functions of the protein.

In contrast, seed proteins such as pumpkin or hemp protein are relatively easy to extract from the seed and do not require harsh chemical based processing methods. For example, hemp seeds are mechanically processed to remove the hard shells, then the hemp hearts are cold expeller pressed, separating the oil from ‘hemp cake’, which is then milled and sifted. No harsh chemicals or heat required. Rice is also processed without chemicals or high heat – instead it’s ground into a flour, mixed with water and natural enzymes are added to separate out the protein.

The fact that hemp by default doesn’t require chemical processing and that it is a complete protein (as long as it’s hemp pro 70) makes it my top choice for a vegan protein powder. In fact, not only does it contain all of the 20 known amino acids – including the 9 essential amino acids (EAAs) – the types of protein it’s made up of include edestin and albumin, both easy to digest proteins.

4. Easy to digest / high bioavailability 

To work well for you, protein powders need to be both easy to digest (this can vary from person to person) and be highly bioavailable (both digestible and contain all necessary amino acids in order to be useable by your body).

Soy, peas and fava beans contain anti-nutritional factors such as trypsin inhibitors, lectins and tannins that reduce digestibility. Soy protein in particular contains trypsin inhibitors – not a good thing as trypsin is an enzyme that is essential to nutrition and protein absorption. Both soy and pea protein contain oligosaccharides, which can lead to unpleasant stomach upset and gas.

On the flip side, rice and seed proteins are known to be much easier to digest. Hemp in particular contains two very easily digestible proteins: edestin and albumin. Edestin (also known as edistin) protein makes up 65% of hemp protein and is in fact found only in hemp seed. It aids in digestion and produces antibodies which are vital to maintain a healthy immune system. In fact, edestin has been shown to be incredibly immune boosting (so much so, that those with autoimmune conditions may find it actually stimulates the immune system too much). And albumin (similar to that found in egg whites, at a rate of 5%), which is the main protein found in human blood plasma, makes up 35% of hemp protein.

To evaluate the bioavailability of protein (based on both the amino acid requirements of humans and their ability to digest it), a measurement often turned to is the protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS), which was adopted by the FAO/WHO as the preferred method for the measurement of the protein value in human nutrition. The PDCAAS for various foods are as follows (a score of 1 being the highest and 0 being lowest):

  • cows milk – 1.00
  • eggs – 1.00
  • casein – 1.00
  • whey – 1.00
  • soy protein – 1.00 (historically given a low score via the protein efficiency ratio rating system)
  • beef – 0.92
  • pea protein concentrate (isolate) – 0.89
  • chickpeas – 0.78
  • soybeans – 0.78
  • black beans – 0.78
  • peas/legumes – 0.70
  • dehulled hemp seed – 0.66
  • peanuts – 0.52
  • rice – 0.50
  • wheat – 0.42
  • wheat gluten – 0.25

Of course this scoring system has its limitations. For example, it doesn’t take into consideration anti-nutritional factors such as trypsin inhibitors, lectins and tannins – nor does it consider oligosaccharide content.

It should also be noted that the low hemp scores on the PDCAAS are not due to digestibility (hemp protein is highly digestible) but because the hemp tested (hemp pro 50) presents leucine as a limiting amino acid (only 0.9g leucine per 20g protein). However Ergogenics hemp protein amino acid profile in the chart above does not show leucine as limiting because it uses hemp pro 70 (offering more than 1.4g leucine per 20g protein) and also includes spirulina, moringa, chlorella, barley grass and wheat grass in its mix – all of which are rich in leucine, thus raising the overall amino acid profile.

5. Contains only 100% all-natural, high quality ingredients

Lastly, you want to ensure that the ingredient list beyond the actual protein source is free from fillers (such as lecithin), flavourings, and artificial sweeteners or sugar. With flavoured powders, you’re looking for real flavourings such as “cocoa”, “berries” and “vanilla bean extract” instead of “flavouring”. You will also likely find some sort of non-caloric sweetener such as stevia or monk fruit extract. Stay away from artificial sweeteners such as sucralose.

You may come across protein powders that choose to include greens such as spirulina, chlorella, kale, broccoli and so on. Obviously, if you wish to also get some veggies and greens along with your protein this is a great choice! It also helps raise the amino acid profile.

I think another important part of choosing the best protein powder for you is taste. However, taste is highly subjective – what I like, you might not care for at all – so it comes down to finding a few high-quality protein powders that meet the standards listed above and then doing some taste testing!

Obviously you can see here that I’m a fan of hemp protein. However, chia seed protein, pumpkin seed protein and certain mixes of other plant-based proteins such as rice, quinoa, millet, amaranth and pumpkin; or rice, quinoa and coconut may also also fit the bill when looking for a good plant-based protein powder. The great news is there are quite a number of protein powders dedicated to quality on the market these days to choose from – I can pretty much guarantee there’s a good high-quality one out there that’ll suit your needs and tastebuds.

To deliciously healthy food and stronger faster running… Cheers,


Sarah J Cuff, RHN

Comments 6

  1. Hi Sarah!

    Could you please elaborate on this …

    “integrating the right protein powder is incredibly important – as the wrong one could be subtly damaging your health”……

    What damage can be done if not using the right protein powder? How do you determine the right protein powder for you?

    1. Post

      Great question Barb! The key word is subtle… Either ingredients added or the form of protein used could have any number of effects that would be more worrisome with continued use over time, such as:
      – ingredients you have a sensitivity to (cause inflammation in the gut) such as soy or pea (legumes / contain oligosaccharides) or whey (dairy – although whey isolate does not contain lactose and properly processed whey isolate should have protein fractions in right amounts so as to not cause allergic reactions)
      – artificial sweeteners (cause glucose intolerance; enhance gut bacteria that triggers storage of fat)
      – preservatives such as sodium benzoate (potential carcinogens)
      – GMO ingredients (sodium ascorbate, citric acid, artificial flavourings, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, sucrose, monosodium glutamate)
      – hydrogenated oils (heart and nerve issues)
      – emulsifiers, such as soy lecithin (negatively negatively affect gut microbiota causing intestinal inflammation)
      – soy protein or soy additives (phytoestrogens negatively affect hormonal system / GMO if not organic)

      Basically you are looking for a protein powder that is using a protein source you know works for your body (no sensitivities) and is processed properly, and there are very few other items added. Short ingredient lists with only ingredients you recognize!

  2. What are your thoughts with Ergogenics protein+greens.
    I recently purchased it and i know you did a comparison here but what are your overall thoughts.
    I was originally using whey isolate and decided to try vegan instead.
    Also, would you know whether its safe to take a BCAA supplement. I heard it can cause mood shifts and lower dopamine and serotonin levels. And Ergogenics contain BCAA as well but 6g vs a sole BCAA supplement.

    1. Post

      Hi Winnie… I am of the opinion that Ergogenics Protein with greens (previously called Ergogenics Hemp protein) is one of the highest quality, easiest to digest, and best plant-based protein powders on the market. I’m also a fan of New Zealand whey isolate. Therefore, choosing between Ergogenics protein with greens and New Zealand whey isolate would be personal preference / taste preference. Regarding a BCAA supplement, it’s certainly safe, but if you’re already using a protein powder, there’s no need for an additional BCAA supplement, as your BCAA requirements are met (exceeded even) with the protein supplement, particularly with whey protein. There are always downsides with overdoing anything, so taking a BCAA on top of supplementing with protein powder may lead to undesirable side effects. Ergogenics protein does not contain added BCAA, the label does highlight the amounts of these branched-chain amino acids – but they are not added. They are simply what is naturally present in the hemp and greens. Therefore, this is one of the best places to get enough (but not too much). Hope that helps!

  3. Hi Sarah,

    I am allergic to dairy products, so plant or egg proteins have been my only options. But lately I have been hearing about how plant-based protein powders in particular have amounts of heavy metals in them that have been absorbed from the ground it was planted in.

    A quick Google search shows that some brands of plant-based proteins have been plagued by this, but it is difficult to determine if this is true, and exactly how dangerous this could be.

    Have you heard anything about these claims and if so, how valid are these said claims?

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