Finding the best plant-based protein powder in a sea of options can be frustrating. How do you know what ingredients it should and shouldn’t have? Here at The Health Beat, we like to empower our readers with the knowledge to confidently pick out the best products.
The Top 3 Ways to Choose a Plant-Based Protein Powder
1. Pea protein or sprouted brown rice are going to provide the highest branched-chain amino acids, while hemp protein powder will also provide a good amino acid profile along with other unique compounds. Vegan protein powders are usually based on these two ingredients.
Look for a complete amino acid profile with an emphasis on higher amounts of essential amino acids, especially if you are following a plant-based diet. 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. Combining these amino acids make a complete protein.
Whey is naturally high in all the amino acids and is naturally a complete protein. For plant protein powder, you want to look for higher amounts of the amino acids isoleucine, leucine, valine, lysine and tryptophan. Isoleucine, leucine, and valine are the branched-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 flaxseed if you need more fiber.
The Top 3 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, isolated soy protein, artificial flavors, and artificial sweeteners, food dyes, and synthetic folic acid. This isn’t as common in plant protein powders like it is in whey protein powders where you will often find artificial sweeteners like sucralose hiding out.
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, while quinoa is a good protein source, it is also high in phytic acid and should always be sprouted. Soy protein is also an example of high phytic acid and has traditionally been fermented.
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 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 for hemp protein powder? Hemp seeds are a good protein source, 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 complete meal shake, this one is worth the price. If you have any food sensitivities, check the label on this one first.
Cost: $1.25 per serving
Protein: 15 grams
This is a fermented protein powder that was recently brought to my attention by a client. It is from Canada and uses non-GMO fermented pea protein and brown rice protein, and a fermented blend of hemp seed, quinoa sprouts, mung bean sprouts, spirulina, and alfalfa protein. It is sweetened with stevia and Lo Han Guo.
Recommendation: This should be an easier formula to digest if other plant-based formulas have bothered your stomach.
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.
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 17 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 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.