Meat and other animal products are often what comes to mind first when we think about getting enough protein in the diet. But plants also contain protein. Even if you’re fully vegan, meaning you don’t consume any meat, dairy or animal products of any kind, it’s still entirely possible to get plenty of protein from your diet. And adding a vegan protein powder might help you meet your daily protein needs.
Reema Kanda, a registered dietitian nutritionist with the Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, California, says vegan protein powders derive their protein content from non-animal, or plant-based, sources. Common sources that you’re likely to be able to find at your local grocery store include:
— Legumes. Legume-based protein powders are derived from peas, lentils and beans. “They’re often made with yellow split peas, lentils and a variety of beans such a garbanzo beans,” Kanda explains. Garbanzo beans are also referred to as chickpeas.
— Soy. Soy-based protein powders contain soy protein isolate and soy protein concentrate. “Isolate is made from soybean flakes that have the fat, carbohydrate and fiber removed. Soy protein concentrate contains more fiber and is made from soy flour that also has the fat and carbohydrate removed,” Kanda says.
— Whole grains. Whole grains, such as quinoa, millet and amaranth, are often added to supply some essential amino acids, Kanda says.
— Seeds. Seeds are sometimes added to protein powders and are used as the base for some vegan protein powders, Kanda says. “Seeds such as hemp, flex, chia, pumpkin, sunflower and sesame all have added benefits to protein powders.”
[READ: Vegan vs. Vegetarian.]
Other Plant Protein Sources
Less widely available vegan protein sources may include:
— Sacha inchi. Also called a sacha peanut, mountain peanut or Inca nut, sacha inchi is native to South America and parts of the Caribbean. Though it’s often treated like a nut in cuisine, it’s actually a seed.
— Blue-green algae. Also called spirulina, blue-green algae is a type of cyanobacteria that grows in both fresh and salt water. It’s high in protein and is a rich source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
— Hemp. Hemp is derived from the cannabis plant and is high in protein. It doesn’t contain any THC, the psychoactive compound that’s found in marijuana. Hemp seeds can be ground down and made into protein powder.
Emilie Vandenberg, a registered dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, explains that the base protein is turned into flour through dehulling, grinding and sieving the plant item. “The protein is then extracted, purified and dried through a variety of processes.” Additional ingredients are usually added to help with flavor, such as fruits, vegetables and sweeteners or other flavorings. And, “most vegan protein powders also contain some fiber, which many of us are deficient in.”
Who Should Use Vegan Protein Powders?
If you’re following a vegan diet or otherwise trying to limit the amount of animal proteins you consume, whether for religious, health, ethical or environmental reasons, adding a vegan protein powder might be a good option to ensure you’re getting enough protein.
“The Dietary Reference Intakes recommends 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for an average healthy adult,” Kanda says. That’s about 0.36 grams per pound of body weight, so a 150-pound person should aim to consume about 54 grams of protein per day.
“Some individuals have increased needs for protein, such as older adults and athletes,” Kanda says. But she notes that if you’re about to undergo major surgery, such as orthopedic surgery, you may be instructed to increase your protein intake to enhance recovery.
“Vegan protein powders are also used by those who have milk protein allergies or milk intolerance,” says Nneka Ricketts-Cameron, a registered dietitian at Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Florida.
In addition, people with certain health issues may also have higher needs for protein. These may include:
— Lung disease.
“After all, protein is the building block of the body,” Kanda says.
Ricketts-Cameron says these plant-based products are “full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that have immune enhancing properties and anti-inflammatory properties. They are also more widely tolerated as many people have intolerances to milk sugars (lactose) or are allergic to milk protein.”
For vegetarians or vegans who might be having difficulty meeting their daily protein goals, she recommends adding a vegan protein powder to your cooking or baking to enhance the protein content of your meals.
You can also use them to make quick meal-replacement shakes. Vandenberg notes that vegan protein powders can be “a convenient way to get some protein if you don’t have time for a meal. Most vegan protein powders contain 20 to 30 grams of protein (per serving) and can be easily blended with some fruits and veggies into a smoothie for a quick, on-the-go meal.”
Health Risks of Vegan Protein Powders
Though vegan protein powders are convenient and may be a good addition to some people’s diets, they aren’t intended to be your sole source of protein–“they’re supplements” Kanda says. “Plant-based protein powders can fit into an overall healthy diet; however, the ideal goal is to first consume a variety of plant-based proteins from whole foods to meet the primary needs and then to supplement with plant-based protein powders when needed.”
Vandenberg agrees. “If you’re eating an unbalanced diet to start with, adding a vegan protein powder isn’t going to solve the underlying issue. Focus on whole foods first to meet protein needs.”
Selecting a Vegan Protein Powder
Read the label carefully when selecting a vegan protein powder. Look for the following items:
— Complete proteins. Ricketts-Cameron points out that most plant-based proteins are not complete proteins. “This means they do not contain all nine essential amino acids,” she says. “Soy protein is a complete protein. However, if you want a soy-free protein powder, you should choose one that has a blend of different plant proteins to provide all nine essential amino acids.”
— Toxins. Ricketts-Cameron also notes that “some vegan protein powders have been found to contain dangerous levels of toxins. Choosing organic vegan protein powders does not necessarily mean it will be free of toxins. Plants act like a sponge and absorb many of the nutrients and toxins found in the soil around them. When plants are dried and concentrated, as in the form of plant-based proteins, the levels of toxins can be amplified. For instance, rice-based protein powders have been found to contain dangerous levels of arsenic.” Be cautious about not overdoing it and do your research before choosing a specific product.
— Safety testing assurances. Vandenberg also warns that vegan protein powders aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, “which means it’s up to the manufacturer to submit the product for testing to ensure its safety. Look for the Certified for Sport seal from NSF International, which means that product has been tested by a third party to ensure you’re getting what’s listed on the label.”
— Short ingredient lists. “Don’t just assume all vegan protein powders are healthy. Choose powders as close to its natural state as possible. Look for powders with short ingredient lists and ingredients that you can understand,” Ricketts-Cameron says.
— Sugar content. Be sure to “check the sugar content of the product, as some can have high amounts of added sugars,” Vandenberg says. The American Heart Association recommends keeping added sugar to less than 25 grams per day for women and 36 grams per day for men.
— Other ingredients. Be forewarned, that protein powders that contain artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols can cause gastric distress for some people.
Lastly, Vandenberg says that “if you’re concerned you’re not meeting your protein needs or would like to discuss your individual protein needs, seek out a registered dietitian” for tailored advice and support.
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