Plant-based protein powder isn’t new, but it does seem to be gaining in popularity. These days, there’s a wide variety of products to choose from, so it can be hard to determine which is best suited to your lifestyle and dietary needs.
For those considering adding a plant-based protein powder to their diet, but don’t know where to start, this is the guide for you!
A Primer on Protein
Dietary protein consists of 20 amino acids, nine of which are essential or conditionally essential amino acids. So this means we need to get them or their precursors through food or supplements.
At one time, we thought we had to eat all eight essential amino acids at the same time which led to considerable stress about combining plant foods to get “complete protein”. But, we now know that it is sufficient to eat a good mix of plant-based foods that provide essential amino acids throughout any 24-hour period .
The human body is very efficient at using and recycling essential amino acids to create its own complete protein. This means that most moderately active adults need around 0.8 g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day . More active people, such as athletes, may need a higher intake of 1.4-2/kg of body weight, given the higher rate of protein turnover .
Protein Powder Forms
In general, protein powders (for example, whey powder), tend to come in the form of isolate, hydrolysate, and concentrate. This describes how they are purified and manufactured.
Protein isolate is almost entirely isolated amino acids, with little fat, fibre, or other substances. These are digested more slowly and are typically less allergenic than other protein sources. They also help keep you feeling full for longer while supporting muscle protein synthesis .
Protein hydrolysates (proteins soaked in water) are digested more rapidly. This is because the bonds between the amino acids have been cut and undergone enzymatic activity. Protein hydrolysates tend to increase the rate of dietary amino acid incorporation into skeletal muscle protein . As a result, this kind of protein may be useful for supporting muscle repair after an intense workout.
Protein concentrates are high in protein but are less concentrated than isolates and hydrolysates. They’ve also undergone less processing than other types of protein, so they’re an attractive option for those wanting a more natural protein powder .
Plant-Based Protein Sources
Legumes, nuts, and seeds are excellent protein sources. Grains, fruits, and vegetables also contain protein, although in smaller amounts. Accordingly, plant-based protein supplements tend to come from legumes, seeds, and some grain products, or mixtures thereof.
These plant-based protein sources have some key advantages over animal-derived proteins. For example, they often contain fibre, are lower in fat, and are free from cholesterol. So plant proteins can help you feel full while keeping your daily calorie intake low, and still meet your protein needs.
Let’s take a closer look at four popular sources of plant-based protein powders and what they’re good for:
Soy protein is a complete protein and is touted as having many health benefits, like helping to maintain healthy cholesterol levels . It does tend to be quite dense, but it mixes well with liquids. This, combined with its bland taste, make soy protein powder a good option for smoothies.
Soy is a common allergen, however, and soy protein is often extracted using hexane so it isn’t suitable for everybody.
Hemp seeds are an excellent source of amino acids as well as some essential fatty acids (EFAs) and fibre. Protein powders from hemp may be concentrates or isolates, however, so check labels for EFA and fibre content if those are factors.
Hemp protein is quite granular and light. It also has a slight grassy flavour which helps make it a good choice for a green shake or smoothie. Additionally, hemp is a near-complete protein and is typically high in fibre, which makes it a popular choice.
Brown rice protein and sprouted brown rice protein contain a good amount of amino acids, although they aren’t complete proteins. Because of this, brown rice protein is often mixed with pea or hemp protein to round out the essential amino acids.
Sprouted brown rice protein is, in essence, a raw rice protein hydrolysate and is less granular than hemp, but less dense than soy. These qualities make it a good choice for mixing with foods, simple shakes, or smoothies. Additionally, brown rice protein has a low-allergen profile and is easy to digest which makes it a smart option for those with sensitive stomachs or allergies to soy or dairy.
Mixing pea protein with other sources of plant protein ensures a good amino acid profile. Because of this, it’s common to find it in a blended formula with other plant-derived foods that are high in protein, such as pumpkin seeds, quinoa, chia seeds, and spirulina, and chlorella.
 Melina, V., Winston, C., Levin, S. et al. (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. J Acad Nutr Diet, Dec;116(12), 1970-80.
 Health Link BC. Quick Nutrition Check for Protein. Accessed April 7, 2017. Available: https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/healthy-eating/quick-nutrition-check-protein
 Jäger, R., Kerksick, C.M., Campbell, B.I., et al. (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, Jun 20:14:20.
 Witard, O.C., Wardle, S.L., Macnaughton, L.S., et al. (2016). Protein Considerations for Optimising Skeletal Muscle Mass in Healthy Young and Older Adults. Nutrients, 8(4), 181.
 Koopman, R., Crombach, N., Gijsen, A.P., et al. (2009). Ingestion of a protein hydrolysate is accompanied by an accelerated in vivo digestion and absorption rate when compared with its intact protein. Am J Clin Nutr, Jul;90(1):106-15.
 Loman, A.A., Islam, S.M., Li, Q., & Ju, L.K. (2016). Soybean bio-refinery platform: enzymatic process for production of soy protein concentrate, soy protein isolate and fermentable sugar syrup. Bioprocess Biosyst Eng, Oct;39(10):1501-14.
 Ramdath, D.D., Padhi, E.M., Sarfaraz, S., et al. (2017). Beyond the Cholesterol-Lowering Effect of Soy Protein: A Review of the Effects of Dietary Soy and Its Constituents on Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease. Nutrients, Mar 24;9(4).