Plant-Based Protein Powder—Shaking it Up!

Protein powders first appeared in the 1950s, beginning with egg-based supplements.[1] These supplements have been widely used by athletes, body builders, and the population at large to boost athletic performance and build muscle mass, even though they are not regulated for efficacy or safety. Over the past several decades, plant-based, vegan protein powders have appeared on the market. These products are synthesized from plant sources rather than animal sources, such as eggs, dairy, and meat. But what’s in plant-based protein powders? Do they work? Are they safe? Should we use powdered plant proteins or just eat the whole plant foods instead?

What is Plant-Based Protein Powder?

Plant-based protein powders are made by isolating proteins from plant foods, such as peas; nuts; seeds, such as sacha inchi, pumpkin, sunflower, hemp, flax and chia; grains; and soy. Some contain silk protein, derived from silkworm cocoons, and honey, which are not vegan products. Other ingredients are often added, such as fruit, sea vegetables, vegetables, digestive enzymes, probiotics, flavorings, gums, and sweeteners, such as monk fruit, stevia, or erythritol.

But protein powders, plant-based or not, are unregulated and not standardized for quality or safety. In 2018, The Clean Label Project, a non-profit that examines food and supplements for content and safety, found high levels of lead, BPA, and heavy metals in 134 popular protein powders, plant-based products being the most contaminated.[2]

Vegan protein powders are generally added to liquids to be consumed as a beverage. There is no standardized dosage and individual manufacturers include a scoop with their products, measuring out their recommended amount per serving.  As protein powders are not regulated, the amount of protein, vitamins, minerals, fiber, calories, and other components vary widely from product to product.

What Do People Use Protein Powders For?

In general, people often use protein powders to increase protein in their diet in hopes of building muscle mass and improving athletic performance. However, other claims for use include: improved satiety, increased energy and metabolism, reduction of digestive stress, increased diversity in the diet, weight loss, anti-inflammatory properties, improved skin, and improved athletic recovery time. Some people use protein powders merely as a meal replacement. Many brands claim to be high in fiber, as well, although examination of the Nutrition Facts labels of many popular vegan protein powders revealed that most contain 0-3 grams of fiber per serving[3], although one brand contained 13 grams.[4]

What Does the Research Say?

Photo by Cindy Thompson, Trimazing.com

The majority of the research into plant-based protein powders is focused on whether plant proteins contain “complete” amino acid profiles and comparing them to animal-based protein rather on the efficacy of consuming plant protein powders. Much of the research is skewed from a bias that proteins must be complete when consumed and a significant number are funded by organizations involved with or supporting animal-based protein. That being said, the research into protein powders alone, from any source, has not been shown to build muscle mass or improve athletic performance.[5]

Studies into adverse effects of protein powder consumption, plant-based or not, are few. Ronis, et al[6], suggest that the lack of adverse effects of supplements is due not only to the lack of regulation and standardized testing, but that most people taking supplements fail to report this to their physicians. There is, however, considerable research into the side effects of consuming excess protein. A metanalysis of 32 studies by Delimaris noted that extra protein, above the standard recommended daily allowance of 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, poses significant risk for kidney and liver dysfunction, and bone loss.[7] Consumption of large amounts of whey and casein protein powders were also found to be associated with kidney failure.[8]

Summary 

Photo by skeeze from Pixabay

There is a saying, “muscle is built in the kitchen,” but the research does not support that consuming protein powder, including plant protein powder, builds muscle. Moreover, increased protein consumption does not build muscle either. Muscle is built through resistance training.[9] Protein is an important macronutrient, along with carbohydrates and fat, but is not responsible for adequate nutrition in isolation. Consuming isolated proteins, whether from plants or animals, will not grow muscle. Further, excess protein can be harmful, especially to kidneys and liver. And while plant-based protein powders are advertised as isolated proteins, they are often found full of other ingredients as well, and are unregulated as to their content. Eating real, whole, plant-sourced food and resistance training is your best bet for health and muscle. It also eliminates wasteful plastic packaging! Go ahead and have your smoothie, adding some beans, edamame, grains, seeds, and vegetables, but leave the protein powder in the dust.

Looking for more information on protein, particularly plant-based, vegan protein? Then check out my post, Vegan Protein, for more!

References 

[1] En.wikipedia.org. Bodybuilding supplement. Wikipedia website. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodybuilding_supplement#:~:text=In%201950s%2C%20with%20recreational%20and,at%20bodybuilders%20and%20physical%20athletes. October 4, 2020.

[2] Clean Label Project. Protein powder: our point of view. Clean Label Project website. https://cleanlabelproject.org/protein-powder-white-paper/. October 4, 2020.

[3] Health.com. The 15 best vegan protein powders. Health.com website. https://www.health.com/nutrition/best-vegan-protein-powder. October 2, 2020.

[4] Supreme Nutrition. The surprising benefits of vegan protein powder. Supreme Nutrition website. https://supremenutrition.com/blogs/nutrition/the-surprising-benefits-of-vegan-protein-powder. October 2, 2020.

[5] Wolfe R. Protein supplements and exercise. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000;72(2):551S-557S. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/72.2.551S. October 4, 2020.

[6] Ronis, MJ, Pedersen KB, & Watt, J. (2018). Adverse effects of nutraceuticals and dietary supplements. Annual review of pharmacology and toxicology58, 583-601.

[7] Delimaris I. (2013). Adverse Effects Associated with Protein Intake above the Recommended Dietary Allowance for Adults. ISRN nutrition2013. https://doi.org/10.5402/2013/126929

[8] Bowen A, Denny VC, Zahedi, Bidaisee S, Keku E. (2018). The whey and casein protein powder consumption: The implications for public health. International Public Health Journal10(2), 131-136.

[9] Westcott W. Resistance training: programming and progressions. In: Bryant CX, Green DJ, eds. 4th ed. San Diego, CA: American Council on Exercise, 2010: 310-367.

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