With protein in the spotlight and more of us going meatless, we asked nutritionist and personal trainer Sarah O’Neill about the benefits of plant-based protein supplements and whether they’re worth adding to our diets
More of us than ever are ditching the meat, with 12% of adults in the UK now vegetarian or vegan and many of us opting for a semi-vegetarian diet (consciously eating less meat).
This is probably why plant-based protein supplements are becoming more popular. Unlike traditional powders made with animal-derived whey and casein, they’re made with pea, rice, hemp and soy and are said to help you build lean muscle.
We asked nutritionist Sarah O’Neill whether protein supplements are necessary in our diets and put the latest vegan-friendly powders to the test.
Why is protein important in our diets?
Our bodies break protein down into essential amino acids through digestion, which we then use for the growth and repair of cells. Protein is also needed to make enzymes and for hemoglobin that carries oxygen in the blood. As there are certain amino acids we can’t make in our body (known as essential amino acids), we need to eat protein in order to access them.
Should I be adding protein supplements to my diet?
If you’re eating a balanced diet, including high-quality proteins found in foods such as fish, poultry, dairy, grains and beans, the body doesn’t necessarily need protein supplements.
However, fortified protein powders do have their benefits. If you’re doing a lot of resistance exercise such as weight training, you will have higher protein needs, and supplements can help you manage your intake without maxing out on the calories. Plant-based protein supplements can be a good option, as they tend to be lower in fat and cholesterol than meat-derived protein such as steak or other red meats.
Powders and shakes are also easily transportable so they’re a good way of getting your protein hit within that critical window after you exercise – which is between 30 minutes and 2 hours. This is when your body is in a catabolic state (when it is breaking down tissue), so protein is important to rebuild and remodel muscle.
This process is also more effective when you split your protein intake throughout the day, as opposed to one big intake. This is because your body can only absorb so much protein at once. For some, it might be easier to mix a scoop of powder with water, milk or nut milk throughout the day than to cook a chicken or whip up some lentils.
How do plant-based proteins differ from animal-based supplements?
Plant-based proteins are suitable for those following a vegan diet. The most common supplement is whey, which is derived from cow’s milk. Some supplements are derived from casein, which is just a different part of the cow’s milk. However, there’s definitely a rise in non-animal products on the market.
Do I need to up my protein when I work out?
During exercise we break down muscle fibres, which we then need to repair and rebuild to get stronger. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and they enable us to build new and repair damaged tissue, which is why eating protein pre- and post-exercise can have a big effect and help us to build lean muscle.
Can you have too much protein?
Too much extra protein can put strain on your kidneys and can lead to your body losing calcium. Higher protein doesn’t necessarily mean better as our body can only absorb a certain amount in one go. One study published in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition found that the window in which we absorb protein is an hour and a half after consuming it and our absorption rate is about 8-10g per hour.
Which plant-based protein supplement should I choose?
There’s a huge range available from pea and hemp proteins to rice and soy blends, but no one size fits all. Hemp-based proteins, for example, contian omega 3 and fatty acids, which have lots of other health benefits like improving your eye health and lowering blood pressure, while pea proteins are lowest in fat and are gluten- and cholesterol-free. Some also contain probiotics, which can help maintain a healthy gut or are enriched with certain vitamins. It’s good to have variety in our diet, so I’d recommend seeing what works best for you.
How do you use them?
You could put a scoop into your smoothie, or into a glass of water or nut milk. You could have it with your oatmeal or porridge – these are slower release foods so your body can absorb the protein over a longer period of time. Or you can use them to make protein pancakes or protein snack balls with dried fruit.
We put 5 of the latest vegan protein supplements to the test…
We mixed all the powders with almond milk, but you can also use water, any variety of milk (try coconut if you have a sweet tooth) or added to your smoothie for an easy protein drink.
What’s in it? Organic pea, brown rice, hemp and algae protein.
What else? Maca, flaxseed and fruit powders, probiotics and prebiotics, stevia, thaumantin (sweeteners), vitamin C, B6, B12.
Protein per serving: 20g
How do you use it? Mix 40g (2 scoops) with 300ml (about a glass) water or non-dairy milk.
How does it taste? Very sweet with a malty texture. The caramel flavour changes to more tangy fruit flavours. Try it with water for a thinner texture.
What’s in it? Pea and hemp protein.
What else? Xanthan gum (thickener), thaumantin (sweeteners) and cocoa.
Protein per serving: 24.7g
How do you use it? Mix 35g (one scoop) with 200-250ml water or non-dairy milk.
How does it taste? Smells just like chocolate milkshake, but tastes earthy and creamy, with a very sweet aftertaste. Try adding to your veg and fruit smoothie.
What’s in it? Organic sprouted brown rice and pea protein.
What else? Cacao powder, probiotics, stevia, vitamin B2, B3, B6 and B12.
Protein per serving: 15.2g
How do you use it? Mix one scoop (33g) into 250ml (about a glass) cold almond or rice milk.
How does it taste? The least sweet of them all and more savoury, so you can taste the almond milk more. Not too thick – this will work with all dairy-free milks.
What’s in it? Organic pea and rice protein.
What else? Green tea extract, stevia and Himalayan pink salt.
Protein per serving: 21.8g
How do you use it? Add one scoop to 250ml water or non-dairy milk.
How does it taste? This had a bitter smell, but a more sweet vanilla flavour with a creamy texture. Add ice to make it less sickly.
What’s in it? Pea, pumpkin and alfalfa protein.
What else? Cocoa, stevia, beetroot powder.
Protein per serving: 19.6g
How do you use it? Mix one pack in 375ml ice-cold non-dairy milk.
How does it taste? Smooth texture, not too cloying. The flavour is oaty and earthy – like peas! – with a strong sweetness at the end.
Want to know more about what to eat while training? Read our ultimate foods to eat after your workout