Recently, plant-based protein powders have gained popularity, competing more effectively with their dairy-based counterparts.

As the name suggests, plant-based protein powders are derived from plants and made from ingredients such as rice, peas, leucine, chia seeds and hemp that are a powerhouse of good nutrition with remarkable health benefits.

These ingredients can be stand-alone or combined in protein products and target a larger cross-section of consumers, not just hardcore athletes, though many athletes are also beginning to choose plant-based proteins. According to a report by Research and Markets, plant proteins are expected ­­to grow at a CAGR [Compound Annual Growth Rate] of 8.29% between 2017 and 2021 (1). Plant-based proteins are allergy-free, contain lots of vitamins and minerals, have no growth hormones or antibodies, are easily digestible for people with sensitive stomachs, and can even be a good source of branch chain amino acids (BCAAs) (2).

BCAAs: What are they?According, “Branch Chain Amino Acids are the ‘Building Blocks’ of the body. They make up 35% of your muscle mass and must be present for molecular growth and development to take place. Eight are essential (cannot be manufactured by the body) the rest are non-essential (can be manufactured by the body with proper nutrition). Besides building cells and repairing tissue, they form antibodies, they are part of the enzyme and  hormonal system; they build RNA and DNA, and they carry oxygen throughout the body” (3).

This is where plant proteins struggle compared to dairy-based products, particularly when it comes to athletic applications. While plant-based proteins are a good source for certain BCAAs “such as leucine, isoleucine and valine, which promote muscle development and increase endurance,” they are “still not as high as whey protein,” explains food scientist Regina Bertoldo of Food Ingredients, Fargo, ND (4).

Manufacturers increase amino acid profiles by blending different proteins together. However, one new and innovative protein source provides the closest amino acid profile to whey, and may challenge its supremacy in sports applications.

This source is water lentils (brand name Lentein), grown sustainably and quickly on aqua farms, providing both abundant essential amino acids and BCAAs closely associated with whey. The source was discovered by scientists growing algae (5). The water lentil was essentially a weed creeping in on their algae which when tested revealed its nutritional profile. It has a protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) of 93 (6), bringing it the closest to whey. PDCAAS is the score developed and used by manufacturers to determine the quality of a protein.

LeucineLeucine is a natural amino acid found in the body and contributes to our own muscle protein. Leucine makes up about one-third of muscle protein. According to a report published in February 2006 in The Journal of Nutrition, “during exercise, leucine breaks down faster than other amino acids. It also works to stimulate the production of protein and energy molecules in your muscles. For this reason, synthetic leucine is often used as a food supplement to help athletes rebuild muscle and increase their physical endurance and strength” (7). Plant protein ingredients such as rice and pea proteins provide the right amount of leucine that the body needs. According to The Art Of Well-being, 48 grams of rice protein gives consumers the perfect amount of daily leucine (8).

Rice Proteins and Pea ProteinsRice is great for muscle growth. While the proteins of brown rice are more slowly digested than whey or egg proteins, brown rice still contains essential amino acids needed to rebuild tissue. A double-blind, placebo-controlled, clinical trial done in 2013 on the effects of whey and rice protein supplementation on body composition and exercise performance recruited 24 healthy 21-year-old participants and randomly assigned 48 grams of either rice or whey protein following resistance training for eight weeks. Researchers found that rice protein matched up to whey protein, meaning no detectable differences, and shared similar time effect in lean body mass, fat-mass reduction, skeletal muscle hypertrophy, and strength and power (9).

Pea proteins, especially when combined with other plant proteins such as wheat, have balancing amino acid profiles and offer enhanced nutritional benefits. They benefit people who are allergic or intolerant to dairy. Pea proteins are known as a “complete protein,” containing all nine essential amino acids a person needs to build muscle (10). Pea proteins contain roughly 85% of protein content and resemble animal source protein levels. This percentage meets the nutritional needs of the vegetarian and vegan community. In 2015, The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition did a study on men ages 18 to 35. Results showed those who used pea proteins in their lifting sessions experienced the same increases in bicep size as those who chose whey protein (11).

Chia SeedsChia seeds deliver an immense amount of nutrients in a small amount. They are loaded with fiber, protein, calcium, magnesium and Omega-3s. Omega-3s are essential fats the body and brain need. Chia seeds also contain antioxidants, which prevent or stop cell damage caused by oxidation from free radicals. Lastly, because chia seeds contain a great amount of fiber, many health experts say chia seeds can help a person lose weight (12). According to Authority Nutrition, “The fiber absorbs large amounts of water and expands in the stomach, which should increase fullness and slow the absorption of food.” Adding chia seeds to your diet, or getting them from plant-based proteins is an overall benefit to health due to the huge amount of nutrition in just a 1-oz. serving (12).

Hemp ProteinHemp proteins contain dietary fiber, antioxidants without any saturated fats, cholesterol, sodium or sugar. Hemp seeds contain essential amino acids: isoleucine, histidine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. “These amino acids play an essential job in the body by carrying out important bodily functions, which include the transferring and storage of nutrients” (13).  Hemp proteins, like chia seeds, contain Omega-3s and also contain Omega-6. Omega-6s, like Omega-3s, play an important role in brain function and normal growth and development (14). Hemp protein also contains Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which is an Omega-6 fatty acid that is shown to have significant health benefits when consumed daily. Consuming GLAs daily is said to help with health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and obesity (15). Hemp proteins are also great for boosting the metabolism, improving heart health, cleansing the colon and boosting the immune system.

Making a Choice  Overall, our bodies need protein because it is necessary for everything from immune function, metabolism and weight management to muscle repair, growth, development, and performance (16). Consumers go back and forth with the idea of either consuming dairy-based brands, like the well-known and used whey, and trying out plant-based proteins. Each has their advantages, but if a customer is trying to maintain a plant-based lifestyle, it’s safe to say plant-based proteins will give them the results they’re after. The only choice is which plant protein they prefer. WF

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