With a growing interest to eat more plant-based, researchers are digging around in the earth’s gardens for a high-quality protein powder to follow suit.

Not to kale your vibe, but whey protein continues to be the gold standard for athletes on the grounds of muscle building and repair.

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Regardless, the hunt is on for a plant-based protein powder that has the power to leaf whey behind. Getting to the root of what makes whey great is a necessary first step in achieving this.

Why Whey?

Whey supplies a lofty amount of the essential amino acids. Amino acids are what our bodies use to make its own protein to build muscle, among other things. Certain amino acids are called essential because they need to come from our diets.

Out of all the amino acids, it seems that the essential ones are also most important for our muscles (1, 2).

For a protein source to give us maximum muscle benefit, it should provide the complete set. This tends to be an obstacle for plant proteins which are usually deficient in at least one essential amino acid (2).

Leucine is an amino acid of special concern because it can single-handedly turn on the body’s muscle building machinery (3).

This is yet another reason why whey protein sets the bar high. A single scoop of whey protein powder usually provides around 2.7 grams of leucine which is enough to trigger a strong anabolic response.

Whey protein is also easily digested, leading to a rapid rise of amino acids in the bloodstream shortly after ingestion. This means that supply can meet demand in the recovery window after a workout.

Having a plant match these requirements may seem like a task for magical beans. Luckily there’s no need for Jack and his Beanstalk because a few plant-based protein powders may do just that.

Top Plant-Based Protein Powders

Soy, brown rice, pea, corn, and potato are the plant proteins to keep in mind when selecting a higher quality plant-based protein powder.

These all contain a relatively high percentage of essential amino acids compared to other plant proteins (2).

In fact, potato protein actually has a greater percentage of essential amino acids and leucine than casein or egg (2).  Even more shocking is that corn protein contains a greater percentage of leucine than the infamous whey (2)!

If your mind isn’t completely blown at this point it’s important to remember that although leucine may be the real MVP, all of the essential amino acids are needed to build and repair muscle (1, 2).

To match the leucine and essential amino acid profile found in 25 grams of whey protein, the serving size of these plant-based protein powders needs to be increased (2):

Potato Protein: 33 grams required
Corn Protein: 34 grams required
Pea Protein: 38 grams required
Brown Rice Protein: 39 grams required
Soy Protein: 40 grams required

It’s important to mention that increasing protein amount doesn’t guarantee equal performance to whey due to the digestion factor. In particular, studies have found that even once soy protein is increased to 40 grams, whey protein still out-performs soy (1, 4).

On the other hand, studies using pea or brown rice protein have found that increasing serving size is an easy peas-y way to level the playing field (5, 6, 7). Protein powder blends with or without digestive enzymes may be another feasible option to bridge the gap (1, 8).

It seems to be only a matter of time before plant-based protein powders are joining whey as cream of the crop.

Until then, thanks for reading,

Kirsten Allen, BSc Kin, RD


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