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Plant Protein a Blooming Trend

Plant-based eating has become extremely popular among health-conscious consumers. However you choose to incorporate it into your life, be it meat-free Monday’s, the more involved flexitarian approach, or going full-on vegetarian or vegan, the demand for plant-based products, ingredients, convenience foods and even restaurants is on the rise.

But many who choose to include more plants in their diet are concerned about meeting their daily protein requirements. This is especially pertinent for vegans, who exclude all forms of animal-derived food sources (vegetarians often include eggs, milk and other dairy products in their diet).

The need for protein

Any physically active individual understands the importance of protein in their diet. Our bodies need an adequate supply of complete proteins to repair and develop muscle tissue. Proteins also play a vital role in many biological processes, including enzyme production and function, metabolism regulation, immune response, and cell development and function.

The main concern among those who limit or exclude animal proteins in their diet is that certain plant sources are incomplete because they lack some of the essential or conditionally essential amino acids required to create a complete protein profile.

Know your terms…

A whole or complete protein is one that contains all nine essential amino acids in adequate proportions. All animal proteins have this complete amino acid profile, whereas only certain plant proteins are considered complete. Of the 21 amino acids, nine are considered essential because they cannot be produced by the human body and, therefore, must be supplied through the diet. These are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.

While there are ample protein sources available to those who follow a plant-based diet, those who eat a predominantly plant-based diet need to know how to combine incomplete protein sources in complementary ways to create a complete amino acid profile.

Thankfully, we now have access to a broad, and rapidly growing selection of plant protein supplements sold at Dis-Chem stores.

Plant protein supplements not inferior

Plant protein powders usually contain a combination of sources such as brown rice, hemp, soybean or pea protein to deliver a complete amino acid profile.

And any notion that these products are inferior to the gold standard in protein supplements, namely whey, is also being challenged following a number of interesting studies.

For instance, a study conducted on mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters by Florida International University researchers found that athletes who supplemented with plant-based brown rice protein during training experienced statistically similar results to those who used animal-based whey protein.

When commenting on the results of the six-week study, which were published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, lead author Dr Douglas Kalman stated: “Non-dairy and non-meat proteins are often considered inferior to meat-based proteins. There’s now mounting evidence that not only in college-aged athletic individuals but in elite athletes such as MMA fighters, that the rice protein works just as well for helping a person maintain body weight and muscle mass as compared to whey. In addition, we tended to see that body fat was reduced in the rice protein group as well, while the muscle was maintained.”

A separate study conducted by researchers from the Hebrew Senior Life’s Institute for Aging Research and the University of Massachusetts Lowell, also showed that both plant-based protein and animal protein build muscle equally well.

The researchers observed the muscle mass, strength, and bone density of 3,000 participants with varied dietary habits in the 17 to 72 age range from 2002 to 2005. Their findings, which were published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, confirmed that a higher protein intake led to better overall musculoskeletal health, but that the source of dietary protein – plant or animal – was irrelevant.

Making plant-based eating easier

As such, whether your aim is to simply reduce your consumption of animal-derived protein, whether that’s for health, ethical or environmental reasons, or you want to completely eliminate this food source from your diet, plant protein powders offer an easy and convenient way to meet most of your daily protein requirements. 

Plant proteins also offer another beneficial protein option to those who suffer from digestive issues linked to dairy or other allergens or food sensitivities. Plant-based alternatives to dairy-derived whey, like brown rice protein, for instance, are lactose-free and can offer an effective substitute to anyone concerned about the impact of commercial dairy farming practices. It’s also gluten-free, which means it’s less likely to cause inflammation.

There is also a range of other plant protein options to consider, each with its own benefits. These include:

Pea protein

Pea protein powder, derived from the yellow pea, is the most highly digestible of the plant proteins. This makes it an ideal alternative for anyone who suffers from digestive issues linked to dairy or soy. It is, however, an incomplete protein, which is why it is normally paired with one or more plant protein sources such as hemp or brown rice to deliver a complete amino acid profile. As a plant-derived protein, this is obviously a suitable product for vegans or vegetarians.

Hemp protein

Hemp protein powder is derived from milled or powdered hemp seed, once the oil content has been removed. It is ideal for those looking for a vegan protein source that offers a complete amino acid profile. However, it is low in lysine and leucine and is, therefore, often paired with other plant proteins in commercial products. It is also a rich source of beneficial fibre and essential omega-3 fatty acids and contains magnesium, iron, and vitamin E.

Brown rice protein

This grain-derived protein contains all the essential amino acids, but it’s low in lysine, which means it’s not classified as a complete protein. However, a complete amino acid profile can be created by supplementing with complementary plant-based proteins, or by buying blended supplement products. It is, however, rich in cystine and methionine which are essential for the formation of other amino acids from the food we eat due to their sulphur content. This type of protein source also offers numerous additional health benefits as it is high in fibre, contains B vitamins, and is free of gluten and lactose, which makes it an ideal choice for those with common food allergies.

Soy protein

Soy protein, extracted from the soybean plant, is a complete protein and is considered the most effective plant-derived source for building and maintaining muscle. It is also more bioavailable than egg white protein and contains high amounts of the amino acids glutamine and arginine, which support immune function, digestive health and brain function. The digestion rate of soy protein also delivers an ‘intermediate’ release of amino acids, making it a popular inclusion in protein supplement blends (combined commonly with whey and casein) aimed at prolonging the amino acid ‘trickle’ effect. However, there are concerns over the health effects of soy, particularly genetically-modified sources. Some studies suggest that the phytoestrogens contained in soy protein lead to both unwanted decreases in testosterone and increases in the female sex hormone oestrogen. However, there are other studies that contradict this stance. In fact, there are numerous other health benefits to consider when deciding on whether to include this protein in your diet. For instance, soy protein contains potassium, zinc, iron, vitamin E, phosphorous and the full spectrum of B-complex vitamins.

Pumpkin seed protein

Pumpkin seed protein powder is created from milled pumpkin seeds. It offers a complete amino acid profile and contains a wide variety of nutrients, including phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, zinc, iron, copper, vitamin K, plant sterols and omega-6 and 9 essential fatty acids. It is also free from common food allergens such as gluten and dairy.

Mixed plant proteins

Typically sourced from a combination of the incomplete plant-derived protein powders already mentioned, and sprouts and beans such as quinoa, millet, buckwheat, garbanzo beans, lentils, bean sprouts and flaxseeds, a blended plant-based protein powder delivers a complete amino acid profile, in addition to a variety of vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and fibre. Mesquite, a type of legume, is another excellent source of plant protein and is often included in these blends.


Minimum recommended daily protein intake guidelines:

Endurance athlete: 1.2-1.6g/kg of lean body weight per day

Strength and power athlete: 1.6-1.8g/kg of lean body weight per day

Bodybuilders and physique-conscious individuals: 1.8-2.0g/kg of lean body weight per day

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