Dr. Dwayne Jackson

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Alternative plant based protein supplements | By Dwayne N. Jackson, PhD

Scientific research has unequivocally proven that daily protein supplementation builds muscle, increases strength, and supports fat loss. For decades we have heard about the pros and cons of egg, whey, and casein protein supplements and it is apparent that milk proteins (whey and casein) monopolize the protein powder market.  

As you well know, whey protein isolate (WPI) currently reigns as the anabolic gold standard, while micellar casein is the benchmark for anti-catabolic nighttime protein supplements. But what is it that makes these milk proteins work so well for building muscle? Well, scientists speculate that their main effects are due milk’s high concentrations of essential amino acids, including the highest level of branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). Beyond that, high quality WPI naturally contains BCAAs in a 2:1:1 (leucine:valine:isoleucine) ratio, which has been proven ideal for muscle building. Finally, to put the icing on the cake, pure WPI is virtually carb and fat free and is chock-full of arginine, glutamine, and alanine, which further support growth and promote fat loss. 

Supplement research and development teams are continually pushing the envelope to produce new products for us, but like most new developments they must avoid “reinventing the wheel” or “fixing something that isn’t broken”. Yet with the advent of new isolation and filtering technologies several alternative plant source protein supplements have recently hit the market. Some are touted to be comparable to whey, while others are available as alternatives to animal proteins. In the following article we review 4 of the most popular and innovative plant protein sources, using WPI as our benchmark for muscle building quality, taste and price. 


Pea Protein Isolate

Pea protein isolate is becoming popular among vegan bodybuilders, those who prefer proteins from non-GMO (GMO = genetically modified organism) sources (most pea protein supplements are non-GMO), and/or those who have intolerance to milk proteins. Good quality pea protein isolate contains high levels of the BCAAs (comparable to WPI) in 2:1:1 (leucine:valine:isoleucine). Furthermore, like WPI, pea protein isolate is highly digestible (90-95%) and extremely high in glutamine and arginine. Good products tend to be 80-85% protein and contain modest amounts of fat (about 2 g) and about 1 g of fiber in a 30 g scoop.

Cost? We have found high quality pea protein isolate at nearly half the price of comparable quality WPI.

Taste? Most say it is tolerable, but its texture and taste are poor compared to WPI. 

Availability? A few companies sell pea protein isolate powder, it is easily obtainable online.

Benefits/Drawbacks? High digestibility and comparable amino acid profile to WPI make this an ideal supplement for vegetarians or those with milk allergies. Pea protein isolate’s low price-point make it very desirable to those who need a great protein source but have a tight budget. We predict that this product will gain popularity as whey prices continue to rise. 


Soy Protein Isolate

Soy protein powder comes from isolating proteins from soybeans and has been used by vegetarians and health fanatics for many decades. Using the advanced isolation technologies available today, many products contain as much as 90% protein per serving. Although soy protein’s amino acid profile is not a robust as WPI, it is still a reasonable alternative for those who are looking for a non-animal based protein source. 

Cost? About half the price of WPI

Taste? Some people love it, generally well tolerated. 

Availability? Highly available 

Benefits/Drawbacks? Although soy protein contains phytoestrogens (compounds that share a similar structure to estrogen), the most recent evidence suggests that this protein source is beneficial for muscle growth. It should be noted that, contrary to rumors, soy protein does not lower testosterone levels. The isoflavones found in soy protein have been shown to have profound health benefits. Recent research has reported that soy protein supplementation contributes to improvements in cardiovascular and bone health. Additionally, there is research supporting its benefits for women during menopause, along with cancer prevention in premenopausal women. Compared to WPI, soy protein has high levels of arginine, the amino acid involved in nitric oxide and growth hormone production.


Rice Protein Concentrate

This stuff is made from whole grain brown rice and has an amino acid profile that rivals WPI; to illustrate, rice protein contains a similar concentration of BCAAs, has comparable glutamine and alanine levels, but over 4x the arginine. Currently isolated forms of rice protein are rare, so as a protein concentrate it has a lower protein per serving (80%) than WPI (90-95%). This isn’t really an issue though, as rice protein concentrate is virtually fat free and the only carbs it contains are usually in the form of fiber (up to 2.4 g per scoop). 

Cost? We have found rice protein concentrate at nearly half the price of WPI.

Taste? Tolerable 

Availability? Highly available

Benefits/Drawbacks? It has an amino acid profile comparable to WPI, which makes this an option for vegans or those with milk allergies. Its low price-point make rice protein concentrate very desirable to those who need a great protein source but have a tight budget. We predict that this product will gain popularity as whey prices continue to rise. Finally, its high fiber content slows digestion and may help to regulate blood glucose.  


Hemp Protein Concentrate

No, this protein source was not developed for bodybuilding hippies, but rather a vegan alternative to animal based protein products. Like milk, hemp has two constituent proteins, edestin and albumin, where edestin makes up about 65% (hence, albumin makes up the other 35%). Research suggests many nutritional benefits to hemp protein ingestion, as it contains relatively high amounts of essential omega-3 and 6 fatty acids (about 3 g per serving) and fiber (up to 5 g per serving). However, it only contains about 50% protein per scoop and has a lackluster amino acid profile. 

Cost? Higher priced than other much better vegan alternatives (about the same price as WPI).

Taste? It has a very nutty taste, but tolerable

Availability? Highly available

Benefits/Drawbacks? High fiber and essential fatty acid content make hemp protein something you may want to add to your meal replacement shake. Unfortunately, its low protein yield, mediocre amino acid profile, and relatively high cost limit hemp protein concentrate as a standalone protein source.   


Based on our report, you can see that there are still no clear-cut replacements for WPI supplements. However, if you are vegan, allergic to milk products, or just looking to save some money there seems to be some worthwhile options. 

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