I'm an accredited journalist working at the intersections of science, food and public health. I am also a certified nutritionist.
As sustainability plays an increasing role in consumers’ behavior, the demand for plant protein alternatives to incorporate into their fitness lifestyles is growing.
Demand for Plant-Based Alternatives
The field of sports nutrition manufacturing has benefited from increased innovation in developing new plant protein ingredients. Global food and drink launches with added plant protein ingredients are multiplying.
In Europe, an estimated 37% of new food launches and 27% of new drink launches in 2018-19 contained added plant proteins. Research into “new” plant proteins (such as pea, sunflower, and pumpkin protein) and their versatility is also keeping pace.
The plant-protein-fortified product segments seeing the fastest growth are meal-replacement drinks and vegan protein powder supplements.
The area of greatest contention for plant proteins as aids to athletic excellence is their nutritional benefit, which is considered insufficient compared to that of animal proteins.
But what does the science say about this?
Comparing Animal-Derived and Plant Protein
We have been focusing on the wrong metric for a long time: asking whether plant-based diets are superior to omnivorous diets for performance rather than equivalent.
Plant-based supplements need to be as nutritious only if they can maintain one’s optimal performance or improve one’s fitness regime while reducing animal suffering, pollution, and carbon emissions.
Protein extracted from peas, rice and hemp have been shown to positively impact overall muscle health, specifically improving muscle mass, strength, and power.
When zooming in on specific plant proteins to find out how they hold up against whey protein, we may find that starch-derived protein could be the best choice.
In terms of vegan formulas, research suggests that rice is as effective as whey protein in supplementing for improved body composition and exercise performance and also has a fast speed of digestion.
Having a complete protein is important so that all the essential amino acids are present and available. Beyond that, there are additional considerations for specific amino acid profiles to improve body composition and exercise performance.
Leucine is the main driver of protein synthesis, even among the three branched-chain amino acids. Whey performs very well since its leucine content is very high (12.1 g/100g P), even compared to other animal sources (casein 10.2 g/100g P; Liu 2019).
Rice is a good source of leucine, with Oryzatein 90 Silk Isolate coming in at 8.3 g/100g P (Kalman 2014). Pea has among the highest leucine contents of vegan proteins (7.7 g/100g P; Liu 2019) and can be supplemented with L-methionine and BCAAs to increase protein quality and leucine per dose.
Meal-replacement manufacturers should keep in mind the caveat that using rice protein may not increase protein quality and leucine to the extent that supplemental amino acids do.
For all other intents and purposes of meeting the needs of the average plant-based fitness enthusiast, studies show that the performance benefits of plant proteins are comparable to those of animal proteins.
Potential Extra Benefits for Performance
In addition to their nutritional profiles, a few other benefits may make plant proteins an attractive choice to gym-goers:
- Plant proteins boast a higher fiber content and lower caloric density. Vegans tend to have lower body mass index (BMI) and body fat (BF) percentages due to higher satiety.
- Their higher carbohydrate (CHO) content helps maintain glycogen levels during aerobic activities and endurance sports.
- They reduce blood viscosity by improving a) vascular flexibility and endothelial function and b) skeletal and cardiac tissue blood flow and oxygenation.
- Plants are packed with phytonutrients, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory properties.
- Plant proteins promote reduced oxidative stress and inflammation, lower muscle damage, and boost immunity and recovery from exercise.
Leading Plant Protein Sources Driving Innovation
Soya currently ranks as the leading plant protein ingredient globally. But other protein sources seeing a steep growth within product development are pea, sunflower, pumpkin, rice, potato, quinoa, and sacha inchi seeds.
Regardless of protein source, the fastest-growing format is "isolates" (instead of "concentrates"), as these offer better taste and absorption profiles.
Other research strands focus on utilizing protein complementation to improve the digestibility of plant protein, fortifying plant proteins with individual amino acids and blending different plant proteins.
The American food researcher Frances Moore Lappe popularized combining plant proteins at each meal to get a “complete” protein in the early 1970s.
Non-soy plant proteins have a lower percentage of at least one amino acid. As a general rule, legumes are lower in the amino acid methionine, while most other plant foods are lower in lysine.
Lysine is the primary concern because vegans naturally eat plenty of foods high in methionine.
Development of New Plant Protein
Designing plant-based nutrition shakes as part of a vegan diet that meets lysine requirements for a person who doesn’t exercise daily is challenging.
The inclusion of legumes, quinoa, or pumpkin seeds significantly bumps up the caloric content and limits the ability of manufacturers and brands to add weight-maintenance claims to their lifestyle supplement lines.
New plant-based certification programs enable brands and manufacturers to stand out by making sure they can guarantee plant-based alternatives that constitute a balanced diet.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Camille Bienvenu