Author: Maria Fischer • Fact checked by: Tara D. Thies • Aug. 25, 2020
Protein powders are concentrated sources of protein from animal or plant foods, such as dairy, eggs, rice or peas. These powders aren’t whole foods — they are supplements made by extracting the protein from a food.
A variety of processing methods might be used to create a protein powder, depending on the desired protein concentration and the type of food used. Some extraction methods are very simple (and might even qualify as “raw”), while others involve chemicals. When somebody is talking about a protein powder, a whey protein powder is often what comes to mind. That’s because whey protein powder is most commonly used as a post-workout protein. Unlike other forms of protein, whey protein is quickly absorbed, so your body can immediately begin its muscle repair and rebuilding process. It also contains more of the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine and valine. While all essential amino acids are important for building muscle, leucine is the one that jumpstarts muscle building.
With the benefits listed above, whey seems like it would be a great protein powder option. But for many people, there’s a major downside to whey protein: It contains dairy. Whey is the by-product of cheese production. During cheesemaking, special enzymes are added to heated milk. These enzymes cause the casein in milk to change to a solid state and separate from a liquid substance. That liquid substance is the whey protein, which is washed and dried into a powdered form to become supplements.
For people who are dairy-free, this makes whey protein a non-option. Fortunately, whey protein isn’t the only quality protein powder type on the market. There are many different dairy-free protein powder options, and two of the most common ones are pea protein and brown rice protein.
Pea protein powder is a supplement made by extracting protein from yellow split peas. The protein is isolated from the ground yellow peas, forming a powder. Not only is pea protein a high-quality protein and a great source of iron, it’s also naturally vegan, hypoallergenic and one of the more easily digested plant-based proteins. This makes it an attractive option for people with dietary restrictions.
Pea protein does not contain any of the top food allergens (which includes peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, fish, shellfish, cow’s milk, wheat and soy), but it does contain all nine essential amino acids. However, it’s relatively low in methionine and cysteine.
Pea protein is also a great source of BCAAs — particularly arginine, which promotes healthy blood flow and heart health. Pea protein can aid in weight loss, thanks to its high fiber content that keeps blood sugar levels stable and promotes satiety. There’s no gas or bloating from pea protein like some may experience with whey, all due to pea protein’s digestibility and lack of allergens.
Pea protein powders are especially rich in iron, and since approximately 10 percent of American women are iron-deficient, consuming a pea protein powder is often viewed as a great way for women to boost their intake of this nutrient. Studies have found that pea protein powder can reduce some of the risk factors for heart disease, like elevated cholesterol and high blood pressure. Pea protein hydrolysate — a partially digested protein powder that contains smaller proteins — has even been shown to significantly lower blood pressure levels in an animal study after three weeks. A similar three-week study in humans found people who consumed pea protein hydrolysate every day had lowered systolic blood pressure.
Brown rice protein is a protein supplement made from brown rice, which is converted into powder form. The brown rice is treated with select enzymes that cause the protein and carbohydrates that make up the rice to separate. The protein is isolated, resulting in a protein powder. Like pea protein, brown rice protein is hypoallergenic and has many health benefits. But unlike pea protein, brown rice protein does not provide all nine essential amino acids. It is not technically considered a source of complete protein because it doesn’t contain adequate amounts of amino acids needed by the body, although it is high in cysteine and methionine. (Despite containing all nine essential amino acids, pea protein is not officially a complete protein, either, because it’s an inadequate source of methionine and cysteine. A complete protein provides at least 25 mg/g of methionine and cysteine, and pea protein only delivers around 11 mg/g.) Brown rice protein is lower in lysine.
One problem with rice products, however, is the potential for contamination with the heavy metal arsenic. But all you have to do is choose a brand of rice protein powder that tests for arsenic levels to ensure you’re not consuming anything dangerous for your body.
How a protein powder is processed is a major factor in choosing the perfect protein powder for you, so it’s important to know the differences between protein isolate, protein concentrate and protein hydrolysate. Protein concentrate is the least processed type of protein powder and is usually the cheapest option compared to protein isolate and protein hydrolysate. That’s because protein concentrate offers the least amount of protein per scoop, as they often contain additional ingredients. If you’re looking into a dairy-free protein powder because you have a sensitive digestive system, then you should always check the ingredients in your protein concentrates to make sure it’s not mixed with something that you shouldn’t consume.
A protein isolate, on the other hand, is a type of protein powder that has undergone a bit more processing than a concentrate. The processing steps involve separating and collecting the purest protein fractions. The additional processing helps isolate the protein that you want, separating it from the fat, lactose, gluten and other stuff that you’re likely trying to avoid. As a result, protein isolates deliver more protein with fewer calories. (And bonus: They also tend to be more digestible, because gluten and lactose are removed as the protein is purified — something that is often very important to dairy-free protein powder consumers.)
Then there’s protein hydrolysates, which are made by taking a concentrate or isolate and undergoing further processing. Hydrolysates have been exposed to enzymes that break large, complex proteins into faster-digesting smaller pieces and partially break down the bonds between the protein’s amino acids, creating a product that absorbs quicker for speedy and more complete digestion.
The extra processing also makes this product the most expensive type of protein powder, and it may make the taste more bitter. But since concentrates and isolates are already digested somewhat rapidly, hydrolysates aren’t necessarily worth the increased cost.
While pea protein and brown rice protein are many people’s go-tos for dairy-free protein, they aren’t the only options out there: There’s hemp protein, soy protein, almond protein, brazil nut protein, chia seed protein, cranberry protein, pumpkin seed protein and even sacha inchi protein — the list is seemingly endless. But alongside pea protein and brown rice protein, hemp protein and soy protein tend to be the more popular dairy-free protein choices.
Hemp protein is made by removing the oil from shelled hemp seeds. The remaining solid is then powdered to make hemp protein powder, which has a moderate protein level and a notable amount of fiber. Even though the oil is removed, hemp protein powder actually still retains a healthy ratio of Omega oils.
Soy protein is made from defatted soybean flakes that have been washed in either alcohol or water to remove extras like sugars and dietary fiber. It is one of the few plant-based complete proteins and contains very little fat and no cholesterol. Due to its versatility, soy protein exploded in popularity when it first came on the market. Soy protein powder has been used to make everything from infant soy formula to meat and dairy alternatives. However, soy protein has proven to be controversial, as it contains phytates, also known as antinutrients. Phytates reduce the availability of iron and zinc in soy protein. (Phytates in whole gains can also interfere with normal nutrient absorption.)
Additionally, many people are wary of soy protein because of its phytoestrogen content. Phytoestrogens are chemical compounds that occur naturally in plants and have estrogen-like properties that can disrupt natural hormone levels in the body. Although soy protein powder is made from soybeans rinsed in alcohol and water, which removes a good portion of the phytoestrogen content, many men worry that soy protein could decrease their testosterone levels so they prefer to keep their protein powders soy-free. (However, it’s important to note that research does not support this claim.) Add in the fact that soy products are frequently genetically modified (GMO), and you can see why people are more likely to lean toward “safer” dairy-free protein options like pea protein and brown rice protein.
And finally, there’s also whey protein. As mentioned earlier, whey protein is a popular choice for protein powders, but it contains dairy. This eliminates whey protein as an option for many people.
When it comes to vegan protein powder, you can see how both pea protein and brown rice protein are great dairy-free options. They each have their own set of pros and cons: Pea protein is low in methionine but is lysine-rich, whereas brown rice protein is low in lysine but contains methionine.
Of the two dairy-free proteins, pea protein offers a complete range of amino acids. Although pea protein is lower in methionine, people who choose pea protein over brown rice protein will turn to other plant-based foods (like rice, soybeans, sunflower seeds, oats and many nuts) to get the methionine they need.
Bodybuilders who go with a dairy-free protein powder tend to be pleased with pea protein powder’s assistance in muscle gains: In a 2015 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, male participants between the ages of 18 and 35 followed the same 12-week upper-body lifting program. One group supplemented with 25 grams of pea protein twice a day, and another took the exact same amount of whey protein. Each 25 grams of protein from pea protein delivered around two grams of leucine, compared to 2.65 grams for whey, but both fell right in the middle of the optimal leucine range. Researchers recorded biceps muscle thickness at the beginning and end of the study, and at the end of the 12 weeks, both groups showed identical increases in biceps muscle thickness. Both pea protein and whey protein types also showed greater results than placebo.
So as long as you’re getting sufficient leucine from your pea protein supplement, pea protein can help you build muscle in a comparable way to whey.
That said, the benefits of brown rice protein shouldn’t be downplayed. It is still a great vegan source of protein that contains a significant amount of iron, vitamin C and a small amount of calcium. In fact, in a recent study, researchers at the University of Tampa found that when athletes were given rice protein post-resistance exercise over the course of eight weeks, the athletes had an increase in lean body mass, decrease in fat-mass, increase in skeletal muscle growth and increased power and strength in ways that were comparable to the results from whey protein usage. Researchers concluded the effects of rice protein were very comparable to those of whey protein. When researchers instructed the athletes to use the proteins in larger or maximum doses, the effects of the two protein types were once again comparable, if not completely equal.
But what happens when you’re attracted to the benefits of both pea protein and brown rice protein and can’t decide which to take? People who are split between these dairy-free protein options often choose to combine the two to create a complete plant-based protein regimen that includes all nine essential amino acids. That means both pea protein and brown rice protein can play a role in a person’s daily protein consumption. These gluten-free, non-GMO, organic ingredients that are high in grams of fiber can be blended in a ratio that mirrors the optimal amino acid profile of whey protein — without the dairy. Together, pea protein and brown rice protein provide the nine essential amino acids that your body can’t produce naturally on its own. They can make a nutritionally complete blend, no animals involved.
For many people, the only downside of choosing a dairy-free protein powder over protein powders like whey is the texture difference. In general, whey protein powder has a “fluffy” texture, while vegan protein powders often have a thicker consistency. Powders with more fiber, such as pea protein powder and brown rice protein powder, will also add to the thick texture, but this can be remedied with water. When blending vegan proteins, try using more water than you would with whey protein. Compared to other plant-based protein powders like hemp, pea protein actually has a much less gritty texture, and although it’s a bit grainier, brown rice protein is less chalky than other plant-based protein powders.
Dairy-free protein powders can vary in color, due to the different colors of the foods they’re made from. Pea protein powder is often a yellowish or beige color, while brown rice protein powder is, as its name suggests, a light brown color.
Another concern among protein powder users centers on vegan protein powders’ strong and distinctive flavors. Rice protein powder, however, has a very subtle and familiar taste. Its mild, sweeter taste mixes well into smoothies and makes it suitable to be used in oatmeal or a variety of baked goods recipes. Bonus: Using brown rice protein in a baked treat or a snack can actually improve its nutritional profile (especially if your favorite foods are heavy with carbs!). Many people believe brown rice protein powder is the best tasting vegan protein powder on the market. But if you’re still dissatisfied with its taste, organic stevia sweetener — which is made from the leaf of the stevia plant and has been used for centuries in South America as an all-natural sweetener — can be added to your brown rice protein to adjust the taste.
If you’re worried about the taste of dairy-free protein powders and it’s holding you back from adding a pea protein supplement or a brown rice protein supplement to your diet, we have the perfect solution: Protein shakes and smoothies.
Protein shakes or smoothies can disguise the flavors of pea protein or brown rice protein. For example, if you’re someone who likes coffee first thing in the morning, then having a caffe mocha protein shake with your breakfast could be something that appeals to both your morning routine and your taste preferences. Gainful actually offers a Caffe Mocha Flavor Boost that’s key for a.m. protein shake drinkers. To get your Flavor Boost, you just have to take Gainful’s quiz to create and personalize a protein blend for your dietary needs and goals, then choose the flavors you’d like to add to your shakes. Your order will include 28 servings of unflavored protein and 28 single-serving Flavor Boost sticks that you can mix in your drink to create a protein shake that satisfies your taste buds. (You can also add probiotics to take your morning protein shake to the next level.)
Another popular protein shake or smoothie flavor is strawberry. Try blending your dairy-free protein powder into a strawberry smoothie with fresh berries. You can also add additional smoothie staples, like bananas or greens, for an extra flavorful punch. An easy, dairy-free strawberry protein shake recipe to follow is ½ cup plant-based milk, ½ cup non-dairy yogurt, 1 scoop protein powder, 1 Strawberry Cream or Madagascar Vanilla Gainful Flavor Boost packet, 1 tsp raw honey, ¾ cup frozen strawberries or mixed berries and a handful of ice cubes. Just blend until your shake is the consistency you prefer. For a strawberry-banana protein shake, add a frozen banana and ? tsp ground cinnamon to the mixture. You could also swap out the banana and honey for blueberries and greens for a superfood smoothie.
If you’re someone who likes to stick with the classics, vanilla or chocolate Flavor Boosts can also easily disguise the plant-protein flavor. Make a classic dairy-free vanilla protein shake by blending 6 oz. plant-based milk, ½ cup vanilla flavored non-dairy yogurt, 1 tsp. vanilla extract, 1 scoop protein powder, 1 Madagascar Vanilla Gainful Flavor Boost packet, ice cubes and 1 tsp. stevia or monk fruit if you prefer some extra sweetness without using artificial sweeteners or added sugar. For a dairy-free chocolate protein shake, blend 1 cup frozen blueberries, 1 medium frozen banana, 1 scoop protein powder, 1 Rich Cocoa or Chocolate Peanut Butter Gainful Flavor Boost packet, 1 tablespoon cocoa powder, 1/4 cup non-dairy Greek yogurt, 2 tablespoons cashew butter, 1/2 tablespoon ground flaxseed and 1 cup plant-based milk. You can also add a keto-friendly sugar-free caramel sauce or other sugar-free flavorings to make your chocolate protein shake taste like a candy bar.
Protein shakes and smoothies may be favorites for masking protein powder’s taste, but you can also add your protein powder to baked goods, pancakes, waffles, pizza crust, frittatas, quinoa breakfast bowls, peanut butter balls and more. You shouldn’t have to sacrifice flavor or taste when taking your dairy-free protein supplement.
When choosing a vegan protein powder for yourself, it all boils down to your dietary needs and your taste and texture preferences. If you’re not sure where to start, Gainful can help you find a personalized protein powder that’s tailored specifically for you. You start by taking Gainful’s quiz, select your preferences and overall wellness goals and then Gainful takes care of the rest. If you’re unsure about which dairy-free protein powder is right for you, Gainful will point you in the right direction and help you create the customized protein powder you’re looking for.
Worried about making changes incorporating a dairy-free protein powder into your diet and lifestyle on your own? With Gainful, you’ll never have to do this alone: Each subscriber has unlimited access to a personal Registered Dietitian, who’s available to answer any questions you may have about your protein powder, protein intake, workout regimen, the protein content in your favorite foods, meal replacement shakes, fitness goals — anything that has to do with your wellness journey.
As you know from the information above, there are tons of dairy-free protein sources out there. But taking the time to find the right one for you is worth it.
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