There has long been a debate about plant-based diets and whether they can provide our bodies with enough protein to function properly. Can vegetarians and vegans ingest the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI)1 of amino acids through eating plants alone? The short answer is, yes!
What Are Amino Acids?
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein that the body uses in all facets of life; from growth and tissue repair to bodily functions such as digestion. There are 20 amino acids in total, and all can be described as one of three categories: essential, non-essential and conditional2.
There are nine essential amino acids (histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine). They are such because, although we need them to survive, our bodies cannot produce them on its own, therefore we must source it from our diet. Even though they are already present within our bodies, non-essential amino acids are equally as important to include in your diet as eating them aids our body in producing them.
Amino acids are produced by plants and are present in animal tissue but, no matter how we obtain them, we must ensure that we source enough protein from within our diets every day.
Complete Vs. Incomplete Amino Acids
In the supplement industry, whey protein is favoured for its complete amino acid profile. Animals often provide a richer source of amino acids than plants because, like us, they consume amino acids as well as produce them. Plants, however, host a diverse range of amino acid profiles, but very few contain all nine essential amino acids.
As a result, combining sources of protein has developed as a strategy to ensure we get each of these essential amino acids in every meal (such as eating rice and beans together). Any Dietitian or Nutritionist will inform you that it is essential to eat a variety of plants (vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes) as a means of gaining exposure to a broad spectrum of amino acids, vitamins, and macro and micronutrients. When supplementing with a plant-based protein, it is recommended to use a product that features a blend of multiple plants or to alternate single sources regularly.
Benefits Of Plant-Based Amino Acids
In 2010, Nutrition in Clinical Practice published a report that found that vegetarians typically have lower BMIs, lower total cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure – among other things – than those who eat a high volume of meat.
Why is this? Most likely because those eating plant-based diets have a relatively low intake of saturated fat and sodium, combined with a high intake of dietary fibre compared to those eating meat.
Selecting A Protein Supplement
Whey protein (derived from dairy milk) is one of the most popular protein supplements on the market. This is largely because it’s relatively cheap to buy, provides a full spectrum of essential amino acids, and is available in a wide range of flavours and blends.
Aside from consumers opting for plant-based products due to dietary preferences, there are many other differences that factor into the decision-making process when choosing between plant- or animal-based proteins. Whey and plant-based protein powders differ in three key areas: production process, taste and digestion.
Traditionally, animal sources have been thought of as providing much higher levels of protein than plants – but this is incorrect. A diet just as rich in protein is achievable through plants alone, it just takes some research and prior planning. Therefore, both plant- and animal-based protein powders and amino acid supplements can be equally as effective for achieving individual fitness goals.
Whey protein is derived from cows’ milk and is a by-product in cheese-making. Whey is the liquid substance separated from the curds and was historically thrown away until it was recognised for its complete amino acid profile. It is, in fact, one of the most nutritionally-dense products known to man! Once the whey is collected it is then dried and turned into a powder, which forms the basis of all whey protein powders.
As with any animal product, the quality of the whey depends on the quality of the cow. Not all farming practices are equal, and cows are often pumped with a range of different hormones in order to maximise milk production. This can wreak havoc on their immune system and impacts the quality of their milk – and of course, their by-products (whey, cheese etc.)
Most whey is heavily processed, which degrades the nutritional value of the product. On top of that, some US whey products were found to contain unsafe levels of heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium and lead3.
Furthermore, some people find whey protein difficult to digest often due to its lactose content. For those with a diagnosed lactose intolerance, it can be the cause of an upset stomach, cramping or wind. For many, it is simply easier not to risk consuming whey in their diet.
Plant-based proteins are created in much the same way as milk protein: essentially, the proteins are dried into a protein-dense powder form. However, their production is a much simpler process and has less room for variables than whey protein does, resulting in a less processed finished powder.
Plant proteins can have a grainier texture than whey proteins as they are not creamy like milk products. This makes it a little less soluble when mixing with other liquids, but just as tasty and effective as whey.
Again, not all farming practices are equal and thus it is important to choose a product that has been sourced from plants that have been farmed with minimal pesticides or growth hormones. Look for brands that specify using natural or organic ingredients.
How Does True Protein Differ?
True Protein strives to use only the finest ingredients in all of our products, using all-natural recipes and sourcing organic wherever possible.
Unlike many other companies, True Protein exclusively sources New Zealand grass-Fed whey, which is widely regarded as the highest-quality whey protein in the world due to New Zealand’s highly regulated dairy industry. For more information on New Zealand grass-fed whey, click here.
This is no different with our plant-based products, and we use all-natural ingredients that are reflected in both taste and your performance.
Japanese BCAA 4:1:1
For a great source of non-animal derived amino acids, check out True’s Japanese BCAA 4:1:1 powder. BCAA (Branched Chain Amino Acids) is ideal to consume both during and after workouts to fuel muscle repair. As Leucine is an amino acid critical for muscle growth, the special ratio of 4:1:1 [Leucine (66%), Isoleucine (17%), Valine (17%) is excellent for helping you to reach your fitness goals.
Our BCAA formula is derived from a vegetable-based fermentation process as opposed to inferior animal-based extraction common in products produced in China. Some recent reports have found traces of duck feather and human hair in their BCAAs – now that is definitely not organic!
Glutamine is just one of the conditional amino acids that our body can often use a helping hand with, particularly in times of recovery. Glutamine is crucial to the health of your immune system and plays an important role in the function of your intestines.
Like our BCAA formula, True glutamine powder is also made from non-animal extraction. While there are animal-based versions available on the market, we believe our vegetable-fermented formula is equally as effective with the added bonus of being vegan-friendly.
Recommended Protein Intake
The World Health Organisation recommends that adults ingest 0.83 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. This can vary greatly depending on your gender, stage of life such as during pregnancy or senior years and also depending on how active you are and your training goals.
For building muscle mass and maintaining muscle mass, for example, overall daily protein intake in the range of 1.4–2.0 grams protein per kilogram of body weight per day (g/kg/d) is sufficient for most exercising individuals4.
Different foods contain different levels of protein, so it is important to calculate how much protein you are getting from your meals. With a little know-how and meal planning, it should be relatively easy to get enough protein in your diet if you are eating a range of plants and animals (or even if you are entirely plant-based).
Protein supplements should be used as a convenient way to achieve your fitness goals, to get some extra protein in when you are short on time, or aid weight loss. They are not intended to replace entire meals and should be consumed alongside a well-balanced diet.
As all amino acids originate in plants, non-animal derived protein products essentially cut out the ‘middle man’ (animals). There are positives and negatives to deriving protein from both animal and non-animal sources. However, the suggestion that one is superior to the other has very little factual basis. The most important thing is to ensure you are eating a varied and well-balanced diet and to consume supplements that work best in helping you to meet your health and fitness goals.
Consumer Reports 2010, Health risks of protein drinks
Jäger, Ralf et al, 2017, International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition vol. 14 20. 20 Jun. 2017.
D. Joe Millward, 2007, Identifying recommended dietary allowances for protein and amino acids, WHO/FAO/UNU report. British Journal of Nutrition, Volume 108, Issue S2 August 2012 , pp. S3-S21.
Wu, G. 2009, Amino Acids, 37: 1.