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From the ordinary to the wondrous—that is, from your awkward new haircut to the transcription of your DNA—protein is in the middle of the riddle— driving Life’s Wonder Bus with both hands on the wheel. Proteins catalyze chemical reactions necessary to life, carry marching orders to various parts of the body to coordinate hormonal changes, produce insulin, and oversee a range of other biochemical business.
Guts and Glue and Vegan Protein Powders
So, protein materially makes up about 17% of the body’s physical mass, comprising our toenails, our hair, our skin, and the gooey connective stuff that holds our organs in place, as any annoyed surgeon will attest. Without protein, the human body would be little more than a bag full of inactive chemical sludge. If, when looking in the mirror, you feel your body is already a bag full of inactive chemical sludge, it’s time for the gym.
And the gym is where protein puts on its public face, in the form of protein supplements. Significantly, protein builds bodily tissue, most spectacularly muscle when that is the proactive goal. Proteins are made of amino acids. There are 20 known amino acids, and our lazy bodies only produce 11 of them. The other 9 we have to find in food and push down the pie hole. Meat, veggies, fruit, nuts, grains…you know the drill. Again, one can use a protein supplement to fill those gaps.
Why Not Whey?
Though whey-based protein is the default in the consumer space, should it be? What’s the difference between the whey-based protein supplement—the one that dominates the shelves of nutrition outlets—and the plant-based supplements which the “wholesome and sustainable protein seekers” are beginning to demand?
The fact is, a properly formulated plant-based protein supplement carries the same essential amino acids as its whey counterpart, and without some of the worrisome additives native to whey processing. Let’s compare and contrast these two sources of supplemental powdered protein.
Whey’s Ill Wind
Whey protein is animal-based. Derived from cow’s milk during the cheese making process, it is filtered and separated, and dried into a powder. That’s the short version. As a bovine milk by-product, whey protein is helpfully loaded with all the essential amino acids you need—because of the cow’s vegetarian diet. Remember that.
Whey protein is also loaded with some other stuff; a lactose blow to the gut, for one. Whey protein is, among other things, a lactose delivery system, bloating the stomach and producing by-flatulence. As in “Please don’t walk by. I have terrible flatulence.”
Whey protein is also typically treated with flavor additives like sucralose, or acesulfame potassium, a sweetening compound whose production uses methylene chloride, found by the FDA in the 70s to be a carcinogen when sufficiently concentrated. Furthermore, to separate the animal protein in whey from its dairy biomass source requires heavy processing that degrades the protein in the whey and/or decreases the percentage of total protein present in the finished product.
Lastly, the antibiotics routinely administered to dairy cows makes its way into the milk, and thus into the whey protein supplement. The whey protein industry has been able to mitigate these negatives somewhat, and that is reflected in the sliding scale of whey protein product pricing. The more expensive the whey product, the less affected it is by the processing. In other words, the consumer pays more as the whey’s protein content approaches “baseline”. When “baseline’ is the gold standard, you’ve got a problem.
Whole Grain and Buffitude
A plant-based protein supplement is as uncomplicated and lightly processed as one would suppose. Plant matter, being native to the human diet for 180,000 years, is easier to digest than cow’s milk, and its protein more readily metabolized.
And though plant-based protein requires a combining of plants to create an amino acid profile equal in potency to that of whey, a much-referenced 2013 study conclusively found that whole grain brown rice protein yields the same results in muscle mass building, exercise recovery and strength increase as whey. I mean ... brown rice?! Hidden in this weird fact is a broader truth about protein in the plant kingdom. Namely, you want the cow's protein? Eat what the cow is eating.
Leucine, the so-called muscle-swelling “branched amino acid” that makes whey such a hit with weight trainers, is present in whole grain brown rice—not to mention seaweed, chia seeds, leafy greens, lentils, peas, mushrooms – you get the idea. 48 grams of plant-based protein a day and you’re on your way to serious lactose-free buffitude. And you won’t clear the circuit room when you do your squats.