Plant-Based Protein - Everything You Need to Know
The plant-based protein versus whey protein debate has been discussed, examined, and re-examined on every single health-focused blog across the web.
That’s not what this blog is about.
Not only because we already know the answer, but also because there are much more interesting and useful things to learn about plant-based protein.
So instead, what we’ll look at here is something entirely different.
I want to examine how plants use protein, where their protein comes from, how they make it, and how it’s different on a molecular basis compared to whey protein.
I also want to look at the idea of how animal-based protein is, in reality, “borrowed protein.”
Plants and Protein
From a bodybuilding and fitness perspective, we usually think about protein in terms of muscle, flesh, and tissue. Steak, fish, chicken, eggs--these are the traditional sources of protein that our minds go to when we think of protein.
We often don’t think about how plants use protein, why they might need it, and how they make it.
But the fact is, like all living things, plants rely on protein to do just about everything.
Plants use protein to grow and create new tissues. They use protein to move and orient themselves towards the sun, a process called phototropism. Plants also use protein to respond to the changing light/dark cycles of the day and night as the seasons change.
How Plants Get Protein
While animals and humans get their protein from outside sources like plants and other animals, plants have to make their own.
This makes plants autotrophs, which means they can make their own food. Plants get the raw materials for their food from the soil around their roots.
Now, all proteins are made up of long chains of amino acids that are folded up. If you string these amino acids together in different orders, you get different types of proteins.
For plants, their starting point for building proteins (protein synthesis) is a molecule called nitrogen.
However, plants can’t use nitrogen directly.
Instead, they rely on bacteria in the soil to convert the nitrogen into nitrate. The plant gives the bacteria sugar and in exchange, the bacteria give the plant nitrate.
From there, the plant uses nitrate to create the 20 different amino acids that it then assembles into various proteins using a unique structure called a ribosome.
The proteins are then shuttled and sorted throughout the plant to perform the various functions that it needs.
Animals and Protein
Astute readers may have noticed something interesting in the last section and that is this: plants can create all 20 of the amino acids needed to make protein.
Why is that interesting? Because humans and animals cannot do that.
Humans can create a certain number of amino acids, called non-essential amino acids (NEAA), which are as follows:
- Aspartic Acid
- Glutamic Acid
As you can see, there are only 11 amino acids listed here. The other 9 are called “essential amino acids” because our bodies cannot make them.
The 9 essential amino acids are as follows:
We need to consume plant material or animal proteins in order to get those other 9 EAAs.
But if proteins are so essential to life, why can’t humans and animals make all of their own?
One possible answer is that it requires a large energy investment to create those amino acids.
It’s much “cheaper” from our body’s perspective to simply eat a plant or a piece of fish and get those other 9 amino acids delivered instantly.
The theory is that over time, humans have lost the ability to create amino acids on our own because we can simply get them from the animals and plants that we eat.
A similar evolutionary adaptation happened with vitamin C. Most plants and even other animals can make their own vitamin C out of sugar. But humans and primates cannot. Our genes simply don’t let us.
As a fascinating bit of trivia, some birds can make vitamin C while others cannot. However, some species of birds have regained the ability to create vitamin C after losing it millennia ago. It’s like their genes “re-learned” how to manufacture it.
The Types of Proteins in Plant and Animal Proteins
As I mentioned above, there are thousands of different types of protein that can be constructed out of the 20 different amino acids.
Obviously, plants and animals will create different types of proteins.
These different types of proteins are sometimes called protein fractions.
For example, in dairy-derived protein, like whey, you will get casein, alpha-lactalbumin, beta-lactoglobulin, and bovine serum albumin. Soy protein has a list of protein fractions like 28 kD, 30-34 kD, 37 kD, 49 kD, and 50 kD. Other plant-based proteins also contain different proteins. Pea protein has protein fractions called albumins, vicilin, and globulins.
So while these proteins are different from each other, they are also made up of the essential and non-essential amino acids that your body needs.
Plant and Animal Proteins in Performance
Now that we have a better grasp of how proteins are created and what they’re made of, it makes sense to talk about how the body uses them to create muscle and recover.
Like I mentioned above, there really isn’t a debate on whether plant-based protein is better than dairy.
From a performance standpoint, according to research, there is no performance or muscle-building advantage to using a plant-based protein versus whey protein.
People gain the same amount of muscle, recover the same, and experience the same amount of soreness when they supplement with whey or plant-based protein.
But that doesn’t mean plant-based protein and whey protein are the same.
The protein fractions in each of the protein can have different bioavailability and, in some people, can cause different reactions.
For example, while most whey protein concentrates and isolates, the issue is not the lactose. That is, for the most part, removed during processing of the whey.
The problem is that the protein fractions themselves can sometimes cause allergic reactions with people. This includes things like inflammation, bloating, and gas.
With plant-based proteins, the problems can happen with bioavailability of the protein itself and also that some plant-based proteins may lack one or more amino acids.
To solve both of these issues, many plant-based proteins will include an amount of branched chain amino acids. This helps with the bioavailability and also to “complete” the protein so your body has everything it needs to use the protein.
A fantastic example of a complete plant-based protein is Planta™ Plant Based Protein. Included in Planta™ you’ll find a full serving of Vegan-friendly BCAAs that not only complete the protein, but also helps your body use more of it.