Why Plants are Protein Powerhouses

Vegetarian, vegan or just curious about non-animal protein sources?  Plant-based proteins like beans and grains are a good way to add protein to our diets—but so, it turns out, are pumpkin, algae and hemp. Check out how these and other plants can boost your protein intake.

A primer on protein
Proteins keep us functioning, and help build and repair cells in our bones, muscles, organs and blood. But proteins can’t be stored in our body, so we need a regular supply through our diet (about 45-55 g per day depending on your age, gender and size).

Proteins are built from amino acids, which we get two ways: from food or through our body’s own production. Of the 20 amino acids that are required for our body to function, nine (histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine) are called “essential” and must come from food, since our body doesn’t make them on its own.

Not too long ago people thought the only source of complete proteins (foods that have all 9 essential amino acids) was meat or animal products. We now know that plants are excellent protein sources and several are even complete proteins. If we choose a balanced, variety-filled diet, plants can meet these protein needs.

5 plant proteins to try

Coconut is a protein powerhouse, featuring 17 amino acids. It’s especially high in threonine, which protects the liver, cardiovascular and central nervous systems, and supports collagen and elastin formation for joints and muscles. Fresh coconut meat has 8 g of protein per half cup. A simple way to take advantage of coconut’s protein content is tera’swhey Organic Coconut Protein Blend. With added pumpkin and pea protein, one serving of this powder provides 19 g of complete protein. Another good source is Sun Warrior Warrior Blend Organic Plant Based Protein, featuring a blend of raw coconut, yellow peas and hemp that provides 24 g of protein.

Peas are a complete protein and a great source of iron and the amino acid arginine, so they’re good for healthy blood flow and a strong heart. Though peas have low levels of the essential amino acid methionine, you can easily boost this amino acid with brown rice, oats or spirulina. That’s why the concentrated pea protein powder in Genuine Health Vegan Proteins+ has added brown rice protein, hemp and alfalfa—and just one scoop mixed into a smoothie offers 20 g of protein. Or try Jarrow Formulas Optimal Plant Proteins, which combines pea protein, brown rice, hemp and chia seeds for 21 g of protein per serving.

Hemp Seeds, though technically nuts, are a complete protein with all essential amino acids. High in arginine, they’re beneficial for our heart and immune system and feature a high concentration of essential fatty acids, including gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which is thought to be an important inflammation-fighter. Just three tablespoons of Manitoba Harvest Hemp Hearts (raw shelled hemp seeds) provide about 12 g of protein.

Pumpkin Seeds have 18 amino acids, and are a good source of tryptophan and zinc—which help our body make the neurotransmitter serotonin. They are high in magnesium and essential fatty acids, too. A half cup of pumpkin seeds gives us 6 g of protein. We like tera’swhey Organic Pumpkin Protein, which offers 21 g of protein per serving.

Spirulina is a freshwater blue-green algae and a complete protein with all nine essential amino acids. It’s also rich in vitamins A and B, minerals and antioxidants. Try adding a tablespoon of HealthForce SuperFoods Spirulina powder (with nearly 5 g of protein) on salads for a nutrition-packed protein boost.