If you’re a bodybuilder, a fitness enthusiast, a nutritionist, or just someone who’s looking to get a little extra nutrition in your diet, you’re probably familiar with the world of protein powders. They’re relatively cheap, packed with protein, and can be found at just about any grocery store or health food store. A scoop of protein powder in your morning smoothie gives you the protein you need to help your body build muscle and lose weight. Some brands even offer additional nutrients like calcium, iron, and amino acids. While it’s best to get these nutrients in your diet, protein powder gives you an extra boost of vitamins and minerals if you’re pressed for time.
If you used protein powder before you became vegan, you probably used one of the traditional varieties like whey protein. Now that you’ve switched to a healthy plant based diet, you’ve found yourself looking at plant-based proteins like pea protein and brown rice protein. But as you search online, you’re finding that the plant based protein powders are actually more expensive. You’ve got room in your budget, but you’re not sure if you want to spend the extra money. Why pay more for a product that does the exact same thing as the whey powders?
Is vegan protein power worth the extra cost? Here’s a look at the pros and cons of vegan protein powders, and why vegan powders tend to cost more than their traditional counterparts.
1. Traditional Protein Powders are Easier to Harvest
Let’s face it: as long as the dairy industry exists in its current form, milk-based products will always be cheaper. Because the dairy forces millions of cows to produce vast quantities of milk each year. The cows are forcibly impregnated to keep them producing milk year round–and once they’re not good for milk anymore, they’re shipped off to the slaughterhouse and replaced with another dairy cow. It’s cruel and horrifying, but it also means that massive amounts of milk are produced every year. And since whey is a by-product of milk, it’s relatively cheap and easy for protein powder manufacturers to get their hands on whey and convert it to a convenient powder.
Conversely, the farming industry doesn’t have the same quick turnaround as the dairy industry. Split peas, a common base for plant-based powders, take a few months to grow and mature. Once they’re harvested, they’re ground into a powder and the protein is extracted. Brown rice, another common plant-based protein ingredient, can take nearly half a year to reach maturity. The powder is made by grinding up the rice and treating it with an enzyme that separates the rice from the protein. In other words, it takes longer to get plant-based proteins harvested, prepared, packaged, and on the shelf. But considering that you’re avoiding the cruelty of the dairy industry, the extra time and money is well worth it.
2. Plant-Based Proteins Require a Bigger Dose
Dairy-based protein powders are famous for being a “complete protein source”–i.e., they contain all nine amino acids that’s necessary for a healthy diet. While plant-based powders have their own set of vitamins and minerals, they’re typically not as nutrient-dense as dairy-based powders. Pea protein powders offer the closest comparison to whey, but they still don’t have the same amount of amino acids. This doesn’t mean that you can’t get all your nutrients with vegan powders–in fact, some brands even offer extra vitamins and minerals that you can’t find in whey protein. But it does mean that you’ll have to take a bigger dose to get all the protein that you need. For this reason, vegan protein powders tend to be more expensive than the milk-based versions.
3. Plant-Based Proteins are Sustainable
We’ve all heard about the horrors of the dairy industry. Not only is it abusive towards animals, it’s also massively unsustainable. The fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals used in the process are frequently dumped in the water or released into the air with no thought given to the environmental toll. Cows also produce massive quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to rapid climate change. Thousands of acres of forests have been cut down to make room for more dairy cow farms. The dairy industry might be profitable, but it’s not sustainable forever–and it’s only a matter of time before we reach the tipping point.
Sustainably-made products tend to be more expensive because they don’t offer the same quick turnaround times and high levels of profit. But they’re also much better for the environment. For example, split peas require much smaller amounts of land, water, and other resources than dairy cows. You might have to pay a little more for your vegan protein supplement, but you’re investing in a product that replenishes the environment instead of taking from it.
4. Vegan Protein Powders are New(er) to the Market
While plant-based powders aren’t unheard of, dairy-based products are simply much more ubiquitous. The health benefits of whey were discovered thousands of years ago, and while protein powder has existed for a much shorter amount of time, whey is the industry standard in bodybuilding protein powders. The market is saturated with hundreds of different brands–if you did a Google search for “whey based protein powder,” it would take hours to find them all. As a result, dairy-based proteins are typically cheaper and easily available in most major retailers.
Plant-based powders aren’t impossible to find, but even with the current veganism boom, there’s still a much smaller demand for pea or brown rice protein. There are fewer brands on the market, and plant-based powders aren’t as readily available in stores and gyms as their milk-based counterparts. In fact, many people end up buying plant-based powders online because they can’t find them in any major retailers. Until the demand for vegan protein skyrockets, vegan protein will always be more expensive because it’s a more “exclusive” item.
5. Plant-Based Protein is Less Specialized
When you buy whey-based power, you know it comes from a single source. The process of making whey-based powder has been perfected and streamlined over the years, making it relatively quick and inexpensive to produce. However, there’s no one “official” source for vegan protein powder. Countless brands have tried different combinations of ingredients, with various levels of success. Some brands are made from split peas, while others are made from brown rice. Others are made from soy. Some brands use a single ingredient as the base, while others cram their powder full of flowers, herbs, and seeds for maximum health benefits. In other words, there’s no single streamlined way to make a vegan protein supplement. As a result, the ingredients can be harder to find and more expensive to produce.
6. Vegan Protein Powder Often Requires Extra Nutrients
Currently, there’s no vegan product on the market that’s quite as nutrient-rich as whey-based protein. To compensate for this loss, many brands infuse their powders with added vitamins and nutrients, as well as superfoods like ground-up seeds. You’ll get all the nutrients you need–and more!–in your morning protein shake, but you might need to pay a little extra to get there.