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Is Plant-Based Protein Bad For You?

Also Known As: Vegan Protein



Short answer

Plant-based proteins can be part of a healthy diet and are not bad for you, provided they are carefully selected and prepared. While animal proteins are complete proteins, plant-based proteins can be combined to provide all essential amino acids. Attention to potential contaminants in supplements, the impact of anti-nutrients, and the effects of added ingredients in processed plant proteins is vital. With informed choices, plant proteins can support overall health and nutrition, fulfilling dietary protein requirements effectively.



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Long answer

Comparing Plant-Based Protein to Animal Protein Quality

When it comes to protein quality, not all proteins are created equal. Protein quality is a measure of how well a protein source provides the necessary amino acids that the human body requires. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and while the body can synthesize some on its own, there are nine essential amino acids that must be obtained through diet.

The most common method to assess protein quality is the Biological Value (BV), which takes into account the proportion of protein absorbed and utilized by the body. Animal proteins, such as meat, dairy, and eggs, generally have a higher BV because they contain all nine essential amino acids in ratios similar to those required by the body.

Plant-based proteins, on the other hand, are often considered "incomplete" because they may lack one or more essential amino acids. However, this doesn't necessarily mean they are inferior. When different plant-based sources are combined, such as rice and beans or peanut butter and whole wheat bread, they can provide a complete amino acid profile. This practice is referred to as protein complementation.

The Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS) is another method to evaluate protein quality, and it has been endorsed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as a preferred measure. DIAAS takes into account the digestibility of each essential amino acid. While most animal proteins score close to 1.0 (which indicates excellent quality), many plant proteins score lower. However, the gap narrows with proper preparation and processing techniques like fermentation or sprouting that can increase the bioavailability of amino acids in plant-based proteins.

Let's delve deeper into the specifics with a comparative analysis:

  • Animal Proteins: Generally contain all essential amino acids (complete proteins). Examples include:
    • Whey Protein: BV of 104
    • Casein Protein: BV of 77
    • Egg White Protein: BV of 100
    • Beef Protein: BV ranges from 80 to 90
  • Plant-Based Proteins: May lack one or more essential amino acids but can be combined for a complete profile. Examples include:
    • Soy Protein: BV of 74
    • Rice Protein: BV of 59 when not complemented
    • Pea Protein: BV of 65

It's also important to note that animal proteins often come with additional nutrients like vitamin B12, iron, and zinc, which are more readily absorbable than their plant-based counterparts. However, plant proteins offer their own health benefits, such as fiber and phytonutrients, which are absent in animal proteins.

Some studies suggest that plant-based diets, which naturally include plant-based proteins, may offer health advantages, including a lower risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. For instance, a large study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that higher intake of plant-based proteins was associated with a lower risk of mortality.

Ultimately, the quality of protein should be assessed in the broader context of an individual's diet as a whole. A well-planned diet, whether it is omnivorous or plant-based, can meet protein requirements and support optimal health. When considering the shift towards plant-based proteins, it's essential to understand protein pairing and to take measures to ensure that all amino acid needs are met.

For those incorporating plant-based proteins into their diets, here are some pairs and tips to create a complete amino acid profile:

  • Eat a variety of protein sources throughout the day.
  • Combine legumes with grains, such as black beans and rice or lentils and barley.
  • Include a mix of nuts and seeds with grains, like almond butter on whole grain toast.
  • Use soy products, like tofu and tempeh, which are among the few plant proteins that are naturally complete.

While some may argue that the convenience and familiarity of animal proteins make them superior, emerging research and changing dietary guidelines are reflecting an increased acceptance of plant-based proteins as part of a healthy and sustainable diet.

Digestibility and Nutrient Absorption of Plant Proteins

The topic of plant protein digestibility and nutrient absorption is one that's paved with misconceptions and over-simplifications. It's true, not all protein is created equal, and when you hear the term "plant-based protein," you're dealing with a vast, diverse group of proteins with varying digestibility rates. Let's unpack this.

Proteins are made up of amino acids, and when we digest them, our bodies are primarily looking to extract these building blocks. Animal proteins are known as "complete proteins" because they contain all nine essential amino acids in proportions similar to what our bodies require. Most plant-based sources, on the other hand, are considered "incomplete" because they typically lack one or more essential amino acids.

But let's tackle the term "digestibility". The Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) has been the gold standard for measuring protein quality, essentially evaluating a protein's digestibility and its amino acid profile. However, many plant foods, when consumed as a varied diet, can complement each other to provide complete protein profiles—think rice and beans, a classic example of two incomplete proteins making a complete one.

Recent research suggests that the PDCAAS may undervalue some plant proteins, and a more updated method called the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS) is gaining traction. Studies indicate that certain plant proteins, like those from soy and pea, fare well on this scale, challenging the prevailing bias favoring animal-derived proteins.

Moreover, a diversely-packed plant-based diet often means you're getting a mix of proteins from different sources, improving the chances of gleaning a full slate of amino acids over the course of a day or a meal. It requires strategy, but it's a myth that plant proteins are inherently deficient.

Then there's the aspect of anti-nutrients—compounds like phytates and tannins in legumes and grains, which can bind to minerals and reduce their absorption. This is another point often wielded against plant proteins, but the story isn't so black and white. Preparation methods like soaking, sprouting, and fermenting greatly reduce these anti-nutrients.

What isn't often discussed is that these same anti-nutrients can also have health benefits, like antioxidant properties. It's a trade-off, and with proper food preparation, the impact on mineral absorption can be mitigated.

In conclusion, while certain plant proteins may have lower digestibility and could potentially impact nutrient absorption due to anti-nutritional factors, these issues are not insurmountable. A well-planned diet that includes a variety of plant proteins can meet nutritional needs. Understanding and utilizing food preparation techniques and combining plant protein sources can maximize digestibility and nutrient uptake. One should not be immediately dismissive of plant-based proteins due to digestibility and nutrient absorption concerns without considering the broader nutritional context and the strategies available to optimize plant protein intake.

Potential Contaminants in Plant-Based Proteins

When investigating plant-based protein powders and supplements, one critical concern that arises is the potential presence of contaminants. These can include heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury, along with other environmental pollutants like pesticides and mycotoxins. Understanding the sources and risks associated with these contaminants is essential to gauge the safety of plant-based protein products.

Heavy Metals: It's no secret that crops can absorb heavy metals from soil, and these toxic elements can find their way into plant-based proteins. A study conducted by the Clean Label Project in 2018 found that numerous plant-based protein products contained higher levels of heavy metals compared to non-plant-based products. The presence of these metals is attributed to various factors, including industrial farming practices, polluted water sources used for irrigation, and the natural tendency of certain plants to absorb more heavy metals from the environment.

For example, it has been noted that rice protein often contains higher levels of arsenic due to rice plants’ predilection for arsenic absorption from soil and water. Regular consumption of products with elevated levels of heavy metals could contribute to health issues over time, including kidney damage, bone fragility, and neurological problems. However, it is also crucial to consider the dose—trace amounts of these metals may not pose a significant threat to health, depending on dietary intake and individual susceptibility.

Pesticides: Non-organic plant-based protein sources are also prone to contamination with pesticides. These chemicals are used extensively in agricultural practices to control pests and enhance crop yields. The residue of these pesticides can linger on plants and make their way into protein powders and supplements. While the long-term health effects of pesticide exposure through diet are debated, studies have raised concerns about the potential for neurotoxicity, hormone disruption, and other adverse health effects.

Mycotoxins: Furthermore, mycotoxins—harmful compounds produced by certain types of molds—can contaminate plant-based proteins. These contaminants are particularly concerning because, unlike heavy metals and pesticides, mycotoxins can proliferate in food products even after harvest during storage, especially if conditions are damp and poorly ventilated. Mycotoxins have been linked to a variety of health problems, including liver damage, immunosuppression, and even carcinogenic effects in cases of high or prolonged exposure.

Given these potential contaminants, it is imperative for consumers to scrutinize the sourcing and testing practices of plant-based protein manufacturers. Many reputable companies test their products for contaminants and provide transparency reports. Individuals who prioritize safety should opt for products that have certifications from third-party testing organizations or that explicitly state their testing protocols for heavy metals and other contaminants.

Overall, while plant-based proteins are not inherently bad for you, vigilance about potential contamination is essential. It's a consumer's responsibility to be informed and proactive, choosing high-quality products with clear, scrupulous testing standards. Plant-based protein can be a healthful part of a balanced diet, provided it comes with the assurance of thorough screening for potentially harmful contaminants.

Anti-nutrients in Plant Proteins and Their Health Impact

Plant-based proteins are lauded for their various health benefits, however, they also come with their share of natural compounds referred to as anti-nutrients. While the term may sound alarmist, these substances, found in plants, can interfere with the body's ability to absorb essential nutrients. Here, we dissect some of the most common anti-nutrients found in plant proteins and what science says about their health impact.

Phytates (Phytic Acid): Primarily found in seeds, grains, and legumes, phytates are known to bind minerals like calcium, iron, and zinc, potentially hindering their absorption. Although excessive intake of phytates can contribute to mineral deficiencies, especially in diets that rely heavily on grains and legumes, it's crucial to note their role is not black and white. According to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition & Metabolism, phytic acid also exhibits antioxidant properties and may reduce the risk of kidney stones and cancer.

Lectins: Present in beans and legumes, lectins serve as a plant's defense mechanism. When consumed in large amounts, they can disrupt cell membranes and lead to gastrointestinal issues. Nevertheless, this anti-nutrient has a reduced role in well-prepared foods, as cooking significantly diminishes lectin content. The fear surrounding lectins often overlooks this important aspect of food preparation which neutralizes much of the threat.

Oxalates: Oxalates are abundant in foods like spinach and beet greens. They are known for their ability to bind to calcium and form calcium oxalate, the most common type of kidney stone. Individuals with a history of kidney stones are often advised to limit their intake of high-oxalate foods. Conversely, for people without kidney issues, the impact of oxalates is less clear, and these foods can be a part of a healthy diet due to their nutrient profile.

Saponins: Found in quinoa and legumes, saponins can interfere with normal nutrient absorption. They've been shown to bind to the gut lining, which can lead to irritation and a leaky gut in sensitive individuals. However, saponins also have cholesterol-lowering and immune-stimulating benefits, and their overall health impact may be positive when consumed as part of a varied diet.

When discussing anti-nutrients, it's important to consider both dosage and dietary context. The consumption of anti-nutrients within a diverse and balanced diet is unlikely to pose significant health risks for the majority of people. Moreover, processing methods like soaking, sprouting, fermenting, and cooking effectively reduce anti-nutrient levels in plant-based proteins and enhance nutrient bioavailability.

For those concerned about anti-nutrients, a strategic approach to food preparation can help. Techniques such as:

  • Soaking beans and grains before cooking
  • Choosing fermented soy products like tempeh over non-fermented varieties
  • Boiling and discarding water from foods high in lectins and oxalates
  • Pairing plant-based proteins with foods high in vitamin C to enhance iron absorption

can mitigate potential negative impacts while allowing individuals to reap the health advantages of plant-based proteins.

In conclusion, while anti-nutrients in plant proteins can have an impact on nutrient absorption, they are not inherently detrimental to one's health and, certainly, do not overshadow the benefits of consuming plant-based proteins. A balanced perspective is essential, backed by an understanding that simple culinary techniques can further minimize the risk of negative effects.

Processing of Plant Proteins and Added Ingredients

The journey from plant to protein powder is not just a simple matter of dehydration and grinding. The process by which proteins are extracted from their original plant sources can significantly affect the final nutritional profile and potential health implications. Moreover, many plant-based protein powders are accompanied by a suite of added ingredients, each with its own set of considerations.

Protein Extraction Methods

Typically, plant proteins are extracted using one of two methods:

  • Mechanical pressing: This more natural method involves pressing the plant material to remove fats and oils, leaving behind a protein-rich cake. This cake is then dried and ground into a powder. The nutrient content is closer to the whole food source, but the protein content may be lower compared to other methods.
  • Solvent extraction: A chemical solvent, often hexane, is used to separate protein from the plant matter more efficiently. While solvent extraction can yield a higher protein content, there can be concerns about residual solvents in the final product. However, regulations require that these levels are tested and kept very low, minimizing potential health risks.

Both extraction methods can affect the protein's structure and digestion rates. The isolation process can also remove many of the beneficial nutrients that accompany the protein in the plant, such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals, potentially reducing the holistic benefits of consuming protein within its whole food context.

Concerns Over Added Ingredients

Apart from the core protein content, manufacturers often add ingredients to improve taste, texture, longevity, or nutritional profile. Common additives include:

While additives like thickeners and flavors may be safe in moderate amounts, some individuals may experience digestive discomfort, particularly from gums and other fibers. Additionally, artificial sweeteners, despite being calorie-free, have been scrutinized for potential metabolic and gut microbiome impacts.

Evidence-Based Evaluation

To truly assess the impacts of these processing methods and additives, let's turn to the research:

  • A study on hexane-extracted soy protein indicated that while trace amounts of hexane were present, they were far below levels considered to be harmful (1).
  • Research on artificial sweeteners suggests mixed results, with some studies showing potential negative effects on insulin sensitivity and gut bacteria balance, while others show no significant negative impact (2).
  • Thickeners and gums, such as inulin or guar gum, can act as prebiotics and benefit gut health, but may cause gastrointestinal issues for some (3).

It is imperative for consumers to scrutinize ingredient labels and look beyond the protein content per scoop, considering the potential effects of processing and added ingredients on overall health and wellness.


  1. Food and Chemical Toxicology. "Hexane residue in soy meal and soy protein isolate: Determination and safety assessment." (Year)
  2. Journal of the Endocrine Society. "Nonnutritive Sweeteners and Their Implications on the Development of Metabolic Syndrome." (Year)
  3. Journal of Nutrition. "Dietary Fibers and Their Fermented Short-Chain Fatty Acids in Gut Health and Disease." (Year)

Frequently asked questions

Consuming too much of any type of protein, including plant-based, can pose health risks if it displaces other essential nutrients in the diet or exceeds the body's ability to process the excess protein, potentially leading to kidney strain. It's also wise to monitor intake of plant-based protein powders and supplements to minimize potential exposure to contaminants like heavy metals and ensure overall balance in the diet.

Yes, it is possible to meet your daily protein needs with plant-based proteins alone. It's important to eat a variety of protein sources throughout the day to ensure you get all the essential amino acids your body requires, as different plant foods offer different amino acid profiles. Including a mix of legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, and soy products can help create a well-rounded and complete protein intake.

Plant-based proteins can offer muscle-building benefits similar to animal proteins when consumed in adequate amounts and with a complete amino acid profile. While animal proteins generally contain all essential amino acids in optimal ratios for muscle synthesis, plant-based proteins may require strategic food combining (such as grains with legumes) to provide a full spectrum of amino acids. With proper planning, including sufficient calorie and protein intake and varied protein sources, plant-based diets can support muscle growth effectively.

Anti-nutrients in plant proteins can often be reduced or mitigated through proper food preparation techniques. Soaking, rinsing, and cooking legumes and grains can lessen the contents of phytates and lectins. For reducing oxalates, boiling and discarding water from high-oxalate foods is effective. Fermentation and sprouting further enhance the bioavailability of nutrients by breaking down anti-nutrients. Always ensure a diverse intake of foods for balanced nutrition.

Ask a question about Plant-Based Protein and our team will publish the answer as soon as possible.

Possible short-term side effects

  • gi discomfort
  • allergic reactions
  • mineral absorption interference

Possible long-term side effects

  • mineral deficiencies
  • kidney stone risk (oxalates)
  • potential heavy metal accumulation

Ingredients to be aware of

  • hexane
  • artificial sweeteners
  • thickeners and gums
  • artificial flavors/colors
  • pesticides
  • heavy metals
  • mycotoxins


  • complete amino acid profile (when combined properly)
  • lower risk of heart disease
  • lower bp and diabetes risk
  • contains fiber and phytonutrients

Healthier alternatives

  • organic protein sources
  • whole food protein pairing
  • certified/testing transparency proteins

Our Wellness Pick (what is this?)

Orgain Vegan Protein

  • 21g Plant Protein
  • Gluten Free
  • Dairy & Lactose Free
  • No Added Sugar
  • Kosher Certified
Learn More!

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Joey Conners
Published on: 02-28-2024

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Joey Conners
Published on: 02-28-2024

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