As a cookbook writer, health coach, and lady who loves to eat, I’m a huge believer that we can get all of our nutrition needs from real foods in their whole form. Meal replacement bars, shakes, and juices are totally lost on me. (As is this scenario: “I got so busy I forgot to eat!” Whaaaaat?)
For the longest time, I lumped protein powders into that ever-growing category of unnecessary and expensive health trends. Very few people actually "need" a protein supplement.
The amount of protein your body requires to keep humming along depends on a lot of factors, including gender, age, activity level, current health, etc., so there’s no one-size-fits-all recommendation. If you eat meat, you’re probably doing just fine in the protein department. Vegetarians and vegans have to be more diligent about eating complete sources of protein (these contain all nine essential amino acids that our bodies require yet don’t produce), but it’s totally doable with plant-based foods.
Protein Powders Usually Aren’t Necessary disclaimer aside: I’ve come around with these things! It wasn’t until nearly every client was asking me for recommendations on protein powders-- especially vegan and vegetarian clients--that I started researching them and dabbling in various brands. I’ve discovered certain situations where the ease and convenience of a quality protein supplement comes in handy: working on your fitness extra hard, like training for a half-marathon when you’re used to more casual physical activity; recovering from an injury (protein promotes cell growth, so it helps in the healing process); the early stages of transitioning to a vegan or vegetarian diet; and--the reason I occasionally use them--if you’re traveling, haven’t hit the grocery store in a while or you’re insanely busy and need a quick breakfast or snack with substantial protein to hold you over.
The protein powder aisle at health food stores boggles the mind. There are powders sourced from whey, casein, hemp, peas, soy, brown rice…the list goes on. Most types have their merits, but for now, I’m focusing on pea-protein blends that don’t have common allergens like dairy, soy, or gluten and can be a part of most styles of eating.
The three protein powders I’m reviewing here are free from chemicals, artificial flavors, preservatives, and refined sugar. One thing is for sure--if I’m going to ingest any of that sketchy stuff, I’d prefer it in the form of a giant peanut butter cup, not a protein powder smoothie.
For an even comparison, I combined one serving of each vanilla-flavored powder with the same ingredients: almond-coconut milk, half of a banana, and 1 large handful of baby spinach.
Aloha Premium Protein Vanilla
This is the newest of the bunch, released just last month. It’s also the most expensive of the three at $59 for a 14-serving tin (via Aloha’s website). That’s $4.21 per serving. Yowza.
Each serving has 18 grams of complete protein from a blend of organic sacha inchi protein, organic pumpkin seed protein, and pea protein. According to Aloha’s site, which has a handy pictorial of all ingredients, sacha inchi is a South American seed high in omega-3s. They use real vanilla beans (rather than extract) and sweetness comes from coconut sugar, apple juice, and monk fruit extract (a natural sugar substitute). Most of the ingredients are organic and all are non-GMO.
It has a rich, but mild vanilla taste and, despite three sweeteners totaling 5 grams of sugar per serving, I didn’t find it to be overly sweet. There’s no aftertaste, which I can’t say about the other two. I had trouble with the texture though: It’s thick, almost like pudding. It didn’t so much pour out of the glass as it did slide out and smack me in the mouth. Aloha recommends mixing the powder with 12 – 16 ounces of smoothie or liquid. I used 12 ounces--definitely not enough. I also found it rather grainy.
Sunwarrior Warrior Blend Vanilla
Sunwarrior has my favorite texture. Creamy and slightly thick with only a hint of graininess that I didn’t notice after the first two sips.
The 19 grams of complete protein per serving comes from a proprietary blend of organic pea protein, raw cranberry protein, and raw organic hemp seed protein. Other notable ingredients are organic vanilla extract (not vanilla beans, like Aloha) and stevia. Like Aloha, Sunwarrior Warrior Blend also uses only non-GMO ingredients. About half of these are organic.
It has an understated vanilla flavor that’s complemented by a nice nutty taste from the hemp seed. There are 0 grams of sugar, because the powder relies on stevia for sweetness. This also means it has a faintly bitter aftertaste, like most stevia-sweetened products.
Sunwarrior is the best value of the group, especially considering that it contains the pricier non-GMO and organic ingredients. A 20-serving bag is $25.47 (via Amazon). That’s $1.27 per serving. The 40-serving package is an even better deal at $1.04 per serving.
Vega Protein Smoothie Viva Vanilla
When I popped off the top of the blender, the Vega smoothie smelled like vanilla cookies. Great start. This helps to prepare you for the onslaught of intense vanilla flavor. It’s so vanilla that it doesn’t taste real. And who really knows because the ingredient list says “natural French vanilla flavors.” It’s also the sweetest powder of the three and has a stronger aftertaste of stevia than Sunwarrior.
The consistency is thin, smooth, and airy. Vega is by far the finest, least gritty powder of the bunch.
The 15 grams of complete protein are from Vega’s blend of pea, sacha inchi, hemp seed, and sprouted brown rice proteins. Also included is Vega’s “green blend”--alfalfa grass, spinach, broccoli and kale powders--so you get a couple of servings of veggies (though without the fiber of whole vegetables, I’d view this green blend as a bonus and not rely on it as true vegetable servings). All ingredients are non-GMO, but the alfalfa and kale are the only organics.
A 12-serving pouch is $15.99 via Amazon, which comes out to $1.33 per serving.
Given the quality of ingredients, texture, and price, I’ve gone with Sunwarrior Warrior Blend as my go-to protein powder. I could see using Vega Protein Smoothie when traveling because it would be good with just water (without the addition of half a banana, maybe it wouldn’t be so sweet). Thumbs up for Aloha’s flavor and transparency when it comes to ingredients. I just can’t justify that price.
Of course, none of these come cheap. I’d be wary of a protein powder (or any supplement, for that matter) that is. Before you make the investment in a protein powder, I suggest buying a single serving pouch in your local health food store or online before committing to the full-size deal. Sunwarrior offers several trial-size bundles, Aloha has a free trial available, and Whole Foods sells individual Vega Protein Smoothie pouches.
- Do you use a protein powder?
- Have you tried any of the three here, or do you have another favorite?
Cover image: Shutterstock/BLACKDAY