Among plant-based protein powders, hemp shines as a high-quality, vegan protein that contains all nine essential amino acids, plus fiber, healthy fats, minerals, and antioxidants. But the wellness industry has a way of glorifying the latest and greatest superfood trend, so we’re taking this opportunity to clear up some misunderstandings about hemp, especially in regards to its protein content. Let’s see how hemp protein powder stacks up to other protein powders, both plant and animal based, so you can better determine if it's the right fit for your nutritional goals.
A Brief History of Hemp
Hemp hails from the Cannabis sativa plant, and yes, that’s the same plant species as marijuana but it’s an entirely different variety. The hemp plant contains less than 0.3% THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana its hallucinatory, and other, effects. When it’s processed into protein powder, that amount becomes even more negligible. To put it simply: You will not, and cannot, get high off hemp.
Hemp seeds, which are technically nuts, have been cultivated since the advent of agriculture nearly 12,000 years ago. Rumor has it that George Washington was a hemp farmer. After World War II, hemp got an unfounded reputation for being the same as marijuana and hemp farming was frowned upon. It wasn’t until 2007, 50 years later, that two North Dakota farmers were granted hemp licenses. And in 2018, amendments to the Farm Bill legalized hemp in America.
A Taste Like No Other
Hemp protein powder is made by pressing hemp seeds, also known as hemp hearts, to remove the oil. The seed meal that remains is then ground into a fine powder.
The flavor has been described as earthy, nutty, even grassy, and the texture remains grittier than that of other protein powders because it’s less processed, which is a pro for people in search of minimally processed options.
Why Use Protein Powder?
There are several reasons why you might want to start upping your protein intake with protein shakes that include hemp.
It’s a common practice among athletes and bodybuilders who need to eat more protein to fuel muscle recovery and growth post workout.
Patients undergoing surgery, such as hip replacement or bariatric surgery, have increased protein demands, as do cancer patients, and protein powder can help shore up any protein insufficiencies.
Older adults are prone to sarcopenia, age-related muscle loss, and do not build or maintain muscle as easily as they did in their younger years. A protein powder can help initiate muscle protein synthesis even in aging muscle.
Vegans and vegetarians are also limited in high-quality dietary proteins, and a plant-based protein powder such as hemp protein can make sure they’re getting enough of this essential macronutrient.
Some people are after the purest protein they can find, while others are looking for a protein powder that does a little bit of everything...protein, plus fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, and healthy fats.
How does hemp protein powder fit the bill? Let’s find out!
Is Hemp Protein Powder a Complete Protein?
Hemp protein powder has all nine essential amino acids in attendance so it is indeed a complete protein. However, the jury’s still out on how high quality that protein is, as hemp protein is low in the essential amino acids lysine and leucine, which dampens its muscle-building abilities.
Proponents of hemp as a high-quality protein powder often cite a 2004 study published in Euphytica. Researchers concluded that hemp protein “contains nutritionally significant amounts of all essential amino acids” that are similar to the amino acid profiles of egg whites and soy.
More recent studies published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry call out the low levels of lysine and leucine in hemp.
Plant-Based vs. Animal-Based Proteins
Before we analyze the amino acid profile of hemp protein, let’s take a moment to clarify why plant-based proteins don’t ever seem to measure up to animal-based proteins in terms of protein quality.
It comes down to the exact amount of essential amino acids (EAAs). Plant-based proteins have lower concentrations of EAAs and tend to be insufficient in leucine, lysine, and/or the sulfur-containing methionine.
The EAA Profile of Hemp Protein Powder
A 2018 study published in the journal Amino Acids analyzed the protein makeup of commercially available plant-based protein isolates, including hemp protein powder.
The protein content of hemp was the lowest of the plant-based proteins at 51%. See Figure 1 below for a comparison.
Researchers also analyzed the percent of EAAs in plant-based proteins, all of which were lower than the percent of EAAs in animal-based protein, and none of which met the WHO/FAO/UNU amino acid requirements for human nutrition. See Figure 2 below for a comparison.
Let’s look specifically at the essential amino acid shortcomings of hemp protein. In addition to having the lowest leucine content at 5.1%, hemp didn’t meet EAA requirements for the essential amino acids isoleucine, valine, lysine, and phenylalanine.
Take a look at the essential amino acid profile of hemp protein in Figure 3 below.
Hemp Protein Powder’s Digestibility Factor
Hemp protein powder does have its digestibility factor going for it. Unlike the protein digestibility of other plant-based proteins, 91-98% of hemp is digestible, which means your body is actually able to use the essential amino acids you’re feeding it.
Hemp is more bioavailable because of the proteins edestin and albumin that can be broken down quickly. It also doesn’t contain the trypsin inhibitors of soy protein powders that interfere with digestion.
Processing can reduce hemp’s digestibility by as much as 10%, so look for a hemp protein powder made from cold-pressed seeds.
What’s the Verdict on Hemp Protein?
If it’s a high-quality protein source you’re looking for, hemp protein powder is not your best bet. But if you’re looking for a well-rounded vegan or vegetarian protein powder that also keeps you filled up with fiber and other nutrients, then hemp protein powder may still be a contender.
Hemp Protein Powder Nutrition Perks
Protein may be in its name, but fiber ups hemp protein’s game! Fiber stabilizes your blood sugar, is a natural detoxifier, keeps you regular, fills you up for appetite control, and helps reduce your risk of colon cancer.
Other plant-based protein powders, including soy, rice, and pea, contain very little fiber, while hemp protein powder boasts 7-8 grams of fiber per every 1/4 cup. That’s 18-28% of the recommended fiber intake taken care of with a serving of hemp. Considering that less than 5% of American adults meets these recommendations on a daily basis, supplementing your diet with a high-fiber protein powder might be a wise move.
Omega-6 and Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Hemp health benefits continue with the addition of unsaturated fats, 3 grams in every 1/4 cup to be exact.
Hemp protein powder is a good source of the essential fatty acids: omega-6 linoleic acid and omega-3 alpha-linoleic acid in the ideal omega-6:omega-3 ratio of 3:1, thereby helping to subdue inflammation and protect against heart disease.
Hemp protein is also one of the few sources of the fatty acid gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) with notable anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties.
Antioxidants and Minerals
Hemp protein powder contributes to overall wellness with phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, iron, manganese, zinc, and copper. Hemp seeds also contain lignanamides, the discovery of which led researchers to conclude that “hemp may be a good source of bioactive and protective compounds.”
The nutritional value of hemp is often cited in reference to its seeds. Research has yet to determine how much of these nutrients are lost during processing. If you look on the nutrition labels of Nutiva Organic Hemp Seed Protein you’re meeting 40% of the daily value of iron and 8% of the daily value of potassium. Manitoba Harvest Organic Hemp Protein Powder claims 10% of the daily value of phosphorus, 8% of the daily value of potassium, 6% of the daily value of iron, and 2% of the daily value of calcium.
How Much Hemp Protein Powder Should I Take?
If you’re looking for overall wellness support then following the recommended serving size on the nutrition facts of hemp protein supplements will serve you well. But don’t expect that you’re meeting your protein requirements with just one serving.
To better understand, let’s review the recommendations for protein intake for adults. The minimum is set at 0.36 grams of protein per pound. So a 140-pound adult would need to eat at least 50 grams of protein a day. This minimum does not account for activity. The International Society of Sports Nutrition advises eating 0.64-0.9 grams of protein per pound. And bodybuilders and fitness professionals should strive for up to 1.4 grams of protein per pound.
Let’s see how these recommendations translate to some of the best hemp protein powders on the market. One serving (3 tablespoons) of Nutiva delivers 15 grams of protein, which fulfills 30% of the minimum daily protein requirements. One serving (5 tablespoons) of Manitoba Harvest delivers 20 grams of protein, satisfying 35% of your base protein needs.
That doesn’t mean you’re getting nearly enough protein to stimulate muscle growth. Let’s compare hemp protein to whey protein to understand why.
Research has proven that it takes 25 grams of whey protein to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. The profile of EAAs in whey protein that enables this muscle building is 10.9 grams of EAAs made up of 2.7 grams of leucine.
You’d have to ingest 105 grams of hemp protein powder to meet these requirements and stimulate muscle protein synthesis to the same degree.
Of course, if you’re looking for a plant protein, whey protein won’t work. But pea protein powder, which doesn’t meet the essential amino acid minimums for isoleucine, valine, and methionine, isn’t your best bet either.
Rather, it’s far more advantageous to supplement with a non-GMO, vegan, gluten-free, keto-approved and low-calorie amino acid supplement made with free amino acids unattached to a dietary protein source.
Take the amino acid composition of Amino Co.’s Life blend. Just 3 scoops of this Muscle and Heart Health Patented blend delivers 10.9 grams of the essential amino acids and only 30 calories, compared to the 840 calories of hemp powder you’d need to ingest to get anywhere close to that amount of EAAs. And it’s just as easy to blend up in a smoothie, with flavors like grape, orange, and watermelon that are totally free of artificial sweeteners.
If you've been searching far and wide for a vegan protein powder that can boost muscle growth, aid weight loss, promote heart health, and protect your vital organs, then your search is over! You can learn more about Life and our other amino acid protein powders here.