Sport Nutrition: Plant Protein Trends

Thinking about adding a protein powder supplement to your sports nutrition line? You may want to consider choosing a plant-based protein. According to a May 2021 report by Meticulous Research®, the plant-based protein supplement market is expected to reach $9.57 billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 7.8% during the forecast period of 2020 to 2027.[1]

The market research report acknowledges whey protein’s popularity may limit plant protein growth. However, rising consumer desire for clean labels, vegan products, and lower-calorie/higher-nutrition protein powders appears to point to a hungry plant protein market ready to eat away at whey’s share in years to come.

Let’s look at some of today’s top plant protein sources to consider for your next protein supplement. 

Soy Protein

Soy protein is the most popular plant-based protein powder. Considered one of the very few complete plant proteins, it supplies all nine essential amino acids. Soy protein is also a cost-effective, well-researched option for supplement formulators targeting athletes; its highly-regarded cardiovascular health benefits can enhance all sports nutrition supplement applications.[2] 

While soy protein will remain the vegan protein of choice for the foreseeable future, soy allergies or other concerns may compel some consumers to explore other plant-based protein options.

Did you know? If your supplement supplies enough soy protein, you can make FDA-qualified cardiovascular health claims. Two such model claims suggested by the FDA follow:[3]

(1) “25 grams of soy protein a day, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease. A serving of [name of food] supplies __ grams of soy protein.”

(2) “Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol that include 25 grams of soy protein a day may reduce the risk of heart disease. One serving of [name of food] provides __ grams of soy protein.”

Pea Protein

While soy protein will remain #1, the Meticulous Research® report forecasts that pea protein will experience the greatest growth of any plant protein overall by 2027. Sourced from yellow and green seeds of Pinus sativum, pea protein has been shown in some research to have similar muscle benefits as non-vegan protein powder supplements.[4]  

In other research, pea protein has been shown to satiate hunger similarly to whey protein.[5] Pea protein is not quite allergen-free, but it’s free of allergens associated with soy, whey and casein proteins.

Did you know? Pea protein supplies most amino acids, but is low in methionine. Rice protein, however, is high in methionine. As a result, some supplement formulators will combine pea protein and rice protein, thereby creating a plant-based protein blend with a more well-rounded amino acid profile.

Rice Protein 

Organic brown rice protein is another appealing vegan alternative to whey protein. According to some market research, the global rice protein market will approach $200 million by 2025[6] This reflects its value as a vegan protein challenger to the animal protein standbys. Rice protein in isolate is up to 95% protein, supplying a broad range of amino acids, with an emphasis on leucine: The most valuable of the branched-chain amino acids for muscle building and athletic recovery. Rice protein also has a neutral taste and ease of absorption that work well with many powder flavors and formats.

Did you know? Oryzatein® is a branded form of brown rice protein that may hold distinct appeal for vegan athletes and bodybuilders. When taken in a single 48 g dose post-workout over the course of 8 weeks, Oryzatein® was shown in research to enhance power, strength and muscle growth as effectively as whey protein.[7] 

Chia Protein 

Chia seeds have built-in marketing sizzle: An important food source for central and South American cultures for centuries, chia’s use stretches back to ancient Aztec cultures. The seeds can be consumed whole, soaked, and softened into a thick liquid, or ground. Chia seeds are considered among the best plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids. They also supply fiber and a range of essentials, including calcium, B-vitamins, magnesium, copper, and zinc. 

Did you know? Chia protein’s gluten-free status and dense nutritional profile are driving demand; some market research projects the chia seed market may be worth close to $5 billion by 2025.[8] 

Hemp Protein

Cannabis sativa (industrial non-psychoactive cannabis strain) seeds are considered one of the most nutritionally complete seeds. Hemp protein is produced during the processing of hemp seed into oil. The pulverized seeds that remain post-extraction are rich in protein, Omega-3, and Omega-6 fatty acids and fiber, as well as supplying arginine and L-Tyrosine, both of which are associated with sports nutrition. Hemp protein is not a complete protein because it is limited in amino acid leucine, and maybe best-suited to vegan protein powder blends as a complementary ingredient. Regardless, hemp protein has a built-in marketing appeal and a favorable eco-friendly production process that make it a protein to watch.

Did you know? Hempseed is estimated to be approximately 30% fats, including beneficial and balanced essential fatty acids (EFAs); 20-25% easy-to-digest proteins, rich in amino acids; and 20-30% carbohydrates, primarily as fiber.[9]


Plant proteins present a burgeoning opportunity for formulators because they meet evolving consumer demand for clean-label, vegan, ethical, and healthy protein supplements. However, plant protein supplement formulators face challenges in dethroning the dominant market presence of whey protein. 

Some top-selling vegan protein supplements on the market today are facing off against whey by blending plant proteins to achieve a more complete and whey-adjacent amino acid profile. Combined with vegan and organic flavors and sweeteners, this plant protein supplement formulation strategy may potentially align with future consumer demand in the sports nutrition category.


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