From elite endurance athletes to the frail elderly, many people these days consume protein powders, which are no longer exclusively used by bodybuilders. With this increased popularity, however, comes a growing consumer concern regarding safety: "Consumer Reports Magazine" published an article in 2010 reporting the presence of potentially health-hazardous heavy metals in 15 laboratory-tested protein powders and drinks. Other reasons, such as the benefits of eating whole foods and the fear of unlisted allergens, also lead many people to look for protein powder alternatives.
Also commonly called hemp “hearts” or hemp “nuts,” hemp seeds can provide close to 17 grams of protein with just 3 teaspoons. They contain all of the essential amino acids like animal protein, thus making hemp seeds a complete protein. They also offer a plant-based dose of the heart-healthy omega-3 essential fats. Sprinkle them on yogurt or cereal, toss a small handful into a salad, or blend a scoopful into a shake in place of protein powder.
Not to be confused with the yellow, powdery leavening agent used in bread-baking, nutritional yeast is a deactivated yeast, cultured on beet and sugar-cane molasses. It is a fungus-based source of complete protein and just 3 tablespoons of these golden flakes can provide 16 grams of protein. Also rich in B vitamins, the fortified varieties offer a vegan source of vitamin B-12. Always read the nutrition facts labels carefully, because the nutrients can vary significantly by brand. Mix nutritional yeast into sauces or sprinkle it on popcorn to add a smoky, cheesy flavor.
Yogurt frequently receives rave reviews for its calcium and gut-friendly probiotic content but the remarkable protein level of the thicker, more concentrated Greek yogurt is certainly worth noting. About ¾ cup can provide close to 17 grams of protein. Again, read the nutrition facts labels carefully, because the nutrition profile such as fat content can vary by flavors and brands.
Don’t be frightened by the name; unlike other members of the cheese family, such as feta and cheddar, cottage cheese is often low in saturated fats while still providing an impressive amount of protein. A ½ cup of low-fat or non-fat cottage cheese can provide close to 14 grams of protein. If you are not a fan of the moist, yogurt-like texture, try dry curd cottage cheese, also known as farmer's cheese. It is virtually flavorless and sprinkling just ½ cup on top of spaghetti and salads can increase your protein intake by 18 grams.
Spirulina as Protein
Spirulina is a blue-green algae that is high in protein -- 4 grams per tablespoon -- and sometimes substituted for protein powder. It also contains B vitamins, vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene, vitamin E and the minerals manganese, zinc, iron, copper and selenium. The University of Maryland Medical Center warns that you would need to use a rather large amount of spirulina as a protein supplement to see any effect.
- ConsumerReports.org: Alert: Protein drinks
- Euphytica: Hempseed as a Nutritional Resource: An Overview
- LIVESTRONG.COM: Red Star Nutritional Yeast
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Yogurt, Greek, Non-Fat
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Cheese, Cottage, Low-Fat, 1 Percent
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Spirulina
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Spirulina, Dried