Fermented Vegan Proteins – Are they Really Better for You?
When it comes to nutrition, there are certain things that are tried and true. Eating plenty of vegetables, drinking water, and limiting added sugar intake are just a few of the many nutrition guidelines backed by scientific evidence.
But the food industry is also overrun with myths, fad diets, and trends that are shrouded with misinformation and over hyped. (For example, gluten is harmful for those with celiac, but not to the overwhelmingly large portion of the population that isn’t gluten sensitive or intolerant.)
Fermented vegan proteins are all the rage lately. This type of protein has been popping up, and many people assume that because it’s “fermented,” it’s healthier and better overall than other proteins. But before you start stocking up, it’s a good idea to dig a little deeper and see if fermented vegan proteins are all they’re cracked up to be.
Fermentation is the process that breaks down carbohydrates, sugar, and bacteria in foods by exposing them to bacteria and yeast.
Not only does this fermentation preserve foods, but it also introduces beneficial bacteria called probiotics into the foods. Probiotics are living organisms that help keep your gut healthy and balanced. They have been shown to help with a number of health concerns, including:
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Diarrhea from bacteria, parasites, or antibiotics
- Urinary and vaginal issues
Fermentation also alters the taste of foods, often making them stronger. It’s what transforms cabbage into sauerkraut, and soybeans into miso. Some of the healthiest fermented foods include:
- Kefir. This fermented dairy product has a staggering 46 billion probiotic organisms (yogurt, comparatively, has about one billion.) Kefir has also been shown in studies to help boost the immune system.
- Tempeh. Made from fermented soybeans, the calcium in tempeh has been shown to be as well-absorbed as cow’s milk, making it a great non-dairy source of calcium.
- Sauerkraut. A good source of dietary fiber, one cup of fresh (not canned) sauerkraut also contains 35 percent of the recommended amount of Vitamin C.
- Yogurt. One of the more popular fermented foods, yogurt is loaded with helpful probiotics, calcium, and protein. It has also been shown to help support weight loss. In one study, people who ate 18 ounces of yogurt a day lost 22 percent more weight and 81 percent more belly fat than study participants who didn’t.
Fermentation and Proteins
With fermented protein powders, bacterial strains are used to make the protein powder. During the process, a whole plant food like rice grains or split peas are exposed to the bacteria, which then breaks the carbohydrates (and sometimes proteins) into smaller molecules so they’re easier (and faster) for the body to digest. Most of the carbohydrate molecules are then removed, making the resulting powder high in protein.
However, unlike whole fermented foods, there are no longer any beneficial bacteria present in the finished protein powder. That is, unless they are added in (as a separate ingredient) after. To reiterate, while the process uses strains of healthy bacteria, the drying and pasteurization process that gives the powder a longer shelf life uses heat that kills all bacteria—including the healthy strains.
The Truth Behind Fermented Protein Health Benefits
There are plenty of health claims floating around about fermented vegan protein. Some of the most popular include:
- Bacteria “pre-digests” the protein, making it easier forthe stomach to digest
- Minimizes or completely eliminates bloating
- Greater bioavailability of nutrients
- Removes anti-nutrients and harmful bacteria
- Greater absorption of protein
- Reduces or eliminates carbohydrates
In theory, these benefits make sense and sound great. (Who wouldn’t want to eliminate bloating?) What these claims are lacking, however, is sound scientific evidence to back them up. Plenty of research exists about the health benefits of fermented foods, but there are no studies (to date) to show that these benefits carry over to fermented protein powders.
One of the main health claims of fermented vegan protein is that it promotes a healthy gut. However, this isn’t due to the presence of beneficial bacteria—which many consumers may automatically assume because of the word “fermented.” Rather, the claim is based on the removal or pre-digestion of carbohydrates (including fibers), thus making it easier for the stomach to digest.
That’s why claims that fermented protein contributes to “gut health” are actually misleading—unless the protein powder has added probiotics after processing, gut health claims based on easier digestion, not on the presence of beneficial bacteria.
Fermented Vegan Protein Powder vs Non-Fermented: The Bottom Line
So what advantages does fermented vegan protein powder have over vegan protein powders that aren’t fermented? None. Fermented vegan protein powder has certainly gotten a lot of hype, but for the most part, it’s just that—hype. Using enzymes to extract and concentrate proteins from plant foods provides the same health and gut benefits that fermented powders provide. The enzymes break apart the starch and fiber content, similar to the fermentation process. This also results in greater bioavailability and makes the protein easier to digest, which means no bloating.
When non-fermented protein powders are dried, the heat also helps to eliminate the phytic acid and other potentially harmful inhibitors that may have been present in the plants used to make protein powder.
Bottom line? Fermented foods are good for you, but those benefits don’t automatically carry over to fermented vegan protein powders. Non-fermented protein powders offer just as many—if not more– health benefits without all the hype.
Written By: Jill Overmyer
Reviewed and Edited By: Scarlett Full, in-house Registered Dietitian