What plant-based protein powders are safe during pregnancy?

May 13, 2022

With the rising popularity of plant-based protein powders, we often have questions about which ones are safe during pregnancy.

Historically, the use of protein powders was associated only with athletes and serious gym goers. However, in more recent years, the use of protein powders for the everyday person is on the rise.

The plant-based protein space has had tremendous growth in popularity with more options than ever available on the market. This has come alongside the increasing number of people following vegan and vegetarian diets, especially as getting enough protein on a plant-based diet has often been a point of contention.

For the average plant-based eater, adding a protein powder into your diet is unlikely to cause much harm. However, the same cannot be said for during pregnancy.

If you’ve ever read the back of your protein powder packet, many will have a disclaimer that they are not safe for use during pregnancy, or to check with a health professional before using. This has caused a lot of confusion for many pregnant women with so much conflicting information online both for and against the use of protein powders during pregnancy.

So, are protein powders safe to include whilst pregnant and do you need to take one?

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question. We will break down the factors to consider in the following sections.

 

pregnant woman lying on bed holding stomach

 

Why protein is important during pregnancy

During pregnancy, protein plays a critical role in supporting the growth and development of your baby. It is the main building block for all of their tissues including skin and muscles, organs, hormones and other cells.

Not only does your baby need protein, but protein is also necessary to help support the physical changes to your own body that occur during pregnancy. This includes the development of uterine tissue to support a healthy pregnancy, maintaining muscle mass, immune support, hormone production and keeping you functioning well overall.

Protein is also one of our most satiating nutrients to help keep you feeling full and satisfied after meals, especially if you are one of the many women who find themselves ravenous throughout their pregnancy.

 

How much protein do you need whilst pregnant?

Protein requirements will vary from person to person depending on factors such as your weight, activity levels and medical history.

As a baseline, guidelines recommend women consume at least 1.1g of protein per kg of body weight per day whilst pregnant. This is slightly higher than the requirements for the general population.

Additionally, it is recommended that protein intake for pregnant women on a vegan or vegetarian diet is increased by 10% to compensate for the reduced digestibility of plant-based protein sources. This increases the recommended intake to 1.2g/kg body weight per day.

To calculate your protein requirements, you can use the following formula:

1.2 x your weight in kg = grams of protein you need per day
(e.g. if you weigh 65kg then: 1.2 x 65 = 78g protein per day)

 

plant-based protein powders for pregnancy

 

Do you need a plant-based protein powder during pregnancy?

Whilst it is more than possible to meet protein requirements through diet alone during pregnancy (you can read more about protein during pregnancy here), having the option of adding in a protein powder can be quick and convenient if you are struggling to meet your requirements.

There are a few instances in which adding protein powder into the diet can be particularly beneficial, such as:

  • Higher protein requirements due to factors such as weight or physical activity
  • Food aversions to protein-rich foods which can be quite common
  • Nausea
  • Time restraints and fatigue

 

Are protein powders safe during pregnancy?

Yes, and no…

Not all protein powders are made equal, and you need to be especially careful when choosing one whilst pregnant as there are a few important things to look out for to make sure they are safe.

One reason for this is that many protein powders on the market (especially those targeted to women and vegans) contain a plethora of other ingredients alongside the protein which can potentially be harmful for pregnant women.

Additionally, not all protein powders have undergone thorough testing to make sure they are safe, high quality and haven’t been contaminated with undisclosed contaminants such as heavy metals that may be harmful to you and your baby.

Finally, very limited research has been conducted in the area of protein powders during pregnancy.

As such, we recommend limiting protein powder to one serve per day. Plus, protein powders lack many of the added benefits that our protein-rich plant foods (such as beans and legumes, tofu and tempeh) supply. This includes fibre and a range of important vitamins and minerals.

So how do you know if your protein powder is pregnancy safe? We have provided four steps below to help guide you.

 

Four steps to choosing safe plant-based protein powders during pregnancy

 

1: Choose a high-quality source of protein

The first step when choosing a protein powder (pregnant or not) is making sure you are choosing one with a complete amino acid profile. Amino acids are molecules that combine to form proteins.

Unlike whey protein, most plant-based options such as pea, hemp, rice or peanut proteins, do not contain all the essential amino acids we require.

To ensure you are choosing a high quality plant-based protein powder, we recommending opting for soy protein isolate or a pea and rice blend as these are both considered complete proteins.

 

2: Check for unnecessary and harmful ingredients

Many protein powders, especially those targeted to both women and vegans, are filled with a long list of additives such as herbal blends, so-called ‘superfoods’ and ‘adaptogens’ such as ashwagandha, additional vitamins or minerals, and sweeteners.

These usually come alongside statements promoting their many additional benefits. However, many of these added ‘bonuses’ can be harmful during pregnancy. The main ingredients we recommend looking out for include:

  • Additional vitamins and minerals: Many of these added nutrients will already be contained in a good pre-natal supplement. Adding in additional supplemented forms of these nutrients can be problematic as for some nutrients, too much can be just as harmful as consuming too little.
  • Herbal blends and greens/superfood blends: Although they appear harmless and natural, many herbs have not been tested for safety during pregnancy any could potentially have adverse effects.
  • Adaptogens (e.g. reishi, ashwagandha, maca): As with many herbs, most adaptogens have not been tested for safety during pregnancy, so best to avoid.
  • Caffeine: High caffeine intake during pregnancy has been linked to a number of complications including increased risk of congenital malformations, miscarriage and growth retardation.
  • Artificial sweeteners: During pregnancy, artificial sweeteners have been found to cross the placental barrier. However, the potential effects on your baby are still not well known.

In general, when choosing a plant-based protein powder that is safe during pregnancy, this is a case where the saying ‘the fewer the ingredients the better’ should be applied. And it is important to note that labels such as natural, clean and organic doesn’t necessarily also imply pregnancy-safe!

 

safety of additives in plant-based protein powders during pregnancy

 

3: Opt for varieties that have had third-party testing

Protein powders are not particularly well-regulated in Australia or overseas. As such, there is risk that they may be contaminated with heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury or lead which all can have adverse effects during pregnancy.

This is where choosing a reputable brand that participates in third-party testing of their products becomes essential to ensure their safety and quality.

 

4: Check with your medical team  

As protein powders are considered a nutritional supplement, as with all supplements during pregnancy, we recommend speaking with your doctor or dietitian before using any protein powder whilst pregnant.

 

What are our top picks for plant-based protein powders during pregnancy?

Disclaimer: The PNW Clinic is not affiliated, associated, authorized, endorsed by, or in any way officially connected with the following brands or products listed.

 

TOP PICK: Bulk Nutrients Earth Protein and Soy Protein Isolate

Specified safe for pregnancy
Complete protein (soy or pea and rice blend)
No extra additives
Third-party testing
Added bonus – wide variety of flavours

 

Macro Mike Almond Protein and Peanut Proteins

Specified safe for pregnancy
Complete protein (nut and fava bean blend)
Few extra additives but none which aren’t pregnancy safe
No information on third-party testing on their website however, their response when asked: ‘we are banned-substance tested by an independent body, however we don’t currently do small batch testing on every single batch.’
Added bonus – wide variety of flavours

 

Happy Way Vegan Protein Blend

Specified safe for pregnancy
Complete protein (pea and rice blend)
Extra additives: contains maca powder which has limited information available regarding safety during pregnancy
Not third-party tested

 

Amazonia Raw Pregnancy Plus

Specified safe for pregnancy
Incomplete protein (pea protein only)
Extra additives: contains additional vitamin/minerals and wholefood powder blends
Not third-party tested

 

The bottom line

In general, plant-based protein powders can be incorporated safely into the diet during pregnancy. However, there are a few extra considerations and precautions that need to be taken.

We always recommend checking any supplements, including protein powders, with a healthcare professional such as your doctor or a dietitian before using them whilst pregnant.

If you want to optimise your diet during pregnancy, PNW clinic dietitian Georgia D’Andrea is an expert in all things plant-based fertility, pregnancy and post-natal. You can book an appointment today.

 

This blog post was written by PNW Clinic dietitian Georgia D’Andrea

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