Despite the fact that the myth of protein deficiency and Vegan diets has been debunked, plant based and Vegan athletes, like many other athletes, are always looking for good sources of plant based protein. As a long time Vegan myself, this topic is near and dear to my heart. Before I get into my top picks for the best Vegan protein powders, let’s dispel the myth of protein combining with plant sources of protein.
The myth of protein combining
Once upon a time, the myth of protein combining led many a vegan to panic about the precise combination of beans, grains, vegetables, and other protein sources. Every meal seemed to require you to perform complex calculations of essential amino acids. And, of course, this quickly led to every vegan’s favorite dinner part question: ‘but… where do you get your protein?’ Thankfully, we now know that as long as you consume a variety of plant-based foods throughout the day, your body is quite capable of extracting the amino acids, temporarily storing them in the liver, and using these as needed to make ‘complete’ protein throughout the day. As a general rule, beans and vegetables tend to lack an amino acid called methionine, while grains, nuts, seeds, and corn are low in lysine. Corn is also low in tryptophan (a conditionally essential amino acid that can be made from niacin, vitamin B3), while grains are also low in threonine. To ensure a good intake of all the essential amino acids, then, it’s best to eat a variety of beans and other legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, and vegetables.
Limited Amino Acid
Beans / legumes / vegetables
Grains, nuts, seeds
For most people who get regular exercise and have a reasonable intake of calories, getting enough protein isn’t all that challenging. If you eat a plant based diet with a very low calorie intake, you may struggle to get the amino acids you need for good health. So, if you’re on a weight-loss diet or are restricting calories for some other reason, be sure to include plenty of protein-rich foods. For everyone else, your protein intake is most likely perfectly adequate if you eat a balanced diet.
Complete Plant Proteins
Some plant foods that get a gold star for protein content, providing essential amino acids (EAAs) in amounts similar to those in animal flesh. These are ‘complete’ proteins and are often the main ingredient in some of the best vegan protein powders. Including a good amount of these types of protein in your diet can help make sure you’re getting the amino acids you need in a more efficient manner, which helps keep calorie count low and protein intake high. As noted above, this seems to be a healthy way to eat for most people. Examples of protein-rich plant foods include:
For a detailed breakdown of the amino acid profiles of various plant foods, and excellent evidence-based nutrition advice, check out VeganHealth.com. I’ll make specific recommendations for the best vegan protein powders in a moment, but first, let’s address some other common concerns about plant proteins.
Are there any concerns about plant proteins?
The consumption of meat and animal products has long been tied up with ideas of masculinity and family pecking order. In contrast, plant proteins are often seen as less masculine and sometimes even accused of having a ‘feminizing’ effect on men. Overlooking the inherent misogyny and homophobia of many of these accusations, is there any truth to the idea that plant proteins can alter hormone balance in an undesirable way? Soy is the usual suspect when these claims are made, but a 2018 study found that soy protein supplementation had no androgenic or estrogenic effects on college-aged men when combined with resistance exercise training. What this study did note, however, is that soy protein concentrate seemed to increase type I muscle fiber growth, while whey protein concentrate increased type II muscle fibers. Humans have two general types of skeletal muscle fibers: slow-twitch (type I) and fast-twitch (type II). Enhancing slow-twitch muscles can help improve endurance, making soy seem like a good bet for distance runners and ultra-marathoners. This study, and others, suggest that whey protein concentrate is the better option for sprinters and weightlifters. For anyone looking to improve type II muscle fiber while maintaining a plant-based diet, adding creatine powder to your protein shake seems to enhance type II muscle strength when combined with resistance training. Creatine may even have added benefits for memory! Creatine is a compound produced from the amino acids glycine and arginine, and vegans tend to have lower stores of creatine compared to omnivores. This compound is important for recycling the body’s main energy molecule, adenosine triphosphate. It makes sense, then, that intense muscle activity requires a lot of creatine. If you decide to include creatine as part of your supplement regimen, be aware that creatine loves water, meaning that it can cause bloating and water weight-gain. If you have high blood pressure, talk to your health care practitioner before taking creatine. And, because creatine is processed by the kidneys and liver, anyone with conditions affecting these organs should also talk to their health care practitioner before using creatine or a protein powder that contains the compound. Studies also show that vitamin D is important for the growth of fast-twitch muscles. And, as vitamin D is one of the nutrients to watch out for on a plant-based diet, I’d strongly recommend vegan athletes take a vegan-friendly vitamin D supplement year-round.
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One of the main drawbacks of vegan protein powders is that isolated, concentrated plant proteins often taste rather gritty and even a bit earthy. This means that manufacturers tend to add in at least a few grams of carbohydrate to make the powder taste better. Purists might baulk at the added sugars, but having that extra dose of rapidly absorbed carbs can be a good thing as you’ll need to restock your muscle glycogen stores after a workout. One other potential problem with plant protein powders is phytates, which block mineral absorption.1 Heat, fermentation, and sprouting destroy phytates, which means that good low-phytate protein sources include tempeh and cooked beans.1 Raw protein powders, especially those including legumes, may be high in phytates, and this could exacerbate the risk for low iron and iodine in vegans. To minimize the risk of blocking absorption, take your protein supplement a few hours before or after taking any multivitamin and mineral supplements. Or, where possible, opt for a sprouted legume protein powder.
#1. VegiDay from Natural Factors – My top pick for plant protein!
Per serving: Protein – 20 g Carbs – 6 g Fibre – 1 g Sugars – 2 g Providing 20 g of easily digested plant protein in every serving, VegiDay protein powder (View on Amazon) is a fantastic choice for anyone whose veganism extends to environmental concerns as well as diet, health, and animal ethics. That’s because most of the ingredients in this product are grown at the certified organic, non-GMO, Factor Farms in Canada. VegiDay features protein from peas, sprouted brown rice, pumpkin, quinoa, chia, spirulina and chlorella, with a generous amount of branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). VegiDay is available unflavored and in natural organic flavors Decadent Chocolate and Creamy Vanilla. It is gluten-free, soy-free, and non-GMO, contains no artificial colors, or additives, and is naturally sweetened with organic inulin (a prebiotic) and organic stevia extract. To be frank, there’s not much difference in terms of quality between VegiDay and the other products in this list of the best vegan protein powders. So, why is VegiDay my top pick? Well, that’s because with so many great quality vegan protein powders around, I’ve raised the bar. These days I expect companies to do more than just make a great product, and Natural Factors have demonstrated time again their commitment to the environment, community, and to health education, so they get my vote. [Disclaimer: I freelance as a copywriter for Natural Factors and have worked on the VegiDay line. Happily, this means I know the product pretty well! This recommendation is genuine, and I have not been paid by Natural Factors for this endorsement.]
#2. Nuzest Clean Lean Protein – Premium Pea Protein Powder
Per serving: Protein – 19-21 g Carbs – 2 g Fibre – 1 g Sugars – 0 g Nuzest Clean Lean Protein (View on Amazon) is a plant-based, gluten-free, non-GMO protein powder with a short list of ingredients: Pea protein isolate, Cocoa Powder, Natural Vanilla Flavor, Cocoa Extract, and Fruit Protein isolate. Each 25 g serving provides 19-21 g of protein, with less than half a gram of fat, and only 1 g of carbs (with no added sugar), depending on the flavor. This simple vegan protein powder provides all of the EAAs to support muscle growth and strength, as well as immune function and all the other important things we need protein for every day. It’s suitable for vegans and anyone on a paleo diet and is a great option for anyone with concerns about phytic acid content or common allergens. That’s because this protein powder is free from soy, gluten, dairy, and artificial sweeteners, and Nuzest use a patented water-based isolation process to remove lectins and phytic acid from the peas while isolating the protein. The peas are grown in Northern France on certified non-GMO farms. Nuzest Clean Lean Protein mixes well, isn’t gritty or chalky, and is sweetened with a fruit protein isolate derived from the West African Katemfe fruit. It is available unflavored (this is just pea protein isolate), and in Smooth Vanilla, Rich Chocolate, Wild Strawberry and Real Coffee flavors, making it a bit more interesting than most generic protein powder flavors.
#3. Purely Inspired Organic Vegan Protein Powder
Per serving: Protein – 20 g Carbs – 9 g Fibre – 7 g Sugars – 2 g On the basis of taste alone, Purely Inspired Organic Vegan Protein Powder (View on Amazon) is my favorite vegan protein powder. This entirely plant-based, non-GMO, gluten-free and 100% organic protein powder provides 20 grams of protein, 7 grams of fiber, and only 2 grams of sugar per serving. The vanilla flavor is very subtle and not very sweet, meaning that it mixes really well in a smoothie without overpowering the taste. Purely Inspired Organic Vegan Protein Powder includes pea protein and brown rice, as well as probiotics, which is a nice bonus. This powder has no additives or artificial sweeteners, flavors or colors, and each container provides around 19 servings (two scoops per serving).
#4. Vega Greens and Protein
Per serving: Protein – 20 g Carbs – 6 g Fibre – 1 g Sugars – 2 g Vegan Greens and Protein (View on Amazon) is another great vegan protein powder option, from a trusted, well-known brand connected to plant-based ultra-triathlete Brendan Brazier. This protein powder provides 20 g of protein in every serving, alongside a green food blend of spinach powder, organic kale powder, and broccoli for extra vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Vega Greens and Protein is available in berry, vanilla, and chocolate flavor, with protein courtesy of pea protein, brown rice protein, and hemp protein. Use it when baking to reduce flour content and boost protein. Personally, I find the Vega products to be a little gritty, hard to mix, and not to my taste, but they have a lot going for them, are very popular and are widely available, and many health food stores and conventions offers samples, so you can easily try before you buy.
#5. Orgain Organic Plant-Based Protein Powder
Per serving: Protein – 21 g Carbs – 15 g Fibre – 7 g Sugars – 0 g (but 5 g of erythritol) Orgain Organic Plant-Based Protein Powder (View on Amazon) includes a mix of non-GMO, organic pea and brown rice protein, and chia seeds, providing 21 grams of protein in each serving. It is available in Chocolate Peanut Butter, Vanilla Bean, and Cookies & Cream flavors, and contains around 7 g of fiber, 15 g of total carbohydrates, and 1 g of sugar per serving (depending on the flavor). Amazon.com rank this product at number one for plant protein powders. It has over 4,500 5-star reviews… but it also has a much longer ingredient list than the cleaner options such as Nuzest. It’s also worth noting that Orgain’s protein contains a range of FODMAPs (short-chain carbohydrates) that could cause digestive discomfort. And, the ingredients include (rather unnecessarily, if you ask me) salt, erythritol (5 grams in some flavors), and various gums. Personally, I’d opt for VegiDay, Nuzest, Purely Inspired, or Vega over Orgain, but Orgain may be a good option if you’re fine with FODMAPs and just looking for
#6. Special Mention – Garden of Life Raw Organic Fit
Per serving: Protein – 28 g Carbs – 12 g Fibre – 9 g Sugars – <1 g Before wrapping up this post on the best vegan protein powders, I also want to give a special mention to Garden of Life Raw Organic Fit (View on Amazon). This supplement combines a whopping 28 g of plant protein with thermogenic green coffee bean extract, chromium, and cinnamon. As such, it’s a solid option if you’re looking for a protein supplement to support weight loss and fat-burning while supporting blood glucose regulation and appetite control. This protein powder is available in chocolate, coffee, original, and vanilla flavor and has over 1,000 5-star reviews. It is Certified USDA Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified, Certified Vegan, NSF Certified Gluten Free, Informed Choice Certified (Trusted by Sport), Kosher Certified, dairy-free, and soy-free. The protein comes courtesy of organic peas and sprouted organic grains, seeds, and legumes (meaning a lower phytate content), and it even contains a dash of Ashwagandha, an adaptogenic herb that can help support stress response and energy. Garden of Life Raw Organic Fit is sometimes advertised as a meal-replacement powder, but this product is not a good source of vitamins and minerals. Mix it with a green food, multivitamin and mineral powder to make sure you’re getting the nutrients you need to support good health, including vitamins B12 and D.
Bonus: Vegan creatine supplements
And finally, I’ll leave you with a recommendation for a vegan creatine supplement that you might want to add in with your protein powder to give your workout an extra boost. John wrote recently about the difficulty of building bodybuilder type muscle as a Vegan, so maybe creatine can offer an extra boost for some. BulkSupplements Pure Micronized Creatine Monohydrate Powder (View on Amazon) is made from 99.99% pure micronized creatine monohydrate, is lab tested for purity, and is non-GMO and vegan-friendly. It has the consistency of powdered sugar, making it super easy to mix with water or your regular protein shake. And, happily, it’s unflavored, so you don’t have to worry about it clashing with your flavored protein powder. BulkSupplements offer this creatine powder in a no-frills bag, which dramatically cuts down on packaging and plastic use. This powder is also much cheaper than other creatine supplements that come in bulky plastic tubs. Get your own scoop, though. No-frills means that there isn’t one included in the package!
Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT
Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT, is a health and wellness writer for Gene Food specializing in plant-based nutrition. Read her full bio here.
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