Avoiding animal products doesn’t have to mean missing out on protein.
Whether you’re on the go or trying to refuel quickly after a workout, you can choose from a variety of plant-based protein powders — plain or flavored — to mix with water, non-dairy milk, smoothies, oatmeal or other foods.
Plant foods like rice, peas and sunflower seeds aren’t protein-packed the way meat and fish are, but food processors can remove most of the fat and carbs and isolate the protein found in these foods to make protein-rich powders.
Despite some claims, most plant proteins aren’t complete, meaning they don’t contain optimal levels of all the essential amino acids to support protein synthesis in your body. However, this isn’t a problem if you regularly eat a variety of plant proteins.
As you explore vegan protein powders, you should compare prices by weight, such as per ounce or per 100 grams. Protein powders from grains and legumes generally are about half the price of powders made from seeds.
Here are the 9 best vegan protein powders and their nutritional highlights.
1. Pea Protein
Pea protein powder isn’t made from sweet green peas but from their higher-protein cousins, yellow split peas.
A quarter-cup (28-gram) serving of unflavored pea protein powder packs about 21 grams of protein and 100 calories, depending on the brand. Like other legumes, it’s low in the essential amino acid methionine.
However, pea protein is especially rich in the essential branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine and valine, which help fuel working muscles and stimulate your body to make muscle protein.
In one 12-week study, 161 young men ate 25 grams or about 1 ounce of pea protein powder twice a day, including right after weight training. The weakest participants had a 20% increase in bicep muscle thickness, compared to only 8% in the placebo group.
Moreover, the muscle gains experienced with pea protein were similar to those of people consuming whey (milk) protein.
Animal and human studies also suggest that pea protein may promote feelings of fullness and lower blood pressure.
Pea protein powder is rich in BCAAs to support muscle building. Preliminary research suggests that it’s as effective as whey protein in supporting muscle gain. It may also help you feel full and lower your blood pressure.
2. Hemp Protein
Hemp protein comes from seeds of the cannabis plant but from a variety bred to contain only trace amounts of the euphoric compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This means it can’t make you high like marijuana.
A quarter-cup (28-gram) serving of unflavored hemp protein powder has around 12 grams of protein and 108 calories, depending on the brand. It’s also an excellent source of fiber, iron, zinc, magnesium and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant form of omega-3 fat.
As hemp is low in the essential amino acid lysine, it’s not a complete protein. However, if you routinely eat legumes or quinoa, you can fill that gap.
Test-tube research suggests that hemp seed protein may be a valuable source of blood-pressure-lowering compounds. However, its effects have not been tested in people.
Though hemp protein powder has more moderate levels of protein and is low in the amino acid lysine, it packs a lot of fiber, iron, zinc, magnesium and ALA omega-3 fat.
3. Pumpkin Seed Protein
In their whole form, pumpkin seeds are relatively high in protein and healthy fat. When made into powder, most of the fat is removed, which reduces calories.
A quarter-cup (28-gram) serving of unflavored pumpkin seed protein powder provides around 103 calories and 18 grams of protein, depending on the brand. As it’s low in the essential amino acids threonine and lysine, it’s not a complete protein.
Still, pumpkin seed protein is very nutritious, supplying high amounts of magnesium, zinc, iron and other minerals, as well as beneficial plant compounds.
Few studies have been done on the health benefits of pumpkin seed protein, but there’s evidence that it may have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
When rats with liver disease were given pumpkin seed protein as part of a standard diet, certain markers of liver health improved, compared to rats given casein (milk) protein.
What’s more, the rats eating pumpkin seed protein experienced a 22% decrease in “bad” LDL cholesterol and up to a 48% increase in antioxidant activity in their blood, compared to the casein group.
Though low in the essential amino acids threonine and lysine, pumpkin seed protein powder is very nutritious, supplying high amounts of several minerals. Its beneficial plant compounds may have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
4. Brown Rice Protein
Brown rice protein powder is easy to find and relatively inexpensive.
A quarter-cup (28-gram) serving of unflavored brown rice protein powder has about 107 calories and 22 grams of protein, depending on the brand. It’s low in the essential amino acid lysine but a good source of BCAAs to support muscle building.
In fact, a preliminary study suggests that brown rice protein powder may be as good as whey protein at supporting muscle growth when consumed after weight training.
In an 8-week study, young men who ate 48 grams or 1.6 ounces of rice protein powder immediately after weight training three days a week had a 12% increase in bicep muscle thickness, the same as for men consuming the same amount of whey protein powder.
One problem with rice products is the potential for contamination with the heavy metal arsenic. Choose a brand of rice protein powder that tests for arsenic levels.
Though not a complete protein, brown rice protein powder is rich in BCAAs and may be as effective as whey protein in supporting muscle growth as part of a weight training regimen. Choose a brand that tests for arsenic contamination.
5. Soy Protein
Soy protein powder is a complete protein, which is uncommon for plant protein. It’s also high in BCAAs to support muscle strength and growth.
A quarter-cup (28-gram) serving of soy protein isolate powder has about 95 calories and 22 grams of protein, depending on the brand. Additionally, it contains beneficial plant compounds, including some that may lower your cholesterol.
Soy protein has fallen out of favor in recent years, partly because most soy is genetically modified (GM) in the US. However, there are a few brands of non-GM soy protein powder you can buy.
Other reasons soy protein isn’t as popular include allergies to soy and concerns about potential negative health impacts, such as breast cancer risk.
Yet a recent review noted that soy protein isolate contains plant compounds that have anticancer activity, including against breast cancer.
This review also found that some past concerns about soy safety were based on animal study results that don’t necessarily apply to people.
That said, it’s wise to use a variety of plant protein powders, rather than relying on just one kind.
Soy protein powder is a complete protein source rich in BCAAs to support muscle building. It may also help lower cholesterol levels. Due to potential safety concerns, you can buy non-genetically modified soy protein and avoid using it every day.
6. Sunflower Seed Protein
Protein isolated from sunflower seeds is a relatively new vegan protein powder option.
A quarter-cup (28-gram) serving of sunflower seed protein powder has about 91 calories, 13 grams of protein, depending on the brand, and provides muscle-building BCAAs.
Like other seeds, it’s low in the essential amino acid lysine. However, it’s a good source of all other essential amino acids. To improve lysine levels, sunflower seed protein is sometimes combined with quinoa protein powder, which is a complete protein.
So far, there are no studies comparing the health effects of sunflower seed protein with other isolated plant protein sources in animals or people.
Sunflower seed protein supplies BCAAs to support muscle growth and repair. It’s low in the essential amino acid lysine and therefore sometimes combined with quinoa in protein powder supplements.
7. Sacha Inchi Protein
This protein comes from the star-shaped sacha inchi seed (sometimes called a nut), which is grown in Peru. Due to a relatively limited supply, it costs more than common proteins.
A quarter-cup (28-gram) serving of sacha inchi protein powder has around 120 calories and 17 grams of protein, depending on the brand. It’s a good source of all essential amino acids except lysine.
Despite this limitation, when a small group of people was given 30 grams or about 1 ounce of sacha inchi protein powder, it was as effective as the same amount of soy protein powder in supporting protein synthesis in the body.
Additionally, sacha inchi protein is an especially good source of the essential amino acid arginine, which your body uses to make nitric oxide.
Nitric oxide triggers your arteries to expand, improving blood flow and lowering blood pressure.
This unique vegan protein also supplies ALA omega-3 fat, which supports heart health.
Isolated from a Peruvian seed, sacha inchi protein powder is a good source of all essential amino acids except lysine. It also provides compounds that promote heart health, including arginine and ALA omega-3 fat.
8. Chia Protein
Chia seeds come from Salvia hispanica, a plant native to South America. They have become a popular dietary addition, for example as part of smoothies, porridges and baked goods, but can also be made into chia protein powder.
A quarter-cup (28-gram) serving of chia protein powder has around 50 calories and 10 grams of protein, depending on the brand. As with other seed-sourced proteins, it’s low in the essential amino acid lysine.
The powdered form of chia may enhance its digestibility. In a test-tube study, protein digestibility of the raw seed was only 29%, compared to 80% for chia powder. This means that your body can absorb more of its amino acids.
In addition to protein, chia powder contains 8 grams of fiber per serving, as well as high amounts of several vitamins and minerals, including biotin and chromium.
Chia protein is nutritious but not complete, as it’s low in the essential amino acid lysine. Though you can eat chia seeds whole, its protein may be more digestible when isolated in powder form.
9. Plant Protein Blends
Different powdered plant proteins are sometimes combined and sold as blends. These often have added flavorings and sweeteners.
One of the advantages of blending plant proteins is that it can provide optimal levels of all essential amino acids in a single product.
For example, pea protein may be combined with rice protein. The pea protein supplies lysine, in which rice protein is low while rice protein supplies methionine, in which pea protein is low.
Quinoa protein is commonly used in combination with other plant proteins, too. It’s one of the few complete plant proteins.
Other trends you’ll see in blended plant protein powders are the addition of enzymes, to help you digest the product, as well as the use of sprouted or fermented plant proteins.
Sprouting and fermentation may increase amounts of beneficial plant compounds, vitamins and minerals. It may also help break down antinutrients that can interfere with the absorption of amino acids, minerals and other nutrients.
Many vegan protein powders contain blends of different and typically complementary plant proteins to ensure you get adequate amounts of all essential amino acids. Sprouting or fermentation may enhance nutrition as well.
Source : HealthLine (By Marsha McCulloch, MS, RD)