Best Plant Based Protein Powders (and how to know which one is right for you)

By March 22, 2016Nutrition
plant based protein powders

Looking for a plant-based vegan protein powder?  Here is where you can not only find out which vegan protein powders are the best quality and value, but which one is the best for you.

 

Protein 101

Let’s start off with What is a protein? A protein is simply an arrangement of amino acids.  There are 20 amino acids that our bodies need.  9 of these are considered “essential” because our bodies can’t make them.  The rest of the amino acids are considered “non essential.”  This doesn’t mean our bodies don’t need them.  It means that our bodies can make them out of the essential amino acids we get through food.  If you aren’t getting enough essential amino acids, your body won’t be able to make enough non essential aminos.

We don’t just need all the amino acids, but we need amino acids in the right balance.  For example, the Standard American Diet consist of a lot of muscle meat.  Yes, muscle meat is high in protein and contains all of the essential amino acids.  But it contains a huge amount of methionine and a relatively low amount of glycine (which is a non essential amino acid, but our bodies do rely on getting some of it from food).    This imbalanced methionine to glycine ratio is thought to cause inflammation and heart disease.   Glycine is found in the organ meats of animals.  In the past, people ate muscle meat and organ meat, so they got their amino acids in a proper balance.  Today, they toss the organs and just eat the muscles – one more reason meat is associated with so many health risks.1, 2, 3

I’m not saying that you should go eat organ meat.  Heck no!  I mention it because it is one of the most-studied examples of amino acid balance.

*Creepy fact: Amino acid balance is highly studied by the meat and animal industry.  They adjust the amino acid balance in animal feed so they can make them grow faster or product more milk!4,5

How does this apply to which vegan protein powder you choose?  Well, if you are eating lots of soy foods all day, you probably don’t want to add a soy protein powder to your diet.  If you already eat hemp butter every day, then don’t choose a hemp protein powder.

The best vegan protein powders are usually the ones which combine several plant sources of protein to give you a good balance of amino acids.  They will usually list how much of each amino acid they contain instead of just the total amount of protein.

 

How to Assess the Quality of a Vegan Protein Powder

The last I checked, there were over 2,000 results for “vegan protein powder” on Amazon alone!  That is a lot of different options and they are definitely not all the same.  To determine whether a vegan protein is a good quality, there are 5 main factors to consider:

  1. Protein powder type
  2. Source of protein
  3. Macronutrient profile
  4. Fillers and additives
  5. Reputation

 

1. Protein Powder Type

Before you buy a vegan protein powder, look at what type it is.  For example, two plant-based protein powders can both be made out of soy – but one is a concentrate and the other is a hydrolysate.  These are two very different things!  Here is an overview of the 4 main types of vegan protein powder:

  • Protein Concentrates: These are the most common types of protein powders you will find for sale. They made with a process that involves dry heat and acid extraction. The result is a concentrate of protein.  Protein concentrates are usually about 60% to 80% protein by weight.  They are cheap to make and thus cheaper to buy.
  • Protein Isolates: Isolates are more processed than concentrates. They have had more of the non-protein parts removed so they contain around 90% to 98% protein by weight.  Isolates take longer to enter into the digestive system, so they are good for reducing hunger.
  • Protein Hydrolysates: These protein powders are made by soaking the proteins in water so the individual amino acids get broken down into groups called peptides. Basically, hydrolysis is pre-digestion.  Since protein hydrolysates are pre-digested, they are the easiest and fastest for the body to absorb so are often chosen by bodybuilders to help repair muscles after a workout.
  • Raw Vegan Protein Powders: These protein powders are usually made up of dried, ground-up sprouts (such as flax sprouts, bean sprouts, etc.). The idea behind raw protein powders is that heat destroys nutrients in the protein source, and also denatures the protein (changes its form) so it is harder to digest by the body.

 

2. Source of Protein

There are all sorts of plants which contain protein, and vegan protein powders can be made out of any number of them.  However, these below are the most common that you will find, as well as the pros/cons of each protein type.

Soy Protein Powders:
Soy is a complete protein, is low fat and low calorie, and rich in isoflavones. It is also commonly available and relatively cheap to buy.  Just be warned that most soy is GMO so you’ll want to look for an organic soy protein powder

Hemp Protein Powders:
Hemp is also a complete protein and is highly digestible.  It has a higher fat content, so it isn’t the best choice if your goal is to bulk up after a workout.  Note that the fats are healthy Omega 3s, so it is a good choice of protein powder for supplementing between meals.  Hemp protein powder tends to be a pricier option.

Pea Protein Powders:
Pea protein powders are surprisingly one of the best options for vegans.  Pea protein is highly digestible, low fat, rich in key amino acids for muscle growth, and is a fairly cheap option.  Pea protein is not a complete protein though, so it should be formulated with another protein.

Brown Rice Protein Powders:
Protein Rice also isn’t a complete protein so it needs to be formulated with another protein.  However, it is digested fairly well, gluten free, full of B vitamins, high fiber, and one of the cheaper options for vegan protein powder.  

Mixed Vegan Protein Powders:
You’ll find many vegan proteins powders which are made up of mixes of sprouts, beans, millet, quinoa, buckwheat, and other proteins.  These are generally made to have a good amino acid balance and can be formulated so they are lower or higher in fat and calories.  The main downside is that mixed vegan protein powders tend to be pricy.

 

3. Macronutrient Profile

Macronutrient profile refers to the amount of Protein, Fat, and Carbs in the protein powder.

If you are looking to bulk up after a workout, then you’d want a protein powder with more protein and less fat and carbs.  If you are using protein powder to supplement between meals, you’d want a nice balance of each macronutrient.  If you are looking to lose weight, then you’ll want a protein powder which is high protein, low fat, has few calories, and has more fiber.

 

4. Fillers and Additives

When choosing a vegan protein powder, ignore the pretty packaging.  You’ll want to turn it around and read the ingredients.  Avoid any which have weird chemical ingredients or sugars.  Also try to avoid any fillers.  It can be harder to avoid some of the fillers though because they are added to make the protein more mixable and less chalky.

In general, I’d stay away from any vegan protein powder which has more than 7 ingredients.  However, sometimes those extra ingredients are superfoods like cacao or cranberry, which can greatly improve nutrient value and taste.

 

5. Brand Reputation

Finally, consider the reputation of the protein powder brand.  There are new plant based protein powders coming out all the time, and it is hard to keep up with them all.  The bad brands of protein powder tend to disappear pretty quickly.  So, try to choose brands which have been around for a long time or newer brands which have good customer reviews.

 

Choosing the Best Vegan Protein Powder for Your Needs

If you are a bodybuilder who is actively gaining muscle, you are obviously going to need a very different protein powder than someone who is trying to compensate for an incomplete diet.  So, when choosing your vegan protein powder, you need to consider why you need it.

There are 3 main reasons to take a vegan protein powder:

  1. Muscle Gain
  2. Supplement diet
  3. Weight loss

 

Vegan Protein Powders for Muscle Gain

If your goal is to gain muscle, then you’ll need a protein powder which have a higher protein amounts and less fat/calories.  Soy, rice and pea proteins are good choices.  Generally hemp isn’t a good choice because of its lower protein amount by weight.

Top Picks

Vega Sport plant protein

Vega Sport

  • Recommended by vegan bodybuilders, including Robert Cheeke and Ed Bauer
  • 26g protein
  • 131 calories, 0.2g fat, 0.5g fiber
  • Made from pea protein, SaviSeed protein, sprouted brown rice protein, and alfalfa protein
  • Plus branched chain amino acid complex, L-glutamine, and digestive enzyme blend
  • From $1.40 per ounce – Buy Here

plant fusion vegan protein powder

Plant Fusion

  • 21g protein
  • 120 calories, 2g fat
  • Made from pea protein isolate, artichoke protein, sprouted amaranth, and sprouted quinoa
  • Plus enzyme blend
  • From $0.98 per ounce – Buy Here

jarrow optimal plant proteinsJarrow Optimal Plant Proteins

  • 21g protein
  • 130 calories, 2g fat, 5g fiber, 35% RDA iron
  • Made from pea protein isolate, rice protein, pea fiber, organic hemp protein, white chia seed, xylitol, chlorella, vanilla bean flavor, bacterial metabolites, Lo Han Guo, and stevia extract
  • From $0.71 per ounce – Buy Here

 

Vegan Protein Powders for Daily Supplementing

If you are worried that you aren’t getting enough protein from food, but aren’t actively building muscle or an athlete, then you will want to look for raw proteins and protein concentrates.  You won’t need as much protein (about 10-17 grams per serving is a good amount to aim for).  You’ll also want to look for protein powders which have other nutrients, like Omega 3, vitamin D, and vitamin K.  Use these vegan protein powders in smoothies for breakfast or as a between-meal power-boosting snack.

Top Picks

garden of life raw organic protein powderGarden of Life RAW Organic Protein

  • 17g protein
  • 90 calories, 6g fiber, 100% RDA for Vitamin D
  • Made from raw sprout blend plus raw probiotic blend
  • From $1.13 per ounce – Buy Here

 

vega one plant based protein powder

Vega One

  • 20g protein
  • 160 calories, 6g fat, 6g fiber
  • Plus calcium, iron, vitamin D, vitamin D, vitamin K, and more
  • Made from pea protein, whole flaxseed, acacia gum, hemp protein, saviseed protein, maca, inulin fiber, broccoli, spirulina, kale, marine algae calcium, fruit and vegetable blend, chlorella, papaya extract, probiotics, antioxidant fruit blend
  • From $1.53 per ounce – Buy Here

Nutiva Hemp proteinnutiva hemp protein powder

  • 15g protein
  • 90 calories, 3g fat, 3g fiber
  • 40% RDA for iron, 25% zinc, 60% magnesium
  • From $0.89 per ounce – Buy Here

 

Sunwarrior Warrior BlendSunwarrior Warrior Blend

  • 18g protein
  • 100 calories, 1.5g fat, 1g fiber
  • Raw and fermented
  • Made from organic pea protein, organic hemp protein, and organic goji berry
  • From $1.38 per ounce – Buy Here

 

Vegan Protein Powders for Weight Loss

Vegan protein powders can help you lose weight because protein slows down digestion, making you feel full.  Fiber does the same, so you’ll want to choose one which has a lot of protein and fiber.

Top Picks

Garden of Life RAW FitGarden of Life RAW Fit

  • 28g protein
  • 170 calories, 1g fat, 4g fiber
  • 30% RDA iron, 90% magnesium, + Vitamins D, E, K
  • Low glycemic; supports metabolism and appetite control
  • Made from sprouted blend (rice, flax, chlorella, amaranth, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, garbanzo beans, lentils, adzuki beans, sunflower seed, pumpkin seed, chia seed, sesame seed, vanilla flavor
  • From $1.60 per ounce – Buy Here

bobs red mill chai protein boosterBob’s Red Mill Chai Protein Powder Nutritional Booster

  • 20g protein
  • 180 calories, 3g fat, 12g fiber
  • Made from pea protein, chicory root fiber, chia seed, psyllium fiber, chai flavor, monk fruit extract, probiotic
  • From $1.87 per ounce – Buy Here

 

 


 

image credit: “The Urban Warrior Levitator Smoothie” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by  WILLPOWER STUDIOS 

 

 

 

 

About Diane Vukovic

Diane Vukovic is a vegan mom, health nut, and kitchen diva. When she's not deducing veggie nutritional facts, she's probably dancing crazily with her daughter or traveling somewhere in Europe.

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