Your Guide to Picking the Best Vegan Protein Powder, and 10 We Tested
Whether you’re looking for a portable post-workout recovery drink, or just want to add a bit more protein to your daily meal plan, vegan and plant-based protein powders can help get the job done with minimal effort. But even in the plant-based world, the number of options can be overwhelming. Finding one that is right for you depends on your taste, budget, and preference for ingredients. We’ve got the low-down on vegan protein powders, so you can spend less time in the store and more time sweating.
When Do I Need a Plant-Based Protein Powder?
Spoiler Alert: You don’t! Incorporating vegan protein powder into your diet is more of a want than a need situation. And while plant-based protein powders aren’t necessary for everyone, they can be helpful in certain situations. For example, plant-based athletes who are training for an event like a marathon or triathlon might find it difficult to get enough protein from food alone.
How Active Are You? Anyone training hard for an event, or to build lean muscle and get stronger may be benefited by using a protein powder, especially as a recovery drink. To help with muscle building and repair (one of the main roles protein plays in the body), athletes need about 0.5 to 1.0 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. For a 150-pound athlete, that’s anywhere from 75 to 150 grams of protein per day, which can be difficult to get from plant-based foods alone. Even meat-eating athletes who want to add more protein to their diet may benefit from choosing to supplement with a vegan protein powder when it comes to repairing, maintaining, and building muscle.
The Main Types of Plant-Based Protein Powders
The most widely available protein powders are made from either whey or casein, both of which come from dairy. But luckily for plant-based eaters, there are now many other vegan options available to choose from.
Soy Protein Powder
It probably comes as no surprise that soy is the base for many plant-based protein powders. Made from soy protein isolates, soy protein powder has much of the fat and carbs removed, leaving about 90–95% protein. Although the protein count varies between brands, most soy protein powders have about 20 grams per serving. Soy is also a complete protein, meaning that it contains all the essential amino acids that the body cannot make but needs when it comes to protecting your muscle tissue. This is a rarity among plant-based proteins, and many athletes may choose to use soy protein powder when training for this reason alone.
Pea Protein Powder
A very popular protein in the plant-based space comes from the yellow split pea, a legume that is high in all but one of the essential amino acids. Many plant-based athletes opt for pea protein powders because they are also particularly high in what’s called branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which promotes muscle protein synthesis (the act of protein repairing muscle damage caused by intense exercise) and minimizes muscle degradation. Pea protein powder usually contains about 15 grams of protein per serving, and research suggests it delivers similar muscle benefits to whey protein.
Brown Rice Protein Powder
For those with soy allergies or people who experience stomach issues when eating pea protein, brown rice is another type of plant-based protein powder. With about 4-6 grams of protein per scoop, it’s not as high in protein as other plant-based options. Brown rice protein isn’t particularly high in BCAAs either, but its main benefit is that it’s easy on the stomach, making it a more sensitive solution for athletes with tummy troubles (something you definitely don’t want to deal with in the middle of a run or swim!).
Mixed Protein Powders
Many vegan protein powders are a mixture of different plant-based proteins, such as brown rice, pea, hemp, chia seeds, flax seeds, and quinoa. Combining varieties of protein creates a powder that has all the essential amino acids and plenty of protein to boot.
What to Look for on the Label
You know the varieties of plant-based protein powder, but how do you pick among the many brands on the shelves? Here are a few things to look for on the label, regardless of what type of plant-based protein powder you go with.
Check the Ingredients
Don’t assume that just because you’re buying plant-based protein powder, every other ingredient is in its purest form. Before you buy it turn the bottle over and look at the ingredients listed. Many protein powders have additives, including artificial sweeteners, natural zero-calorie sweeteners, or other flavorings. There’s nothing “wrong” with these ingredients, but they can often taste funky and may even cause gas and bloating. Opt for unsweetened powder and sweeten them up yourself. For example, use unsweetened protein powder in pancake mixes, baked goods, or smoothies.
Read the Nutrition Label
This may sound obvious but check out the label for the protein facts. Yes, they all contain protein but not all protein powders are made the same way (particularly in the case of a mixed protein powder versus a single form like pea or soy), so protein stats will differ between brands. Some also have things like those BCAAs, omega-3s, and probiotics added to the mix. Determine whether or not these are beneficial to your training and choose accordingly.
Make Sure It’s Third Party Tested
Since protein powders aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), they should be tested by a third party. The most reputable is the NSF International (National Sanitation Foundation) Certified for Sport seal, which means the product contains only what’s found on the label, it has been tested for contaminants, and it has been made at a facility that is frequently tested for safety and quality.