Protein is the hardest macronutrient to come by on a vegan diet. For this reason, many vegans choose to supplement with a vegan protein powder made from plant-based protein sources such as soy, hemp, brown rice, and split peas. But did you know there’s a better, and completely vegan-approved, way to get more than enough protein in your diet? We’ll let you know how in this article, but first, let’s gain a better understanding of protein, its role in the body, and how the top vegan protein powders measure up.
The Power of Protein
Protein isn’t a nutrient to skimp on. Here’s just some of the awesome things protein does in the body:
- It makes up our muscles, tissues, and bones
- It supports the immune system and acts as antibodies
- It synthesizes antioxidants, enzymes, and neurotransmitters
- It builds and repairs organs, muscles, and tissues
- It’s responsible for nearly all chemical reactions
Protein is made up of a string of 20 different amino acids that link together in varying combinations to determine its specific function. When we eat dietary protein, be it from plant or animal products, the body immediately gets to work breaking it down into single amino acids. Protein is not able to be used by the body until its amino acids have broken free (this comes into play later, so it’s a key point to remember!).
The body is more hungry for some of these amino acids than others. You see, 11 are nonessential amino acids that the body can make itself. But the other 9 are essential amino acids that the body can only get from the food you eat or the supplements you take.
The quality of the protein really depends on these essential amino acids. If a protein does not have all or enough of the essential amino acids, then it isn’t a complete protein and can’t build body tissue or lend a hand to your immune system or recovery.
This is where plant-based protein gets a bad reputation.
Animal-based proteins such as meat, eggs, and whey protein have all the essential amino acids in just the right proportions to stimulate muscle growth and repair, provide energy, optimize the immune system, and support brain function and cell signaling. Plant-based proteins, on the other hand, even when they have all 9 essential amino acids, are typically low in a few, like methionine, lysine, and leucine.
Researchers compared the protein profile of commercially available plant-based protein isolates and compared them to animal-based proteins and human skeletal muscle protein. Check out the bar graph below for a visual comparison of the findings (1).
Using whey protein as the gold standard for high-quality protein, we can see that, of the plant proteins, wheat, soy, brown rice, pea, and potato have comparable protein percentages.
This doesn’t, however, account for the quality of that protein. What’s the composition of essential amino acids? Are the proteins able to be easily digested and available for use in the body?
Digging deeper, let’s look at the essential amino acid contents of these proteins in the bar graph below.
Wheat is knocked out of the running, as it’s low in essential amino acids and doesn’t meet the WHO/FAO/UNU amino acid requirements, but let’s take a look at soy, brown rice, pea, and potato, which are the most popular protein sources for vegan protein powders.
The dashed line represents WHO/FAO/UNU amino acid requirements. According to these requirements:
- Soy protein is lacking in isoleucine, valine, and methionine
- Brown rice protein is lacking in isoleucine, valine, and lysine
- Pea protein is lacking in isoleucine, valine, and methionine
- Potato protein meets essential amino acid requirements
There’s also digestibility and bioavailability to consider. Brown rice and pea protein have poor digestibility, and plant proteins in general score about 70% to 90% on digestibility value, except for soy and potato which come in above 90%.
Not much research has been conducted on potato protein isolate and human nutrition. One study showed, due to its high concentration of leucine, potato protein was able to stimulate muscle protein synthesis in young females when taken at twice the protein recommendations and alongside resistance exercise. Researchers acknowledged that while potato protein has the potential to do what no other plant-based protein can do and possibly match the muscle-building capacity of whey protein, that potential still needs to be tested (2).
There’s a Third (and Better) Option
Let’s take plant proteins and animal proteins out of the equation for a moment. Why not supplement with essential amino acids already freed from their protein chains?
Protein powders made from soy, potato, whey, or any other dietary source have to be broken down into amino acids anyway...a step that’s unnecessary unless you are intentionally trying to slow digestion.
Taking an essential amino acid powder cuts that step out, so that single and free amino acids can get straight to work, providing fast-acting energy, optimizing recovery, and activating muscle-building. Essential amino acids also provide a low-calorie and carb-free alternative to other vegan protein supplements, which can fill you up to the point of adversely affecting your intake of other important nutrients.
And here’s something that other vegan protein powders (and whey!) can’t do! Essential amino acid powders can be formulated for targeted health needs, like boosting leucine content for greater muscle gains or adding citrulline, a precursor of arginine, to strengthen heart health.
And did we mention that essential amino acid protein powders can be vegan, non-GMO, and gluten free? Yes, to all of the above!
The Best Vegan Protein Powders
Vegan protein powder is not cheap, so we want to make sure you get the most for your body out of your buck. Without further ado, here’s our list of the top vegan protein powders, all of them dairy free and most of which you can buy from Amazon!
Amino Co Perform
Based on 40 years of research and developed by the top minds in protein nutrition, The Amino Company specializes in...you guessed it...amino acids. They are dedicated to developing life-changing products for everyone—including vegans!
Perform is their Athletic Performance blend. With a complete amino acid profile in the perfect composition, plus citrulline and creatine, Perform:
- Improves cognitive function and concentration
- Increases strength and stamina during exercise
- Boosts muscle protein synthesis
- Decreases recovery time by quickly building muscle
It’s vegan, soy free, non-GMO, gluten free, halal, and keto friendly, and contains no artificial sweeteners or preservatives.
Amino Co Life
Also vegan-approved, Amino Co Life helps prevent the natural decline of muscle and heart function that begins around age 40. This protein blend is proven to boost physical function and muscle strength and improve cholesterol levels.
It is more than 3 times more powerful at stimulating muscle growth and recovery than any protein source, and supports heart health by optimizing blood flow.
It is also vegan, non-GMO, and soy free with no added sugar or artificial flavoring!
You can learn more and shop Life here.
Vega Plant Protein Powders
While we wouldn’t recommend Vega’s popular Sports Nutrition line of powders, such as Vega Sport® Premium Protein which is made with pea protein and doesn’t contain the ideal essential amino acid composition for muscle building, their nutrition powders work well as overall meal replacement shakes.
Vega One® Organic All-in-One Protein Shake delivers 20 grams of protein from peas, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seed protein. This is a well-rounded organic protein powder with omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics, iron, vitamin A, and vitamin K among other vitamins and minerals.
You can shop their Organic All-in-One Shake here.
Garden of Life Plant Protein Powders
Garden of Life plant protein powders are flavored with organic stevia extract and boast a complete amino acid composition from a mix of plant sources: organic pea seed, organic flaxseed, organic cranberry seed, organic chia seed, and organic pumpkin seed. Unfortunately, such a mix of proteins is not as easily digestible as protein from whey protein powder or an Amino Co essential amino acid powder.
Their Organic Meal Plant-Based Nutritional Shake may be a better option if you are looking for nutritional benefits, such as probiotics, beyond protein. They throw in high-protein grains like buckwheat, and some legumes and alfalfa juice for an extra shot of dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals. It also contains 8 grams of fiber in one serving for healthy digestion.
You can shop their line of protein products (including their raw organic protein blends) here.
Aloha Vanilla Protein Powders
This vegan-certified vanilla-flavor protein powder is free of soy and stevia, utilizing monk fruit as a sweetening agent. The protein content comes from a blend of pea, hemp seed, pumpkin, and brown rice. Two scoops only provide 18 grams of protein, but Aloha throws in some medium-chain triglycerides for some quick-acting energy from healthy fats.
You can shop Aloha Vanilla Protein Powder here.
Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard
This organic, plant-based protein powder delivers 24 grams of protein per serving from brown rice and peas, as well as grain-based proteins like quinoa, amaranth, and chia seeds. It also contains vitamin C and vitamin B12, and is gluten, dairy, and soy free. As with other plant-based protein powders, the digestibility and bioavailability aren’t as terrific as animal-based protein powders and essential amino acid supplements, but it’s still a good way to boost your overall protein intake.
You can shop this organic plant powder here (we recommend against the unflavored).
Sunwarrior Warrior Blend Organic
This pea protein powder is bolstered by hemp protein, goji berries, and MCTs for clean and quick-burning fuel. With16 grams of protein in 1 scoop, Sunwarrior is transparent about its amino acid profile, listing the milligrams on the nutrition label. When comparing brands, remember to factor in digestibility and bioavailability!
You can show Warrior Blend Organic here.
PlantFusion Complete Protein
PlantFusion claims to sustain energy and build muscle with 24 grams of pea protein plus artichokes, algae, and organic superfoods. They infuse the blend with amino acids, including the branched-chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine. However, all the essential amino acids need to be present in the right ratios to boost muscle growth and muscle recovery. Without knowing the exact composition of amino acids in this formula, we don’t know how complete this protein powder is, but we do know it’s low in carbohydrates at 2 grams per serving and it contains digestive enzymes for smoother digestion!
You can shop PlantFusion here.
Amazing Grass Protein Superfoods
Amazing Grass Protein Powders are made with the standard plant-based proteins: pea protein, hemp protein, chia, quinoa, and the more original peanut flour ingredient. The peanut butter flavor is divine, although you can get it in more standard vanilla and chocolate varieties if you prefer. This all-in-one nutrition shake also contains sweet potato and rose hips, all organic. We appreciate the uniqueness of the blend.
If you're looking to boost wellness, all of these vegan protein powders can help. As for which is the best tasting...well, we will leave that up to you. Let us know your preference of powder and flavor in the comments below!