Avoiding animal products doesn’t have to mean missing out on protein.
Whether you’re on the go or trying to get a quick refuel 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 are not packed with protein in the same way meat and fish.
However, food processors can remove most fat and carbohydrates and isolate the proteins found in these foods to produce protein-rich powders.
Despite some claims, most plant proteins are not complete, which means that they do not contain optimal levels of all essential amino acids to support protein synthesis in your body.
However, this is not a problem if you regularly eat a variety of plant proteins.
As you explore vegan protein powders, you should compare the prices by weight, such as per ounce or 100 grams. Protein powders from grains and legumes, in general, are about half the price of powders made from seeds.
Here are the 9 Best Vegan Protein Powders and Their Nutritional Highlights
- Pea protein
Pea protein powder is not made from sweet green peas, but its higher protein cousins, yellow peas.
A quarter cup (28 grams) serving of plain pea protein powder contains approximately 21 grams of protein and 100 calories, depending on the brand. Like other legumes, it is 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 active muscles and stimulate your body to produce muscle protein.
In a 12-week study, 161 young men ate 25 grams or about 1 ounce of pea protein powder twice a day, even after weight training.
The weakest participants had a 20% increase in biceps muscle thickness, compared to just 8% in the placebo group.
Additionally, the muscle gains experienced with pea protein were similar to those of people consuming whey protein.
Animal and human studies also suggest that pea protein can promote feelings of fullness and lower blood pressure.
Pea protein powder is rich in BCAAs to support muscle building. Preliminary research suggests it is as effective as whey protein in supporting muscle gain. It can also help you feel full and lower your blood pressure.
- Hemp protein
Hemp protein comes from the 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 get you high like marijuana.
A quarter cup (28 grams) serving of unflavored hemp protein powder has about 12 grams of protein and 108 calories, depending on the brand. It is also an excellent source of fiber, iron, zinc, magnesium, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant-based form of omega-3 fat.
Since hemp has little essential amino acid lysine, it is 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 compounds that lower blood pressure. However, its effects have not been tested in people.
Although hemp protein powder has more moderate protein levels and is low in the amino acid lysine, it contains a lot of fiber, iron, zinc, magnesium, and omega-3 ALA.
- Pumpkin seed protein
In their complete form, pumpkin seeds are relatively high in protein and healthy fats. When it is turned into a powder, most of the fat is removed, reducing calories.
A quarter cup (28 grams) of unflavored pumpkin seed protein powder provides about 103 calories and 18 grams of protein, depending on the brand. It is not a complete protein since it is low in the essential amino acids threonine and lysine.
Still, pumpkin seed protein is highly nutritious, providing large amounts of magnesium, zinc, iron, and other minerals and beneficial plant compounds.
Few studies have been done on the health benefits of pumpkin seed protein, but there is 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, specific liver health markers improved compared to those given casein (milk).
Additionally, rats consuming 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.
Although low in the essential amino acids threonine and lysine, pumpkin seed protein powder is highly nutritious, supplying large amounts of various minerals. Its beneficial plant compounds may have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
- Brown rice protein
Brown rice protein powder is easy to find and relatively inexpensive.
A quarter cup (28 grams) serving of unflavored brown rice protein contains about 107 calories and 22 grams of protein, depending on the brand. It is low in the essential amino acid lysine, but it is a good source of BCAAs to support muscle building.
A preliminary study suggests that brown rice protein powder may be just as good as whey protein in 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 thickness, the same as men who consumed the same amount of whey protein powder.
One problem with rice products is the possibility of contamination with heavy metal arsenic. Choose a brand of rice protein powder that tests for arsenic levels.
Although not a complete protein, brown rice protein powder is rich in BCAAs and can be just as effective as whey protein in supporting muscle growth as part of a weight training regimen.
- Soy protein
Soy protein powder is a complete protein, which is rare for plant proteins. It is also high in BCAAs to support strength and muscle growth.
A quarter-cup (28-gram) serving of soy protein isolate powder has approximately 95 calories and 22 grams of protein, depending on the brand. In addition, it contains beneficial compounds for plants, including some that can lower cholesterol.
Soy protein has been discredited in recent years because most soy is genetically modified (GM). However, there are some non-GM soy protein powder brands that you can buy.
Other reasons why soy protein is not as popular include allergies to soy and concerns about potential adverse health impacts, such as the risk of breast cancer.
However, a recent review noted that soy protein isolate contains plant compounds with anticancer activity, including against breast cancer.
This review also found that some past concerns about the safety of soy were based on results from animal studies that do not necessarily apply to people.
That said, it’s wise to use a variety of plant protein powders rather than relying on just one type.
Soy protein powder is a complete protein source rich in BCAAs to aid muscle building.
It can also help lower cholesterol levels. Due to potential safety concerns, you can buy non-GMO soy protein and avoid using it every day.
- Sunflower seed protein
Protein isolate 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 and 13 grams of protein, depending on the brand and provides muscle-building BCAAs.
Like other seeds, it is low in the essential amino acid lysine. However, it is a good source of all essential amino acids. To improve lysine levels, sunflower seed protein is sometimes combined with quinoa protein powder, a complete protein.
No studies are comparing the health effects of sunflower seed protein with other isolated sources of plant protein in animals or people.
Sunflower Seed Protein supplies BCAAs to support muscle growth and repair. It is low in the essential amino acid lysine and sometimes combines with quinoa in protein powder supplements.
- Sacha Inchi protein
This protein comes from the star-shaped sacha inchi seed (sometimes called a walnut), 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 about 120 calories and 17 grams of protein, depending on the brand. It is a good source of all the 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.
Additionally, the protein sacha inchi is an excellent source of the essential amino acid arginine, which your body uses to make nitric oxide.
Nitric oxide activates the arteries to expand, improving blood flow and lowering blood pressure.
This unique vegan protein also provides ALA omega-3 fat, supporting 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 omega-3 ALA fat.
- 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, baby foods, and baked goods, but they can also be made into chia protein powder.
A quarter-cup (28-gram) serving of chia protein powder has about 50 calories and 10 grams of protein, depending on the brand. As with other plant-based proteins, it is low in the essential amino acid lysine.
The powdered form of chia can improve its digestibility. In a test-tube study, the protein digestibility of 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 and high amounts of various vitamins and minerals, including biotin and chromium.
Chia protein is nutritious but not complete, as it has a low content of essential amino acids and lysine. Although you can eat chia seeds whole, their protein can be more digestible when isolated as a powder.
- Vegetable protein blends
Different plant protein powders are sometimes combined and sold as blends. These have often added flavorings and sweeteners.
One of the advantages of mixing plant proteins is that it can provide optimal levels of all essential amino acids in one product.
For example, pea protein can be combined with rice protein.
Pea protein supplies lysine, where rice protein is low, while rice protein supplies methionine, where pea protein is low.
Quinoa protein is also commonly used in combination with other plant proteins. It is one of the few complete plant proteins.
Other trends you will see in mixed 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 can increase the amounts of beneficial plant compounds, vitamins, and minerals. It can also help break down antinutrients that interfere with the absorption of amino acids, minerals, and other nutrients.
Many vegan protein powders contain different and typically complimentary plant protein blends to ensure adequate amounts of all essential amino acids are obtained. Sprouting or fermenting can also improve nutrition.
The bottom line
Vegan protein powders can help provide your body with the essential amino acids to support protein synthesis in your body, including that needed for muscle growth and repair.
Grains, legumes, and seeds are typical sources of plant protein powders obtained by removing most of the fat and carbohydrates while isolating the protein components.
Standard vegan protein powders are pea, hemp, brown rice, and soybeans. Seed protein powders, such as pumpkin, sunflower, chia, and sacha inchi, are becoming more available.
Except for soybeans and quinoa, plant proteins are typically low in one or more essential amino acids. This is not a problem if you regularly eat a variety of plant foods or buy a powder that contains a blend of complementary proteins.