In the words of the immortal Kermit the Frog, “It’s not easy being green.” While I’m not sure all vegans and vegetarians would agree with this sentiment, when it comes to consuming adequate amounts of protein with all nine essential amino acids, their meat-eating counterparts certainly do have it easier. However, with a basic understanding of nutrition science and proper planning, protein intake for vegans and vegetarians is quite simple.
Protein is the building block of human physiology. Without adequate protein intake, our bodies can’t function properly. Fatigue, weakness, mood changes, and loss of muscle mass are all symptoms of protein deficiency.
Plant-Based Protein and Amino Acids
Protein is made up of amino acids. Of the hundreds of amino acids found in nature, there are 20 to 22 that make all the proteins needed for human function. Nine of these amino acids are called essential amino acids, meaning our body cannot naturally create them and we need to get them from food or supplementals. Here’s where it gets tricky, but not impossible, for vegetarians and especially vegans.
The best sources of protein that contain all nine essential amino acids come from animals – meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. “There is no such thing as a plant-based protein that has the complete amount of essential amino acids that we need,” says Caitlin Holmes, MS, a Certified Nutrition Specialist, and elite rock climber.
While some plant-based foods such as quinoa and soy do have all nine amino acids, they are not considered a complete source of protein because they are too low in one or more essential amino acids. One of the easiest ways vegetarians and vegans can assure they are getting adequate quantities of all nine essential amino acids is to supplement with a protein powder.
Protein Quantity and Timing for Vegans
The recommended daily allowance of protein in most humans is .8 grams per kilogram per day. “That's insufficient for the general athlete, but also especially vegans,” says Holmes.“I usually recommend, if you're in a maintenance phase, no less than 1.2 grams per kilogram. But in a building phase when you're actively trying to build muscle and especially as a vegan, I would say going up to 1.4 grams per kilogram, to as much as 2 grams per kilogram of body mass.”
Timing of protein throughout the day and in relation to workouts is important. Holmes suggests, “the usual rule of thumb is anywhere within that two-hour post-workout window. That's especially true if you're not planning on having a meal within the three to four hours after your session, and if you're planning on training later or early the next day if it's a later session.”
What to Look for in a Vegan Protein Powder
Shannon O’Grady, Ph.D. who has a doctorate in biology with a focus in nutritional physiology stresses the importance of seeking protein powders that combine multiple sources of protein such as pea, soy, or rice to name a few.
She explains vegan protein powders that only contain one source of plant-based protein don’t have a complete amino acid profile. “By combining a plant-based protein that might be low in amino acid “a” with another plant-based protein that's high in amino acid “a” you're balancing that deficiency and receiving a full serving of essential amino acids.” This is why it’s important to seek out powders that have more than one source of plant-based protein.
Dr. O’Grady also warns, “it's always important to look for third-party certification, like an auditing group.” In 2018 the Clean Label Project conducted a study of 134 animal and plant-based protein powders and found that plant-based proteins had more contaminants than their animal-based counterparts and 75 percent of the plant-based powders tested positive for lead.
Third-party auditors such as NSF, United States Pharmacopeia (USP), Informed Choice, and Clean Label Project test protein powders to make sure they meet nutritional label claims and are free of contaminants such as pesticides, microbes, and heavy metals. Some will also test against World Anti-Doping Agency banned substances.
Superfood can be a rather ambiguous term. Webster defines a superfood as a nutrient-rich food that is considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being. Ora Organic Plant-based Protein Powder certainly meets that criteria and then some. Packed with 19 organic superfoods including berries, greens, and ancient grains, Ora checks all the boxes — it’s a 100-percent all-organic protein with no filler ingredients, artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, or preservatives. Its 22 grams of protein per serving delivers a complete profile of all nine essential amino acids and is third-party tested. In addition, protease, a natural digestive enzyme, is added to help ease stomach issues such as bloating and aid in protein absorption.
- Complete protein profile
- 100% organic w/ no artificial additives or sweeteners
- Third-party tested for contaminants
- 20 serving size container is small
When Matt Frazier, the Founder of No Meat Athlete, got fed up with all the sweeteners, flavors, and additives in most plant-based proteins, what did he do? He took it upon himself to make a clean, plant-based protein powder that held up to his high standards. “With just 5 real-food ingredients, Complement Protein provides a clean, filler-free protein with a complete amino acid profile optimized for plant-based eaters,” says Frazier.
It’s not just Frazier’s standards it holds up to - “it's triple-tested (twice by our lab, once by a third-party lab) to ensure purity, and arrives in a 100% compostable pouch (no plastic tubs).” At only 15g of protein per serving, you’ll need a serving and half to match most protein powders, which hits the wallet a little harder, but if you care about clean and fully transparent ingredients, this is the best.
- Complete amino acid profile
- Transparent and honest labeling
- Low sodium
- Lower protein content per serving
At just over $0.70 per serving you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a cleaner and better-priced protein powder. It doesn’t get simpler and cleaner than this – one ingredient free of additives and artificial sweeteners and made from split peas grown on sustainable farms in the US and Canada. Protein derived from peas has one of the strongest plant-based amino acid profiles falling short in only methionine and cysteine that can be made up by using Naked Brown Rice which is higher in the amino acid methionine. Although it’s a simple powder, at 27 grams of protein per serving, it’s one of the highest protein powders on the market. If it wasn’t for somewhat of a grainy and bland taste, this for sure would have been our best overall pick.
- One ingredient
- High protein content per serving
- No additives or artificial sweeteners
- Incomplete amino acid profile
Gnarly was founded in 2012 on the belief that clean, honest nutrition can not only boost your performance but taste great as well. As their flagship vegan product, it contains all nine essential amino acids from a combination of pea protein isolate, chia seed protein, and cranberry seed protein. At 200 calories per serving with 7 grams of healthy fats, 9 grams of fiber, and 14 essential vitamins and minerals per serving it’s one of the most nutrient-dense powders. The meal replacement namesake is somewhat misleading. While it is more filling than most protein powders, it’s not a full meal substitute. If you’re not sure when your next meal will be post-workout, this is hands down the best option.
With one of the highest protein contents, zero added sugar, NSF Certified status, and great taste, Vega Sport checks all the boxes for a top-rated vegan protein powder. At 30g of protein per serving derived from pea, pumpkin seed, organic sunflower seed, and alfalfa protein, one serving is more than enough to satisfy your post-workout protein needs. It also contains 5 grams of brained chain amino acids (BCAA’s) and Colony Forming Units Probiotics that are believed to help restore the natural balance of gut bacteria. It’s worth mentioning Clean Label Project found Vega Sport to be the worst for contaminated metals, which Vega thoughtfully responded to and explained.
Justine Swenson, a vegan and owner/certified personal trainer from Just Fit LA strongly endorses Sun Warrior vegan products, especially their Collagen Protein in vanilla or chocolate. “The Sun Warrior team uses quality organic ingredients and they make delicious tasting powders” she adds. Collagen is not only a great source of protein but also may improve skin health, prevent bone loss and promote heart health. Swenson explains “the thing is, most collagen products are made up of ground-up animal byproducts. This is a clean plant-based collagen-boosting supplement that happens to also have a full serving of plant protein as well!” She recommends “mixing one scoop of the vanilla flavor with frozen pineapple, frozen mango, fresh spinach, plant milk, and blend. Delicious!”
If the standard chocolate and vanilla flavors bore you, indulge yourself with one of Ghost’s tasty flavors. A perfect delight for those who have a sweet tooth, Ghost comes in flavors such as banana pancake batter, peanut butter cereal milk, and coconut ice cream. But don’t worry- you can enjoy the sweetness without any added sugar. This soy and gluten-free protein powder offers 20g of protein per serving derived from pea, organic pumpkin, and watermelon seed protein. Ghost is fully transparent with every ingredient and free of proprietary blends, as well as cGMP, NSF, and BRC-certified.
Protein powders made with Stevia can cause even the sweetest of sweet lovers to balk. This is because highly refined stevia leaf extract is about 200 times sweeter than regular table sugar. While Aloha Organic Plant-Based Protein isn’t completely free from sweeteners, with 4g of added sugar it’s just enough to enhance the flavor without being overly powerful. Its protein is derived from a blend of pea protein, brown rice protein, hemp seed protein, pumpkin seed protein. However, it’s only got 15g of protein per serving, which is considerably less than most protein powders.
This USDA-certified organic protein powder has 20 grams of protein per serving derived from both plant- and grain-based sources that include organic pea protein, organic flaxseed, organic quinoa, organic pumpkin seed protein, and organic chia seed. It’s quite filling due to its higher fat and carbohydrate content than most protein powders, making it a great way to ward off hunger until your next meal. It mixes as expected for a plant-based powder- not awful, but not great. However, it's offered in eight flavors, including blueberry muffin and chocolate chip mint that make up for its somewhat grainy texture. And if you find it not to your liking, the risk-free 60-day guarantee allows you a full refund if it doesn't meet your expectations.
When it comes to competing with whey protein powder’s complete essential amino acid profile, PlantFusion Complete Protein is one of the best plant-based protein powders. The balanced amino acid profile comes from a mix of plant and grain sources that includes pea protein isolate, whole algae protein, organic sprouted amaranth, organic sprouted quinoa, and artichoke powders.
Each serving packs 21 grams of protein and 4.5 grams of BCAA’s in 120 calories, giving it one of the better protein to calorie ratios. There are added sweeteners, which kept it from claiming our top spot but don’t be wary, most of them claim to have added health benefits in addition to taste. The powder mixes well and comes in five tasty flavors including red velvet cake, cookies and cream, and a stevia-free option. PlantFusion only sells all-vegan products, so you can rest assured it’s 100% plant-based.