Whether you're sipping a post-workout shake or whipping up a batch of protein pancakes, adding a vegan protein powder to your pantry can help you get more protein in your diet while cutting down on animal products. Plus, it's a convenient — and tasty — alternative to whey for those with a dairy allergy.
That explains why the market for plant-based protein powders is expected to continue to grow in popularity, a January 2019 report in Grand View Research shows. And according to a DuPont Nutrition & Health report, more than 60 percent of people focused on eating more plants hope it's an initiative that's here to stay.
If you're trying to adopt a more plant-forward diet, plant-based protein powders can offer delicious convenience — so long as you choose the right one. Below, we share dietitians' top tips for choosing a vegan protein powder and the brands they love.
How to Pick a Vegan Protein Powder
The key to getting all of the different essential amino acids you need on a plant-based diet comes down to eating a variety of plant sources. Blended protein powders, which can include chia seed, hemp, pumpkin and ancient grains are a great way to easily get a mix.
"Consuming a blend provides different types of amino acids that can be used for the maintenance and repair of muscle and other protein tissues in the body," says Cynthia Sass, RD an LA-based performance nutritionist.
"I like Garden of Life's stevia-free plant protein. It provides a variety of gluten-free and non-GMO plant proteins, including pea protein, sprouted brown rice, amaranth, buckwheat, millet and others," offers Sass. "It can be difficult to find an unflavored, unsweetened plant protein. Many of my clients dislike the aftertaste of stevia, and I'm not a fan of intense sweeteners," she says.
Choosing an unsweetened option allows you to leave the sweetener out and rely on fruit (or maple syrup and honey) for sweetness. You're also able to control the amount of sweetness, which allows you to customize your recipe more easily.
Pea protein is quickly becoming a fan favorite. This specific protein source, made from yellow peas, is one of the fastest growing in terms of popularity, according to an April 2019 report in Research and Markets. A serving of approximately one ounce of unsweetened pea protein powder provides 21 grams of protein, 2 grams of carbohydrates and 1 gram of fiber for 100 calories, although it can vary slightly by brand.
Plus, research has shown that pea protein is just as effective as whey protein for post-exercise recovery and building muscle, according to a January 2019 study in Sports and a January 2015 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
And if you're using a protein shake to replace meals, a December 2011 study in Nutrition Journal found that pea protein promoted satiety better than whey protein, leading folks to eat less.
Pumpkin Seed Protein
Maggie Michalczyk, Chicago-based dietitian and blogger at Once Upon a Pumpkin, is partial to pumpkin seed protein powder. "One of my favorites is Health Warrior Vanilla Superfood Protein Powder because it's made of a blend of pumpkin seed and flax protein," she says. "The pumpkin seeds not only provide protein but also contribute to the fiber content, which is sure to keep you full for hours. Bonus points that it also contains gut-boosting probiotics too!"
Hemp Seed Protein
Hemp seeds come from the hemp plant Cannabis sativa. And although they're from the same species as marijuana, the seeds don't result in a high since they don't contain psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). That means you can feel free stirring hemp protein into your morning shake!
A one-ounce serving provides about 13 grams of protein, 9 grams of carbohydrates and 7 grams of fiber for 108 calories. "I love hemp protein because it's full of omega-3 fatty acids, among other nutrients such as magnesium and folate," says Whitney English, RDN of Whitney E. RD. "It's a great way to boost the plant protein content of smoothies, baked goods and oatmeal. I personally keep Terrasoul Superfoods and Equip Prime Plants powders on hand," adds English.
Jones is also a fan: "I love that hemp seed powders are a single-ingredient source. Hemp protein boasts healthy fats and fiber, and is a good source of iron, a nutrient that those following plant-based diets should pay special attention to."
Jones uses Hemp Yeah! Max Protein because it's smoother than many other brands and doesn't contain sketchy additives, she says. ** **
Sacha Inchi Protein
One of the less familiar vegan powders on the market comes from sacha inchi, a seed native to the Amazon. "It's full of nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, calcium and vitamin E," says English. "It also contains tryptophan, an amino acid that stimulates serotonin, which is responsible for feelings of happiness."
English always has Equip Prime Plants powders in her kitchen, which is made of a blend of plant-based proteins including sacha inchi and hemp. While sacha inchi seeds are typically added as a blend along with other sources, a one-ounce serving of the whole seeds provides about 8 grams of protein, 3 grams of carbohydrates and 3 grams of fiber for about 200 calories.
Not sure where to start? Try this anti-inflammatory recipe combining spinach, banana, pineapple, soy milk, chia seeds and fresh ginger.
Brown Rice Protein
Plant proteins get a bad rap when it comes to essential amino acids since they typically lack the amino acids lysine and methionine, although it varies by the plant source, says a December 2018 report in the journal Amino Acids. This is why it's important to eat a variety of plants — whole grains, beans, legumes and vegetables — to ensure you're getting a variety of amino acids.
For example, brown rice has a limited amount of lysine but is higher in methionine, which is the opposite case with pea protein. Then there's sprouted brown rice, which is even higher in overall protein. "The sprouting process increases the protein from the brown rice and makes it easier to digest for some. I like the sprouted brown rice protein from NOW Foods because it's the only ingredient found in this plant-based protein powder," shares Michalczyk. Try brown rice protein in a strawberry mojito smoothie (yes, you read that right!) or a mocha peanut butter smoothie.
Soy protein powder has been around for quite some time now, so there's a lot of familiarity with this source compared to some of the newer sources such as sacha inchi that are cropping up on the market.
"Soy is a great source of plant protein. Studies have shown that soy has the same anabolic effect as animal sources of protein and it is affordable," says English. "Research also shows that replacing animal protein with soy protein may help lower cholesterol." However, soy protein shouldn't be your primary source of protein since it contains phytoestrogen, which mimics the hormone estrogen in the body.
- DuPont: "DuPont Nutrition & Health Unveils New Research on Plant-Based Eating"
- Grand View Research: "Plant Based Protein Supplements Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report By Product"
- Research and Markets: "Global Protein Supplements Industry Outlook to 2025"
- USDA Branded Food Products Database: "Unsweetened Pea Protein Powder"
- Sports: "The Effects of Whey vs. Pea Protein on Physical Adaptations Following 8-Weeks of High-Intensity Functional Training (HIFT): A Pilot Study"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Pea Proteins Oral Supplementation Promotes Muscle Thickness Gains During Resistance Training: a Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo-controlled Clinical Trial Vs. Whey Protein"
- Nutrition Journal: "Effect of Different Protein Sources on Satiation and Short-term Satiety When Consumed as a Starter"
- Nutrition in Clinical Practice: "Nutrition Concerns and Health Effects of Vegetarian Diets"
- Amino Acids: "Protein Content and Amino Acid Composition of Commercially Available Plant-Based Protein Isolates"
- USDA Branded Food Products Database: "Sacha Inchi Seeds"
- USDA Branded Food Products Database: "Hemp Protein Powder"