Willy Wonka was really onto something with that Three Course Dinner Chewing Gum. Easy and quick, pop a piece in your mouth to enjoy the experience and nutrition of a full supper—dessert included. For a lot of us, a fast and healthy meal that doesn’t require breaking out the pots and pans or spending money on eating out is the dream.
Enter protein powder. An easy meal replacement—really, add some water, shake it, and you’re good to go—it’s any lackluster home cook’s answer to Wonka’s magical gum. A good formulation contains enough macronutrients in the form of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats to replace breakfast, lunch, or dinner. And while you shouldn’t survive on powdered beverages alone, it’s nice to have a few favorites around for when you’re really in a pinch.
Here’s the thing: Most protein powders are made with whey or casein, which are both derived from milk or egg-white protein. On one hand, these are excellent because they’re high in protein, but they’re not viable options for anyone who’s sensitive to dairy or avoids animal products for ethical reasons. Thankfully, there are tons of vegan protein powders on the market that give whey and casein a run for their money in terms of nutrition and taste.
Types of vegan protein powder
There are so many sources of vegan protein available to us—heck, even spinach has some protein! But there are only a few vegan sources that rival the high content of whey, casein, or egg-white powders. And while animal-based products always contain the essential branch chain amino acids needed to rebuild muscles and tissue—not all vegan proteins do. For this reason, those big cartons of veggie-friendly powders are usually comprised of a few different types of vegan protein in order to pack in even more nutrition.
These are the seven most common types.
Soy is a very common, but very controversial, protein source. Unfortunately, for every study that praises the benefits of soy, there’s another that delves into its dangers. For example, one study claims eating soy helps prevent tumor growth, and another says soy can increase your risk of developing breast cancer. And because lot of soy-positive research is funded by companies with ties to the soy industry, there’s no real way of knowing whether we’re getting the full picture or not.
Soy is high in protein, theoretically making it a great substitute for whey. But more than 90 percent of soybean crops are genetically modified and exposed regularly to the pesticide Roundup, which has been associated with adverse side effects. Soy is also considered an endocrine disruptor because it contains phytoestrogens, or plant-based compounds that spur the production of the hormone estrogen in the body. Endocrine-disrupting compounds can have a negative effect on energy metabolism, thyroid function, fertility, mood, and overall health.
There isn’t enough conclusive evidence to indicate that you should totally ban soy from your diet, but it might be smart to opt for other vegan-friendly plant proteins when possible.
Tiny little green peas don’t exactly seem protein-packed, but one cup actually boasts nine grams of the muscle-building macronutrient along with nine grams of fiber—a powerful combo that’ll keep you feeling full and strong. Pea protein comes from dried peas (the kind you might keep in your pantry to throw in soups or casseroles) and also packs in a ton of vitamins and minerals that are beneficial for muscle and bone health, like vitamin K and copper.
Pulverized peas aren’t a complete protein, meaning they don’t have all nine essential amino acids, so it’s a good idea to alternate or combine with a rice or quinoa protein powder in order to get all the nutrients you need. While they don’t usually cause any sort of gastrointestinal distress, pea protein can be a little starchy or chalky and tastes best blended into plenty of liquid.
Never feel bad about eating an entire batch of oatmeal cookies again! Oats are an excellent source of fiber, complex carbohydrates, and iron—and one cup supplies a whopping 26 grams of protein. Impressive, right? Oats also contain almost all of the essential amino acids, which means oat protein is excellent for muscle healing and recovery.
And they’re highly digestible and naturally gluten-free. If oatmeal agrees with you, then you should be good when it comes to oat protein! One caveat: it can make smoothies and drinks really thick, really quickly. Don’t let it sit for too long, or you might need to use a spoon to eat it!
A popular substitution for whey protein, rice protein is often used in vegan formulations in conjunction with other plant-based proteins. A study comparing the use of rice protein and whey protein for recovery and supplementation in male athletes found that the former was just as effective at building and repairing muscle.
Usually, rice protein comes in the form of an isolate, meaning it’s gone through a little processing to extract the most protein from the grains—enzymes are added to the rice to separate the carbohydrates out. One tablespoon of rice isolate could contain up to 25 grams of protein.
First things first—hemp is not the same as weed, and it definitely won’t give you a hallucinogenic buzz. Sure, it’s derived from the same plant, Cannabis sativa, but hemp doesn’t have any THC, the compound that’s responsible for getting you high and encouraging you to eat an entire pan of brownies. Hemp protein comes from hemp seeds, which are usually cold-pressed to release hemp oil (which happens to be great for low-heat cooking) and then finely milled into a powder. In a single tablespoon of whole hemp seeds you get about five grams of protein, 21 amino acids, and the nine essential amino acids the human body can’t create on its own.
It’s rare to see pure chia-derived protein powder—but chia does show up in quite a few vegan protein formulations. That’s because one ounce of chia seeds contains almost five grams of protein, 10 grams of fiber, and nine grams of healthy fat. Like hemp, they’re also considered a complete protein because they contain the nine essential amino acids. In seed or powder form, chia makes an excellent addition to a protein shake. Just keep in mind that the seeds act like tapioca when exposed to liquid—they gel together to form a viscous “pudding”—so drink up quickly!
Flaxseeds are often used to bind ingredients together, and are really high in fiber. But the human body can’t even break them down whole, so they actually pass through the digestive system intact—and our bodies can’t really use the nutrients inside.
Ground flaxseeds—the kind that show up in protein powders—are a different story. One ounce contains about five grams of protein, as well as tons of fiber and healthy omega-3 fatty acids. But flax doesn’t exactly blend smoothly, and might leave protein shakes a little gritty.
Best vegan protein powders
Now that you know the ins and outs of each type, you can make your own decision about which product best suits your needs. But if you’re new to the vegan protein game, the vast array of options can be a little overwhelming! Don’t worry—we’ve tried them all. Here are our favorite picks.
Best for weight loss
To improve digestion and help your body metabolize food, grab a powder with gut health-boosting probiotics. Garden of Life’s RAW Fit Protein Powder has 28 grams of protein per scoop, plus 3 billion CFUs (colony forming units) of probiotics per serving. It’s also low in sugar and high in fiber to help keep blood sugar levels stable for hours after eating.
What else is inside? Pea protein, brown rice protein, flax meal, and other grain-based proteins (like quinoa, millet, and oats), so it might not be appropriate for gluten-free lifestyles—but it’s definitely vegan! It comes in three flavors, but we’re partial to the vanilla.
Best for meal replacement
For a smoothie or shake that takes the place of breakfast, lunch, or dinner, choose something that has a higher protein-to-carbohydrate ratio and at least 300 calories. (If it’s too low-calorie, you’ll end up getting hungrier sooner.) Amazing Grass’s Vanilla Chai blend combines rice, hemp, and pumpkin-seed proteins plus greens to make a meal replacement shake with 22 grams of protein, 18 grams of protein, and 180 calories.
Feel free to throw in a few more scoops for extra energy, or pump up the flavor and nutrition by adding nut milk.
Best for post-workout
Vega Sport Performance Protein was developed by ultramarathoner Brendan Brazier—so it’s safe to say that it’s pretty dang effective for athletes. Runners, swimmers, lifters, and casual gym-goers alike will love this product for several reasons. Per serving, it provides 30 grams of pea and sunflower seed protein, six grams of branch chain amino acids (which help with muscle repair), glutamine to soothe achy joints, and turmeric extract to ease inflammation.
The chocolate is a favorite around Thrive Market HQ, but all of Vega’s proteins are known for their great taste.
Best for blending into smoothies
Want something that doesn’t taste like much, so you can seamlessly add protein into your favorite Merce Muse-approved smoothie? Garden of Life Smooth Energy Organic Plant Protein is flavorless and blends really well—no clumps!—into any beverage of choice.
Getting enough protein when you’re vegan is easy—grab one (or two) of these different formulas, and you’re good to go!
Photo credit: Paul Delmont