Vegan protein powder is kind of a big deal these days.

Just waltz into Whole Foods, GNC, or your local supplement store and give the protein powder section a once over.

Some of you may be thinking about introducing vegan protein powder into your meal plan. However, you may be concerned that the protein quality isn’t as high or that you can’t get enough protein.

It is true that the quality of single-sourced vegan protein powders isn’t as high as whey, casein, egg, etc. However, vegan protein powders with multiple protein sources – in the correct ratios – are arguably just as good.


Mixing Multiple Bioavailable Proteins

You are what you eat, or better yet, you are what you digest.

Some plant foods like soy can stand alone because they’re a complete protein and can virtually go toe-to-toe* with meat.

*Based on essential amino acid profiles.

However, a mixture of plant-based proteins is always optimal because they can collectively “pack a nutritional punch.” They also better ensure the spectrum of amino acids needed for muscle growth.

Some powders only use one source (e.g. soy, rice, etc.) versus brands like Garden of Life® (13 different sprouts) that use several sources.

That said, it’s also important to consider the quality of protein, not just the volume. For instance, whey or soy protein are higher quality and offer more absorbable protein than hemp protein.


PDCAAS: Protein Rating System

The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and the WHO (World Health Authority) both adopted a rating system for protein. It is called the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score, or PDCAAS.

Vegan Protein Powder RatingsThis rating system provides a reliable way to understand the quality of protein. It’s based on the amino acid requirements of people and their respective digestibility.

The highest score possible is 1.0.  Whey and casein milk proteins, egg whites, and – drumroll, please – soy protein isolate achieve this status.

However, other complete protein sources don’t get high rankings on the PDCAAS scale. Quinoa, for instance, has a relatively modest ranking. Proteins like this should be considered a good source when shopping vegan protein powders.

Please note that different sources of information on PDCAAS values may vary slightly on the numbers below. That said, this will give you a reasonable idea of what you’re working with.

The table shows the ratings of selected foods. Proteins with around 0.70 or higher are considered “high quality” with this rating system. [1][2][3][4]

  • 1.00 casein (milk protein)
  • 1.00 soy protein isolate
  • 1.00 egg white
  • 1.00 whey (milk protein)
  • 0.92 beef
  • 0.91 soybeans
  • 0.89 quinoa [5]
  • 0.78 chickpeas
  • 0.75 black beans
  • 0.73 vegetables
  • 0.70 legumes
  • 0.69 pea
  • 0.52 peanuts
  • 0.46 hemp

*Please note that processing can alter these foods from their raw form.


vegan bodybuilding program


Looking for the best vegan protein powder on the market?

I had to write this article after reading a few seemingly disconnected posts by media sources like Bodybuilding.com and Men’s Fitness who miss the mark* on the topic (in my humble opinion).

*It’s worth mentioning that the quality of content produced by both of these guys is usually excellent though.

Oddly enough, Peta.org seems to be dialed-in to the vegan protein powder scene better than most.

Let’s jump into the ratings! 

The first two products listed have the highest quality. In fact, I mix them both together in my protein shake to cover as much nutritional ground as possible in this recipe: “The Ultimate’ Vegan Protein Shake.”

Best Overall Vegan Protein Powder – Top Choice

Garden of Life® – RAW Protein – Real Raw Chocolate Cacao

Vegan Protein PowderNutritional details: 17g protein, 7g carbs, 0g fat, 90 calories, 6g fiber, 1g sugar

Proteins:

  • Organic Sprouted Brown Rice Protein
  • Organic Amaranth Sprout
  • Organic Quinoa Sprout
  • Organic Millet Sprout
  • Organic Buckwheat Sprout
  • Organic Garbanzo Bean Sprout
  • Organic Lentil Sprout
  • Organic Adzuki Bean Sprout
  • Organic Flax Seed Sprout
  • Organic Sunflower Seed Sprout
  • Organic Pumpkin Seed Sprout
  • Organic Chia Seed Sprout
  • Organic Sesame Seed Sprout

Summary: It’s organic, soy-free, and provides multiple raw sprouted vegan proteins with live probiotics and enzymes. It mixes easy and tastes good but has a grittiness to the texture.

Approximate cost per serving: $1.60 retail (as low as $1.15 online) – Buy Here

Best Tasting Vegan Protein Powder – Top Choice

PlantFusion – Organic Plant Protein – Vanilla Chai

plantfusion-organic-plant-protein-bestNutritional details: 20g protein, 7g carb, 2g fat, 120 calories, 1g fiber, 0g sugar

Proteins:

  • Organic Pea Protein
  • Organic Sprouted Amaranth
  • Organic Sprouted Quinoa
  • Organic Flax Seed
  • Organic Millet
  • Organic Lentil
  • Organic Flax
  • Organic Chia

Summary: It’s organic and soy-free. It also includes a healthy dose of fermented foods to supercharge your digestion with a full spectrum of natural food-based probiotics and enzymes. These help overall nutrient digestion and absorption. This protein powder tastes the best and has a silky-smooth texture.

Approximate cost per serving: $2.80 retail (as low as $1.90 online) – Buy Here

Best Price

Sunwarrior – Warrior Blend – Chocolate

sunwarrior-warrior-blend-bestNutritional details: 17g protein, 3g carbs, 1g fat, 100 calories, 2g fiber, 0g sugar

Proteins:

  • Raw Organic Pea Protein
  • Raw Cranberry Protein
  • Raw Organic Hemp Seed Protein

Summary: It’s organic and soy-free. It’s less generous with protein sources, but it still has a complete amino acid profile. Not the best tasting vegan protein powder, but this version tasted much better than the Classic option.

Approximate cost per serving: $1.23 retail (as low as $1.05 online) – Buy Here

Best Brand

Vega – Sport Performance Protein – Chocolate

vega-sport-performance-protein-bestNutritional details: 30g protein, 6g carbs, 3g fat, 160 calories, 2g fiber, 1g sugar

Proteins:

  • Pea Protein
  • Cocoa Powder
  • Pumpkin Seed Protein
  • Organic Sunflower Seed Protein
  • Alfalfa Protein

Summary: Contains no soy, some organic ingredients, and six grams of BCAAs.  It also has performance ingredients like tart cherry, turmeric, and probiotics. It tastes good and mixes easily. This is the most heavily advertised vegan protein powder on the market – this stuff is like Starbucks, you’ll see it everywhere.

Approximate cost per serving: $2.75 retail (as low as $2.20 online) – Buy Here

Best New Product

Yuve – Cocoa and Raw Chia Seeds

Vegan Protein Powder YuveNutritional details: 16g protein, 18g carbs, 2g fat, 155 calories, 4g fiber, 2g sugar

Proteins:

  • Pea Protein
  • Brown Rice Protein

Summary: This has a ton of plant-based nutrition in the form of energy-boosting foods: Chia Seeds, Maca Root Powder, Coconut Water Powder, Chlorella, Spinach Leaf, Spirulina Algae, Collards Kale Leaf, Alfalfa Sprout, Broccoli Plant. The chia seeds add a different texture that can be enjoyable for some. If you prefer a smoother mixture, this may not be for you.

Approximate cost per serving: $3.33


Creative Ways to Use Protein Powder

For vegetarian bodybuilders and athletes, finding the best vegan protein powder is important. They are a convenient way to help successfully dial in your macros by fulfilling your protein quota for the day. Simply mix some powder with water or a plant-based milk and hit the road.

Mix some protein powder in oatmeal for a quick power-breakfast. It’s also pretty easy to make homemade vegan protein bars and bites. Or you can add protein powder to cookies, brownies, pancakes, cookies, and other baked goods.


3 Truths About Vegan Protein Powder

1.  Vegan protein powder can meet the needs of everyday people, athletes, bikini competitors, and bodybuilders alike.

Each type of protein has a unique composition and digestibility value. This determines how effective they are in supporting protein synthesis ( the process that builds muscle). It’s true that single-sourced, animal-based proteins have higher biologic values and protein efficiency ratios than single-sourced, plant-based proteins.

However, a mixture of plant-based proteins can supply the required variation of amino acids to support muscle growth. Some vegetarian foods like quinoa are even good by themselves because they’re a complete protein and can go toe-to-toe with meat any day of the week.

2. Vegan protein powder (in a shake) consumed throughout the day is a good idea, but it’s not a must. 

I have heard the topic of timing argued effectively on both ends. Common sense tells me that feeding my body nourishment throughout the day seems like a good idea. My body tells me it’s more energetic when I do this, as well.

Some of us don’t have the working conditions that allow food breaks every two hours, and to those folks, I say that it’s not the end of the world if you have to get all of your nutrition in three meals versus six.

3.  Vegan protein powder is more sustainable than animal-based protein powder.

Overwhelmingly, the scientific community agrees that plant-based diets are more sustainable and environmentally-friendly than those that include animal-based products. Vegetarianism is simply easier on the planet, and it’s hard to argue against this when looking at all the research.


How to Choose a Vegan Protein Powder

1. Choose bioavailable (easily absorbed) plant-based proteins.

Examples:

  • Quinoa (soaked)
  • Beans (soaked)
  • Brown rice
  • Sprouted tofu

2. Choose multi-sourced, plant-based protein powders.

Some powders only use one source (e.g. soy, rice, etc.) versus brands like Garden of Life (13 different sprouts) that use several sources.

3. Consume about 20-40 grams of vegan protein powder in the morning/afternoon/evening or after a workout.

If you’re a vegetarian bodybuilder (any form of one), then odds are, you will need to supplement with plant-based protein powder to balance out your targeted macronutrient ratios. This is just the tool to do that!

Because most vegetarian whole foods that are used as protein sources (e.g. quinoa, beans, etc.) also have carbs, it can be easy to get too many carbs if whole foods are your only source of protein, especially if you’re a guy like me who weighs 220lb. Not to mention, if you’re trying to lose fat and lean out, you will need even fewer carbs.


Q: Is Soy Bad for You?

No, and it’s especially useful for a vegetarian or vegan bodybuilding diet.

I wanted to bring you the latest research on soy protein and compare it to whey protein, and then attempt to simplify the big controversy over soy as a good or bad source of protein for vegetarian bodybuilders.

First, I like to reiterate a point I make throughout this website: how much protein you need depends on a few variables, but your activity level is certainly one of the most important factors.

For those who don’t train, the recommendation for healthy adults is 0.36 g per pound of body mass. For example, a 200 lb. person would need approximately 72 grams a day to prevent protein deficiency.

This, however, isn’t optimal for us vegetarian bodybuilders and athletes who train hard and eat plants.

Our tribe needs to ramp things up to 0.9-1.0 g/lb. of body mass.

So the 200 lb. person would need approximately 180-200 g of protein per day.

*Important Note: If you are 200 lb. and want to build up to 210 lb., you will want to consume as much protein as a 210 lb. person to get there.

Chances are, you have heard that a high protein consumption is harmful to the kidneys; that is a flat-out myth. In healthy people, typical protein intakes don’t create a health risk. Even a relatively high protein intake (up 1.2 g/lb.) doesn’t seem to impair kidney and renal function in people with healthy kidneys.1

In particular, plant proteins appear to be exceptionally safe.2


Soy vs. Whey Protein

Whey comes out on top, but it doesn’t mean that soy is a poor choice.

In fact, I recommend using both soy protein and whey protein in your meal plan if you’re a vegetarian bodybuilder.

Soy protein and whey protein are both staple supplements that bodybuilders need to help increase total protein intake, especially as a lacto vegetarian.

The bottom line is, they both have their respective health benefits for building muscle and strength.

However, whey protein appears to come out on top. This is likely related to its fast absorption rate and amino acid profile.3


What Is Whey?

Whey (milk plasma) is by definition, “the liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained.”

It is a byproduct from cheese manufacturing and from the production of casein. No matter how you slice it, whey comes from animal milk.

It is not plant-based, and there is no such thing as a non-dairy version, even though you can find whey protein powders labeled as “lactose-free.”

It’s worth noting that whey is the second most allergenic milk protein next to casein, and it’s even possible to be allergic to whey but not casein. If you have a sensitivity to milk, your body may not react well to whey either.


What’s in a Soy Bean?

Concerning protein content, the soybean is roughly 40 percent protein. And the PDCAA score (a measure of protein quality) for soybeans is just below 1.0, with soy protein isolate at 1.0. As 1.0 is the highest score a protein can get, soy mostly holds its own with milk, beef, and egg proteins.

The ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fat in soybeans is about 1:7, which is desirable especially compared to oils from peanuts, which are 1:100+.

When breaking down the specific amino acids, soy is rich in branched chain amino acids, lysine, and arginine. What this boils down to is that is soy protein has a full amino acid profile. However, due to the lower methionine and cysteine content, some experts consider soy mildly inferior to animal-based proteins.

Finally, soybeans contain a mix of slow-digesting carbohydrates. The fiber and starches promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the digestive system.


Today’s Soy Is Mutated

Soy was initially grown in North American to feed animals. It didn’t become a human food crop until the early 1900s. This is where the plot thickens – the soy crops grown today are a mutated version of the original.

By this, I mean 90 percent of the soybeans produced today are genetically modified; they are mostly designed to protect the crops against insects and chemicals that prevent weed growth.

Indeed, between 2000 and 2007, United States food manufacturers introduced over 2,700 new foods with soy as an ingredient. And most of the soy foods being sold in North American are heavily processed.


Concerned About Soy Phytoestrogens?

Bodybuilders and athletes have concerns regarding the phytoestrogens (estrogen-like nutrients) in soy and if it will negatively affect their hormones, body composition, and ability to make gains. I know I was certainly one of those who raised an eyebrow at the flood of media that hyped up this topic.

Like many things, there seems to be some truth to the hype, but it’s not what it has been made out to be. Here’s the real deal: Phytoestrogens are a group of natural estrogen receptor modulators found in various foods, with soy being at the forefront.

When soy protein isolates and concentrates are manufactured from soybeans, the phytoestrogens are diminished from the extraction process that involves the alcohol used. This is why I believe the powders worked well in the above studies.

The UK Committee on Toxicity (2003) noted that phytoestrogens bind weakly to the sex-hormone binding proteins and are unlikely to prevent estrogen or androgen binding (at normal blood levels).

It is worth pointing out that when it comes to our biochemistry, there’s no clear-cut explanation for determining how any particular food or chemical will function in the body. Some people can die from eating peanuts. In other words, it boils down to the amount of soy consumed and genetics.

And on a somewhat related topic, there are no known adverse effects on the quality of sperm; your boys will swim just fine.


Soy Supplementation Is a Solid Choice

Soy does not appear to significantly affect testosterone levels in moderation (to be safe, 1-2 servings of soy food daily, and seems to be able to adversely affect testosterone levels when superloaded.

I’ve read studies that demonstrate protein powders, whether soy or whey blend, in tandem with strength training, showed no significant differences regarding testosterone or body fat between the groups.

Soy protein appears to be as effective as other protein powders across the board when it comes to gains in the gym. In one study, the authors concluded that 12 weeks of soy protein supplementation (50 grams per day) was as effective as other protein types when it comes to boosting muscle mass during a strength training program.

Notice that I keep reiterating that these findings are attached to strength training because it is a crucial qualifier to these statements.

And what about the anti-nutrient claims? Phytic acid and trypsin inhibitors? No worries, they are deactivated by cooking or fermentation and therefore won’t inhibit protein and mineral absorption.


Whey vs. Soy Protein Summary

The take home message is this:

Don’t eat soy all day long; exceeding three servings per day on a regular basis can work against you. Whole soybeans, soy milks, tofu, tempeh, and miso are solid options.

Protein powder is an excellent choice, and a reasonable amount of unrefined soy intake is fine. And always consume protein before and after training to ensure optimal healing, recovery, and gains.

Remember, you really can’t go wrong with whole, unprocessed foods; where problems occur is with processed foods.


References

  1. Schaafsma G (July 2000). “The protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score.” The Journal of Nutrition 130 (7): 1865S–7S. PMID 10867064.
  2. Suárez López MM, Kizlansky A, López LB (2006). “[Assessment of protein quality in foods by calculating the amino acids score corrected by digestibility].” Nutrición Hospitalaria (in Spanish) 21 (1): 47–51. PMID 16562812.
  3. “Is the protein in Mycoprotein of a high quality?” FAQ. Marlow Foods Ltd. Retrieved 22 August 2012.
  4. Hoffman, Jay R.; Falvo, Michael J. (2004). “Protein – Which is Best” (PDF). Journal of Sports Science and Medicine 3 (3): 118–30.
  5. http://open-furrow.soil.ncsu.edu/Documents/UTW/Psuedocereals.pdf
  6. Poortmans JR & Dellalieux O, 2000.
  7. Am Diet Assoc 2003; Millward DJ, 1999.
  8. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 2013