What To Look For in a Vegan Protein Powder?

Quite often, the terms “protein powder” and “whey” appear to be used synonymously. Indeed, whey protein is by far the most common protein powder on the market, and for good reason, too; it is a great source of protein. However, whey protein also has some downsides. Firstly, it’s animal-based, which makes it outright unacceptable in the growing vegan community. Secondly, many people report that whey protein does not sit right with them, which is not surprising since it is a dairy product and many people have difficulties digesting dairy [1]. For these reasons, there has been a market for plant-based protein powders over the last few years, and the market has responded by growing in size and quality, substantially.

I remember a few years ago when your only option for a vegan protein powder was an unflavoured pea protein that tasted like soil. Now, there is much more to choose from — but there is a catch. Not all of these new options are of particularly high quality, and many are unnecessarily expensive. Moreover, unlike animal-based protein powders that are almost overwhelmingly whey or casein-based, plant-based protein powders come from a wider range of sources and are often a blend of different sources. To the untrained eye, this can be confusing and overwhelming.

For this reason, I put together this guide to help you pick and choose between available vegan protein powders. We first cover various criteria you should look for when selecting a protein powder in general for the purpose of building muscle, before looking at various plant-based examples (both good and bad) that exist on the market, and finally finishing on how you can make your own vegan protein powder. Many people express the desire to switch to more plant-based diets but are cautious to do so for fear of sacrificing health or compromising sports performance. However, with appropriate knowledge and nutritional precautions, these possibilities need not occur. And with that, let’s begin our investigation on what to look for in a vegan protein powder.

What to look for in a protein powder?

First, it might help to know what to look for in a protein powder in general. By far the substance most frequently used in protein powders is whey, which is convenient because whey is one of the highest quality sources of protein available. The main contributing factors that determine the quality of a protein source are amino acid profile, digestibility, and bioavailability [2]. Whey performs well on all of these parameters, justifying its position near the top of the protein quality table. Digestibility differs between protein sources due to factors that interfere with the breakdown of proteins in the digestive tract, like antinutritional factors and fiber [3]. This is generally less of a concern in protein powders because they are concentrated and the content of these other factors is typically reduced (although this does vary to some degree based on the source). Amino acid (AA) profile is another major factor in protein quality. It is first relevant if any amino acids are deficient. If this is the case — and especially if they are an essential amino acid (EAA), which the body is unable to produce itself — then protein quality is reduced. Additionally, the proportion of EAAs that constitute the protein is also important. Those with lower levels of EAAs are poorer sources of protein. Finally, given their role in stimulating muscle protein synthesis (the process that causes muscle growth), levels of branched-chain AAs (BCAAs), particularly leucine, are important. To make our lives easier, grading systems exist for scoring protein quality, the main one being that adopted by the FAO: the protein digestibility corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS). (Apologies for all the abbreviations). The PDCAAS grades protein quality based on the limiting AAs and the digestibility of a protein source [4]. On a scale of 1–100, with a higher number representing a greater protein quality, whey scores 100 [2].

Since digestibility is less of a problem in proteins in powdered form, we will assume that’s not a problem for simplicity (however the techniques involved in the processing of the food to the powder will affect this to some degree). Bioavailability differs depending on how it is measured. Bioavailability can refer to AAs used in the muscles as a percentage of total AAs absorbed or as a total percentage of that consumed. In this way, it overlaps with both digestibility and AA content; it overlaps with digestibility if considered from the perspective of total consumed since anything that decreases digestibility will also decrease bioavailability, and it overlaps with AA content since if EAA content is lower then a proportionally higher quantity of AAs will be used for non-muscle building processes. Besides, other factors that affect the bioavailability will vary based on the source of the protein and, since you’re reading this article, you’re probably going to be limited in your sources anyway, so there’s not a great deal you can do about that other than select the right sources (which we will cover soon).

That leaves AA profile as the main criterion for grading your protein quality. Again, as our gold standard, whey protein contains high levels of EAAs overall and high levels of BCAAs which means, in theory, that all whey protein powders should be of the highest quality. In practice, however, this does not always play out; indeed, composition and quality issues exist between protein vendors. For example, protein spiking refers to the practice of modifying the nitrogen content of a protein source so that it appears to have more protein than it really contains [5]. This is done because protein is expensive, whereas certain components that can substitute high-quality protein are cheap. Compounds such as creatine, taurine and glycine are used for this purpose since they will still contribute to the nitrogen pool in the protein source and therefore, during protein quantification, the protein will appear to be sufficient in quantity, even though there is less high-quality protein in there. Thus, even if the source itself is a high-quality protein source, this does not guarantee that the protein powder you eventually consume will be of high quality.

What you can do to protect yourself from this is find protein powders that have a breakdown of the AA composition outlined on the packaging. In this way, you know that you’re not getting scammed by tricks like protein spiking. Ideally, your target protein powder will contain a relatively high portion of EAAs and BCAAs. How much exactly? Whilst there are no hard and fast rules on this (that I’m aware of), I always found the guide of Andy Morgan (of rippedbody.com) reasonable: shoot for around 25% BCAAs and about 11% leucine [6]. And although Andy doesn’t explicitly mention this, you want to also ensure a decent proportion of EAAs — in the realm of >50%, ideally (whey’s is approximately 50–60%).

So, a quick summary of what you want in your protein powders in general:

· A high EAA content

· A high BCAA content

· A high leucine content

Although we recognize that processing methods will also affect protein powder quality, this information is typically less available and will not be the focus of the remainder of the discussion, though I don’t deny it has a role to play.

What to look for in a vegan protein powder?

Aside from the requirements for a protein powder in general, vegan protein powders come with extra requirements; namely, that of AA composition. Plant proteins suffer from lower quality based on the criteria we mentioned above (incomplete AA profile, lower EAA content, lower digestibility and bioavailability). The latter two points are much less of a problem in powders compared to the plants as a whole food since some of what reduces digestibility and bioavailability (fibre and antinutritional factors) are removed in the processing during the creation of the powder, which is good news. AA composition, however, still remains an issue. Despite this, if you know what to look for in a vegan protein powder, this becomes less of an issue.

To improve the quality of protein foods, many vegans are familiar with the concept of protein complementation. This consists of selecting plant-based protein sources whose AA compositions complement each other, i.e., where one protein source is rich in a particular AA and low in another, its complementary protein source is low in that particular AA but high in the other. The most famous example of this is with rice and beans. Certain legumes are rather good sources of protein in that their digestibility is not too bad and their AA profile is also acceptable. For example, soy and peas score fairly respectably on the PDCAAS compared to other plant-based proteins [7], which can be partially owed to their AA profile. Generally speaking, legumes tend to have most EAAs in adequate quantity and have a particular abundance of lysine, although are poor sources of methionine. Rice (and grains in general), on the other hand, are poor in lysine but richer in methionine. By eating these foods together, we create a combined protein source that has a more balanced AA profile than either of the individual foods alone have, which increases the efficiency at which we can stimulate muscle protein synthesis in a single feeding. Some people claim that as long as you eat enough AA across the day you don’t have to worry about this. Indeed, whilst that might be true for general health purposes, for the sake of growing muscle we want to ensure a sufficient quantity of all EAAs per protein serving [8; 9].

We can apply this same knowledge when looking to buy a vegan protein shake. Ideally, the AA profile will be outlined somewhere online or on the packaging and that way you can get a definite answer for yourself. Unfortunately, I’ve found this often not to be the case. You can also try contacting the supplier and if you’re lucky you may get an email back with the composition, but in my experience, this is a fruitless endeavour. Instead, our next best option is to assess ourselves based on the ingredients of the powder. These are almost always stated, and I would advise against buying any powder that withholds from mentioning the contents (i.e., proprietary blends).

Since we’re going to be analyzing the constituents of a protein powder, it will be helpful to know how various foods compare against each other in terms of AA profile. Fortunately, some helpful resources exist for this. For example, the FAO has a resource that lists the AA compositions of many foods (https://www.fao.org/3/ac854t/ac854t00.htm) so you can see which AAs they are stronger in and which they are weaker in. Another helpful resource is Pinckaers et al. 2021 from the van Loon lab in Maastricht, who do a lot of work on protein and muscle growth and are increasingly studying plant-based proteins [10]. Here, we see some useful figures of how plant-based foods that are commonly used in protein powders stack up against each other and against animal products. The figure below is handy because it focuses not only on total EAAs but also AAs that are commonly deficient in plant-based foods, such as leucine, lysine, and methionine.

The proportion of important or frequently limiting amino acids in protein sources (as flours, concentrates or freeze-dried products) of various origins [10]

The first two graphs show what we already know; that animal products generally have a higher proportion of EAAs and key-muscle building AAs, such as leucine (although notable exceptions can be observed). The lower parts, however, illustrate the discussion point of this subsection of the article nicely. Foods that are rich in lysine such as lentils, peas and beans (legumes) are poor in methionine, but for seeds and rice, and to a lesser degree wheat, generally, the opposite is seen. This information will be helpful for us during our decision making.

Some examples

MyProtein Vegan Protein Blend

One of the biggest providers of sports supplements in Europe, Myprotein, provides us with a fantastic example of a suboptimal vegan protein powder. The protein in their product Vegan Protein Blend comes from only two sources: pea and fava bean, both of which are low in methionine. Without any methionine rich source in this protein powder, it’s pretty likely that methionine will be a limiting EAA and we will not stimulate muscle protein synthesis optimally, leading to poorer muscle growth. Many people probably purchase this product thinking it satisfactory, though knowing what we know from above it takes only a few seconds to check the ingredients to realise we can do better. And despite this lower quality, it’s actually very expensive (£29.99/1kg!).

Organic Plant-Based Protein (Garden of Life)

Garden of Life (a brand I’m not familiar with) are an interesting case because they have a positive, some negatives, and some components that are a little superfluous and have probably just been added as selling points. So, I thought they’d be a good case study for the reader (you!). A big green flag is that they have the AA profile listed on the container. This way, we can check if the AA profile is well-balanced, high in EAAs, and high in BCAAs. Unfortunately, we can see that per 30g protein we only get 5.5g BCAAs, which is less than 20% (however, I must say this is fairly normal in my experience with vegan protein powders). Another negative is that, again, we see that the ingredients are predominantly legume-based: peas, garbanzo beans, navy beans, lentils, and cranberry seed. This bias in selecting legumes will naturally enrich lysine but lead to low levels of methionine. And that is exactly what we see:

In addition, they pull a trick that protein (particularly vegan) powder providers love to pull. They boast that their protein is full of substances rich in antioxidants that “are known to promote faster recovery” [11]. This includes “Organic Tart Cherries, Organic Apples, Organic Turmeric, Organic Gogi berries and Organic Blueberries”. (I’m pretty sure it’s goji berry, by the way, though maybe my Chinese is off). No doubt, these are some powerful health foods; I use some of these almost daily. However, I don’t want them after my workout (as the website suggests [11] and as many people tend to do) since high levels of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories may interfere with the adaptation processes required for hypertrophy [12]. For the sake of full transparency, the study I just referenced was with over the counter anti-inflammatories (ibuprofen) and it’s not certain that these effects will carry over into food for various reasons (different mechanism of action, different digestion, different dosage) but I don’t like to take that risk, especially since you can just eat these antioxidant-rich foods with your other meals in the day where they certainly will have a beneficial effect on recovery. Besides, I think it is much wiser to rely on protein powders for your protein and other sources for your nutrients, since these other sources can then be whole foods which, in their native, unprocessed form, are probably more suitable. There, they will also come with fiber and more polyphenols. I’m speculating a little here but stand by my main point: it’s probably a better idea to rely on protein powder for your protein, and obtain your nutrients from other foods, since this gives you more control over when and how you acquire your nutrients, meaning you can tailor it to your personal needs.

Another point they seem to have missed is that — although their product contains turmeric which is amazing for health — the bioavailability of turmeric is pretty low. Most often, it is advisable to consume turmeric with black pepper since piperine, the main alkaloid of black pepper, increases absorption by 2000% [13]. Unless your intended target for turmeric use is the microbiome or the intestinal wall of the gut (and I have no reason to believe this to be the case with this product) then it doesn’t make much sense to consume turmeric without black pepper on health grounds, as far as I can see, since “Ingesting curcumin by itself does not lead to the associated health benefits due to its poor bioavailability” [13]. This makes me think that the Garden of Life either a) don’t know what they’re doing, b) only added it to sound impressive, or c) both. This is further supported by the fact that they also add a probiotic in there (cos why not right?). The current literature on probiotics is promising but mixed and inconsistent. From my reading, it seems the present consensus is that probiotics should be used on a per case basis; taking a “general” probiotic doesn’t seem to do much, but rather using them for specific purposes (e.g., B. infantis 35624 for IBS) can be helpful. They add B. lactis Bl-04 because it “has been shown to support immune health during intensive workouts”, though it does not exactly have an extensive body of literature behind it supporting its health benefits. If I had to, I would struggle to back up this claim based on the current literature available. Although it may have some benefits [14; 15], the evidence is not strong. (I will point out here though that my research was not extensive and there may be articles I missed). Oh, and finally, this protein powder costs £33/806g (not even a kilo!).

Vegan Protein (The Protein Works)

The Protein Works is easily my current favourite supplier for vegan protein powder. I’ve been using their simply named “Vegan Protein” for a couple of years now. Although I’m a fan overall, they’re still not perfect and use a few “tricks” to watch out for. We’ll start with what I like about their vegan protein.

The ingredients are very simple: a protein blend, flavouring and sucralose (a sweetener), digestive enzymes, and cacao if it’s a chocolate flavoured variety. The protein blend is composed of 5 sources: soy, pea, pumpkin, sunflower, and brown rice. This is a really good blend. Soy and pea both have great AA profiles, aside from being a little low in methionine. Pumpkin seeds, sunflower and brown rice, however, are very rich in methionine (see the Pinckaers et al. figure repeated below with a focus on these three methionine sources). Although I do not know the AA profile of the Protein Works’ vegan protein with certainty (despite having asked them a few times), I guess it would be a well-balanced one.

The proportionally higher quantity of methionine in pumpkin, sunflower, and brown rice (blue arrows) [10]

Another interesting feature of their vegan protein is also that it contains digestive enzymes (DigeZyme). Recall what we discussed earlier about plant-based protein sources coming with antinutritional factors that can inhibit digestive enzymes and therefore reduce the amount of AAs you can obtain from a protein source. Well, having more digestive enzymes present is one way to get around that. I’ve looked into digestive enzymes in the past for this reason and although they work on paper, effectiveness can vary between types and brands. For example, not all of them even make it in meaningful quantities to the stomach (where most protein digestion takes place). In fact, some don’t even retain their biological activity after the processing procedure required to get them in supplement form! For this reason, it’s hard to know exactly how much of an effect it really has, but in any case, the intention is appreciated. The final thing I love about the protein works vegan is that it tastes amazing. This is something that cannot be said for many vegan protein blends. They also have some interesting flavours (salted caramel, cookies and cream, birthday cake), rather than the standard run of the mill ones (chocolate, strawberry banana).

There are a couple of things I’m less keen on about the Protein Works. The first is that they have various other vegan protein powders too, namely Vegan Protein Extreme and Vegan Wondershake. I’ve looked many times for differences between these two and the standard “Vegan Protein” but I am yet to see a significant difference — except for the price, of course, which is 1/3 more expensive for the former and more than twice as expensive for the latter. The Vegan Extreme comes also with “Vitamin & Mineral Blend (Tricalcium Phosphate, Vitamin C, Vitamin B5, Vitamin B6, Folic Acid, Vitamin B12)” if that’s something you desire (although as I’ve expressed earlier I think it makes more sense to use protein powder for protein, and supply these other components from other sources). They also throw in some flax seed powder, although I don’t think they put in a lot since the macros are pretty comparable between the original and the extreme. For the Vegan Wondershake, I can hardly even see where the difference is:

Spot the difference: Above, the ingredient list of the Protein Works Vegan Wondershake. Below, the regular vegan protein from the same provider.

The protein sources differ slightly; hemp is used instead of pumpkin and sunflower in the Wondershake, but, seeing that hemp is a strong source of methionine, this doesn’t really change a lot. Otherwise, I’m a bit lost about what justifies the price difference. The Vegan Protein is expensive on its own, which is one of the aspects of the Vegan Protein from the Protein Works that I dislike. It need not be made more expensive on unjustified grounds. Don’t get me wrong, everyone (not just the Protein Works) does this — it’s just marketing. But that doesn’t mean you have to fall for it. Unless you have a raging B-vitamin deficiency and can’t take B-vitamin complex supplements or eat fortified bran flakes, then you have no need for anything other than the most basic vegan protein blend. And be sure to buy it when it’s on sale (which is virtually always, anyway).

D-I-Y Vegan Protein

With all of these marketing tricks, expensive products with superfluous components, and ingredients lists with unbalanced AA profiles, wouldn’t it be convenient if you could just make your own vegan protein? Well, you can, and it’s a lot easier than it sounds.

We discussed above that legumes tend to be rich in lysine and low methionine, whereas grains tend to be the opposite. This has led to the concept of protein complementation, which consists of combining proteins to optimize AA profile during protein feeding in a single sitting [16]. We used this knowledge to guide us in our decision making when buying a vegan protein blend, but we can also use it to buy protein powders from individual sources and combine them ourselves. The best example of this is pea and brown rice. Pea is a good protein source, aside from being poor is methionine. Brown rice is not particularly great, but it’s rich very in methionine. For this reason, combining these in the ratio of 41:59 brown rice to pea gives a well-balanced AA profile and a great source of vegan protein. (You can probably do 50/50 if no one’s watching — I won’t say anything).

Herreman et al. provide a great resource in their paper on protein quality of various protein sources [17]. In it, they model how the proportion of various AAs change with different ratios of rice to pea (DIAA on the Y-axis means digestible indispensable AA; you can think of it here as an amount). You can see that when rice is at 0%, the amount of lysine is high (clear triangle), whereas at 100% rice protein lysine is far too low, but other AAs that were low at the other end — methionine and tryptophan — are high. Since both extremes would lead to deficiencies, Herreman wanted to know what ratio would provide the highest DIAA score (an alternative method to PDCAAS for measuring protein quality). The blue dashed line shows where this is, and it is 41:59% of brown rice to pea protein. They do this with various other combinations of proteins and I highly recommend checking the paper out, if you’re interested.

The optimal ratio of rice to pea protein ratio, modelled by Herreman et al. [17]

My other favourite paper for this topic is that of Pinckaers et al., the figures of whom we’ve seen throughout this article. You’ll probably also note from those graphs that there are other protein sources that are rich in lysine and low methionine and vice versa. Thus, you need not limit yourself to brown rice and pea; use the knowledge from the two papers cited above to try other options. But be sure to check that the rest of the AAs are also present. The nice aspect about pea it also has decent quantities of other EAAs, too. Plus, pea is also very cheap (I got 5kg for 30 euros from bulk.com earlier this year). Brown rice is usually more expensive but, even still, the combined price of your DIY vegan protein per kilogram will be much less than buying a brand name one, I imagine. In terms of flavourings, pea protein often comes flavoured and rice protein less so, but what I recommend is buying them both unflavoured and adding your own sweetener (I have good experience with FlavDrops from MyProtein, but other products also exist). This gives you the freedom to control degree of sweetness and taste yourself, which is a nice bonus of this method.

Conclusion

It’s great that more and more people are eliminating animal products, but it’s crucial that people do this in a way that doesn’t compromise their health or gains. Not knowing how AA profiles vary between plant-based foods can leave you vulnerable to both of these negative health consequences. And, additionally, can make you vulnerable to buying expensive protein powders with fancy ingredients you don’t need. Learning what you can do in response to this can make you smarter, healthier, grow your muscles, and stop your wallet from shrinking.

References

[1] 10.3390/nu7095380

[2] Jay R. Hoffman, Michael J. Falvo. (2004) Protein — Which is Best?. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (03), 118–130.

[3] https://doi.org/10.1186/S43014-020-0020-5

[4] https://www.fao.org/ag/humannutrition/35978-02317b979a686a57aa4593304ffc17f06.pdf

[5] https://www.essna.com/protein-watch/#:~:text='Protein%20spiking'%20%E2%80%93%20also%20known,label%20and%20avoid%20being%20caught.

[6] https://rippedbody.com/protein-powder-scams/

[7] 10.1007/s40279–018–1009-y

[8] https://dx.doi.org/10.3390%2Fnu12123717

[9] http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0184-9

[10] https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-021-01540-8

[11] https://www.gardenoflife.com/sport-organic-plant-based-protein-vanilla

[12] https://doi.org/10.1111/apha.12948

[13] https://dx.doi.org/10.3390%2Ffoods6100092

[14] https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eclinm.2021.101224

[15] http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ejcn.2014.137

[16] https://nutrition.org/protein-complementation/#:~:text=Protein%20complementation%20is%20the%20most,are%20essential%20for%20your%20body.

[17] https://doi.org/10.1002/fsn3.1809

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Dan Kirk

Dan Kirk

Researcher at Wageningen University Research; MSc Nutrition & Health and BSc Biochemistry; practicing data science; and lifetime natural bodybuilder