What makes the best vegan protein powder?

Protein powders are increasingly used for both health and fitness reasons, providing a quick and easy way to fill you up while helping fitness enthusiasts to bulk up and recover from exercise. Although whey protein is still dominant, vegan protein powders are growing in popularity. But are vegan protein powders any good and what should you look out for when choosing the best vegan protein powders? Let’s find out.

The importance of protein in your diet

Protein is a vital macronutrient, with the others including carbohydrates and fat. It’s part of every cell in the body and is a major component of skin, muscle, bone, organs, hair and nails. In fact, protein plays a role in crucial bodily functions like blood clotting, immune system response, vision, fluid balance, and the production of various enzymes and hormones. It’s also key to growth and development, can help us to feel full, and we need protein to build and repair muscle fibres, particularly after exercise.

Protein is comprised of twenty different amino acids, with nine of the 20 referred to as essential amino acids, meaning that the body can’t produce them by itself, requiring us to get them from the food we eat. When a protein contains all nine essential amino acids, we refer to it as a ‘complete protein’. If you’re a meat eater and relatively sedate, getting enough protein isn’t a problem as you can easily get enough protein from animals and dairy products. As a vegetarian/ vegan or if you exercise regularly, getting enough protein becomes harder.

Are vegan athletes getting enough protein?

There are plenty of plant-based foods that contain protein including beans, pulses, grains, and nuts and so vegans can get their fair share of protein. However, vegans need to be smarter about what they eat to ensure they’re including all essential amino acids in their diet. With most plants being ‘incomplete’ proteins, eating a blend of plants is therefore important.

Plus, the more you exercise, the more protein you need to repair muscle fibres and keep you strong and healthy. Research shows that an active person should consume protein every three hours during the day as well as up to an hour after exercise. And although protein requirements will vary from person to person, the recommendation is that athletes should consume a minimum of 20g protein per serving to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, which is needed to start the muscle repair process.

Should vegans consume protein powders?

Yes. There are a few reasons why you may choose protein powder to keep your protein levels high.

Firstly, protein powders are incredibly convenient – mixed with water or milk/plant milk, they can provide you with a quick and easy protein boost whenever you need it. The powder can also be mixed into porridge, smoothies, yoghurts and used in baking, for example. Plus, you know exactly how much protein you’re consuming and so it removes the guessing game. This is especially important if you exercise regularly and have protein targets to hit.

As a vegan (or vegetarian), protein powders can help you consume enough protein, especially on days when you want something quick and easy and/or require a filling snack.

In addition, protein powders are often stomached better after exercise. Athletes often suffer with decreased appetite after an intense exercise session due to changing levels of hormones that drive our state of hunger. However, it’s still important to consume protein to start the muscle repair process, so protein powders and shakes are the perfect solution.

Vegan plant proteins vs whey protein powder

Most protein powders contain whey (from cows). So what’s the problem with whey-based protein powders?

Clearly, if you’re vegan, whey is not an option. But on top of this, whey can have some nasty side-effects. Even if you aren’t dairy intolerant, whey protein can cause gastrointestinal (GI) issues such as bloating and stomach cramps. Not great at the best of times but especially if you’ve just finished a running race and are nowhere near a toilet!

Whey side effects also include acne, nausea, thirst, bloating, reduced appetite, tiredness, and headache.

And whey can include antibiotics which is often present in dairy. Plus, it’s far from sustainable.  In fact, whey protein (produced during the cheese-making process), is responsible for over 10kg of carbon emissions per 100g of whey protein.

What you should look out for in the best vegan protein powders

An alternative to whey protein powder is vegan protein powder. However vegan protein powders are not all created equal, so what should you look out for when choosing the right one for you?

  • Is it a complete protein? – Ensure the protein powder contains all nine essential amino acids. Both pea protein and soya protein are complete proteins, but bear in mind that pea protein is low in methionine and cysteine, which doesn’t make it ideal if consumed by itself. Rice protein is commonly mixed with pea protein powder because rice protein is high in both cysteine and methionine, but is low in lysine. Pea protein, on the other hand, is low in cysteine and methionine but high in lysine. Pay particular attention to leucine, which starts the muscle protein synthesis process. Both pea and hemp contain good levels of leucine. However, whichever protein powder you choose, it’s best to choose one with a blend of plant proteins to ensure high levels of all essential amino acids.
  • At least 20g protein per serving – It’s been proven that at least 20g of protein per serving is enough to stimulate muscle protein synthesis so that muscle repair can take place following exercise. Any less won’t be as effective.
  • Natural ingredients, gums and fillers – When choosing a protein powder, don’t just focus on protein content. What else does the powder contain? Far too many powders contain lab-made ingredients such as artificial sweeteners and flavours. And the majority also contain gums and fillers to make the powder smoother and ‘tastier’, but these ingredients bulk it out without providing any nutritional benefits. In fact, some people find that gums disagree with them, causing stomach distress. So, examine the ingredients and choose natural with minimal ingredients as the powder is likely to be healthier and gentler on the stomach.
  • Digestibility – Some vegan protein powders are less digestible than others so bear that in mind when choosing your protein buddy. Pea, hemp and rice protein are all easily digested with pea protein having a 94 per cent rate of digestibility.
  • Sugar content – Some powders claim all-natural ingredients but contain very high levels of sugar. Even sugars viewed as healthier, such as raw cane sugar and coconut sugar, can rot your teeth and cause spikes in blood sugar levels and so keep sugar levels in check. Natural sweeteners like stevia and lucuma are healthier alternatives.
  • Non-GMO and gluten-free – As well as being vegan, check-out whether the powder is gluten-free as gluten might cause digestion issues. And if the powder is manufactured outside of the UK, such as in the USA, there’s the possibility the ingredients could have been genetically modified and so confirm this before purchase.
  • Taste and texture – The taste and mouth-feel of a protein powder can be very subjective. A powder that may seem far too sweet for some people could taste delicious to others. Likewise, some powders are smoother than others. When choosing a protein powder, read the reviews and try a sample pack if one is available, to see if it suits you without having to purchase a full sized tub/pouch.
  • Sustainability – Does the protein powder company consider the environment in terms of the ingredients and packaging? Some ingredients are naturally more sustainable than others, for instance, some people prefer to avoid soya. And be wise when it comes to packaging as compostable isn’t always best. For instance, compostable packaging needs to be put on a compost heap and tended regularly otherwise it’ll decompose slowly and give off greenhouse gas emissions like anything else. Where possible, avoid single use packaging, choosing recyclable options instead. Plus, check out whether the company is aligned with any environmental initiatives or charities.

There aren’t any hard and fast rules when it comes to choosing the best vegan protein powder. After all, what suits one person may not suit the next. However, as a rule of thumb, it’s best to choose a protein powder that’s ‘complete’ with a blend of plants; provides over 20g protein per serving; is 100 per cent natural with no added gums, fillers, gluten or genetically-modified ingredients; has no added sugar; is easy to digest and has sustainability credentials. This assures you that you’re getting a high quality protein that will make you stronger and fill you up without any unpleasant side effects to both you and the planet!