Just a few short years ago you’d be lucky to find any sort of vegan plant protein powders stacked on the shelves of any health foods store - but today - that’s thankfully no longer the case.
We’re blessed with countless options, ingredients and brands to pick what works best for us in the vegan protein space. It’s nothing short of a god-send, but brings us onto the biggest choice of all.
How to choose the right vegan plant protein powder?
And this is precisely what we'll explore in this article. In order to help better understand which are the best plant protein powders, we've broken down the results into 7 key categories:
- Protein Content
- Amino Acid Profile
- Digestibility And Fibre
- Vitamins & Minerals
- Healthy Fats
- Taste And Texture
If you're already well versed on particular aspect, or are interested in one specifically, feel free to jump ahead to that section by clicking on the list above.
Top 5 Best Plant Protein Sources
Before we start looking at the different aspects of plant protein powders, we first need to define our comparison sources.
There are a lot of different plant protein sources to choose from, however not all of them are readily available for purchase such as oat, corn and potato protein powders (1).
As such we decided to compare only the top 5 most popular and readily available plant protein powders. Here's what we'll be comparing:
- Pea Protein Powder
- Rice Protein Powder
- Soy Protein Powder
- Hemp Seed Protein Powder
- Sacha Inchi Protein Powder
Obviously, the first thing to consider when comparing plant protein powders is the overall protein content of that particular source.
With plant proteins, there's a significant discrepancy in terms of overall protein content between the various sources. For example Soy protein (the highest in protein content) comes in at 91g of protein per 100g of powder, while hemp seed contains only 50g per 100g of powder (1).
It's important to note here however, that no matter your fitness or health goals, there's a lot more to choosing a protein powder than purely protein content (1,2,3,4).
The table below details the protein content of the 5 best plant protein powders:
|Protein Powder||Protein (g) (per 100g|
|Sacha Inchi Protein||63.0|
|Hemp Seed Protein||50.0|
Amino Acid Profile
Probably the next most important aspect to consider when choosing a vegan plant protein is its amino acid profile and whether or not the powder forms a complete protein.
In terms of amino acids, there are two key factors to consider:
- The overall essential amino acid content.
- The branched chain amino acid (BCAA) content.
A complete protein, if you don’t already know, is one that contains each of the 9 essential amino acids that our bodies need to survive (3).
Branched chain amino acids, are a group of three of those 9 essential amino acids - leucine, isoleucine and valine. They are grouped together due to their molecular composition. From a more practical perspective however, they represent around 35–40% of all essential amino acids in your body and 14–18% of those found in your muscles. As such, BCAAs are mostly broken down in the muscle, rather than in the liver and play a vital role in energy production during exercise (3, 4).
There is a common misconception that plant proteins are somehow low in amino acids or are otherwise "incomplete". This is completely false. Not only are most popular plant protein powders "complete", but some of them actually contain more amino acids than whey!
For example, Sacha Inchi protein contains more of two key branched chain amino acids (isoleucine and valine) than whey protein. For Leucine, it only contains 1.4g less per 100g (1).
|Protein Powder||Essential Amino Acid Total (g) (per 100g)|
|Sacha Inchi Protein||33.1|
|Hemp Seed Protein||13.3|
|Protein Powder||Total (g)||Valine (g)||Isoleucine (g)||Leucine (g)|
|Sacha Inchi Protein||15.4||4.0||5.0||6.4|
|Hemp Seed Protein||4.9||1.3||1.0||2.6|
Digestibility And Fibre
Digestibility and fibre is another key factor to consider here and is often overlooked. When choosing a protein powder, most people simply look at the nutritional panel, go straight to the protein content per 100g and make their decision based on what is highest.
However we can't stress how important digestibility and fibre is. Not only does it directly effect your body in a measurable way (think bowel movements), but it actually directly effects the amount of protein your body can absorb (5, 6).
To illustrate this point, 30g of protein from pea isolate and 30g of protein from rice isolate may seem equal, but are not digested by the body at the same rate. This is more commonly referred to as the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) (6).
Additionally, fibre plays an important role in appetite control. Put quite simply, the higher in fibre a food source, the longer you will feel full, thus reducing your portion size and meal frequency (7).
A simplistic way to think of this is if what makes you feel fuller, a banana (high in fibre) or a glass of orange juice (low in fibre)?
|Protein Powder||Dietary Fibre (g) (per 100g)|
|Sacha Inchi Protein||13.6|
|Hemp Seed Protein||16.3|
|Rice Protein||< 1|
|Soy Protein||< 1|
Before we start looking at the antioxidant content of plant protein, it's important to understand the fundamentals here. What are antioxidants and how do they work?
Put very simply, antioxidants are a collective group of various molecules that help protect our bodies from a chemical process called oxidation. Thus anti-oxidant (8).
Unfortunately, depending on your lifestyle, diet, age, stress levels, health and fitness - your body is constantly exposed to oxidation which can lead to diseases ranging from Alzheimer's, heart disease and stroke and cancer (9, 10).
Antioxidants are an often overlooked aspect of protein powders in general. Animal based protein powders (bovine, casein, whey etc..) all have extremely low antioxidant content (11, 12).
Contrasty, plant foods (including plant-based proteins) are rich sources of antioxidants. This is measured by their ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) score. An ORAC score is a lab test that attempts to quantify the "total antioxidant capacity" (TAC) of a food source (11, 12).
To help put this into perspective, dried peppermint leaves have one of the highest ORAC scores among commonly consumed products (think peppermint tea) with an ORAC score of 160,820. Whey protein powder has about 15 (11, 13, 14).
Unfortunately, there isn't any readily available data on the ORAC scores of many protein powders. However natural plant based sources all contain higher antioxidant content compared to dairy.
Vitamins & Minerals
Each different form of plant-based protein comes with associated pros and cons, they all do the same job at the end of the day, but what they contain will vary from source to source.
For example, pea and rice protein are higher in protein than hemp, but hemp contains over 25 per cent of the daily values for zinc and contains 40 times more iron than pea protein - those are numbers you can’t ignore.
Unless you have a specific preference for wanting more of one vitamin than another - it’s unlikely that you’re going to need to scan the labels for the nutritional information on specific vitamins. This shouldn't be a significant factor in choosing a plant protein powder.
When choosing your plant protein, fats are probably the last thing you want to in your macros. However, fats are actually one of nature's cleanest energy sources, particularly certain types of fats.
While your fat intake should be low on a carbohydrate based diet, regularly substituting some of those carbs for high-quality fats can be an excellent source of energy.
With plant proteins, some are actually quite high in unsaturated fats, particulry sacha inchi and hemp seed proteins which both come from seeds that are naturally high in omega 3.
|Protein Powder||Unsaturated Fat (g) (per 100g)|
|Hemp Seed Protein||9.5|
|Sacha Inchi Protein||4.2|
Taste And Texture
At the end of the day, a protein can be the healthiest, greatest protein in the world, but if it doesn’t taste all that great, chances are that you're not going to be consuming it.
Taste and textures are vital to get right with your protein powder, especially if you're excessing regularly and enjoy a nice post workout shake or smoothie.
This is a fairly subjective matter unfortunately, however in terms of unflavoured raw plant protein powders, each does have their own unique taste. The table below shows how most people describe various plant protein powders based on our own taste tests as well as others.
In terms of flavoured protein powders, it’s hard to judge from the label and even harder from the packaging - so this is where reviews come in. Check reviews to find how others have found the flavour and how easily it mixes with water or non-dairy milk. Found a complete protein source with glowing taste reviews? Snap that straight up!
Which Plant Protein Powder Is Best?
As we've seen in this post, there is more to choosing the right plant protein powder than simply looking at the protein content on the nutritional panel on the label.
For most people, pea and rice protein are both well-rounded protein powders. Soy protein is often ovoided due to both allergies and other health-associated issues with soy.
To get the best of both worlds, a plant protein blend is an excellent option. When different protein powders are blended together at specific ratios, the end-product can be high in protein, BCAAS and fibre while still containing a small amount of healthy fats!
|Protein Powder||High Protein (> 70%)||High Healthy Fats||High Fibre||Allergy Free||High BCAAs||Complete|
|Hemp Seed Protein|
|Sacha Inchi Protein|
- Protein content and amino acid composition of commercially available plant-based protein isolates
- Plant Protein Shown to be Better than Animal Protein for Building Muscle
- BCAA Benefits: A Review of Branched-Chain Amino Acids
- Essential Amino Acids: Definition, Benefits and Food Sources
- Why Is Fiber Good for You? The Crunchy Truth
- Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score
- The effect of fiber on satiety and food intake: a systematic review
- What are antioxidants? And are they truly good for us?
- Oxidation, Disease and Aging
- Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health
- Comparing the antioxidant capacity of various proteins using the oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) assay
- Antioxidant activities of buttermilk proteins, whey proteins, and their enzymatic hydrolysates
- What Are ORAC Values?
- ORAC Values: Antioxidant Values of Foods & Beverages
- The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide
- Special high-protein plants provide proteins, fibres and antioxidants in a single package