Building Vegan Muscle: The Best Vegan Protein Powders

Vegans like to point out that protein requirements are vastly overstated for the average person and they are correct in stating this. In western cultures we seem to have an obsession with getting as much protein as we can at every meal. For the average person, there truly isn’t much of a need to supplement or go to great lengths to get as much protein as possible.

For the average vegan who participates in endurance sports or lifts weights to maintain health, vegan protein powder supplementation may not be necessary. A normal vegan diet (although lower in protein than a typical western diet) probably meets actual protein requirements.

However, when it comes to building muscle and gaining mass on a vegan diet, it’s not as easy as it is on a normal western diet.

Some vegans will vehemently deny that a plant-based diet is no worse for building muscle than a traditional western diet. While Phytomaniac would like to support this argument, it’s simply not true.

The bottom line is that as vegans, we no longer have all of these great muscle building animal hormones and IGF-1 precursors running through our bodies everyday. Combine this with lower levels of amino acids in plant foods and vegans are left at a disadvantage when it comes to building muscle.

There are two options for trying to make up this gap:

  1. Spend all of one’s time counting, tracking, and determining how much protein and aminos one is getting from food throughout the day;
  2. Choose to supplement protein at various points of the day as part of a broader muscle building strategy.

What is Protein?

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Let’s break down protein: how important it is, what it’s comprised of and some things to consider when incorporating it into your diet for training.

Protein is made up of amino acids. Amino acids are organic compounds that combine to form proteins. Amino acids and proteins are the building blocks of life.

The human body uses amino acids to make proteins to help the body:

  • Grow Muscle
  • Break down food
  • Repair body tissue
  • Perform many other body functions

Amino acids can also be used as a source of energy by the body.

There are two main types of amino acids:

  1. Essential amino acids – These are amino acids which your body cannot synthesize and must come from your diet. The nine amino acids humans cannot synthesize are phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, and histidine.
  2. Non-essential amino acids – Amino acids which your body can synthesize and do not necessarily need to come from one’s diet. Some of these are considered conditional amino acids, meaning in times of illness or stress, your body may not be able to produce enough of them. There are approximately 11 non-essential and/or conditional amino acids: alanine, asparagine, aspartic acid, glutamic acid, arginine, cysteine, glutamine, tyrosine, glycine, ornithine, proline, and serine.
arginine
Arginine is associated with increased blood flow to muscles

Amino acid profiles vary, both in number and amount, based upon the type of food being considered. Some foods contain many amino acids, while other foods contain very few.

For example, plant-based foods like quinoa or edamame have all 9 essential amino acids. Athletes should give consideration to amino acid profiles in order to match food intake with training needs.

A popular term that gets thrown around when it comes to proteins and amino acid profiles is “complete protein”. A complete protein refers to whether or not all 9 essential amino acids in sufficient levels are contained within a single food. While it’s important for humans to eat all 9 essential amino acids in a given day, it’s less important if all 9 essential amino acids come from one specific food or meal.

Many “experts” in the medical and nutritional industries have had a bias towards animal proteins and western diets as most, if not all, animal proteins are “complete proteins”. Although most plant proteins contain all 9 essential amino acids, many people have demonized plant-based diets because the levels of amino acids are not typically as high as animal proteins.

The reality is that as part of a balanced and complete plant-based diet, it’s almost certain that one will obtain all 9 essential amino acids throughout the day.

There’s an important bridge between a complete protein and the basic amino acid and that’s the polymer. Polymers are groups of molecules (in this case, amino acid molecules) linked together by peptide bonds. During digestion, stomach acids break down these peptides into smaller polypeptides.

This process is integral to the digestive process and the absorption of essential amino acids. Once broken down, these essential protein components can be further digested and utilized by muscle to create new tissue.

Just as amino acids are a structural component of protein, protein is also a basic building block of all cells, but in particular, a crucial building block for muscle mass. Protein consumption helps to replace amino acids lost during muscular exertion. It is also necessary to repair damaged tissues as well as build larger, stronger muscle.

Whether through high-protein foods or through protein supplements, extremely competitive athletes are actively engaged in utilizing the best combination of these macronutrients in order to enhance performance, increase muscle size and increase strength.

Advantages of Consuming Vegan Protein Powder Supplements

Here are a few reasons to consider consuming protein supplements as opposed to whole food protein sources:

  • Convenience
  • Faster absorption to replace depleted amino acids post-workout
  • Better absorption and digestion of the protein
  • Peace of mind (no need to obsess at every meal)
  • Amino acid absorption throughout the day

Types of Vegan Protein Powder Supplements

When they are in supplement form, proteins can be classified in the following three categories:

  1. Concentrates – Protein powder concentrates are a mixture of fats, water, minerals, carbohydrates, and protein, with between 70 and 80 percent of the powder being made up of the actual protein. This is accomplished through the concentration and processing of protein, with the goal of removing as many non-protein parts as possible.
  2. Isolates – Isolate protein powders are a slightly more successful method of removing the non-protein parts from the powder, achieving roughly up to 90 percent protein in the powder itself.
  3. Hydrolysates – Also sometimes referred to as hydrolyzed protein, hydrolysates are partially digested proteins, including polypeptides and peptides. These proteins can be desirable because they provide benefits above and beyond simply the amino acid building blocks.

Which protein category should you choose? At the end of the day, it doesn’t REALLY matter, the more important thing is that you are getting your protein. Protein isolates tend to be absorbed more readily and quickly than concentrates and thus is a preferred post-workout protein type preferred by many serious athletes.

What to Look for When Choosing a Vegan Protein Powder

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  1. Quality – There are many factors that affect the quality of a protein powder and none are created equal. There are a few ways to tell if you are getting a quality protein: reviews, number of ingredients, and to a lesser extent price.
    • Reviews – Reviews are your friend and can help you avoid certain products that may not be right for you. They can tell you if protein powders taste bad, don’t mix well, cause GI upset or don’t keep well.
    • Number of Ingredients – Additionally, if your protein supplement has a litany of ingredients that seem to go on forever, ditch it. You’re buying this for protein and protein only, if there’s a bunch of other crap in it, try something else.
    • Price – Lastly, you get what you pay for. This isn’t to say you should always buy the most expensive product, but at the end of the day, the cheapest protein powders are cheap for a reason, they may not have the best quality ingredients.
    • Other things to look for when evaluating quality
      • Is it Organic and non-GMO?
      • Taste
      • Shelf Life
      • Easily mixes
      • Ease of ingestion
  2. Amino Acid Profile – Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and are essential for building muscle. Having a protein powder with a complete amino acid profile (and high levels) is ideal. The next best thing to look for is a protein with an almost complete amino acid profile (i.e. as many of the 9 essential amino acids as possible). Of course if you are supplementing amino acids separately, then the amino acid profile of a protein supplement becomes much less important.
  3. Yield – Remember, you are buying protein, not carbs or fat. Is the yield of your protein supplement sufficient? Plant proteins likely will never match the yield of some of the animal protein supplements out there, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t get good yields. To understand yield, one should take the grams of protein in 1 serving and divide by the total grams in that serving. Most plant proteins are around 50-70%.
  4. Digestibility – Everything we put into our bodies gets absorbed at some point on its path through the gut. Carbs, proteins, and fats are absorbed differently by the body and their absorption depends on a multitude of factors. Protein is no exception. Some types of protein are absorbed more effectively by the body than others. If you don’t want to purchase a protein supplement that doesn’t absorb well, do your homework.

The FDA has partnered with other agencies to create a Protein Digestibility and Amino Acid Chart to illustrate the differences (PDCAA Score). Of course, you should take this with a grain of salt and use as one of many inputs into your decision making process. The general point here is that the more easily digested proteins are going to be better to supplement with.

Just as the categories of vegan protein powder are not created equal, the types of vegan protein powder are not either.

The following is a list that breaks down the top vegan protein powders from worst to best.

The 5 Best Vegan Protein Powders for Building Vegan Muscle

#5 Soy Protein Powders

For vegans, soy may appear to be the one of the better vegan protein powder options because of the fact that it is a complete plant-based protein. This means it contains the entire essential amino acid profile. Additionally, the organic compounds in soy have been shown in some research studies to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Unfortunately, there has been some debate recently about the potential downsides of soy.

Without getting into too many details (a soy article is in the works), soy contains isoflavones, and when supplementing in large amounts has been documented to disrupt the endocrine system. Supplementing with soy protein isolate has also been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer in premenopausal women (source). Lastly, soy is typically processed and roughly 93% (!) of the soy food supply is pesticide and GMO ridden.

Soy is already prevalent in our food system, especially for those on vegan diets, and that’s ok. Most research seems to suggest keeping soy intake to less than 40 grams per day is ideal (more info here). Because most vegans probably already get a fair amount of soy from their daily diets, it is best to supplement with another type of vegan protein powder.

It would appear the answer of whether soy is bad for you or not is more complicated than a simple yes or no. It likely depends on many factors including age, geography, genetics, health status, and even the presence or absence of specific gut microflora.

Given these considerations, Phytomaniac recommends staying away from supplementing soy. However, if you insist in supplementing with soy, below you will find the top 3 soy protein powders.

Top 3 Soy Protein Powders

#Vegan Protein PowderPrice# PoundsCost / Protein GramComments
1Bulksupplements Pure Soy Protein Isolate
$28.962.2$0.0390% pure protein. No additives or preservatives
2NOW Soy Protein Isolate$20.602$0.03Non-GMO
3Six Star Pro Nutrition Soy Protein Powder
$9.111.44$0.03Added B Vitamins

 

#4 Hemp Protein Powders

Made from hemp seeds, hemp protein powder generally goes above and beyond the simple task of providing protein. It also offers a powder that is high in fiber, high in levels of omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids (good for anti-inflammatory purposes), and a few studies have found that it may assist with weight loss.

Not only is hemp a superfood, it is also highly digestible, allowing users to be assured of little to no GI distress. And because hemp protein powder contains around 20 amino acids, including all 9 essential amino acids, it doesn’t have to be paired with other proteins to complete the amino acid profile.

The downside to hemp protein is that because it comes loaded with lots of other good stuff: fiber, omegas, etc. it usually packs a lower yield, meaning it may not be the ideal protein to supplement with if you’re goal is building vegan muscle.

Top 3 Hemp Protein Powders

#Vegan Protein PowderPrice# PoundsCost / Protein GramComments
1Nutiva Hemp Protein
$11.951$0.05Organic & Non-GMO
2Navitas Naturals Organic Hemp Protein Powder
$9.930.75$0.08Organic
3Manitoba Harvest Organic Help Protein Powder
$8.301$0.05Organic. Taste is reportedly not great

 

#3 Rice Protein Powders

Most people view rice as a carbohydrate, which is a fairly accurate perspective. However, rice does contain protein. And it is this protein that is extracted to create rice protein powder. Rice protein is a perfect protein powder for any individual with allergies to soy or a sensitive stomach, because it is both easily digested and hypoallergenic. Rice protein is also high in fiber, gluten-free, lactose-free and full of B vitamins, which help out with muscle metabolism and growth.

The downside of this protein is that, like many other vegan protein powders, it is low in some amino acids. Specifically, rice protein is low in lysine-thus it is best to pair it with another plant-based powder so that the essential amino acid profile can be more complete. Typically, rice protein is paired with pea protein. Additionally, when this protein powder was compared to whey protein powder, it was shown that it provided nearly the same benefit.

Top 3 Rice Protein Powders

#Vegan Protein PowderPrice# PoundsCost / Protein GramComments
1Growing Naturals Organic Rice Protein Powder
$43.112$0.06Organic, 90% protein
2Sunwarrior Classic Rice Protein
$44.992.2$0.06Organic, Non-GMO, Gluten Free
3Naked Rice Organic Protein Powder
$64.995$0.03Organic, Non-GMO, Gluten Free. Among the better priced rice proteins. Reportedly does not mix as well as other protein powders

 

#2 Blended Protein Powders

Not all vegan protein powders were created equal; for that reason, sticking with a blended vegan protein powder may be right for you. Different vegan protein powders each bring their own benefits, and by choosing a blended vegan protein powder, the benefits typically outweigh the negatives.

For example, by blending vegan protein powders, one could obtain the anti-inflammatory and weight loss benefits of hemp, along with the high glutamic acid levels and easier digestibility of pea. With a blended vegan protein powder users can get all of these benefits, full essential amino acid profiles (usually) and a dairy-free, animal product-free protein mix.

It’s particularly important to keep in mind the framework we’ve outlined above regarding amino acids, quality, and yield when evaluating blended vegan protein powders.

Because there are frequently more ingredients in blended protein powders, it can be even more important to take a closer look at what you are buying. Make sure you’re getting a complete protein; this should be one major benefit of choosing a blended vegan protein powder.

Lastly, ensure it’s not chocked full of fillers and other ingredients which don’t look familiar; remember it’s protein were after, not carbs or fat.

Top 3 Blended Protein Powders

#Vegan Protein PowderPrice# PoundsCost / Protein GramComments
1Sunwarrior Warrior Blend Plant Based Protein Powder
$44.992.2$0.06Full Amino Acid Profile. Primarily made from pea, hemp, and goji berry proteins
2Orgain Organic Plant Based Protein Powder
$17.772$0.04Primarily made of pea, rice, chia, and hemp proteins. Organic, Non-GMO, Gluten Free
3Compass Elements Vegan Protein Powder
$26.991$0.09Primarily made from pea and hemp proteins. Organic, Non-GMO

 

#1 Pea Protein Powders

At the top of the vegan protein powders lies pea protein. As a plant source of protein, peas have a great amino acid profile. It has all nine essential amino acids (although peas lack significant amounts of tryptophan), and have most of the non-essential aminos as well. You may consider mixing with brown rice to jack up the tryptophan component.

A positive side benefit that comes from this protein is that it assists in turning carbohydrates into energy with its high glutamic acid levels, meaning that fewer carbs will be stored as fat. Fresh peas have an incredibly low glycemic index.

Your body will like pea protein powder. Is it hypoallergenic and GI friendly. Pea protein powder also contains high amounts of l-arginine, good for muscle building.

If you thought you could just go to the store and buy some peas and blend them up for your pea protein, think again. While they are low-glycemic, they do contain a lot of carbohydrates. The process to making your own pea protein powder is simple, but it’s somewhat time consuming. It’s easiest to stick with supplementing pea protein powder.

Top 3 Pea Protein Powders

#Vegan Protein PowderPrice# PoundsCost / Protein GramComments
1Bulksupplements Pure Pea Protein Powder
$16.112.2$0.02Very low in carbs/fats
2Source Naturals Pea Protein Powder
$18.042$0.03Non-GMO, Gluten Free
3Naked Pea Protein Powder
$52.245$0.03Non-GMO, Gluten Free. Possibly packaged in China

 

What’s the Vegan Protein Powder Verdict?

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When it come to building lean muscle, one protein comes out on top: Pea Protein. It has just about everything you could ask for in a vegan protein powder supplement: all essential amino acids, highly absorbable, easily digestible, and some of the best yields of any vegan protein powder. Not to mention it’s price per gram of protein was amongst the best on our list.

Just because we ranked pea protein powder first on our list, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s best for you. Evaluate your needs and wants and see how they fit in with the benefits of each protein powder on our list.

When building muscle, the most important piece is hitting your protein intake and frequency goals, not necessarily which protein to take. It’s better to have protein than not to have it.

Can’t decide?

Go with a protein blend. It’s more important to ensure you are hitting your defined protein requirements for your goals. Having a protein shake is better than not having one. Listen to your body. Pay attention to the results.

If you enjoyed this article, please be sure to share it on social media. Also, comment below with which vegan protein powder you prefer.

Note: Prices displayed were listed at the time of article creation and are subject to change.

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