Written by Carina Fabia
Last updated on: Feb 15, 2022
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In most cases a vegan protein powder will be made from 4 key components:
1) A Plant Based Protein Isolate (e.g. Pea Protein, Soy Protein or Hemp Protein)
3) Nutritional Ingredients
4) Flavouring Ingredients.
Vegan protein powder is a great way to assist in the meeting of your daily protein goals if you are leading a plant based lifestyle.
Before choosing which type of vegan powder you want to use, it is important that you look carefully at the type of plant protein being used. Not every vegan protein shake is equal. Plant based protein powders derived from soy, rice, pea, hemp and pumpkin will all have their own unique nutritional profile. Some powders will not be complete protein source. The reason for is the lack of at least one essential amino acid (1).
When taking plant protein powders which are lacking in one of the amino acids it is possible to compensate by adding the missing amino acids elsewhere in your diet. An alternative to this would be to choose a blended powder derived from two plant based proteins in order to give you a complete protein source (2).
Things to carefully consider when purchasing your vegan protein powder are:
1) Which vegan protein source is the powder derived from (soy, brown rice, pea, hemp protein)?
2) What other nutritional value does your vegan protein powder offer? Is it a complete protein containing all the essential amino acids? How much sugar does each serving contain (some supplements have a lot of added sugar to disguise bad taste)?
Vegan protein powders are a way to add protein into your diet normally in the form of a shake. Vegan protein shakes are a plant-based alternative to the use of whey protein shakes. Despite having vegan in the name, vegan protein shakes are not only used by people following a vegan diet. These shakes are also used by those who are trying to live a more environmentally friendly life, those who suffer from dairy intolerances or require a gluten free supplement and those looking to cut back on animal produce.
The reason for using a vegan protein supplement will vary from person to person. Common goals include: as part of a weight loss diet, to enhance protein intake for muscle growth, and as a convenient way to get more protein into one's diet.
There are several different types of vegan protein powder. The most common sources of vegan protein sources for these powders come from pea, soy, brown rice, hemp and pumpkin. There may be just one source in a supplement of a blend of two or more plant based proteins.
Soy protein powder: Soy is a popular choice as it is one of the only complete plant-based proteins and is high in BCAA’s. Further to this, studies have shown that consumption of soy helps to lower cholesterol levels (3). There are some concerns raised over soy, especially soy which is genetically modified. For this reason it is advisable to purchase non-genetically modified forms of soy protein powder.
Pea protein powder: Pea protein is made from yellow split peas, not from the more well-known garden pea. Studies have shown that pea protein powder is a good choice for those wanting to increase muscle growth (4). Pea protein has adequate amounts of all of the branched chain amino acids (BCAA) aside from methionine.
Brown rice powder: Brown rice protein is a good source of the essential amino acids with lysine being the only one which is deficient. This means if you take brown rice protein powder you should make sure you are consuming a food high in lysine such as legumes and tofu. Research has shown brown protein is almost on a par with whey protein powder (5).
Hemp protein powder: This protein has excellent levels of magnesium, fibre, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids and iron (6). However, if you choose to take hemp protein powder you will need to ensure you consume legumes to compensate for the low level of the essential amino acid lysine (7).
Pumpkin protein powder: This plant based supplement boasts a high level of magnesium, zinc and iron. Like many other vegan supplements is in lysine which means this will have to be compensated with high lysine food sources else where in your diet. Another benefit of pumpkin seed protein is it contains phytoestrogen. Research has found phytoestrogen can help reduce cholesterol levels (8).
Blended powder: A vegan protein blend is a mixture of one or more vegan protein sources. The aim of this is to create a complete protein source with all the essential amino acids. This coverage of all the essential amino acids will support protein synthesis.
There are a variety of ways vegan supplements can be integrated in your diet. You can opt to mix it into a smoothie or shake. This can be consumed at any time of the day. The most common time to take a protein shake is pre or post workout. You can also take vegan protein powder mixed into a condiment like peanut butter, mixed in with pancakes, porridge or waffles.
You can even mix it in with yogurts and mashed potatoes. Specific flavours of protein power can be used to complement a range of different everyday foods. This includes vanilla protein powder added into coffee.And chocolate flavoured protein to treats like brownies, cookies and muffins. Your creativity is really the only limit on the ways in which you can add this supplement into your diet. You can even add vegan protein into your blender and mix it with vegetables and fruit.
Plant based protein powder does not always contain all of the essential amino acids. Research has shown that some vegan protein sources have inferior essential amino acid profiles when compared to whey protein.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Amino acids play an important role in body functions, such as the growth and repair of new muscles fibres. When you consume protein, your body breaks it down into amino acids (9). Your body cannot create amino acids so they must come from the food you consume.
This is normally achieved through the consumption of meat, eggs and poultry. This obviously poses a problem for vegetarians and vegans. The reason for this is vegan-based protein tends to offer amino acids levels that are below the guidelines set by WHO (10).
However, studies have shown blended vegan protein powders do contain higher levels of amino acids which compare favourably with whey protein powder (10). When selecting a plant based powder it is important to carefully check the amino acid profile of the supplement. It is not a problem if all of the essential amino acids are covered, as long as you know which one is not covered so you can make the necessary adjustments to your diet.
Other than the amino acid profile you should also check these key ingredients: added sugars, flavourings, gums and fillers.
A lot of vegan powders contains lots of added ingredients to boost your body. These ingredeints include chia seeds, omega 3 acids, healthy fibres, monk fruit, mushrooms, collagen and flax.
Another thing to check especilaly in the case of soy protein is whether or not the soy is genetically modified. This should be very clearly labelled on the product. In recent times, there has been a move away from any vegan protein shake which contains generically modified ingredients.
High sugar content is something you want to avoid in a vegn protine shake. Ideally you don’t want to have more than 1 gram of sugar in your powder. Even natural sugars which we tend to regard as healthier need to be avoided as much as possible. This means natural sugars such as honey and coconut.
To avoid using sugar to sweeten protein powder some companies turn to sweeteners. Ideally you want plant based sweeteners. Stevia is an example of a plant based sweetner which has a zero calorie count (11).
Sweeteners to be wary of if you have a sensitive stomach are xylitol or erythritol as studies showed that when consumed in larger doses these sweeteners can cause stomach troubles (12).
Following concerns of high metal counts in vegan protein powders. Studies were undertaken to see if heavy metals like cadmium (Cd), mercury (Hg), lead(Pb) and arsenic (As) metals could pose a health threat. The results showed that because vegan protein powder is plant based these heavy metals are naturally forming in the soil. And suggested heavy metal exposure via protein powder supplement ingestion does not pose an increased non-carcinogenic risk to human health (13).
In most cases a vegan protein powder is made from 4 key components:
1) A Plant Based Protein Isolate.
3) Nutritional Ingredients.
The source of the protein may change depending on what plant is used. And it is common to see a blend of plant based proteins used in order to create a single vegan supplement which covers all of the essential amino acids.