Vegan Proteins 101
Once upon a time in the supplement world, whey protein was king. It was not only deemed to be the best choice, but it was (almost) the only choice! Times have changed, however – consumer preferences are now varied, and the protein powder market is more diverse. One of the biggest shifts in the evolution of protein powders has been the range of plant-based proteins to hit the shelves. With an increasing number of people following a vegan lifestyle or looking for other alternatives, the range of plant-based proteins has also increased exponentially. So, why might you choose a vegan protein powder, and what is the difference between the types available?
Why would I choose a vegan protein powder?
Vegan protein powders don’t cater for vegans only! There are a number of other reasons that people choose to go plant-based for their protein. These include:
- Allergy and dietary restrictions – especially for those who have milk allergies or intolerances to lactose, plant-based proteins can provide an alternative that is gentler on the gut
- Natural formulas – many plant-based proteins have natural formulas that do not include artificial sweeteners, colours, flavours, or preservatives
- Added health benefits – plant-based proteins can more often include other health boosting ingredients, such as pre- and probiotics, greens, superfoods, and healthy fats
- Dietary variation – if you already consume many other dairy-based foods such as milk, cheese, and yoghurt, a plant-based protein can provide a way to mix your diet up
- Environmental and sustainability considerations – formulas that are not derived from dairy may be more ethical and environmentally friendly
What types of vegan protein powder are available?
The vegan proteins on the market are numerous and include both products that contain a single type of plant-based protein, or formulas that are a blend of two or more different plant-based proteins. Which one you choose depends on taste preferences, any allergy restrictions, and whether you are looking for a simple plant-based protein staple, or a powder that provides additional benefits and ingredients. Vegan protein powders can also differ regarding their provision of a complete amino acid profile. A complete amino acid profile means that the protein powder contains all nine of the essential amino acids our bodies require (essential amino acids cannot be produced by our bodies and need to be ingested via food sources). While all animal-derived proteins are complete, not all plant-based proteins are.1 This is not necessarily a problem, as provided the rest of your diet is diverse and includes foods across a variety of food groups such as grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes, you will likely take in any other amino acids that are required. However, it can be an added bonus to know that your plant-based protein powder is complete, especially if you follow a vegan lifestyle.
Pea protein is made by extracting protein from yellow peas, and it is one of the best plant-based choices available as a daily alternative to replace whey protein. It is highly digestible and non-allergenic and has a high protein content. It is also rich in iron as well as the amino acids lysine, arginine, and glutamine, although it has a lower content of the essential amino acid methionine.2 Sweetened and flavoured varieties typically taste pretty good on their own with water or plant-based milks, as well as mixing well into smoothies or baking. Unflavoured and unsweetened pea protein can also be included in savoury foods such as soups.
Brown rice protein
Like pea protein, brown rice protein is non-allergenic and provides a good option for those who have gluten and dairy intolerances. It has a well-balanced amino acid profile, although is slightly lower in the essential amino acid lysine. As pea protein is high in lysine but somewhat lacking in methionine, and rice protein has the opposite profile, they make a complete nutritional complement for each other.2 Some people find that the texture of brown rice protein is grittier than other plant-based sources, and therefore that it is less suitable for using in a protein shake on its own and better blended into other ingredients where the texture is less noticeable. Brown rice protein can also often be included as part of a plant-based blend in multi-ingredient vegan formulas.
Soy protein is derived from soybeans and was one of the original plant-based proteins available. It provides many of the same benefits as whey protein including a high protein content, complete amino acid profile3, and optimal support for muscle building. For some people, however, soy can be an allergen and needs to be avoided. It has a distinctive taste but provides a rich, creamy texture that mixes well.
Hemp protein is extracted from hemp seeds and is one of the newest additions to the plant-based protein market. Although it contains all nine essential amino acids it is low in several critical amino acids including lysine. Hemp protein has the advantage of having a high fibre content and a high percentage of healthy omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids.4,5 The taste of hemp protein has been described as “earthy”, however, which may be less palatable for some people or require it to be mixed with stronger tasting foods and beverages.
Peanut protein is made by pressing most of the oil from roasted peanuts and grinding it into a fine powder, which creates a higher protein, lower fat alternative to whole peanuts while retaining the rich peanutty taste. It is a good source of fibre, vitamins, and minerals, and is typically used as part of a plant-based protein blend (for example, those with a pea protein base) to provide a delicious flavour and creamy texture. It is a great choice for adding peanut flavour to smoothies and snacks such as bliss balls. Peanut protein should, of course, be avoided by anyone with a peanut allergy.
Overall, it's clear that plant-based proteins have come a long way, both in terms of their taste and the range of formulas that are available to choose from. Most are great options and can provide an ideal way to mix things up regardless of whether you follow a vegan diet or just want to introduce some variety into your regular protein powder routine. Browse our range of vegan proteins here to find the one that’s right for you!
- Lopez M.J, Mohiuddin S.S. Biochemistry, Essential Amino Acids. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing, Treasure Island (FL); 2021. PMID: 32496725.
- Lu, Z. X., He, J. F., Zhang, Y. C., & Bing, D. J. (2020). Composition, physicochemical properties of pea protein and its application in functional foods. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 60(15), 2593–2605. https://doi.org/10.1080/10408398.2019.1651248
- Michelfelder A. J. (2009). Soy: a complete source of protein. American Family Physician, 79(1), 43–47.
- Farinon, B., Molinari, R., Costantini, L., & Merendino, N. (2020). The seed of industrial hemp (Cannabis sativa L.): Nutritional Quality and Potential Functionality for Human Health and Nutrition. Nutrients, 12(7), 1935. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12071935
- House, J. D., Neufeld, J., & Leson, G. (2010). Evaluating the quality of protein from hemp seed (Cannabis sativa L.) products through the use of the protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score method. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 58(22), 11801–11807. https://doi.org/10.1021/jf102636b