Vegan protein powder is an excellent way to get key amino acids if you don’t want or can’t have animal-based sources of protein like whey and casein protein.
Especially by combining multiple plant-based sources of protein, you can achieve a full amino acid profile and reap all of the benefits of protein powder, from muscle strength gains to fat oxidation.
Here’s our research team’s deep dive on who benefits from vegan protein powder and why.
Vegan protein powder benefits
1. Vegan protein is for more than just vegans
Vegan protein is derived entirely from plant sources and is useful not just for vegetarians and vegans, but for people looking for a greater variety in their amino acid profiles.
The primary reasons most people use vegan protein are obvious–they don’t consume animal products, for health, environmental, or ethical reasons. So, most popular protein products like whey and casein protein are out of the question.
There are ancillary benefits associated with vegan protein powders, too: they don’t have the dairy allergens that whey and casein protein powders have, and they also have zero lactose content.
While most people who are lactose intolerant can handle whey protein without any trouble, seeing as it’s less than one percent lactose by weight (1), some people who are exceptionally sensitive, or who want to keep their total lactose consumption as close to zero as possible, can benefit from a vegan protein powder.
2. The benefits of protein powder as a whole apply also to vegan protein powder
But, beyond that, what do the specific benefits of vegan protein powder look like? One key component to help answer this question is the amino acid profile of a particular protein source.
Amino acids are the basic building blocks of all of the different kinds of proteins in the cells in your body, and foods containing different protein sources have a different ratio of amino acids.
Some amino acids are essential–you can’t live without them, and your body can’t synthesize them from other amino acids. There are a total of twenty different amino acids that your body uses, and nine of these are the essential amino acids (6).
3. All of the heavy-hitting vegan protein powder sources contain all nine essential amino acids
These include pea protein, hemp protein, and chia protein.
Though they contain these proteins in different ratios, combining multiple sources can provide a robust amino acid profile that will fill all your dietary needs.
4. Combining multiple forms of vegan protein can match animal protein performance
When it comes to what kind of protein is “best,” animal proteins tend to be superior to vegetable proteins, according to a 2004 scientific article by Jay R. Hoffman and Michael J. Falvo at the College of New Jersey (7).
They reviewed the benefits of a variety of protein sources, and recommended casein, a dairy-derived protein, as the best single source of protein. However, the news isn’t all bad for vegan protein powder lovers. By combining protein from different vegetable sources, you can match the same benefits as an animal-based protein supplement.
So, is there one kind of vegan protein better than another? Fortunately, nutritionists have studied this very intently, and have come up with a metric called the protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score.
This metric uses the digestibility of cow’s milk (which is rapidly and easily digested, as long as you aren’t lactose intolerant) as the reference for protein digestion.
Different protein sources are ranked as a decimal, with 1.0 representing absorption equal to cow’s milk, and smaller numbers representing fractions of that–so 0.5 would mean a protein source is absorbed only half as well as cow’s milk.
5. Soy and pea protein are the best-absorbed vegan forms of protein
Among the best vegan protein sources are soy protein (1.0), pea protein isolate (0.89), with rice protein and hemp protein performing worse, but still above 0.5 (8, 9). Chia seed protein is a pretty new commercial concept, so there isn’t much good info out there its amino acid score.
What this means is that you should shoot to have at least some of your vegan protein come from one of the high quality sources: soy or pea protein.
Vegan protein powder side effects
Protein is pretty safe overall. Protein, as one of the three major macronutrients in your diet, doesn’t have much in the way of side effects. Especially with vegan protein powders–these products avoid the common commercial contaminants that can cause food allergies in some people.
Supplement companies know that many of their vegan protein powder customers are choosing their products to avoid allergenic contaminants like wheat and dairy. Soy is one moderately common allergen that can be associated with food allergies, so do be aware of cross-contamination.
People with soy or gluten allergies or sensitivities should check the ingredients of their protein powder. Labels that claim they are “soy free” or “gluten free” have to pass strict purity standards to make that claim, so if you see that on the label, you’re safe. The thing to watch out for is phrases like “processed in a facility that also processes eggs, dairy, tree nuts…”
This means that the company is using the same equipment to package different products, so there is a decent chance that there will be allergens from the other products that the company produces, so if you have special food sensitivities, you do need to be aware of this.
Very high doses of sugar alcohols (used as a sweetener) could cause GI issues. In some flavored products, there are potential side effects associated with sweetening agents. A few products on the market include sugar alcohols, which can cause gastrointestinal side effects when consumed in high doses (10).
However, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever encounter this problem unless you are extremely sensitive or are consuming a tremendous amount of flavored protein powder on a daily basis.
Vegan protein powder dosage
Aim for 1.3 to 1.8 grams of protein per kg of body mass every day. Protein is an extraordinarily well-studied nutrient, and recommendations for dosage are down to a science. For athletes trying to build muscle, the scientific literature recommends consuming 1.3-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass per day, divided up into at least three meals of equal protein content.
For aggressive gains, bump it up to 2.0 g/kg per day. People who are restricting their dietary intake to lose weight might even bump this up to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass per day in order to maintain lean body mass while dropping fat mass (11).
If you’re an endurance athlete, 1.0 g/kg per day is fine. For endurance athletes and for less active people, protein needs are more on the order of 1.0 grams per kilogram of body mass (12).
Make sure you account for your protein powder’s concentration. One important thing to keep in mind is that even the most highly pure protein powders are not 100% protein. They’re usually more like 80-90%. If the blend includes a lot of flavoring agents, superfood powders, and the like, the protein content may be even lower. Check the nutrition label so you can do the math on your protein powder of choice.
If, for example, you weigh 180 pounds (82 kilograms) and you have a protein powder that contains 20 grams of protein per 24 gram scoop, you can use these numbers to find out how much actual protein you need per day.
For fat loss, higher absolute amounts of protein may be necessary. If you are trying to lose fat mass while maintaining lean body mass, you’d need up to 164 grams of protein per day.
Now, hopefully all of this isn’t going to come from your protein powder, so you’ll have to take the rest of your diet into account. Once you’ve estimated how much protein the rest of your diet contains (you don’t need to be precise, a rough guess will do) perhaps you find you still need 70 grams of protein. This would be 3.5 scoops of your typical protein powder.
Vegan protein powder benefits FAQ
Q: Is vegan protein powder good for you?
A: Yes, vegan protein powder offers many of the same benefits as animal protein but without the allergens of dairy. Vegan protein powders can help amplify the strengths and ameliorate some of the classic weaknesses of a vegan diet (namely, the tendency of vegans to have lower than average protein intake).
While not every vegan or vegetarian needs to take a vegan protein powder, you’ll quickly find that they can be incredibly useful if you are an athlete, or if you want to beef up (no pun intended) your daily green drink and turn it into a protein shake. Since vegan diets tend to be lower in protein to begin with, there’s more upside to adding a vegan protein powder to a vegan diet.
Q: What should you mix with vegan protein powder?
A: Some vegan protein powders are made to be mixed with plain water and still taste decent. These tend to be multi-ingredient vegan protein powders that use flavoring agents like stevia and anti-caking ingredients like lecithin to result in a smooth solution that avoids the bland, chalky taste of plain protein.
If pure protein is what you are shooting for, you can mix vegan protein powder with your favorite milk substitute, like almond milk, flax milk (incidentally, a great source of vegan omega 3s), coconut milk, or rice milk.
Q: What vegan foods are high in protein?
A: The most popular vegan foods that are high in protein are all soy or lentil-based. These include tofu, tempeh, edamame, nutritional yeast, lentils, chickpeas, and beans.
Other sources, like some cereal grains, contain relatively high levels of protein, too. The protein content of vegan foods is not enough, though; you need to know the amino acid content.
It takes some careful planning to make sure the vegan foods that you eat contain all nine essential amino acids on a regular basis.
If all you do is eat the same vegan protein source every day, you’ll eventually start to suffer the negative effects of an amino acid imbalance. Hence the need for a constantly rotating selection of sources of vegan foods rich in protein.
Q: How can you make vegan protein powder less gritty?
A: Vegan protein powder can be gritty for a few reasons. The first is simply not mixing up the product enough. Try a wire whisk, or using a blender—sometimes, pure protein powders, by virtue of not containing any emulsifiers, can clump up into a gritty consistency.
If more mixing doesn’t work, you can try a different vegan protein powder. Look for one that uses soy lecithin or another emulsifier to make blending easier.
Alternatively, the problem might be the protein powder itself: certain sources of vegan protein powder are a lot grittier than others. Hemp protein, for example, is very high in fiber (which is great for health), but gives it a gritty consistency. Soy protein, on the other hand, is a lot smoother.
Related: Our best vegan protein powder picks
Vegan protein powder is an excellent way to deliver concentrated amino acids to your body, to help with building muscle, shedding fat, and strengthening bone.
Most people should aim for 1.3 to 1.8 grams of protein per day, after accounting for your other dietary protein and the concentration of your protein powder.
By combining multiple types of vegan protein powder from different plant sources, you can ensure that you’re getting a comprehensive amino acid profile that gives your body all of the building blocks it needs.