Vegan protein powder provides a convenient, supplemental protein source which is free of animal products. Adequate protein intake for muscle gain and general health (1, 2) is something that plant based dieters can struggle with which has contributed to the rise in popularity of vegan protein powders.
Vegan protein is often compared to the more established and thoroughly studied whey protein. The rise in popularity of plant based diets over the past few years has led to a growing body of research on the efficacy of vegan protein powders.
The potential benefits and side effects of each source of vegan protein powder as well vegan protein sources as a whole have been listed below.
1Vegan protein powder made with rice has been shown to improve body composition and exercise performance just as well as whey protein powder (3). Whey protein has often been lauded as an essential supplement for those looking to improve body composition and overall fitness.
This was the first double-blind study ever done on plant proteins versus animal proteins and the results ran contrary to the findings of numerous previous studies that found animal based protein sources to be superior to plant based protein sources.
The findings of this study showed that rice protein can be just as effective at reducing fat mass and increasing hypertrophy, strength, power and lean body mass when administered post workout.
2Vegan protein powder made with rice can help combat atherosclerosis (4). A 2010 study on mice showed that consumption of rice protein powder, in comparison to casein protein powder, led to reduced atherosclerotic lesions.
It is often said that one of the mechanisms behind rice protein and other plant proteins that reduces the risk of heart related diseases is due to an inhibition of cholesterol absorption.
In this study the cholesterol levels of the rice fed group and the casein fed group were the same which may suggest that other mechanisms are responsible. Controlled human studies are still required to further confirm the efficacy of rice protein being able to combat atherosclerosis.
3Vegan protein made with peas can promote muscle thickness gains when taken in conjunction with a resistance training program (5). The study also showed that similar gains were made in terms of muscle thickness and strength in the whey group and the pea group. It was the general consensus for years that plant based proteins could not match up to animal based proteins when it came to performance enhancement. This study was one of the first to buck the trend and pave the way for new research into the performance enhancement benefits of plant based protein powder. (6).
4Vegan protein made with peas can help with hunger cravings. A 2016 study that compared the digestion rate and satiety properties of pea, whey and casein protein found that pea protein was effective at triggering satiety signals (7). The results of this study are part of the reason why pea protein has been promoted as a useful supplement in the treatment of obesity. Pea protein has been shown to suppress hunger and provide a complete amino acid profile making it a viable option for a high protein diet, helping for combating obesity (8) (9).
The suppression of hunger, more specifically the hormone ghrelin, has been shown to play a key role in the success of weight loss diets (10). This would suggest that pea protein is a viable option for those seeking general weight loss or weight maintenance and not just obese populations.
Vitamins and minerals aid in hundreds of bodily functions from healing wounds to bolstering your immune system.
Although whole foods should always be the primary source of micronutrients having a supplement that provides high doses of vitamins and minerals is a convenient option to have.
Vitamins and minerals become even more important if you lead an active lifestyle or, more specifically, compete in a sport that requires weight cutting such as martial arts or bodybuilding (13).
6Vegan protein made with peas has been shown to reduce high blood pressure. Pea protein has high quantities of arginine which aids in keeping blood pressure low (14). The enzymes used in the purification of pea protein may be the main reason for its ability to reduce blood pressure as they are thought to release bioactive peptides which play a role in reducing blood pressure. (15) (16).
High blood pressure has strong links to a poor diet. The introduction of plant based foods and even a switch to a plant based diet has been shown to reduce the effects of high blood pressure (17).
7Vegan protein made with soy can reduce high cholesterol and risk of heart disease (18). The mechanisms by which soy protein reduces cholesterol are not entirely settled amongst the scientific community. It may be a result of the ingestion of soy inhibiting the absorption of cholesterol or the effect of nonprotein components, such as fiber and isoflavones, affecting cholesterol metabolism. (19).
8Vegan protein made with soy has been shown to help reduce the risk of prostate cancer (20). There are still some gaps in the research regarding the effect of isoflavones on prostate cancer but the body of research in this area is growing rapidly. One study showed that 6 months of soy protein consumption led to a reduction in prostate cancer. The results of a meta-analysis also concluded than consumption of soy protein is directly associated with a reduction in the risk of prostate cancer among men (21) (22).
9Vegan protein found in rice may combat oxidative liver stress (23). Oxidative liver stress can be a precursor to chronic liver disease and occurs when there is an imbalance between oxidant and antioxidant agents. This study shows that the inclusion of brown rice in your diet can help combat these effects by regulating glutathione metabolism and oxidative damage to proteins. While non-protein substances in rice may account for some benefit, other research shows the rice protein itself is a major influencer (24) (25) (26).
10Vegan protein made with soy helps reduce postmenopausal symptoms. Soy contains high levels of isoflavones, a substance that mimics estrogen. Postmenopausal women can suffer from a reduction in estrogen levels which leaves them susceptible to various side effects (27) (28). Soy intake has been shown to reduce tumor recurrence in breast cancer women as well combat high blood pressure, heart disease, endothelial function and atherosclerosis (29) (30).
12Vegan protein made with hemp can aid in the treatment of heart disease. Hemp is a rich source of linoleic acid (LA) which has been shown to reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases, atherosclerosis, coronary heart disease and high blood pressure in some cases (31) (32). More research is required on LA and it’s efficacy when it comes in the form of hemp but the initial research is encouraging (33).
12Vegan protein powder is a source of fiber. Vegan protein powder has the added benefit of containing moderate to high amounts of fiber which helps promote a healthy bowel, lower cholesterol levels and maintain a healthy body weight (34).
Dietary fiber intake has been shown to play a role in weight management (35). Data has also shown that dietary fiber intake is below the recommended amount, the American Heart Association recommends 25-30g per day and the data shows the average intake to be just 15g per day. The filling nature of fiber and its main sources may be the reason why intake is so low which makes a strong argument for the inclusion of vegan protein powders in diets low in fiber intake (36).
13Vegan protein powder is easily digested and leads to less gastric distress than animal based sources. Vegan protein powder does not contain any lactose and since lactose intolerance is an ever increasing problem in many populations vegan protein can be a remedy to this issue (37) (38).
1Vegan protein powder made with peas is moderate in purines. Purines break down into uric acid and can badly affect gout, kidney stones and various digestive disorders. Peas may be only problematic for some however. Purines found in plant foods like peas have been shown to be protective against gout in most cases and less problematic than meat, seafood, alcohol and sugar (39).
If you have suffered from any of the conditions above then keeping the amount of purines in your diet low can help to combat the effects of these conditions, though reducing animal protein is more important (40) (41).
2Vegan protein powder made with peas may be high in sodium. The sodium content will vary depending on manufacturer – this is an important point for people who suffer from heart related issues such as high blood pressure (42) (43).
3Vegan protein made with soy contains phytoestrogens. In a 2008 clinical case three women were admitted to hospital with severe menstrual cramps and uterine bleeding, all of the symptoms regressed when soy was removed from their diet. Phytoestrogens, while beneficial to health in many ways, have also been shown to possibly affect estrogen production in infants and various forms of behavior, ranging from sexual to social, in test subject rats (44). More research is needed to determine how much of an impact an individual’s genetics and microbiome has on their risk or benefit of soy consumption.
4Vegan protein made with soy has been linked to allergies. While more rare than milk protein allergy, soy allergy is one of the top 8 allergies and can result in vomiting, skin irritation, abdominal cramps and anaphylaxis. People who suffer from hayfever are at a greater risk of allergic reactions to foods, including soy (45) (46).
5Vegan protein made with soy can increase the risk of contracting bladder cancer. An epidemiological report looked at 61 cases of bladder cancer and found cause for concern regarding soy intake and the increased risk of bladder cancer (47). This may be related to the function of the kidneys in excreting metabolites of soy.
6Vegan protein made with hemp may cause issues with drug testing. THC metabolites can be detected in urine although the amount is low. Over consumption of hemp based protein products could potentially lead to a higher amount and cause issues with drug testing (48) (49). It is imperative to obtain a hemp protein powder that has been third-party tested or verified to be THC-free or with undetectable levels for athletes that are drug-tested for sport.
7Vegan protein made with peas is low in methionine. Methionine is one of the nine essential amino acids and plays a key role in cartilage production and protein synthesis (50). This can be an issue if your diet does not have various sources of proteins to make up for the low methionine content in pea protein. It is for this reason that many plant-based protein manufacturers combine various plant proteins to provide all essential amino acids.
When deciding on your daily dosage of vegan protein powder there are a few things to take into consideration.
The first thing to consider is your own daily protein requirements.
In terms of body composition and general health it has been shown that a max of 2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight (2.0g/kg BW) is the upper limit at which protein intake is seen to be beneficial for most (51) Chronically high intake above 2.0g/kg BW has been shown to result in significant symptoms of the digestive tract, cardiovascular system and kidney function (52). Recommended intakes differ based on individual needs, age, health, disease state, and goals. A range of 0.8-1.2g/kg BW meets most people’s protein needs who are sedentary or mildly active. For those who are moderately active, are aiming to lose weight, a higher intake of 1.2-1.5g/kg BW may be justified. Athletes, the elderly, those recovering from injury or surgery and the chronically ill may require even higher amounts, 1.5-2.0g/kg BW.
If you are unsure of your daily protein requirement, follow this simple calculation:
- Divide your weight in pounds by 2.2. This equals your body weight in kilograms.
- Then multiply your kg bodyweight by the most appropriate factor above (anywhere from 0.8 to 2.0) and you will have your intake in grams. The National Institute of Health recommends a minimum intake of 0.36g per pound (0.8g/kg) however this will not be enough for those of you who exercise and lead even a fairly active lifestyle (53) (54).
The next consideration is how much protein you are going to get from food. I think it’s worth noting here that just because you use vegan protein powder does not necessarily mean you follow a plant-based diet.
Vegan protein powders are used by people with lactose intolerance, gut issues as well as those who struggle to get enough micronutrients and fiber in their diet.
Animal based protein powders are low in micronutrients which is why it is recommended that they are not the primary source of protein and that the majority of protein intake comes from food.
Vegan protein powders are much higher in micronutrients and fiber which means that it could be argued that a higher daily amount of vegan protein powder, in comparison to animal based protein powder, could be recommended.
Despite this argument I would still recommend getting the majority of your daily protein intake from whole foods.
Taking into consideration all of the above, if you plan to consume protein powder, a range of 25-50g of vegan protein powder per day would be sufficient to help meet most people’s protein needs (even if increased). This typically amounts to 1-2 scoops depending on the manufacturer.
Protein powder can be taken at any time of day and does not have to be consumed solely post workout.
Can you build muscle with plant based protein powder? People of all types, can build incredible muscle strength and bulk with plant-based proteins.
Is vegan powder as good as whey? Whey contains all nine of the amino acids, and is therefore considered a complete protein. Plants, however, are not complete proteins because they tend to either miss one or more or be low in some of the essential amino acids. This can be remedied by using products with a combination of brown rice and pea protein which then make them similar in efficacy.
Is vegan protein powder safe during pregnancy? Protein powders tend to have higher heavy metal counts than whole foods. Some of these metals are required by the human body but it is best to keep consumption to a minimum. They are only needed in trace amounts. Therefore, be sure to look into the safety, quality, and purity standards of any product, before you make a purchase (55). See the Clean Label Project for a list of products with the lowest levels of contaminants (56).
Is vegan protein powder easy to digest? Vegan proteins contain fewer allergenic proteins like ones found in egg, dairy, making them more easily digestible for some.
Does vegan protein powder cause acne? Vegan protein powder is less likely to cause acne because it’s plant-based. Dairy has been found to be a major dietary acne trigger, though most often related to ingestion of skim milk, so vegan protein powder may be the ideal choice for clear skin (57).
Does vegan protein powder cause gas? It is less likely to cause gas than whey, but it is still a possibility. It really comes down to how well your intestines can deal with the product. If it contains inulin, FOS, or chicory root fiber, also known as prebiotics, bloating may occur in individuals with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Taking a probiotic can help alleviate any potential symptoms.
Vegan protein powders have many health and performance-related benefits.
The four sources of vegan protein have unique benefits as well as sharing similar benefits such as helping to reduce blood pressure and providing high levels of micronutrients.
Vegan protein powder got a reputation for being inferior to animal based sources and it’s still trying to shake off some of that unwarranted criticism.
Research in recent years has shown that vegan protein powder can be highly beneficial to any diet and is just as effective as whey protein when it comes to performance enhancement.
Protein powder of any kind should never be relied upon and whole foods should always be prioritized in your diet.