When it comes to protein powder, whey is considered the gold standard for guys who want to build muscle fast. Whey—which is made from the watery part of milk that separates from curds during the cheesemaking process—is a complete protein, meaning it packs all the amino acids you need for muscle growth and repair. Whey is also high in leucine, the most important amino acid in the muscle-building process. (Check out our picks for the best whey protein powders.)
Thing is, whey doesn’t work for everyone. Some athletes simply can’t stomach whey (and stinking up the weight room definitely breaks all kinds of gym etiquette rules). Others are lactose intolerant. Vegans need plant-based protein alternatives.
But can you really build muscle with vegan protein powder? Turns out, the answer is yes—you just have to buy the right kind.
For muscle protein synthesis—the technical term for the process of muscle repair and growth—to occur, you need to consume all nine essential amino acids in each meal, says Marie Spano, R.D., C.S.C.S., a sports nutritionist for the Atlanta Hawks. Whey, a complete protein, makes it easy to do that, which is part of the reason it’s so popular. Most plant proteins, on the other hand, are missing at least one amino acid, and some are low in leucine (you should aim for 2.5 to 3 grams of leucine per meal for muscle repair and growth.)
That’s why you should opt for a vegetarian protein powder that mixes different types of plant proteins, explains Leslie Bonci, R.D., a nutrition consultant for the Pittsburgh Pirates. This ensures you’re consuming all the essential amino acids and a wider range of nutrients. You could also consume a single-ingredient plant protein powder post-workout, and then make up for the missing amino acids through food later in the day, she says, since protein synthesis takes place over a 24-hour period. But let’s face it—that makes things complicated.
Note: Most plant-based protein powders come with a few grams of added sugar, and that’s by necessity, says Spano. Without it, they’d taste like dirt and would be about as hard to mix.
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She recommends blending protein powder with a few ounces of orange juice. The citrus will boost the vitamin and nutrient content and offset the “earthy” taste. After all, you’ll never reap the benefits of plant-based protein powders if you can’t force yourself to drink them.
Here are our picks for the best vegan protein powders you can buy.
BEST ALL AROUND: VEGA SPORT PROTEIN POWDER, CHOCOLATE
Made from a mix of peas, pumpkin, organic sunflower seeds, and alfalfa, one 22-gram scoop of this protein powder contains 15 grams of protein and only 80 calories. Plus, it also contains a whopping 2.9 grams of leucine—more than you’d find in many whey protein powders.
$37, Buy It Here
BEST PEA + RICE COMBO: NOW FOODS PLANT PROTEIN COMPLEX
A blend of pea, brown rice, and quinoa, each 38-gram scoop packs an impressive 22 grams of protein and 1.8 grams of leucine.
$26, Buy It Here
BEST FAN BASE: PLANTFUSION COMPLETE PROTEIN POWDER, VANILLA BEAN
Nearly 3,600 Amazon reviewers have given this blend of pea, artichoke, amaranth, and quinoa protein a 4 out of 5 rating—a true feat for a plant-based protein. One 30-gram scoop contains 21 grams of protein and 120 calories.
$30, Buy It Here
BEST INGREDIENTS: GARDEN OF LIFE MEAL REPLACEMENT, CHOCOLATE
One look at the ingredients list, and you’ll wonder which plants aren’t in this container. Made with proteins from peas, brown rice, amaranth, buckwheat, chia seeds, and more, one 36-gram scoop packs 20 grams of protein, plus a 7-gram dose of fiber.
$40, Buy It Here
BEST UNIQUE MIX: SUNWARRIOR, WARRIOR BLEND, VANILLA
Made from a blend of Goji berries and pea and hemp protein, each 25-gram scoop contains 18 grams of protein and about 2.6 grams of muscle-building leucine.
$36, Buy It Here
BEST SOY: NOW SPORTS SOY PROTEIN ISOLATE, NATURAL CHOCOLATE
This soy protein isolate contains 20 grams of protein per 24 gram serving and just 90 calories.
$18, Buy It Here
BEST DO-EVERYTHING MIX: VEGA ONE ALL-IN-ONE PLANT BASED PROTEIN POWDER, FRENCH VANILLA
A combination of pea protein, flaxseed, hemp protein, and more, one hefty 41-gram scoop contain 20 grams of protein, 6 grams of fiber, and 1.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids.
$29, Buy It Here