Best Plant Based Proteins Reviewed
Protein is a crucial part of the human diet, and is necessary for living a healthy life with a body that performs at its best. In fact, protein is so important that it is part of every single cell in the human body! The body uses protein to build and repair muscles and tissue and is an important component of bones, skin, cartilage, and blood. If the human body experiences a protein deficiency, it won’t be able to function properly. Instead, you would experience lethargy, weakness, and hair loss, among other symptoms.
10 Best Plant Based Proteins
Legumes have plenty to offer on top of all of that protein. They are also high in fiber and phytonutrients (which help fight inflammation) and are great for digestive health and controlling blood sugar levels.
Variety is the spice of life, and there are innumerable varieties of legumes you can try to get a plant-based protein kick until you find your favorites. Legumes can be found at any grocer, and can be purchased fresh, dried, canned, or frozen, giving them a long shelf life.
Legumes are a very affordable plant-based protein.
- Highly versatile
- Tons of protein
- Many different varieties
- Prepping fresh or dried legumes can be time consuming.
2. Hemp Seeds
In addition to the 10 grams of protein, three tablespoons of hemp seeds has 14 grams of fat, and 2 grams of fiber. They are also loaded with omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, other amino acids, and magnesium.
Hemp seeds have a light, nutty flavor and are very similar to flax seeds. Their versatility makes the possibilities for their use nearly endless. Try them as a salad or yogurt topping, or blended into your favorite smoothie or plant-based protein shakes.
Hemp seeds are affordable, although more expensive than pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds.
- High protein content
- Usually only found at specialty retailers
Quinoa is an edible seed, and is loaded with protein and amino acids. Add to that high levels of fiber, magnesium, B-vitamins, iron, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, and a few antioxidants, and you have a plant-based protein that helps meet most of your nutritional needs.
With quinoa growing in popularity, it is pretty easy to find in the rice section at your average grocery store. Quinoa has a slightly nuttier taste than rice and can be used as a replacement for rice in any recipe. It cooks quickly, so there is no long wait to get a plant-based protein on the dinner table.
Quinoa is a bit more expensive than rice, but is still affordable. Try buying it in bulk or loose.
- Overall nutritional powerhouse
- A little expensive compared to other grains
Four ounces of tofu, in addition to the 10 grams of protein and nine essential amino acids, has 164 calories and is loaded with lots of other nutritional goodies like calcium, manganese, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Let’s be honest: tofu isn’t known for its amazing flavor. However, tofu’s bland base can be flavored any way you want. Try it with traditional Asian flavors, cooking it up with some BBQ sauce in place of a burger, or blending it into your favorite smoothie. Tofu also comes in a fermented variety (seitan) that has its own unique flavor. A couple of varieties of tofu can usually be found in your grocer’s produce section.
Tofu is an inexpensive plant-based protein
- Can be flavored any way you like
- Bland taste in its original form
5. Chia Seeds
Four grams of protein aren’t all that this plant-based protein source has to offer. A serving of chia seeds also has 8.3 grams of fiber, 8 amino acids, and loads of antioxidants, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, and potassium.
Chia seeds have a very unique gel-like texture that takes some getting used to. Users tend to blend them into a smoothie or toss a scoop or two into a normal recipe (like pancakes, salad dressing, etc.) to give it an extra plant-based protein boost. Chia gel (mixing chia seeds with water) can also be used as a vegan replacement for eggs, or as a replacement for oils (or eggs, of course) in baking recipes.
Chia seeds are about the same price as other seeds and nuts, and remember, a little goes a long way.
- Lots of nutrients
- Gel-like texture can be a turn-off
Almonds aren’t only a great source of plant-based protein. They are also full of fiber, healthy fats, vitamin E, manganese, and magnesium. A small handful of almonds has 161 calories and only 2.5 grams of digestible carbohydrates.
Almonds have a slightly sweet, but light nutty flavor. Almonds are a very versatile plant-based protein. They are a great grab-and-go snack, but can also be enjoyed as a topping for oatmeal or a salad, chopped up and put into your favorite side dish, or even as a milk.
Almonds are priced in the average range of other nuts.
- Potential allergen
In addition to being little green protein powerhouses, broccoli is also rich in the following: glucoraphanin, which helps the body detoxify; beta-carotene, zinc, and selenium, which are immune-system boosters; phytonutrients, which help fight inflammation; and indole-3 carbinole, which is known to be a powerful antioxidant and anti-carcinogen. Broccoli is one well-rounded plant-based protein!
Broccoli is commonly found in your local grocer’s produce department and can easily be grown at home. It can be eaten raw or cooked and possibly topped with hummus, cheese or other toppings.
Broccoli is inexpensive and versatility which really gives it a bang for your buck.
- Commonly found
- Can be dry when eaten raw
8. Soy Milk
What’s in soy milk other than 8 grams of plant-based protein? It’s a great source of calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B12, potassium and isoflavones. What’s not in soymilk is just as important. Soy milk is free of lactose and cholesterol and is very low in saturated fat.
Soy milk is available in original, chocolate, and vanilla flavors. Try them all to find your preference. Do note that it doesn’t necessarily cook the same as dairy-based milk. Soy milk can be found at any grocer in either the milk section or the baking aisle where there will be shelf-stable varieties.
Soy milk is one of the less expensive plant-based milks.
- Too much soy can be troublesome for people with thyroid issues
In addition to 4 grams of protein, each tablespoon of spirulina contains 20 calories and is also an excellent source of vitamin B1 (aka Thiamin), iron, and calcium (it has 26 times the amount of calcium of cow’s milk!).
Spirulina is not, I repeat, is not, tasty. In fact, it has been described as tasting like pond water. Spirulina powder is the most common form of this plant-based protein and is easy to mix into smoothies, sauces, or other liquid foods. It can even be mixed in with dry baking ingredients to give your goodies a plant-based protein boost. Just make sure that whatever you are mixing the spirulina with has a strong enough flavor to hide it!
Spirulina is the most expensive plant-based protein on the market.
- High doses of many nutrients
- Bad taste
10. Sunflower Seeds
Not only are sunflower seeds packed with protein, they are also a great source of vitamin E, copper, vitamin B1, antioxidants, and magnesium.
Sunflower seeds have a unique, buttery taste and can be found anywhere from your neighborhood grocer to the farmers market to the corner convenience store. They make a great portable snack, a topping for salad or yogurt, or can be eaten in the form of sunflower butter.
Sunflower seeds are inexpensive in comparison to other seeds. Sunflower butter is slightly more expensive than peanut butter.
- Easy to find
- Higher in calories than other plant-based proteins
As an athlete, getting the right amounts of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates (as well as vitamins and minerals) is crucial to your overall health, wellness, and athletic performance. When our bodies don’t receive enough of our daily needs for macronutrients and micronutrients, we suffer. We lose energy and constantly fight fatigue, can’t focus, experience insomnia, and can’t properly build muscle to help improve within our sport. Protein is especially important for athletes, because it contributes directly to building and maintaining muscle and aids in a number of bodily and organ functions. In short, you need it, and you need a lot of it! However, when most people think of a protein-rich diet, what foods come to mind?
Most people think of meat when it comes to protein. But what about the non-meat eaters out there or those of us that simply want to increase our intake of plant-based foods? Have no fear! There are lots of plant-based proteins out there that really pack in the protein, and many of them are so versatile, you most likely won’t miss eating meat at all! This list compiles some of the best plant sources of protein out there.
Criteria Used for Reviewing the Best Sources of Plant-Based Proteins
Below are the specific metrics that we considered when putting together our list of plant sources of protein.
Many folks get their protein needs from animal-based sources because they contain such high amounts of protein and they are overall pretty tasty. So when searching for an alternative to these animal-based sources, we certainly don’t want to sacrifice either the high concentration of protein or taste. All the foods listed here are highly-palatable, and most have the potential through a little TLC to become even more delicious. While taste is definitely a matter of personal opinion, we’ve made sure to include plant-based sources that are generally widely accepted with rave reviews when it comes to yumminess. The great thing about plant-based sources, unlike most animal-based sources and meat products, is that their taste is not overpowering. This allows for them to pair well with other foods, and be mixed into other foods without experiencing unpleasantness. Legumes, like peas, beans, and nuts, can be easily thrown into already-tasty salads, casseroles, and side dishes but they also stand strong on their own. The exceptions on this list are spirulina and raw tofu. While tofu has been known to be just bland when eaten plain and raw, spirulina is noted among protein sources for it’s unpleasant taste (but it is off-the-charts when it comes to other nutritional benefits!). The great thing about these sources of protein though is that they can easily be manipulated with sauces, oils, and cooking methods and techniques or completely masked when mixed into other recipes like smoothies, acai bowls, etc.
To get the most out of your plant-based proteins, you want to look for ones that are highly versatile. First off, the foods named in this list are definitely great sources of protein, but they are also stocked with other micro and macronutrients. For instance, legumes are a great source of both protein and complex carbohydrates, as well as contain high amounts of fiber, phosphorous, potassium, iron, zinc, and B vitamins and are rich in antioxidants. The result? You’ll be enjoying a food that has numerous dietary and health benefits to fuel your training and speed up your recovery. Quinoa is a great protein-rich supplement for your standard starch or carbohydrate at dinner, and the nuts and seeds on our list provide excellent sources of good fats. Foods can also be considered versatile by the way in which they can be incorporated into multiple dishes and a variety of meals. One way this is possible is if a food is sold in various forms, such as dried, canned, frozen, etc. Legumes like black beans and white beans are often found dried or canned. This allows for great versatility in how you incorporate them into your stews, casseroles, and taco dips. They are also easy to puree, which has led to an increase in using them for flavor and to bump up the protein in your favorite desserts (i.e. black bean brownies and chick pea blondies). Nuts are highly versatile because they are commonly consumed all day at any meal or snack time, and can be eaten plain, mixed into salads, topped on yogurts, smoothies, and desserts, pureed into nut butters, or incorporated into your family’s favorite dinner recipe. Nuts are also versatile (as are tofu, seeds, and even spirulina) in how they pair well with both salty and sweet (trail mix!). Part of the magic of tofu is that it can be used in everything from lasagna to stir-frys to cheesecake. It can also be seasoned with a great many flavorings- from Tofu Curry to Sesame-Ginger Tofu Skewers to Spicy Tofu Chili, it’s a great way to add some spice into your weekday dinners. Broccoli is versatile not only because it can be served raw in many different ways, (on a gameday vegetable tray, alongside dips, etc) but it can be tastily broiled, grilled, roasted, or steamed. Nuts and beans also take seasonings well, and so are also great additions to your everyday meal. So go ahead! Throw some almonds into your chicken salad at lunch or to your morning cup of yogurt with chia seeds for some extra protein to help fill you up!
While all the foods on this list are obviously great sources of protein, many of them offer additional health and nutritional benefits as well. Most nuts range from 3-7 grams of carbohydrates per ounce, with 2-3 grams of fiber and 6-8 grams of monounsaturated fats (the “good” fats, along with omega 3’s and omega 6’s that may help lower risk of heart disease and stroke). Seeds are typically slightly higher in carbohydrates (averaging 6-12 grams of carbohydrates per ounce) and fiber (about 7-10 grams per ounce) but overall, lower in fats (about 1-2 grams). Because they are nutrient dense sources of protein, they will also have a higher calorie count. As long as you are mindful of portions and serving sizes though, seeds and nuts are excellent ways to get added nutrition into your diet.
Although taste is not spirulina’s main point of attraction, it’s nutritional profile definitely is. For just 20 calories in one tablespoon, 4 grams of protein, 11% of your recommended daily allowance (RDA) of B1, 15% RDA of B2, 4% RDA of B3, 11% RDA of iron, and 8mg of calcium. All of these micronutrients are especially important for runners and athletes, as they help create usable energy to fight through fatigue during intense workouts and increase endurance, aid in recovery, and maintain strong and healthy bones.
When thinking about increasing nutritional benefits from plant-based protein sources, it’s also important to consider what is NOT in them that may increase overall health. While some animal-based sources are high in unhealthy fats and cholesterol, plant-based sources of protein are much lower. Therefore, with generally lower saturated fat amounts, plant sources will typically also be much lower in calories than animal based. Foods that are soy-based (such as soy milk) will be free of lactose, so can be more readily digested by individuals who are lactose intolerant.
High quality cuts of meat can be expensive, but so can specialty foods (especially when they are only sold at certain grocers and markets). Luckily, there are also some very inexpensive and affordable non-animal products on the market. Price, coupled with other factors is how we determined that the foods included on this list were a good value for your dollar. First off, it’s good to know which stores near your house sell in bulk. Buying in bulk tends to be much cheaper in the long run, and most places that do sell bulk bins of food will have nuts and seeds available. When thinking about value, consider the food’s “ROI”- that is, how much are you getting for your money? This isn’t just amount the literal amount of protein, but includes your other resources like time, convenience, and maintaining personal sanity. For a food to be a good value, it needs to be relatively inexpensive as well as easy to make, prepare, and store, easy to acquire, versatile enough to be used in various ways, and an all around practical purchase for you and your family. Like we mentioned in the versatility section, all the foods on this list are versatile in that they can either be used in various recipes at multiple meals throughout the day and are not only great sources of protein, but contain additional nutritional benefits.
Other Important Factors to Consider When Choosing a Plant-Based Source of Protein
What recipes can you make with it or use it in?
We’ve already mentioned how the foods on this list are able to be used in many dishes, but you should still ask yourself if you will actually want or enjoy those dishes. Do some research before you go all in, and check to see if there are any recipes that use these foods that sound particularly appetizing.
Who else are you dining with on a regular basis?
Going right off the last question, you also need to consider not only what recipes you will like, but the tastebuds of whoever else you may be cooking for. Children can be especially doubtful of new, unusual foods and have not only developing tastebuds and a very specific palette, but they also have certain nutritional needs to help them grow. Therefore, it’s probably not a wise idea to incorporate a completely new dietary plan into your family’s daily routine all at once. (Aside from children, you might just have a house full of picky eaters, kids or grown ups. And that’s okay! Just incorporate these plant-based protein sources in slowly, and don’t be afraid to experiment.)
Do you have a food allergy or certain dietary restrictions?
Obviously, those with nut allergies can’t partake in dishes that contain almonds or peanut butter, and may also need to be cautious around seeds because of cross contamination (for instance, some companies that produce peanut and almond butter also produce sunflower seed butter. This probably isn’t a wise consumption choice for a person with a severe tree nut allergy because of the risk of shared equipment and cross contamination of the different products). It’s important to be aware of any food allergies you may have, so be sure to get an allergy test before trying any completely new-to-you foods. Individuals with Phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare inherited genetic disorder, cannot properly metabolize phenylalanine, a common amino acid. As amino acids are the main building blocks for protein molecules, people with PKU have to be very cautious when consuming foods containing protein, and cannot eat foods deemed “high in protein.” (As a result, the majority of the foods on this list are off-limits, with the exception of broccoli, in very limited amounts).
Is it easy to get where I live?
The beauty of the internet and sites like Amazon.com is that purchasing specialty foods and having them shipped right to your door has never been easier. Still, if you just enjoy the occasional grocery store experience, it’s good to check up and see if the items on this list are sold at your local market. Legumes are pretty standard, and you can find them most anywhere. (The same is true for vegetables like broccoli and most nuts.) Seeds and certain grains are sometimes harder to come by, especially ones like hemp seeds and quinoa. And then there are the foods on this list like spirulina that are only typically sold in a specialty store or grocer. If your local grocery store doesn’t carry it, chances are you’ll have to hit up the nearest health food store if you want to purchase in-person. Otherwise, amazon.com’s nationwide shipping is the ideal solution!
Can it be prepped, prepared, and transported easily?
If you’re looking to supplement your diet with plant-based sources of protein, chances are you’re NOT looking to spend a bunch of additional time and effort incorporating them into your already busy lifestyle. This is where it’s especially important to consider what forms each food is sold in. Dry beans are typically cheaper, but they take a bit of additional prep work (i.e. soaking overnight and boiling) but beans sold in a can are ready to use as soon as they’re opened. Also consider if it can be used in place of animal-based sources. Soy milk, while a great alternative in many ways to dairy milk, won’t set up in some recipes and desserts (like pudding) like cow’s milk. Tofu is extremely versatile and can be cooked using many different methods and in a number of recipes, but it is usually a bit water-logged when it’s purchased and so requires time to dry out. Also consider if it’s an easily portable food, especially if you eat some of your meals on-the-go or need a handy post-workout snack that can be simply thrown into your gym bag. Foods that need refrigeration aren’t good options, but nuts, seeds, and even grains, beans, and vegetables that have already been cooked and prepared beforehand travel well when thrown into bags and tupperware.
Q. How does protein work?
Proteins are the molecules responsible for the structure, function, and regulation of the body’s tissues. Proteins are made of chains of hundreds of thousands of amino acids, which attach to one another. Twenty different amino acids can link together to form a protein. The unique sequence of amino acids that link together determines the structure of the resulting protein and the function it will have within the body.
Q. What does protein do for our bodies?
Proteins are large and complex molecules that are a crucial component of the human body and are found in every cell of your composition. They are the molecules mainly responsible for the structure, function, and regulation of the body’s tissues. Below is a short list of body functions and parts that depend on protein:
- Hair and nails are composed mostly of protein.
- Protein is used by the body to build and repair muscle and tissue.
- Protein is important in the making of enzymes, hormones, and other important body chemicals.
- Protein is a key component in bones, blood, skin, muscles, and cartilage.
When amino acids link together to form a protein, they create a unique structure with a specific protein function. Five of the major protein structures and their functions are:
- Antibodies (example: Immunoglobulin M): When a foreign particle, such as bacteria or virus, enters the body, antibodies attach to the particle to help protect the body.
- Enzymes (example: DNA polymerase): The main function of enzymes is to carry out the chemical reactions that occur within the cells of the body. A secondary function of enzymes is forming new molecules by interpreting genetic information in DNA.
- Messengers (example: oxytocin): Messenger proteins are responsible for transmitting signals between cells, tissues, and organs so that biological processes can take place. Many hormones are messenger proteins.
- Structural Component (example: elastin): In addition to providing structure and support for the body’s cells, structural proteins also allow the body to move.
- Transport/Storage (example: serum albumin): Structural proteins bind atoms together, then carry them throughout the cells of the body.
Q. What forms of protein are available (and what the heck’s the difference)?
There are many different forms of protein, and each provides a unique combination of nutrients and is most effective at different times. The type of protein that is best for you will be determined by your nutritional needs, dietary restrictions, and when you plan on using it. Consult the list below to determine which protein will best meet your needs:
- Whey Concentrate: This is one of the most commonly found types of protein and is very inexpensive. It is a good pre-and post-workout choice. It may be hard to digest for some users, leaving them feel bloated or gassy.
- Casein Protein: Casein protein breaks down very slowly, taking a full 5-7 hours to fully digest. This means that steadily absorbs its protein and nutrients over a long period of time. It is recommended that casein protein be taken before bed so that your body can refuel and repair as you sleep.
- Whey Isolates: This fast-absorbing protein is a good choice for people that follow a low-carb diet. They can be taken pre- or post-workout. It costs a little more than traditional whey proteins.
- Hydrolysate protein: This is the quickest absorbing protein available, and therefore, is also the most expensive. It is easier to digest than whey proteins and can be used pre- and post-workout.
- Soy protein: This plant-based protein option is suitable for vegetarian or vegan diets. In addition to protein, it also provides users with a healthy dose of glutamine, arginine, and BCAA’s. It can be used both pre- and post-workout, but it is not recommended that soy protein be taken immediately before sleep.
- Milk Protein Isolate: This combination of whey and casein proteins is usually part of a blended protein combination. It isn’t the most recommended source of protein, but can serve as a nutritional filler if necessary.
- Egg Albumin: Before protein powders existed, egg albumin (i.e. egg whites) is where athletes needed a protein boost got their fix. It provides many amino acids and helps build lean muscle. Egg albumin is now available in powder form and can be used any time during the day.
Q. Why do athletes need protein after a workout?
When you workout, you strain and damage your muscles, and when you are finished, your body needs to repair the damage caused so that the muscle can rebuild. The process of repairing and rebuilding muscle fibers is called muscle protein synthesis, and ingesting protein after a workout can help this process along. Protein is generally quickly absorbed (except for casein) and can help stimulate muscle repair and growth in most athletes. Additionally, studies have shown that athletes that take protein after a workout experience less soreness, have better overall immune response when ill, and need to visit the doctor less. Protein is not only used for recovery, but for muscle growth. After a tough workout, your body repairs or replaces damaged muscle fibers by fusing new muscle fibers together. These new muscle protein strands are called myofibrils. These new muscle fibers, or myofibrils, increase in number and size, and are what cause muscle growth.
Q. How is protein digested?
Your stomach is full of enzymes specifically designed to help you digest different types of food and nutrients. Pepsin is the enzyme that your body produces specifically to digest proteins. When a protein enters your stomach, pepsin breaks apart the peptide molecules that hold the protein together. Digestion of the protein is completed in the small intestine by the enzymes trypsin, chymotrypsin, and carboxypeptidase.
Wikimedia Commons | https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2429_Digestion_of_Proteins_(Physiology).jpg
Q. How do I properly store these foods and keep them fresh for longer?
By and large, most of the items on this list can be kept freshest in the refrigerator or freezer. If you’re trying to save money and opt to buy in bulk, extra nuts and seeds that you don’t immediately use can be preserved in the refrigerator or freezer for many months. The cold temperatures ensure that the oils they contain wont go rancid. Legumes that are not cooked, like dried beans, have a pantry shelf life of up to two years before they start to lose moisture and experience vitamin degradation. However, items like soy milk and tofu won’t last much longer than a week or two in the fridge. If you have leftover or extra tofu, you will need to store it in a tightly closed container filled with water, and be sure to change the water every day. Soy milk can be bought in plastic/foil rectangular containers that don’t need refrigeration until they’ve been opened, so you can buy multiple packages of soy milk in this form and keep them in your pantry until you’re ready to use.
Here are a few of the sources we looked at during our research:
- What is a Legume, Informational Gardening Webpage and Blog, ,
- 20 Things You Can Do With Tofu, Healthy Living Food Blog, Dec 14, 2014 ,
- Monounsaturated Fats, Health and Wellness Webpage Article, Oct 15, 2015 ,
- Carbs, Fats, and Calories in Nuts and Seeds, Health and Wellness Webpage Article, Jun 19, 2017 ,
- Spirulina: 7 Reasons To Try It (& 1 Major Caution), Informational Health and Wellness Blog, Apr 13, 2017 ,
- Can You Eat Seeds on a Tree Nut-Free Diet?, Health and Wellness Internet Site, Jun 13, 2017 ,
- Phenylketonuria (PKU), The Mayo Clinic Health and Wellness Website Article, Nov 26, 2014 ,
- PKU List of Foods, Government Health Agency Certified PDF List of Foods, ,
- Dry Beans, University Agricultural Web Page, ,
- The Best Ways to Store Leftover Tofu, Health Blog, Jun 08, 2012 ,