A plant-based protein powder is the obvious choice for vegans, vegetarians, and anyone who gets crampy or gassy after downing a dairy-based powder. And though classic milk-derived whey protein has long maintained the reputation as being the gold standard for supporting muscle, there are plenty of plant protein powders out there now giving it a run for its money. The only challenge is to figure out which plant-based proteins will work the hardest for your hard-working muscles.
After all, plant protein powders can be derived from grains, grasses, soy, seeds, and more, explains dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., author of Read It Before You Eat It. Some of the most popular: hemp protein, pea protein, brown rice protein, and pumpkin seed protein. So many options.
Here are a few boxes worth checking if you want to make sure your plant protein powder will go all-out for your muscle gains.
1. 20+ Grams Of Protein Per Serving
Packing in protein is a must for putting on muscle. That’s because protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids, which the body can use to build and repair muscle following resistance training, explains Taub-Dix. “You need to have a sufficient amount of protein in your diet to put on muscle,” she says. “If you’re short on protein intake, your body won’t be able to recover as well or as quickly.” The result? You won’t be getting the biggest muscle-building bang for your strength-training buck.
To maximize muscle growth from resistance training, research from Nutrients journal suggests it is best to consume between 1.6 and 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (that’s 0.7 grams to 1.0 grams of protein per pound of body weight). For a powerlifter who weighs in at 150 pounds, you’re looking at 105 to 150 grams of protein per day.
In general, a plant-based protein that offers more than 20 grams of protein per serving is a good move, says dietitian and strength coach Albert Matheny, R.D., C.S.C.S., COO of ARENA and co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab in New York City. Fun fact: Pea-based proteins often have the highest protein content of all plant-protein options, which is why Matheny recommends looking for a powder that either relies entirely on powerful peas or features them as a main component of its protein blend. Blessed’s Pea Protein Isolate Powder offers 23 grams of protein per scoop.
2. At Least 3 Grams Of Leucine
There are 20 different types of amino acids that can make up protein, nine of which are known as essential amino acids (as in “essential to consume”) because the body cannot produce them on its own, explains Taub-Dix.
Typically, meat-eaters have no trouble consuming the essential amino acids in the quantities the body needs if they are consuming adequate protein overall, Taub-Dix says. “Animal-based proteins are known as complete proteins because they contain all of these essential amino acids,” she explains. Plant-based eaters, however, typically have to be a little more intentional about consuming a wide variety of plant-based sources throughout the day in order to consume the essential amino acids in the necessary quantities. This is because most plant-based protein foods are not complete proteins, she explains. Sometimes, that’s the case for powders, too.
Of all the essential amino acids, leucine is typically the most difficult for vegans and vegetarians to consume in sufficient qualities because few plant-protein sources contain it, Matheny notes. (The exceptions: soy, quinoa, and dry seaweed.) For individuals who strength train, however, consuming enough leucine is vital for maximizing muscle repair and recovery. In fact, one 2021 study published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition linked low blood leucine levels with low levels of skeletal muscle mass, and poor grip strength and performance. Meanwhile, another study found that, when combined with resistance training, adequate leucine intake may support muscle hypertrophy (a.k.a. muscle growth).
All of this is to say that if you’re on the hunt for a quality plant-based protein powder because you’re a plant-based eater, Matheny recommends looking at the amino acid content in a supplement before buying it to ensure it contains ample amounts of leucine. Research suggests it’s best to consume at least three grams of leucine following resistance training, so look for a plant protein that gets as close to that mark as possible. (Many products list the breakdown.) Usually, protein powders derived exclusively from, or in part from, pea protein have the highest leucine content, according to Matheny.
3. Over 4 Milligrams of Iron
To put on muscle mass and strength, you can’t just pump iron; you have to consume it, too. In addition to supporting the immune system, metabolic function, and hormone and tissue production, the mineral also helps support oxygen transport and energy metabolism (both important for athletes!). As such, adequate iron intake can support both aerobic and anaerobic exercise, per the American Society for Nutrition.
Generally speaking, “pea protein powder has higher iron content than other plant-based protein powders,” Matheny says. While protein powders derived from ingredients other than peas usually contain two to four milligrams per serving, pea protein powders contain, on average, five to seven milligrams of iron per serving, which is a significantly greater portion of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of 8.7 milligrams for men and 14.8 milligrams for women, he notes.
Read More: 6 Signs You’re Not Getting Enough Iron
Whether you opt for pure pea or not, take a look at a product’s Nutrition Facts label to check out that iron content. Plenty of options made from a variety of plant protein sources offer a solid amount of this important mineral. For instance, Orgain Organic Plant-Based Vegan Protein and Ladder Plant Protein both contain an impressive 4.5 milligrams of iron.
4. Natural Sweeteners
If you’ve ever run intervals interrupted by the runs, you know how frustrating it can be to experience gastrointestinal distress when you’re trying to make gains. That’s why Matheny recommends being picky about the type of sweeteners your plant protein uses to get its flavor just right.
A couple of solid options? Monk fruit extract and maple syrup extract, which research suggests are well-tolerated. You’ll find both in Four Sigmatic Plant-Based Protein With Superfoods. Simply eye products’ ingredient lists and opt for a tub of protein that uses natural sweeteners you tend to stomach well.
5. A Short Ingredient List
Your workout may be long, but the ingredient list on your protein supplements shouldn’t be. “The shorter the better,” says Matheny. If you can read through a product’s ingredients in just a few seconds, consider it a winner!
Your move: Opt for a simple protein supplement that contains few ingredients beyond its protein sources. As with anything, the fewer ingredients a product has, the more likely your body is to tolerate it, Matheny says. It also reduces the chances that you’re consuming artificial sweeteners and other additives. Luckily, it’s easy to keep it simple with plant protein. Truvani Organic Plant Based Protein Powder, for example, contains just seven ingredients.