What Are The Best Vegan Protein Sources?
There are a lot of misconceptions about being vegan and the nutritional value of the lifestyle. One misconception is that in a vegan diet, protein sources are hard to come by and that vegans lack energy, nutrition, and the ability to keep up with their fellow meat-eating athletes.
Protein is naturally found in just about everything. Still, some of the best vegan protein sources deliver your daily recommended amount without resorting to eating the parts of a sentient animal.
In the world of 2021, vegan options have multiplied by orders of magnitude. No longer do vegans have to choose between tofu or nuts for their primary source of protein. In fact, many cultures worldwide have had high-protein cruelty-free options for generations, which only recently have been brought over to the U.S. consumer market.
Whether you choose to incorporate vegan diet protein sources for health reasons or ethical ones, knowing the best options will add nutritional value and texture to your favorite meals.
Before diving into this piece, it's important to add a little context. At AGN Roots, we don't have skin in this game as we focus solely on making and providing the best grass-fed whey possible.
As you may know, although whey is considered vegetarian, it's certainly not part of the typical vegan diets as it is a component of milk that comes from animals. Here are some good definitions to make clear this articles focus in the Vegan Diet.
What is a Vegan?
A true Vegan does not eat meat, dairy, eggs, or anything originating from an animal. This diet is a no-whey diet.
What is a Pescatarian?
This is essentially a Vegan diet plus fish. This diet is a no-whey diet as well.
What is a Lacto-Vegetarian?
This is essentially a Vegan Diet plus milk and the products milk can make, including the best grass-fed whey on the planet.
What is a Ovo-Lacto-Vegetarian?
Ovo-Lacto-Vegetarians allow for products made by animals, but not the animal itself. This diet excludes fish, poultry, beef; however it allows for eggs and dairy products.
What is a Flexitarian?
Also known as the semi-vegetarian diet, diet stems from the theory of modern western inclusion. Instead of a commitment to not being a vegetarian, this denomination allows the vegetarian community to be inclusive of all people, including meat-eaters.
What are the Best Vegan Smoothie Ingredients?
If you goal is to make the most nutritionally beneficial smoothie jam packed with protein grams, below are 15 ingredients to help guide the whey! Keep in mind, this article isn't about recipes or combinations of ingredients that taste incredible, but rather for the health conscious out there that get a buzz from eating pure nutrition!
Learn More Here: The Best Grass-Fed Whey Smoothies
1. Seitan (sei•tan)
Protein Per 100 grams: 75 grams
Although the pronunciation is pure evil, Seitan is not the fallen angel but rather one of the highest vegan protein sources out there. Seitan is a fantastic replacement for meat in traditionally meat-centered dishes and by weight is comparable to the leanest meat protein sources.
The best thing about Seitan is how versatile it is. Seitan strips are a fantastic replacement for beef strips in a stir fry; they can be molded into a loaf for Thanksgiving roasts or turned into delicious, crispy buffalo wings. Be on the lookout for seitan in the store packed with ingredients that you won't want but help make the product palatable.
It's made from vital wheat gluten, which can be found in powder ready-to-mix form at your local health foods or natural foods store. Having said that, avoid seitan at all costs if you are gluten sensitive – there are plenty of gluten-free meat alternatives to choose from, so don't fret. Seitan is essentially pure gluten.
Do you know where all the gluten goes that is pulled out of other foods? It gets packed into a puck shape and sold back to us with a fancy label entitled "Vegan," so be skeptical and pay attention to sourcing.
Protein Per 100 grams: 8 grams
Tofu is the classic (somewhat stereotypical) vegan meat alternative. It has a bad reputation for being bland, but just like chicken, it can be seasoned to taste like just about anything. Plus, it works as an egg and yogurt replacement just as well as a meat replacement.
Although known by many names depending on culture, "tofu" and "bean curd" are the most common monikers used at grocery stores. Depending on what you want to make, tofu is sold in three main varieties: soft, firm, and ultra-firm.
Soft tofu (or silken tofu) is typically used as a replacement for eggs and yogurt. It can be blended into smoothies, thickening up an Asian soup, or ground up and pan-fried as an alternative to egg whites. You can usually use silken tofu right out of the package after draining the excess water.
Firm tofu and extra firm tofu require a little more prep. Draining the water from the package and wrapping the tofu block in a cheesecloth or kitchen towel so you can squeeze the water from it is the secret. After resting for about 20 to 30 minutes, your tofu will be much more absorbent and ready to be fried into crispy chunks.
Protein Per 100 grams: 9 grams
Lentils are a staple food in countless cultures across the world. They are a central ingredient in curry, soups, and even some kinds of pasta with a little preparation.
Lentils come in many varieties. Red lentils, green lentils, and yellow lentils are the ones you'll come across most often and the ones most recipes will call for .
While it doesn't boast quite the same protein concentration as seitan, it gives seitan a run for its money when it comes to versatility.
Protein Per 100 grams: 19 grams
Tempeh is a bit more of a specialty meat replacement but makes for a top-quality addition to stir fry or Southeast Asian cuisine. Tempeh, like tofu, is made from soybeans but produced differently.
Rather than grinding up the beans into a paste that is then turned into a loaf, the soybeans are left largely intact and formed together to make a patty. It's easy to slice into strips but serves just as well crumbled up.
Learn More Here: Can Consuming Soy Impact Hormone Levels?
Protein Per 100 grams: 19 grams
Chickpeas are the base for some of the world's most popular Mediterranean and middle eastern foods. Falafel and hummus are the two most well-known chickpea products, but they can also be turned into a mock chicken salad for sandwiches or even faux fish.
The best way to process chickpeas is in a food processor for hummus and soft products. Higher power food processors will get rid of uneven parts of the chickpea paste more effectively than a low-power one, but either way, it's best to keep the food processor on for much longer than you think – nobody likes chunky hummus when smooth hummus is so much more dippable!
Protein Per 100 grams: 11 grams
Edamame is a form of soybean that is under-ripe or immature, oftentimes served still in the pod. While frozen varieties of shelled and de-podded edamame are certainly available, the fresh, in-pod type is the most useful and most flavorful.
Edamame makes for a crunchy and satisfying addition to any stir fry but is equally delicious on its own with a little bit of salt. Edamame is traditionally boiled or steamed, but some have taken to frying and baking them too.
This increases the crunchiness and roasted flavors but is best served as a snack and not an ingredient in another dish.
Protein Per 100 grams: about 17 grams
You know them, the world's horses love them, and many older people start every morning with a bowl of steel-cut oats – and that's only one variety. Oats are filling, satisfying, and just like tofu can be flavored with just about anything. It's a classic breakfast choice for good reasons.
Depending on the type of oats you buy, different options are available to you. Steel-cut oats are best served as a sort of porridge – consider adding sliced fruits and cinnamon for that extra kick to the morning.
Rolled oats are used in dessert recipes like no-bake cookies and old-fashioned hearty oatmeal breakfasts – be sure to get some cocoa powder too for the cookies and add that extra bit of richness.
These are just two options, and there are dozens of other varieties of oats and oat products out there – it's something everybody should experiment with a few times, and it packs a lot of protein to boost.
Learn More Here: Oats the Best Carbohydrates
8. Nutritional Yeast (Nooch)
Protein Per 100 grams: 46 grams
Nutritional yeast is a vegan must-have. It looks kind of like fish food, has a nacho cheese neon yellow color, but it adds so much to so many vegan meals – and t's one of the top vegan protein sources.
Nutritional yeast is affectionately called Nooch by the vegan community, perhaps to rid the product of its scientific-sounding name and make it more brand-friendly. It tastes cheesy, adds a rich buttery-taste to the recipes it is included in, and makes for a fantastic topping in any Italian dish.
Just sprinkle a little nooch on foods you want to be a little cheesier, such as pasta, garlic bread, and even mashed potatoes, and you will be amazed at how flavorful and nutrient-packed the dusty seasoning is.
Protein Per 100 grams: 32 grams
Hempseed is similar to nutritional yeast in that it can be added to a variety of different dishes to improve their flavor and nutritional content. They taste good as a snack on their own, especially baked, but serve best when included as an ingredient.
Hempseed is packed with nutrients and protein and can even be soaked to be turned into hemp milk in the comfort of your own home. It's great as a salad topper, an ingredient in smoothies (especially berry smoothies), and a must-add to yogurt and plain cereal or granola.
No, it won't get you very high (that should be obvious), but buying hempseed does support sustainable farming practices. The hemp plant is one of the most sustainable and quick-growing plants globally, and it is due to strict regulations that it cannot be cultivated more.
10. Sprouted Grain Breads
Protein Per 100 grams: it varies!
Sprouted grain bread is a gluten-sensitive alternative to regular bread, but that doesn't mean you have to be gluten-free to enjoy it. It's made using whole grains and beans that have already started to sprout by the point of harvest. This increases the nutrient value of the grains and reduces the gluten content of the finished bread product.
At any local health foods store, you might find dozens of varieties of sprouted grain bread, all boasting their unique methods of production and unique nutritional contents. Shop around and experiment with a few to find a brand you like, and before you know it, you'll no longer crave empty white bread.
And don't worry, the bread won't start molding or sprouting quicker than any other type of bread (although healthy bread typically has fewer preservatives). In this case, the sprouted adjective refers to the types of grains used, not the finished product.
Protein Per 100 grams: 4.4 grams
Quinoa has become something of a sensation in recent years as an alternative to rice and as a fantastic base for some of the most delicious new cuisines on the market. Quinoa is an ancient grain.
Ancient civilizations relied on quinoa for its nutritional value and ease of access. In modern times, these benefits outweigh the need for regular, empty rice.
Quinoa has a much lower cholesterol count than rice, is easier to cook correctly (say goodbye to the rice cooker), and has some amount of protein. It isn't the most protein-packed thing globally, but it certainly serves as a healthy replacement for bleached enriched rice.
If Ancient Greeks and Aztecs could thrive for centuries off of quinoa, why can't you as well?
12. Chia Seeds
Protein Per 100 grams: 17 grams
Like tofu, Chia seeds are an extremely effective replacement for eggs both by themselves and in recipes. In fact, you can effectively use chia seeds instead of regular eggs in literally every recipe that calls for eggs – but they do require a little bit of preparation.
Soaking chia seeds in water creates a runny, gel-like substance that might be a little grainy but can be used 1 to 1 in any recipe that calls for eggs. For one egg, use about 1 tbsp of egg and 2.5 tbsp of water.
Also called a flax egg (as flax seeds follow the same recipe), a chia egg is rich in protein and makes life without eggs and dairy much easier.
Protein Per 100 grams: 57 grams
Spirulina sounds gross on paper – it's essentially nutrient-packed dried algae (and sometimes it's not even dried) .
It's become much more common to see in the grocery store as health-conscious people experiment with stranger and stranger foods in recent years.
Nowadays, it makes for a mean, green addition to a lean, green smoothie and can even be the central ingredient in a seafood-oriented pasta (such as black ink spaghetti).
Don't go to the nearby pond for spirulina, though – it might be tempting (especially for some of the foragers out there) to harvest some green algae from the shore of a local lake.
Oftentimes the algae in lake and pond waters are tainted with pollutants and unsafe for human consumption, so be sure to stick to store-bought and farm-produced spirulina to make sure you don't wind up in the hospital with a sore bellyache – or worse.
Having said that, spirulina is dense with protein and makes for a fantastic supplement to a diet in medicinal form, most often found in pills and powders.
14. Peanut Butter
Protein Per 100 grams: 25 grams
Peanut butter is one of the few things you will likely find in every vegan's pantry. Despite the name, even commercial national brands of peanut butter don't contain any actual dairy.
It's one of the most popular and commercialized foods in the United States, even among non-vegans, making it one of the more accessible and affordable options on this list.
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches might seem like a kid's food, but even for adults, a good PB and J comes packed with vegan diet protein sources, nutrients, and vitamins (the value of which increases depending on what kind of bread you use).
If peanut butter doesn't sound up your alley – maybe you had one too many in middle school – other nut butter products boast similar protein and nutrient counts.
Almond butter and cashew butter are the most well-known but expect to pay a little more than you would for peanut butter as these products are a bit harder to come by and hard to produce.
15. Asparagus, Spinach & Yellow Split Peas
Protein Per 100 grams: it varies!
It might seem obvious and go without saying, but most vegans eat vegetables rich in protein and other nutrients regularly. In the past decade, the vegan movement has gotten to the point that veggie alternatives to traditional foods are mainstream, such as cauliflower rice and mashed cauliflower .
Spinach is a well-known nutrient-packed leafy green and an example that darker green vegetables tend to have more health value than, say, white romaine hearts.
Yellow split peas and corn are also high in protein and work great as a side in most dinner dishes. Asparagus raw is actually awesome, and when cooked right, it has the potential to steal all of the attention from other foods on your plate.
These are just a few examples, as there are so many vegetables that all health conscious people should add to their diets.
Learn More Here: Pea Protein Explained
Benefits of Going Vegan
The vegan movement is a relatively recent phenomenon in the U.S. It gained traction in the early 1900s after the meat industry was exposed for its poor handling of raw meat, its cruelty towards animals, and its unclean conditions. For many at the time, it was a choice of sanitation, not of ethics.
As time went on, the vegan movement became interlaced with the conscious spirituality and animal rights movements of the 20th century too. The comparison between the abusive U.S. treatment of cows and the inhumane treatment of dogs in some Southeast Asian markets, for example, is a talking point in the community.
When cows, pigs, and other farm animals are scientifically smarter than man's best friend, how can one look into a young bovine's eyes and take that conscious life away?
Choosing vegan for ethical reasons is the main reason most join the movement today. It's beyond a matter of treating animals humanely – after all, what's the point of humane treatment if male chicks are ground up into pink paste?
Going vegan is also a health concern for many. Red meat, sea fish, and even chicken are the source of some of our society's worst health problems (heart disease, mercury buildup, and salmonella/e-Coli poisoning, respectively). Individuals who are particularly sensitive to dairy will find that a vegan diet is more agreeable with their digestive system, too .
Humans weren't meant to drink milk past infancy, after all. When you think about it, the first person to drink another animal's breastmilk must have been a really, really weird person.
Misconceptions of the Vegan Lifestyle
The vegan lifestyle has its fair share of stereotypes attributed to it, just like any alternative movement that brings people away from the status quo. Some think vegans lack the important nutrients that meat-eaters and dairy-drinkers get, and some think vegans are tired all the time from a lack of food options.
Not only are these stereotypes totally untrue, but they are also actually very easily refutable. There have been vegan Olympians and sports legends (Arnold Schwarzenegger has a mostly vegan diet nowadays if that tells you anything) who didn't get tired in the middle of a 100-meter sprint or a shot on goal.
Any diet can be lacking in significant nutrients if there's no variety – in fact, people who eat meat every day are eating far more protein than the body needs, which can lead to significant health issues later in life.
Vegans know their food better than anybody else, and tend to pay attention to packaging labels and nutritional contents more than other food movements (save perhaps for the gluten-free movement).
The only major nutrient vegans miss out on significantly is vitamin B12 which is typically only found in meat – by eating a variety of vegetables and considering adding a vitamin supplement to your daily routine, though, this becomes a non-issue. Plus, B12 supplements are cheap and recommended even to non-vegans for their spinal support and bone support qualities.
Vegan Protein Sources are Abundant
Perhaps the biggest misconception of the vegan lifestyle is that vegans don't get enough protein. In fact, while the average American eats three times the amount of protein recommended for an adult, vegans hit the right mark pretty consistently by paying attention to what's going in their body.
These are just 15 options for vegan protein sources, and there are plenty more out there (popular and obscure) that weren't touched on in this list. Explore your local grocery store and check out some of the specialty products vegans have come out within recent years – you might be surprised by what's on offer, and how close it comes to the "real thing".