Protein Supplements for Vegans

Years ago if you were a vegan you were very limited as to what you could and couldn’t consume. Unless you prepared something yourself the chances are that it wasn’t actually vegan, even if the packaging said it was. You might be surprised to know that Hi-Proteen, the very first protein supplements to be sold, was actually made from soy rather than whey. That doesn’t mean to say that it was suitable for vegans though, one of the main ingredients was actually fish-based protein! This lead to a running joke amongst 1950’s gym goers that you could tell who used the product because of the smell they emitted. Hi-Proteen was then superseded by a string of whey protein supplements.

We’re living in a different world these days where it’s possible to find a vegan alternative to anything and everything. And when it comes to protein supplements this is no different. For a long time now you’ve been able to buy plant based protein powders but many of the top supplement companies have now launched dedicated vegan ranges so we thought it would be a good idea if our ‘protein supplements for…’ feature shone some light on some of these new supplements.

What makes vegan supplements better than they used to be?

Different people have different definitions of the meaning ‘vegan’ but one thing they’ll all agree of is that to be vegan is to sustain from eating, wearing or using any product that either contains animal derived products or was tested on animals. In the past plant based proteins supplements (the closest supplements used to get to being vegan) didn’t always follow this simple rule, for example both gelatin and honey have been used in plant based powders in the past. 

Which proteins can I use?

There are a number of vegan protein sources out there, some more readily available than others, so you can opt for something that suits your tastes and requirements. For example you may want a supplement with a high concentration of natural protein, for this hemp would likely be your protein supplement of choice. If however you were after a slow release protein then we would highly recommend pea protein – after all it’s not referred to as the vegetable casein for no reason!

  • Plant-based Protein – To some extent ‘plant based’ is more of an umbrella term that covers all vegan supplements. While each of the different sources have their own benefits they do share the same extraction methods. Not all supplements say how the powder was extracted but there are two methods: Chemical (which uses Hexane to extract the protein) and Water (which uses solely water to get the protein).
  • Soy Protein – Soy (or soya) is an extremely popular supplement and is often used by non-vegans who are lactose intolerant or are just looking for an alternative to whey. It’s made from soybean meal which has had the husks and fatty acids removed. This is then turned into isolates or concentrates. Both have their advantages depending on your requirements. Isolates are ideal for athletes as they have at least a 90% concentration of protein. Concentrates on the other hand can range from just 20% concentration to 89%.
  • Wheat Protein – Including crops such as rye and barley wheat protein is perfect for vegans but also for people looking for a dairy and soy free protein. Despite being such a widely grown crop (second only to maize in terms of the amount produced), wheat isn’t actually that popular as a supplement. This is largely due to the fact that contains gluten which isn’t suitable for coeliacs. That said there are a handful of supplements on the market and with wheat being naturally high in dietary fibre they’re also great for your digestion.
  • Grain Protein – Sometimes grouped with wheat proteins, grain covers things such as oats, spelt and quinoa. Unlike wheat the protein in grain is avenin, which despite being similar to gluten is perfectly safe for coeliacs. This is quite likely why there are more companies producing grain based supplements.
  • Hemp Protein – Despite being used by humans for thousands of years (and even grown by George Washington), hemp as a protein supplement is a relatively new thing. Containing not only all of the nine essential amino acids but also all of the non-essential ones too, it’s probably the best protein supplement for vegans. As well as the amino acids it’s also packed full of fatty acids (both omega-3 and omega-6) and fibre.
  • Pea Protein – Containing legumin, a protein with similar effects to casein, pea protein is an excellent choice for vegans looking for a slow release protein. It’s high alkaline levels also mean that it’s used by some to help deal with acidity in their diet and like soy it can be turned into a milk substitute as well as into protein isolate and concentrate. Pea protein supplements have been a round for a while now and most companies produce either a pea protein powder or a vegan blend that is made up usually of pea, hemp and soy proteins.
  • Vegan Blend – Vegan blends are extremely good because they consist of a number of different sources and combine the benefits of them all in one ’super’ blend. The most common blends contain hemp, pea and soy but can contain any plant based protein.

What do you want from your supplement?

Everybody has a different reason for wanting to use protein supplements and those reasons are almost as varied as we all are. Some people use them as part of their workout regimen, some to enhance a healthy lifestyle while others may want to have a protein shake first thing in the morning to set them up for the rest of the day. Fear not what ever your reason is we’ll help you find the right product for you.

Pre workout supplements

When it comes to pre workout supplements protein isn’t so important, in fact most supplements don’t contain any extra protein aside from what’s found naturally in the ingredients. Your muscles are better served by protein after when they’re recovering from your workout. Pre workout energy is more important to you body. For this reason things to look out for are

Green coffee beans
  • Caffeine or green coffee extract – noted for it’s ability to increase endurance, concentration and alertness
  • Beta Alanine – A non-essential amino acid, beta-alanine is used by athletes because when combined with the semi-essential amino acid histidine produces carnosine. It’s the carnosine that’s really beneficial as it’s stored by your skeletal muscles and will help to reduce lactic acid build up.
  • Creatine – This is important for gaining muscle and general sports performance. Natural creatine is derived from animal products it can also be created relatively cheaply and easily in a laboratory so is therefore suitable for vegans. You may be surprised to know that most creatine supplements synthesised so are suitable for vegans. 
  • Acetyl L-Carnitine – Sometimes called ALCAR for short this amino acid is favoured for its mood and memory boosting properties. When it comes to pre workout supplements Acetyl L-Carnitine is favoured for its ability to increase endurance and speed up recovery.
  • Dextrose – With a chemical make-up identical to glucose and blood sugar, dextrose is extremely easy to digest. Being a sugar its used in pre workout supplements as an energy booster but is also used to help increase muscle. 
  • Citrulline Malate – A combination of Citrulline (a non-essential amino acid found in foods such as watermelon and cucumber) and Malate (the organic compound that gives fruit its sour taste) its used for its ability to increase energy levels. This is does by increasing blood flow.
  • Glycine – A non-essential amino acid, Glycine is used to aid muscle growth and assist with muscle recovery. It’s also used in the synthesis of creatine.
  • Taurine – Sometimes referred to as a wonder molecule its known to improve sports performance because it enables to your muscles to work harder and for longer. Studies have also shown that it removes waste that leads to fatigue and muscle burn as well as protecting them from cell damage.
  • B Vitamin – Also known as a B Vitamin Complex they’re a group of eight vitamins that are important for cell metabolism and are used in pre workout supplements for their ability to increase energy and reduce fatigue. The eight B vitamins are B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine hydrochloride), B7 (biotin), B9 (folic acid) and B12 (cyanocobalamin)
  • Electrolytes – Containing sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium they’re very popular with endurance athletes because they help to keep your bodies natural electrolyte balance.
  • Coconut Water Powder – A natural source of electrolytes, vitamins and minerals.

Post workout supplements

Gone are the days when the only option you had for a post workout shake was whey, today there are a number of very good alternatives. If, like some, you prefer to have a slow-release shake before bed rather than straight after a workout then your best bet would be a pure pea protein supplement rather than a pea blend. The reason for this is because pea protein has similar properties to casein. However when it comes to repairing muscle and recovering straight after we would recommend a pea and brown rice protein blend. When brown rice and pea proteins are combined together you not only get all nine essential amino acids but you get the most protein per gram, so much so it’s actually on a par with whey.

General health supplements

Supplements don’t have to be just for sports performance, many people use them as part of a calorie control diet to aid weight loss. That said with us all living busier lives it can sometimes be easier to top up your daily intake with a supplement too. The reason they’re popular for this is because unlike supplements for sports they’re not designed to increase you mass but do contain a healthy balance of nutrients, be it vitamins and minerals or macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat). There are a number of different types of supplement available depending on what you’re after.

  • Weight loss – The most popular weight loss supplement is the meal replacement shake (often called MRP). This is designed to replace one meal a day and will contain all of the vitamins and minerals you need but with far few calories.
  • Detox – Generally containing superfoods extract such as kale, flax and açai berries these are excellent for restoring your energy levels, stabilising your blood sugar levels and just generally detoxing your system.
  • Vitamins & Minerals – Many of the most popular vitamins and mineral are now available individually so it’s easy to top up on anything you’re not getting enough of through your normal diet.

Conclusion:

You don’t have to be a vegan to use plant-based supplements. Fears over future food shortages and worries over long term use of whey has resulted in vegan supplements being easier and more readily available than ever. Many companies, such as MyProtein and The Protein Works offer an extensive range of vegan powders while companies like Vegan Power Nutrition offer nothing but vegan products and all of them offer international shipping.