What are the best plant-based and vegan protein sources? Our top picks

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9 min read

One of the most common concerns about vegetarian and vegan diets is they lack sufficient amounts of protein to be healthy. However, it has been agreed by many experts that a well-planned dairy- and meat-less diet can, indeed, provide all the nutrients you need – including protein

In fact, certain plant foods contain a significantly higher level of protein than others. Studies both old and new suggest that diets filled with higher levels of non-meat protein sources can help to promote muscle strength, weight loss, and even feelings of fullness. Who says a plant-based meal can’t be fulfilling? 

So, without further ado, here are our top 12 best vegetarian protein sources and best plant-based protein sources that contain a high amount per serving to consider adding to your meals. 

1. Seitan

Seitan is one of the best plant protein sources for vegetarians and vegans as the texture can closely resemble the look and texture of meat when cooked. It is made from gluten – the main protein in wheat. This substance can pose a problem for people who suffer from gluten-related disorders, such as coeliac disease. 

Seitan, also known as wheat meat or wheat gluten, contains about 25 grams of protein per 100 grams, making this meat-alternative one of the richest sources of plant-based protein available. Being protein rich isn’t the only health benefit of the product, however, as it is also a great source of selenium and even contains small amounts of iron, calcium, and phosphorus. 

Seitan can be pan-fried, sauteed, and grilled, which makes it a fantastic meat alternative to incorporate into a variety of recipes. A pre-prepared version can be found in the refrigerated section of many grocery stores, however, you can also make your own version with vital wheat gluten. 

2. Tofu, Tempeh and Edamame

Tofu, tempeh, and edamame all originate from the humble soybean and are all good protein sources for vegetarians and vegans. 

Soybeans, which are considered a whole source of protein, provide your body with all of the essential amino acids it needs. Edamame beans are simply immature soybeans. They have a sweet and slightly grassy taste, and preparation is as simple as boiling or steaming them prior to consumption. The beans make a great protein addition to soups and salads, adding a lovely vibrant green colour to spruce up any dish. 

Tofu is made in a similar fashion to cheesemaking, where bean curds are pressed together in order to form a block of tofu. In contrast, tempeh is made by cooking and fermenting mature soybeans prior to pressing them into a block.

Unless you purchase a flavoured version, tofu doesn’t have much taste on its own. However, it is fantastic at absorbing the flavour of the ingredients it’s paired with. Comparatively, tempeh has a thicker texture and a stand-out nutty flavour. Both can be used in a wide variety of recipes from curries to soups, burgers, stir-fries, and more!

All three of these soy-based proteins contain a great amount of iron, calcium, and around 12 to 20 grams of protein per 100 gram serving. And this isn’t all: edamame is also rich in folate, vitamin K, and fibre, whereas tempeh and tofu contain probiotics, B vitamins, magnesium, and phosphorus. 

3. Lentils

Lentils are another good source of protein for vegans – just 198 grams of the stuff contains a whopping 18 grams of protein! They’re also very versatile, and can be used in a huge variety of dishes from curries and dahls to soups, and even salads. 

Lentils are also a great source of fibre, providing more than half of the daily recommended intake in a single cup. They’re even rich in folate, manganese and iron, and contain a hearty dose of antioxidants and other health-promoting plant compounds. Plus, the type of fibre found within lentils has even been shown to feed the good bacteria in your colon – helping to promote a healthy gut. 

The benefits don’t end there, however. Lentils may even help to reduce your chances of developing heart disease, diabetes, excess body weight, and certain types of cancer. 

Seitan, made using vital wheat gluten, can be a good protein alternative for beef, chicken and pork

Meanwhile quinoa can be used as a high-protein alternative to couscous and rice

Left: Seitan, made using vital wheat gluten, can be a good protein alternative for beef, chicken and pork

Right: Meanwhile quinoa can be used as a high-protein alternative to couscous and rice

4. Beans

Kidney, black, pinto, and many more varieties of beans happen to be very high in protein with every serving. Did you know that chickpeas are categorised as a bean? They also contain a high level of protein. All of these are very versatile ingredients that can be easily implemented into your diet with homemade chillies, salads, or even healthy and delicious bean burgers.

Most kinds of beans contain around 15 grams of protein per 170 grams. They’re fantastic sources of complex carbohydrates, fibre, iron, folate, phosphorus, potassium, manganese, and several beneficial plant compounds. 

Several studies also show that a diet that has a rich intake of beans and other legumes can also help to decrease cholesterol levels, manage blood sugar, lower blood pressure, and even reduce belly fat.

5. Nutritional Yeast

Nutritional yeast is sold commercially as a yellow powder or flakes. It has a cheesy, nutty flavour, making them a fantastic addition in dishes to replace the inclusion of cheese. 

16 grams of this complete source of plant protein provides around 8 grams of protein and 3 grams of fibre, with some fortified options of nutritional yeast providing high levels of zinc, magnesium, copper, manganese, and all the B vitamins, including vitamin B12. 

6. Spelt & Teff

Spelt and teff are known as ancient grains, a category that contains grains like barley and farro. Spelt is a type of wheat that contains gluten, while teff does not as it is technically a grass. 

Spelt and teff both provide around 10 to 11 grams of protein for every 250 grams cooked, meaning they offer a higher protein content than other ancient grains. They are also excellent sources of other nutrients, like fibre, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and manganese. They also contain B vitamins, zinc, and selenium. 

They are very versatile alternatives to other grains, such as rice, and can create gluten-free versions of risotto and baked goods – meaning they can be consumed by anyone suffering gluten absorption issues like coeliacs. 

7. Amaranth & Quinoa

Although amaranth and quinoa are commonly referred to as ancient or gluten-free grains, they don’t grow from grasses in the way cereal grains tend to do. Because of this, they are known in the food industry as pseudocereals, however, they can be prepared or ground into flours like other commonly known grains. 

Not only do amaranth and quinoa contain around 8 to 9 grams of protein per every 185 grams when cooked, but they also provide fibre, iron, manganese, phosphorus, and magnesium. They are also complete sources of protein, which is a very uncommon trait among their kind of grains and cereal.

8. Bread Made From Sprouted Grains

One of the best kinds of bread formulated from sprouted grains is Ezekiel bread. Made from organic, sprouted whole grains and legumes like wheat, millet, barley, spelt, soybeans, and lentils, just two slices of Ezekiel bread contain approximately 8 grams of protein. 

The inclusion of sprouted grains and legumes help to increase the number of healthy nutrients and reduce their content of anti-nutrients – a type of compound that affects your absorption of vitamins and minerals. 

Sprouted grains also have an increased content of amino acids, such as lysine, which also provides a boost to the quality of protein overall, and they even have a higher content of soluble fibre, folate, vitamins C and E, and beta carotene compared to unsprouted grains. 

9. Oats & Oatmeal

Although oats are not considered a complete protein, they do contain a higher quality of protein compared to rice and wheat; plus they’re a delicious and easy way of adding more protein to your diet. 

Around 40 grams of dry oats provide around 5 grams of protein, 4 grams of fibre, and a healthy level of magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, and folate. Oats can be used in a variety of ways. From oat milk, flour and porridge, to a swap for breadcrumbs in veggie burgers.

Amaranth is usually found in cereals

While teff is used a lot in African cultures for flatbreads

Left: Amaranth is usually found in cereals

Right: While teff is used a lot in African cultures for flatbreads

10. Wild Rice

Wild rice contains about 1.5 times as much protein as other long-grain rice varieties, like brown rice and basmati rice. 164 grams of cooked wild rice contains about 7 grams of protein, as well as good amounts of fibre, manganese, magnesium, copper, phosphorus, and B vitamins which all have their own health benefits in their own respect. 

Compared to white rice, wild rice is not stripped of its bran – which helps the rice retain fibre, and many other vitamins and minerals. 

It is highly recommended to wash wild rice before cooking and consuming it, as this will help to reduce levels of heavy metals that are absorbed during the growing process – such as arsenic, lead, and cadmium. 

11. Nuts & Seeds 

Nuts, seeds, and other related products are fantastic sources of protein. A 28 gram serving can contain up to 7 grams of protein, though this does depend on the variety.

Furthermore, nuts and seeds are also rich in fibre and healthy fats, as well as containing iron, calcium, magnesium, selenium, phosphorus, vitamin E, and certain B vitamins. Additionally, they contain antioxidants and other beneficial plant compounds. 

Interestingly, blanching and roasting nuts may cause damage to the nutrients within, therefore, it is actually best to go for the raw and unblanched versions where possible. Natural nut butters, like organic peanut butter, are also a great option as they can help you avoid added oils, sugars, and salt found in many popular brands. 

12. Fruits & Vegetables

Although all fruits and vegetables contain protein, some varieties contain substantially more than others. 

Vegetables with the highest protein levels include greens like broccoli, spinach, asparagus, and artichokes, as well as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and brussels sprouts. These tend to contain around 4-5 grams of protein per cooked cup. And, although technically a grain, sweetcorn contains the same level of protein as the above. 

Fresh fruits typically contain lower protein levels than vegetables, however, the varieties which include the highest levels of fruit protein are guava, cherimoyas, mulberries, blackberries, nectarines, and bananas, which have about 2–4 grams of protein per cup.

The Best Vegan Protein Sources: Overall 

Protein deficiencies among vegans and vegetarians are, in actuality, uncommon. When a person follows a vegetarian or completely plant-based diet, as long as their diet is healthy, well-balanced, and contains foodstuffs with high levels of protein like those listed above, a vegetarian or vegan is unlikely to suffer from a protein deficiency. 

Although this may be true, some people may still be interested in upping their plant protein intake for a variety of reasons. This could be to support muscle growth and fitness, to lose weight, or something else. 

If you currently follow or are looking into beginning, a plant-based or vegetarian diet, this list can be used as a guide for which natural plant-based foods contain the highest levels of protein to incorporate more protein into your diet. 

Are you interested in learning more about plant-based food. This upcoming Trend Panel offers insight:

A taste of trends: plant-based

Tuesday 21 June 2022 | 14:30 – 16:00 BST

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