Ten best sources of plant protein
When people find out I’m vegan, the second question I get asked is where do you get your protein. The first is inevitably, but don’t you miss steak hey!! (honestly nope, not anymore)
With the massive plant based explosion in the last couple of years, general knowledge about plant proteins is on the rise. Most of us now know that there is plenty of protein to be found in legumes such as beans, chickpeas and lentils as well as that former food of The Hipster, tofu. Similarly, anyone who is a fan of quinoa (hello again, healthy hipsters) knows it is not only high in protein, it is also a complete protein ie it contains all 9 amino acids.
Despite the world’s general progress, there is still a fair amount of confusion about which foods to get plant protein from. Here’s a quick guide to where, what and how much for the most common sources.
Pronounced say-tan (yes, like Beelzebub himself), this protein is found in wheat gluten and, of all the plant proteins, is most similar in texture to meat. A popular meat substitute in Asian cuisine, seitan was traditionally the product of rinsing and cooking wheat dough to remove the starch, leaving behind a protein-dense substance. It contains 25g of protein per 100g.
Note on supply: while I have easily found tofu and tempeh in local shops, I’ve not yet found seitan in SA – but to be fair, I also haven’t looked very hard. I will update when I find it.
2. Tofu, Tempeh and Edamame
Tofu and tempeh are both made from soybeans prepared in different ways. Where tofu is a softer bean curd with a cheese-like texture, tempeh is made by fermenting soybeans in banana leaves until a firm patty forms. Tempeh contains 31g of protein per 100g – equal to chicken – and is also high in dietary fibre. Tofu has comparatively less protein at 10 to 17g per 100g depending on the brand. It’s also very high in manganese. The two are interchangeable in cooking, but nutty tempeh’s firm texture makes it a closer meat substitute while tofu is better at absorbing the flavours of the dish it’s in.
Edamame beans, mostly found here in Asian dishes, are immature soybeans with a slightly earthy taste. They contain 11g of protein per 100g and make an excellent protein-rich snack when steamed and salted.
Added bonus: soybeans are a complete protein with all nine amino acids as well as iron and calcium content.
Chickpeas, beans, peas and lentils are nutritious foods with a high protein content that form the base of most plant based diets. They are cheap, accessible and versatile. 1 cup of cooked lentils contains 17g of protein, while a cup of cooked kidney beans or chickpeas has around 15g. Peas weigh in at a slightly lower 8g per cup.
The humble legume family doesn’t stop there though – they are overachievers, boasting other handy properties such as the ability to decrease cholesterol, help control blood sugar levels and even lower blood pressure.
4. Nutritional Yeast
Yuck, said my husband the first time I told him I was putting this in our food. The idea of yeast as a flavouring is a strange one, but this nutty-flavoured deactivated strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast, sold commercially in yellow powder form, is actually a very nutritious and tasty addition to cheese-inspired dishes like pastas and tofu scrambles. Half a cup contains 16g of protein, and the usually fortified versions sold in stores also have zinc, magnesium, copper, manganese and all the B vitamins, including the elusive-to-vegans B12.* This unassuming little-known powder is another complete protein with all amino acids.
Top tip: it is a healthy, salt-free savoury spice that works on just about everything – try it on popcorn!
*B12 is the only vitamin that is not found in plants at all. Vegans need to either take a supplement or ensure they get their B12 RDAs from fortified products like plants milks.
Not technically a grain because it doesn’t grow from grasses the way other cereal grains do, quinoa (keen-wa) is a seed from a tall, leafy plant that is related to spinach. Another complete protein, cooked quinoa contains 9g of protein per cup. It is also low in carbs, making it a great alternative to rice or wheat grains to serve with curries and stews.
One of the so-called ancient grains*, spelt is most commonly found here in flour form. Spelt contains 10g of protein per cooked cup as well as being an excellent source of complex carbs, fibre, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and manganese. Because it contains gluten, the flour is easily substituted for white flour in baking, improving the overall nutrient content of your dish. In grain form it is a straightforward replacement for rice and polenta.
*Other ancient grains include teff, chia, barley, sorghum, bulgar, oats, farro and buckwheat. They are considered to have been minimally changed over the ages, as opposed to more common cereals like corn, rice and wheat, which have been subjected to thousands of years of selective breeding.
7. Chia Seeds
Lumbered with the now rather dubious tag of superfood, chia seeds no doubt still pack a dynamite nutritional punch. Two heaped tablespoons of seeds contain 6g of protein and 13g of fibre while also being high in iron, calcium, selenium and magnesium, as well as omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Science might be skeptical about the superfood notion, but nutritionists don’t dispute the value of this tiny, complete protein seed.
Fun fact: Legend has it that the ancient Aztecs and Mayans used chia seeds as a source of energy – the name chia comes from the Mayan word for strength. They were considered to be almost magical because of their ability to increase stamina and energy over long periods of time.
8. Nuts, Nut Butters and Other Seeds
Before chia seeds came for the crown, there were pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and hemp seeds, to name but a few, as well as a range of nuts and their butters. All seeds and nuts are good sources of protein, coming in at an average of 7g of protein for 2 tablespoons. Nuts and seeds also contain fibre and healthy fats in addition to the usual boast-list of vitamins and minerals.
Top tip: heating damages the nutrients in nuts, so where possible pick raw options. Also choose pure nut butters with no sugars added.
9. Wild rice
Wild rice has 1.5 times more protein than other long grain rice varieties, including brown and basmati. One cooked cup has 7g of protein plus is high in fibre from its bran content – bran being the coating that is stripped off to produce softer, less nutritious white rice.
10. Oats and Oatmeal
Oats are among the minority on this list that are not complete proteins – a fact that surprised me as I researched this article, given that I, like most of you I suspect, have been conditioned to believe that most plant proteins are not complete. Nevertheless, oats are a very accessible source of protein with around 12g per cup of dry oats. Oats are also high in fibre – are you seeing the pattern here?! Oat flour is a lovely alternative to white flour in baking. If you’re off the gluten train, you can find gluten-free versions with relative ease.
And there you have it – ten plant protein sources and I haven’t even mentioned vegetables yet. Since we don’t want them to feel left out, these are the rabbit food heroes flying the highest protein flag: broccoli, spinach, asparagus, artichokes, potatoes, sweet potatoes and brussel sprouts – although yes, you have to eat comparatively more of them to get your serving of protein than with the top ten. Sometime soon we’ll tackle the fact that you don’t actually need as much protein as you’ve been to lead to believe…smoke and mirrors, I tell you. Happy plant protein munching!