The Best Vegan Protein Sources: Mycoprotein, Seeds & More

Plant-based eating is growing strong, and so are the innovative and delicious vegan protein sources. Check out what’s most in demand, including algae!

mycoprotein a vegan protein source

Mycoprotein can be very "meat-like," making it a good vegan protein to be used for faux steaks.

© Bartosz Luczak | Getty Images

Protein has been the buzzword in every food conversation for a few years now. As more and more people are trying on a plant-based eating pattern, the demand for vegan protein sources has never been higher. If the thought sounds less than exciting, or you’re looking to venture beyond tofu and beans, you’re not alone. Thanks to the innovation of vegan protein sources—fungi, algae, spelt, and so many more—and the products made with them, there has never been a better time to give plant proteins a try. Here are the most popular trending vegan protein sources and a vegan protein sources chart for comparison.

Mycoprotein

A frontrunner among vegan protein sources is made from a fungus, the same category of living things like mushrooms, yeast, and parasites. Mycoprotein, made from the naturally occurring fungus Fusarium venenatum, was discovered in the United Kingdom, growing in soil in a garden in the 1960s. Fermentation, which uses bacteria to change the form of food (like sourdough bread or yogurt), is used to produce mycoprotein. Manufacturers grow the fungus inside fermenters, adding ingredients like water, sugar, and specific chemicals to encourage growth. Those chemicals create amino acids as they react with the fungus. The amino acids join together to make mycoprotein. This unique process, which takes 5 weeks, is environmentally friendly. Mycoprotein has a much lower carbon and water footprint compared to the production of beef and chicken, according to a recent review of studies.

Because of its meat-like texture, mycoprotein is used in many types of faux meats, including fish sticks and fillets, chicken nuggets and patties, beef steaks and burgers, and more. Sold as Quorn, mycoprotein is consumed in 17 countries, including the U.S. It is high in protein (11 grams per 100 gram serving) and fiber, and low in fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar. The products made with it can contain different ingredients, so some may be vegan, while others may be vegetarian. Always look at the ingredients label and the Nutrition Facts label to ensure a product meets your needs.

Spirulina

Another vegan protein source with a low carbon footprint, the blue-green algae spirulina, is thought to be one of the oldest life forms on the planet. It grows in both fresh and salt water and uses photosynthesis to grow. People have known the benefits of spirulina since the ancient Azteks and it’s even been grown in space for NASA astronauts to consume. One tablespoon has 4 grams of protein and has been called a superfood for its many vitamins and minerals and health protecting antioxidants.

Used as a dietary supplement, especially by vegans and vegetarians, spirulina has also become a staple “boost” in juices and smoothies and is readily available in powder form and tablets in markets and online. Spirulina has made its way into all types of baking and cooking with a fun green hue. Breads, pastas, salad dressings, sauces, and desserts are all easily given a protein kick with a sprinkle of spirulina.

Ancient Grains

Quinoa, Kamut, amaranth, teff, spelt… these ancient grains not only deliver a punch of protein per serving, but they also serve it up with well-needed variety. It’s so easy to get stuck in a food routine, even a rut, especially when you’re trying to eat a healthy, plant-based diet. Whole grains have always been a good source of protein, but why not change up the menu and swap out the rice and the oats for something new and interesting?

Ancient grains have even more protein than modern produced grains, and research has shown that some people with gluten or wheat sensitivities can tolerate them better. One cup cooked of these ancient grains packs about 6 grams of protein—a great way to jazz up a pilaf, stir-fry or curry base, grain salad, or morning porridge.

Seeds

Chia and hemp seeds are among the most versatile and popular plant proteins. A little bit of these tiny seeds really does go a long way, which makes them so easy and convenient to use. Two tablespoons of chia contain 4 grams of protein to be sprinkled onto any dish for color, texture, and crunch. Chia is especially unique because of its ability to absorb water, resulting in a gel-like substance to be used as an egg substitute, in puddings, jams, and a thickener in beverages and sauces. Three tablespoons of hempseed have 10 grams of protein. Nutty and mild tasting, they are a welcome addition to baked goods like energy bars, quick breads, and granola. Just like chia, they can be added to anything for a simple way to boost protein.

Seitan

Seitan is a vegan protein typically used as faux meat. It’s made by rinsing wheat flour dough with water to remove all the starch, leaving only the insoluble, pure gluten protein, which is a sticky, elastic mass. When cooked, it is very meat-like, not only in texture, but seitan has about the same amount of protein as chicken or beef. A 3-ounce serving packs 21 grams of protein.

It’s simple to make seitan at home using the rinsing method or by rehydrating vital wheat gluten powder with water, but it can also be purchased premade, refrigerated, frozen, or canned. Seitan is very versatile because it readily absorbs the flavors of other ingredients. Remarkably like animal meat, marinate seitan “steaks” and toss on the grill or bake, shred and stir-fry or add to fajitas, soups, stews, or try it ground in “meat” loaf, burgers, or tacos.

Nutritional Yeast

Affectionately known as “nooch,” this plant-based kitchen essential is a tasty and effective way to kick up the protein in your favorite recipes. Flaky, golden nutritional yeast is derived from baker’s and brewer’s yeast, but instead of using it to make leavened foods, like pizza and bread—heat during processing inactivates its leavening activity—nutritional yeast is processed into a beneficial meal enhancer packed with a powerful punch of nutrients. To produce nutritional yeast, S. cerevisiae (a type of yeast) cells are grown alongside a growing medium that is high in sugar, such as molasses. Once the yeast is mature, it is heated up to deactivate the yeast (which inhibits its leavening properties), then it is washed and dried into ready-to-eat flakes.

Two tablespoons have 8 grams of protein, along with 4 grams of dietary fiber, and all eight of the B vitamins, including B12, which vegans require because plants don’t provide this essential vitamin. Nutritional yeast is used to make vegan “cheese,” ideal for sprinkling on popcorn and pasta or mixed into dressings, side dishes, or even to add flavor to veggie burgers.

Vegan Protein Sources Chart

Use this quick reference chart to compare these plant protein options.

Vegan Protein Sources
Protein SourceServing SizeProtein (g)
Mycoprotein100 grams11
Spirulina1 Tablespoon4
Quinoa1 cup (cooked)6
Teff1 cup (cooked)6
Amaranth1 cup (cooked)6
Chia2 Tablespoons4
Hemp3 Tablespoons10
Seitan3 ounces21
Nutritional Yeast2 Tablespoons8

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Kristen N. Smith, PhD, RDN, LD

Kristen N. Smith, PhD, RDN, LD, has been the Executive Editor of Environmental Nutrition since 2018. As a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, Kristen is experienced in the areas of weight management, health promotion, and … Read More

View all posts by Kristen N. Smith, PhD, RDN, LD

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