Written by Ben Carlisle
Last updated on: Sep 18, 2022
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There is no definitive answer as to whether hemp or pea protein is a better protein source. Both plant based proteins have different nutritional profiles which will assist with different goals.
Pea protein powder has higher levels of protein, essential amino acids and branched chain amino acids when compared to hemp. However, this doesn’t mean hemp should be ruled out. Both plant based protein powders have different amino acid profiles. And come with their own unique health benefits. In fact, combining pea and hemp protein together in one supplement offers fantastic benefits. One of the best pea protein powder options on the market is using the combination of pea, hemp and some other ingredeints to provide an excellent nutritional profile.
However, if choosing just one of the two for your protein powder it will come down to your personal goals and how you want it to support your lifestyle.
Hemp has good levels of fibre, healthy fats and minerals. It also boosts heart health (1). Pea has the ability to promote muscle growth and is rich in iron (2, 3). Like hemp protein, pea protein also boosts heart health. It is important to check the labels of any protein powders you are considering. The reason for this is in order to make a direct comparison of their nutritional values. It is important to know the protein content and levels of any nutrients which meet your goals. Nutrients could include iron and vitamin B12.
The great thing about hemp protein is it is raw, meaning very little goes into the manufacturing process. Hemp seeds are collected and then ground into a fine powder. The act of grinding the hemp seeds means the majority of oil is removed, however around 10% of the original fat content remains (4). Hemp protein powder is a brownish-green colour. It has quite a strong, nutty, earthy taste. It works best when mixed with a milk alternative or made into a smoothie rather than added to water.
Pea protein is predominantly made from yellow split peas. During the manufacturing process the shell of the split pea is removed and the pea protein extracted. This extract is then added to water, which causes the soluble fibre within the split pea to dissolve and make a gel (5). This gel is then removed and then the remainder of the split pea is left to dry out, before finally being ground into a fine, beige powder. The result is pea protein isolate. This powder has a higher protein content by weight, with a lower amount of carbohydrates and starch. Pea protein powder has a smoother texture than other vegan protein powders and blends well with water.
Protein is a vital macronutrient. It is needed to restore cells and help in the growth of muscles, skin, bones, organs, hair and nails (6). There are over 10,000 different proteins which make and maintain the human body (7). Studies have recently shown even well-balanced diets can lack protein. This is people often choose to take a protein powder supplement. Amino acids are frequently referred to as the building blocks of protein, due to the fact they help the body to grow and function. When foods containing protein are consumed the body breaks them down into amino acids (8).
The recommended level of daily protein consumption is 7 grams of protein for every 20 pounds (9.07 kg) of body weight (9). For example, if you weigh 200 pounds (90.72 kg) you will need to consume 70 grams of protein daily.
When looking at different hemp and pea protein powders, pea protein has a much higher protein content. Pea protein will have a protein content of approximately 75% compared to hemp which has a protein content of approximately 50% (10, 15). Therefore, depending on the protein powder chosen, the protein content of pea isolate is approximately 25% higher than hemp.
Pea Protein Powder
Amino acids are often called the building blocks of protein. The body cannot make essential amino acids and must get them through food sources (11). This means it is important to check the content of each of the nine essential amino acids when deciding on a vegan protein powder. The nine essential amino acids are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine (2).
Pea protein is sometimes referred to as a complete protein as it contains all nine essential amino acids. It's status as a complete protein is sometimes disputed due to the low levels of methionine. Pea protein powder contains a high level of the branched- chain amino acid arginine. Arginine helps with blood flow and heart health (12). Pea protein also boasts good levels of leucine, isoleucine and valine. These amino acids play critical roles in the regulation of energy homeostasis, nutrition metabolism, gut health, immunity and disease (3). Leucine, isoleucine and valine also promote muscle growth. This makes pea protein an excellent choice of supplement for those looking develop strength or build muscle mass (2). In fact, this plant based protein has been shown to be compare favourably with whey protein. Although, pea protein has a low level of the essential amino acid methionine (13). This can be overcome by adapting your diet to ensure you getting enough methionine. Foods high in methionine include: oats, quinoa, hemp and sunflower seeds.
Hemp Protein Powder
Hemp protein has lower levels of the branched chain amino acids when compared to pea protein. Hemp has slightly low levels of the amino acid lysine. This falls short of WHO guidelines (14). The lysine content in hemp is 3.8% in comparison to pea protein powder's 7.5%. Valine levels in hemp protein are 5.6%, whereas pea protein has 5%. The leucine levels in hemp are 6.8% in contrast to pea proteins 8.5%.
Leucine is the amino acid which is needed to help promote muscle growth. This means individuals wanting a protein supplement to increase their muscle mass would benefit more from taking a pea protein powder rather than hemp one. Hemp does have good levels of arginine. Whilst arginine isn’t an essential amino acid it does boost heart health and increase blood flow.
Research shows 91–98% of the protein in ground hemp seed is digestible (15). Scientists believe this is due to its content of the proteins edestin and albumin which the body can quickly break down and use (16). However, it is important to check the labelling of any hemp protein to ensure it contains cold-pressed hemp seeds. The reason for this is, hemp seeds which are heated are believed to negatively impact the digestibility of the hemp powder (15).
Studies have shown high fibre diets improve blood sugar levels, encourage healthier gut bacteria and reduce the risk of developing bowel cancer (17, 18). It is recommended women consume 25 grams of fibre each day and men consume 38 grams (19). Hemp is high in fibre, with the average serving portion containing 18-28% of the recommended daily fibre intake. Fibre also helps to control appetite. This may make hemp protein a good choice for individuals trying to lose weight.
Hemp protein also contains a high portion of fat per serving. Most of this is unsaturated fat. Whilst this can increase the calorie levels compared to other vegan protein powders, unsaturated fat is excellent for heart health and can lower cholesterol levels (20). Hemp seeds also have good antioxidant levels (21). They are also rich in Vitamin E and minerals such as phosphorus, sodium, magnesium, calcium, iron, and zinc (22, 23).
Pea protein powder can assist with weight loss. It can be used as a meal replacement. And studies have found pea protein can suppress appetite and glycemia (24). This is because the high protein content promotes satiety.
Pea protein rich in iron. Studies have found nearly 50% of women in the UK do not meet the recommended daily intake (25). The reference nutrient intake (RNI) for iron is 8.7 mg per day for men and postmenopausal women, with 14.8 mg per day recommended for premenopausal women. When looking at a 20 gm scoop of pea isolate powder, the iron content tends to be around 5 mg. This makes pea protein an easy way to increase iron levels.
A recent study into the anti-inflammatory qualities of pea protein found pea protein can increase intestinal short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) levels, which are considered anti-inflammatory (26). This makes it a good option for those who suffer from IBS. Pea protein is a plant based protein source making it suitable for vegans and vegetarians. Additionally, it is hypoallergenic which makes it suitable for most people. It is void of the 8 most common allergens; milk, egg, soy, wheat, peanut, tree-nut, fish, and shellfish (27).
The good news is you do not have to choose, what we consider to be the best pea supplement on the market contains both pea and hemp protein powder. However, if you do have to choose. The answer is it depends on the individual and their goals. Both pea and hemp protein powders are highly digestible, plant based protein sources. They can help promote weight loss due to increasing satiety.
For individuals looking to gain weight or build muscle mass, pea protein powder is the better due to higher protein content which is comparable to whey protein (10). It is a complete protein with superior levels of the essential and branched-chain amino acids (2). However, if an individuals is looking for a protein power with additional health benefits such as a high level of anti-oxidants, hemp protein is superior.