Written by Ben Carlisle
Last updated on: Sep 18, 2022
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Pea protein is better than whey protein if you are following a vegan diet. However, in a pea protein vs whey protein comparison both are closely matched. The protein powder to use will come down to the individual. This will be based on their performance goals, dietary restrictions and any allergies they have.
Whey protein powders will normally have a higher protein content gram for gram. This is especially true of whey isolate. However, pea protein isn’t far behind (1). Whilst also being rich in iron and hypo-allergenic. A high quality pea protein supplement will be approximately 75% protein compared to high quality whey protein supplements being 80% and above.
Whey protein powder is derived from cow's milk as a by-product of the cheese making process. Obviously, this makes whey protein animal based and unsuitable for vegetarians and vegans (2). Pea protein powder is produced by grinding dried yellow split peas into a fine powder. During this process the starch and fibre is removed from the peas. It is a completely plant based protein and suitable for both vegetarians and vegans.
Out of all the supplements derived from plant based proteins, pea protein is the one which runs whey the closest. This makes it an extremely popular protein powder for vegans wanting to maximise their protein consumption.
People take protein powder as a supplement to increase their overall protein intake. There can be many reasons for somebody doing this. This ranges from hitting daily protein requirements, assisting with weight loss, building muscle mass and reaching athletic performance goals. An increase in protein consumption also improves satiety and can help with weight loss. The reason for this is it can suppress cravings (3). This helps to keep an all important calorie deficit which is vital for weight loss.
Protein is an important nutrient which helps with the restoration of cells and the growth of muscles, skin, bones, organs, hair and nails (4). Protein supplementation with resistance training has been shown to help improve body mass index and strength (5). Both whey protein and plant based protein powders, such as pea protein, are great ways to get extra protein into your diet.
The best known way of consuming protein powder is via a protein shake. This protein shake is typically consumed pre or post-workout. Although it can also be used as a meal replacement drink. However, protein powders are versatile supplements which can be incorporated into your diet in a number of ways. Protein powder can be added to a number of meals and snacks. This includes, pancakes, muffins, porridge oats, mashed potatoes and yoghurts.
The main difference between the manufacturing process of pea and whey protein supplements is one is plant based and the other is animal based. However, they have some processing similarities as the protein is isolated to give higher protein levels. Let's look at how each type of supplement is made in more detail.
All whey protein powders are animal proteins derived from cow's milk. It is a mixture of proteins which are isolated from whey. Whey is the liquid part of milk which separates during cheese production. Carbohydrates, fat and water are removed from it leaving just the protein, which is sprayed into a fine powder (2). Whey protein isolate is whey protein concentrate which goes through extra processing which results in a higher protein content per gram of weight.
Whey protein is a complete protein, it has good levels of all of the essential amino acids. However, due to whey being a dairy product it is not suitable for vegans and may not be suitable for those with lactose intolerance.
Pea protein powder is made from yellow split peas. Not green garden peas. Yellow split peas are left to dry out. And then are then ground into a fine powder. This fine powder is pea protein concentrate. As peas are water soluble they are next separated from fibre and starch though wet filtration and centrifugation. The next step is to obtain pea protein isolate. To do this the protein must precipitate to its isoelectric point, and then solubilising the dry spray. The end result is a whitish-beige powder. This is the plant based supplement known as pea protein powder.
Pea protein supplements are suitable for vegetarians and vegans. It is not a complete protein as it is low in the essential amino acid methionine.
Pea isolate will typically contain a 75% protein content, with no sugar, salt or saturated fat. And whey protein powders will contain between a 70% and 90% protein content (whey protein isolate will have a higher content than whey protein concentrate). Whey and pea protein are both high quality protein sources. However, when this protein is analysed the levels of the nine essential amino acids do differ. Whey protein contains higher quantities of nearly every amino acid, with pea protein noticeable low in methionine (1). It is important to check the labels as different brands of whey and pea protein will vary in nutritional values.
Amino acids are often referred to as the build blocks of protein, this is because they help your body to grow and function. When you consume protein, your body breaks it down into amino acids (6).
Unfortunately, your body cannot make amino acids. For this reason vegans are often concerned with getting all the essential amino acids into their diet. A plant based diet offers fewer options to achieve this, as they are easier to obtain throguh animal protein sources. Through foods such as red meat, eggs and poultry.
Whilst there are a range of vegan protein powders, the majority do not provide a complete amino acid profile (1).
Pea protein does contains all of the essential amino acids, but is low in methionine (7). Due to this lower level of methionine, it is often debated whether pea protein can be referred to as a complete protein. It is important to note that, when compared to other vegan protein powders on the market, pea protein does contain higher levels of most of the amino acids (8).
The lower levels of methionine are not a problem if you supplement pea protein with a food source which is rich in methionine. Vegan food sources high in methionine include oats, quinoa, hemp and sunflower seeds. The best pea protein powder on the market does not have this problem as it contains added ingredients such as hemp protein which are rich in methionine.
Alternatively, you can choose to blend your pea protein with other plant based protein powders which contain methionine (brown rice would be an example).
The pea protein health benefits are considerable. Typically they are hypo-allergenic, as it is always lactose free and often free from gluten (it is important to check the labelling before purchasing if you are on a gluten free diet). This makes pea protein a good choice for people sensitive to dairy product. And those who take pea rather than the whey proteins should find themselves without problems and with less bloating.
It has high levels of most of the branched chain amino acids (BCAA's) including arginine, which helps with blood flow and heart health. It also contains good levels of leucine, isoleucine and valine which play critical roles in the regulation of energy homeostasis, nutrition metabolism, gut health, immunity and disease (9). It is also rich in iron. For those who may have a low iron count, this is an effective way to top up iron levels on a daily basis.
For those looking to reduce their weight, pea protein powder can be a great way to do this. It can be used as a meal replacement and studies have shown that the protein qualities found within pea protein mixed with its fibre and resistant starch components help to suppress appetite and glycemia (3). This is because they give the body the feeling of being full for a sustained period.
Yes pea protein will support muscle growth. It is a great protein source which will support the acquisition of muscle thickness and strength development when combined with resistance exercise. It is well known that consumption of protein plays a critical part in maintaining and building muscle tissue at all stages of life (10). By increasing protein intake, using a quality protein source such as pea protein you will supply your body with enough protein to help develop your muscle mass and strength.
Studies have shown it to be a good vegan protein source for muscle gain (11). It has the required BCAA's and protein content to gain muscle weight, despite being low in methionine (12).
Pea protein is able to provide good levels of protein. It is able to assist with weight loss by improving satiety and assist with muscle preservation, muscle gain and strength development.
Whilst it might have low levels of the essential amino acid methionine, there are ways to rectify this. You could mix it with another type of vegan protein powder that is rich in methionine, such as rice protein powder. Alternatively, you can ensure that you are eating foods rich in methionine, such as oats, quinoa, hemp and sunflower seeds.
Pea protein powder has added health benefits, including being a good source of iron. It is also hypoallergenic making it a great choice for those with food allergies or sensitivities.
The answer is it depends on your performance goals, dietary restrictions and any allergies you may have. Both pea protein and whey are closely matched in terms of their nutritional values. And studies have found both have been useful in the assistance of reaching fitness and lifestyle goals. Obviously, if you are on a vegan diet or have allergies related to milk pea protein will be the supplement of choice. However, without any such restrictions it will come down to personal choice and your own goals.