Written by Carina Fabia
Last updated on: Sep 18, 2022
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The answer to whether vegan protein powder is better for you than alternative protein supplements such as whey protein is it depends. There are many factors that influence this answer and it comes down to the individuals dietary and health requirements as well as their fitness aspirations.
The idea that vegan protein powder is better for you is currently a popular topic for debate and there are both positive and negative values for the consumption of both vegan and whey protein powders.
There are many consumers who are currently using protein powders as a supplement to boost the levels of protein they are consuming. Protein is a key part of our body composition and is required for growth and development (1) making protein powders popular amongst athletes and the exercising community.
For those who suffer from allergies or have sensitivities towards certain animal-based produce plant-based protein powders are an excellent alternative, as they are lactose free and tend to be gluten free also making them easier to digest.
A key concern many have about the use of vegan protein instead of whey is that some forms of vegan protein supplements don’t contain all the essential amino acids that are needed in a protein supplement.
However, there are types of vegan protein powder that manufacturers can combine together to make complete protein and resolve the issue of not containing amino acids (2). For example, rice and beans together make a complete protein, so it is not as simple as whey protein is better than vegan protein as it depends which plant based protein powder you are using.
When choosing which type of protein supplement is best for you out of vegan and whey, you need to remember to check the labels of the protein powders carefully. Here you can see which ingredients are being used, and how much of the powder you will need to consume in order to meet your daily protein intake goal.
Protein helps your muscles, skin, hair, bones and organs grow and so it is important for everyone to ensure they are getting enough protein post workout.
Studies have also shown that by using a protein supplement you can also maximise your lean body mass index, as well as improve upper and lower body strength (3). This is because during exercise you are breaking down your muscles; your body then uses protein to build and repair these muscles.
Whey offer a high amount of quality protein which comes from cow’s milk.
Whey is a milk by-product of cheese making, this liquid is collected. And carbohydrates, fat and water are removed from it leaving just the protein, which is sprayed into a fine powder (4).
Due to whey being a dairy product it does contain lactose and may not be suitable for those with allergies or those leading a plant-based lifestyle. If you are finding whey protein concentrate to have too much lactose for you, whey protein isolate may be more appropriate. This is due to the fact it undergoes further processing which reduced the lactose content further
The term vegan protein powder covers a range of different plant-based supplements, including pea protein, soy, brown rice and hemp. Plant based protein powder is made without milk and has been proven to be gentler on the stomach making them suitable for lactose free lifestyles.
It is however, important to check the ingredients carefully as some vegan protein supplements will contain other common allergens such as soy.
Adequate consumption of dietary protein is critical for the maintenance of optimal health during normal growth and ageing (5). Therefore when strength training it become imperative that you are replenishing and providing your body with enough protein for it to repair and grow.
Whey protein is complete protein that contains high levels of BCAA leucine (6) and is quickly absorbed by the body making it a great choice for those working on their fitness.
Vegan protein powders are able to match these levels as most powders are fortified with BCAA leucine, but it is important to check the label for the protein and BCAA leucine levels per serving. This is because you may need bigger portions of vegan protein to match the levels present in whey protein supplements.
Regardless of whether you opt for a vegan or whey protein it is essential to remember that protein powder is a supplement for a healthy diet and a tool to add in muscle recovery and growth; it is not to be used as a main source of protein. Protein can be found in a variety of foods including fish, chicken, eggs, tofu and beans.
The amount of protein you should be consuming is dependent on a lot of factors, including your age, weight and exercise programme (7). But most people should aim to get 20-40 grams of protein per meal.
Studies have shown that the consumption of whey protein after exercise enhances whole body anabolism, and may improve acute recovery of exercise performance (8). This has led to consumers wanting to know if vegan protein supplements are as effective as whey based powders at supporting post work out recovery?
The answer to this is yes. Studies have shown that a range of plant-based proteins are able to provide the same protein characteristics as those of whey protein and so are as effective at supporting exercise recovery (9).
A calorie defecit is where you consuming less calories than the number of calories your body burns and is an effective way of achieving weight loss. Many people also choose to burn more calories through increasing their physical activity.
Both vegan and whey protein powders can help you to achieve calorie defect as they can help improve satiety. An additional bonus is there is some evidence they assist in the preservation of muscle mass.
If weight loss is your aim then you need to examine your protein powder’s label, looking specifically at the level of sugar and sweetener present in the supplement as this is more important than choosing between vegan and whey protein. You want to aim to find a powder that is low in calories.
If you want to add your protein to smoothies think carefully about what other ingredients you are putting into your smoothie for example milk and fruit can be high in calories. Try to add protein powder into mealtimes for example porridge or pancakes to enhance your overall protein consumption.
One key component difference between whey protein and vegan protein powder is the number of amino acids. Studies have confirmed that essential amino acid is lower in plant-based powders, where-as animal-based powders were shown to be above the WHO requirement guidelines, making them a good choice for a protein powder (10).
Different types of plant based protein powder vary greatly in their levels of amino acid, with powders containing a combination of different plant-based proteins coming out as a higher quality of protein blend (11).
However, it is worth noting that good levels of amino acids can be achieved simply by drinking larger volumes of vegan protein powder. It is important to read the labels on the different plant based protein powders to see which has higher levels and will match your protein goal. For example, there are pea protein supplements such as pea isolate which pack very high amounts of protein per serving.
Another concern that arose about the ingredients within vegan protein powder were the naturally forming heavy metals (including arsenic, cadium, mercury and lead) found within it.
When researchers investigated this contamination of the vegan protein powder they determined that they were naturally occurring from the soil surrounding the plant-based produce.
Furthermore, it was discovered that typical intake of dietary supplements, including vegan protein powder would not result in adverse health effects due to heavy metals and that vegan protein powder is safe for consumption (12).
Whey protein powder has often been considered superior to vegan protein powder, however, recent studies have shown that vegan protein powder which combines protein sources does closely reflect the nutritional and protein values of animal-based protein powder making it a good alternative (13).
In addition, recent studies into the benefits of leading a Vegan or Vegetarian based lifestyle have shown that this choice of diet can reduce the risks of certain health conditions including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity (14).
Vegan protein powders tend to be packed with more vitamins and nutrients and is easier to digest than whey-protein powder, making it more desirable if you have a sensitive stomach.
Pea protein powder is a particularly beneficial options if you are looking to lose weight as recent studies have shown that the protein qualities within it mixed with its fibre and resistant starch components help to suppress appetite and glycemia (15).
Generally speaking the prices of vegan and whey powder will not vary too much and as with many products it is dependent upon the brand of powder you are choosing.
Remember that products which are organic, or keto, or offer any other form of specialties will cost more.
A key thing to keep in mind is the quantity of protein within each serving size. As it might seem that one product is cheaper than its rival, but you need greater quantities of it to achieve the same protein values, and so, over time it works out more expensive.
If you are aiming to lose weight then you need to look for a protein powder that is low in sugar and carbohydrate. Whereas, if you are looking to build muscle and gain weight you will want a protein powder that contains high levels of amino acid and BCAA.
When selecting your protein powder aim for one that will provide you with 20-30 grams of protein per serving.
Maybe you are currently already using a whey protein powder and wondering whether to swap to Vegan protein powder? If you are happy with your current choice and feel it is matching your lifestyle goals then it’s probably best to stick with the product that is working for you.
However, if you want a lifestyle change or are looking to cut back on animal-based produce the right vegan protein powder can still give you the protein values needed for you to meet your health goals- whether they are to lose weight or gain muscle strength.
Further to this, vegan protein powder gives any consumers who are struggling with the lactose found with animal-based protein powder a more comfortable way to enjoy protein powder supplements.
Remember, if you chose to go with a vegan protein powder it is best to select one that is a mixed blend as they tend to have higher levels of amino acids.