Written by Ben Carlisle
Last updated on: Sep 18, 2022
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Plant based and whey protein powders can both support muscle growth, weight loss and boost protein intake. All whey powders have a high protein content and contain all nine essential amino acids. All plant based powders are lactose-free and vegan friendly. However, the nutritional values of plant based proteins will differ greatly.
Plant-based eating is on the rise, and this means, whey has more competition than ever as more plant-derived protein powders burst onto the health and fitness scene. But, can any of these plant based protein powders compete with the time tested whey protein.
Whey protein is a by-product of the cheesemaking process. It is the watery part of milk that separates from the curds after straining. This protein-rich substance is split from the casein, filtered, and dried to make whey protein powder. The three primary types of whey protein are:
The highest quality whey product. Due to extra processing whey protein isolate has a higher protein content per weight and less fat, carbohydrate and lactose. Research has found whey isolate to be one of the purest protein powders available with protein concentrations of 90% and higher (1).
Whey protein concentrate (WPC) contains low levels of both fat and carbohydrates. The percentage of protein in WPC is dependent upon how concentrated it is. This can range from anywhere from 30 up to 80%. In a typical whey concentrate protein powder the concentration will be between 70% and 80%.
Whey protein hydrolysate (WPH) is whey which has already undergone hydrolysis. Hydrolysis is a process which is required to take place for the body to absorb protein. For this reason, whey hydrolysate is often referred to as “pre-digested”. This makes this type of whey protein easier to digest than other forms of whey. This type of whey protein also has a reduced allergen potential.
Plant-based protein powder is a protein derived from non-animal plant sources such as soybeans, peas, seeds, and rice. In most cases the protein is isolated from the plant, which means the carbohydrate, starch and fat content is removed. This is why when you read the label of plant based powders the protein source is often followed by the word isolate. Plant-based protein powders are often used by individuals who are vegan, lactose intolerant or have milk allergies.
Plant-based proteins may seem like a more ‘natural’ source of protein, but non-calorific artificial sweeteners (NAS), such as xylitol or erythritol may be added to some plant-based proteins to enhance the taste. Studies show NAS can cause stomach discomfort (2).
Most plant-based proteins can be higher in calories because of the carbohydrate content, which is not ideal if weight loss is your primary goal. Soy and pea protein isolates would be better options, as they are similar to whey in terms of a lower calorie and carbohydrate content.
Most plant-based proteins provide extra nutrients such as essential vitamins and minerals, fibre, healthy fats, and antioxidants.
Whey protein is lower in calories and carbohydrates. It usually has a lower nutrient density than plant protein but contains substantial amounts of calcium and B-vitamins, which plant-derived sources lack.
Whey products tend to have added sugars to improve the flavour, and they have higher levels of saturated fat, which can raise cholesterol.
Whey protein powder has a fine, soft texture that dissolves easily in smoothies and other liquids. Whey doesn’t taste very pleasant on its own, so the products are usually flavoured.
Plant-based protein powders have a more granular texture and earthy flavour. They are generally quite bland since they don’t typically use many additives or flavourings. Plant-derived proteins often have a slightly offish, bitter aftertaste.
Whey protein powder is derived from milk, which may cause an inflammatory response in people who are sensitive to lactose. This reaction can lead to uncomfortable side effects such as bloating, gas, and digestive upset.
Studies show that whey protein powder takes first prize as the highest quality protein source, as it is digested, absorbed, and utilised by the body the most effectively. Whey protein’s quick absorption rate results in speedy muscle recovery (1).
Generally, plant-based protein powders are gentle on the gut, but they take a little longer to digest and absorb compared to whey protein. This is due to the fibre and other compounds present in the actual plants.
Pea protein isolate has a similar digestion rate to whey protein. It is easier to digest than whey. Pea protein also provides probiotics which feeds the good gut bacteria.
Rice protein can trigger a reaction similar to gluten in certain people, and this makes it potentially inflammatory, causing digestive symptoms such as bloating, gas and discomfort.
Whey powder is considered a complete protein, with all 9 Essential Amino Acids that your body cannot produce on its own. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and they are crucial for fat loss and muscle growth.
Whey protein powder also provides all three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which assist in the building and repair of muscles. The body can absorb and utilise whey protein rapidly and efficiently.
Some plant-based protein powders do not contain all 9 Essential Amino Acids, and they usually have fewer BCAAs than whey protein. Research shows that soy and pea protein have a good amount of Essential Amino Acids (3).
This is not a major issue, as multiple plant proteins can be combined to create a blend that provides all of the Essential Amino Acids and BCAAs.
It is essential for people with soy allergies always to read the label when purchasing a plant protein blend.
Pea protein isolate stands out as the most efficient plant-based alternative to whey, with a decent amount of protein per scoop. Pea protein isolate contains all 9 Essential Amino Acids, which makes it a good whey substitute (3).
Research shows that pea protein isolate is as effective as whey when it comes to muscle thickness and hypertrophy, and strength development (4).
Commercial whey and plant protein blends generally contain a similar amount of protein, averaging around 20-30 grams per serving.
Typically, plant protein powders usually have a higher price tag due to a longer farming and manufacturing process, a larger recommended serving size, and smaller demand. The cost of whey and plant-based proteins will also depend on the brand.
Research into the environmental impact of various protein sources found whey, soy protein isolate and pea protein flour to be some of the most environmentally friendly protein sources when scored for their global warming potential ratio (GWPRO). Interestingly whey came out as the most environmentally friendly when using GWPRO as a measurement (5).
• Lower in calories, and carbohydrates, which supports weight loss while building lean muscle.
• A complete protein source with all 9 Essential Amino Acids.
• A good source of calcium and B-Vitamins.
• More nutrient-dense, with essential vitamins and minerals.
• Minimal processing.
• Low in sugar and saturated fat.
• Vegan friendly.
• Free from lactose-free and allergens (except for soy).
• Easier to digest.
Plant based and whey protein powders can both support muscle growth, weight loss and boost protein intake. All whey powders have a high protein content and contain all nine essential amino acids. All plant based powders are lactose-free and vegan friendly. As a protein source whey and pea isolate are the leading powders and will be the best option for most fitness and athletic goals. For those with goals outside of fitness and athletic performance other protein powders may be superior options.