Whey Protein vs Plant Protein: What’s the Difference?
March 19, 2022
In the world of supplements, none are as popular or beneficial as protein. As the substance responsible for better post-workout recovery, increased muscle performance, and weight management, getting the source of protein right is hugely important.
What is better, whey protein or plant protein? There are pros and cons to either side, with whey protein being better for quick digestion and amino acids but plant protein is better for the environment and with more nutrients per serving.
Each side should be carefully considered to see what benefits are more appealing to you.
In the whey protein vs plant protein debate, there are a few things to consider, and if you’re not following a vegan diet, you might be tossing up between the two.
We’ve done the hard work of comparing them where they matter, including taste and calories, so you can walk away with a protein source that’s right for you.
What is Whey Protein?
Whey protein powder is a form of protein powder derived from cow’s milk.
This milky liquid is a byproduct that occurs during cheese making and after it’s collected, the fat, water, carbohydrates, and more are removed from it, leaving just the protein behind.
The remaining protein is then turned into a powder and used to make either whey protein isolate or whey protein concentrate. The isolate features less lactose than concentrate, so it may be preferred by people with digestive issues.
What is Plant Protein?
As their name suggests, plant-based proteins are made using only plant sources.
The type of powder and the plant that it’s made from will determine how the protein is extracted, but just like whey protein, it is usually processed into a powder form to make it easier to take.
Plant proteins can be made of just one type of plant or several combined, depending on the taste, nutritional profile, and price point that the consumer wants.
While plant proteins used to be less common in the supplement market, they’re becoming more popular because of their environmentally friendly approach, and the fact that they have no lactose or dairy in them suits many people.
The Most Common Plant Proteins
One of the biggest decisions you’ll have to make about plant proteins is what type of plant exactly it should be sourced from.
To help you decide, these are some of the most common plant proteins and what it is that sets them apart.
Pea: Arguably the most popular plant protein, pea protein provides a good dose of protein, calcium, and taste, without being heavy on calories. Many of them are fortified with other things that vegans need, like B12, so you can find an all-encompassing pea protein for all of your dietary needs.
Brown rice: If you want high protein and low carb without too much refinement, brown rice protein powder is a smart choice. Brown rice is a solid source of amino acids which help with detoxification and overall sports performance.
Soy: Soy protein isolate is another great way to get more protein without relying on animal products. There are loads of extra benefits of getting soy in your diet, including hormone management and reduced risk of heart disease and cancer.
Hemp: Hemp protein powders have become increasingly popular as more people look to the possibilities of this plant and its seeds. Hemp seeds are a decent source of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids and are a lean source of protein, so there are loads of benefits.
How Does Plant Compare to Whey Protein?
Plant-based protein has proven itself to be just as effective as whey protein powders at delivering results, making it even harder to choose.
If you’re still on the fence about which protein source to go with, we’ve compared them in a few key categories.
Quality of Product
The quality of a protein powder can only be determined by the individual product and its manufacturer.
Reading reviews, asking others for recommendations, and trialing a few different brands is the only way you’ll find out the true quality of these protein powders.
Amino acids are important in protein supplements, and whey protein is the only one that could be classed as a complete protein source because it has all nine of them.
However, some plant proteins are made with a number of different plant protein sources in them so that they can also feature all nine amino acids.
A bonus of whey protein is that it contains branched-chain amino acids as well, including leucine and valine, which help build muscle.
The protein content in a typical container of powder is fairly similar between the two sorts, but again it depends on the product and ingredients.
As a rule, you should choose one that offers between 20 and 30 grams of protein per serving to ensure it’s delivering enough for the intended result.
How much protein a plant-based supplement has will also depend on the plant used to make it, so it can be helpful to choose one that uses a few different plant sources.
You should also factor in your protein intake from diet alone to determine how much of the supplement is required.
A common complaint that people have with whey proteins is that it upsets their stomach, causing symptoms like gas, bloating, and cramping. This is due to the lactose content within the whey powder, which plant proteins feature none of.
However, some types of plant protein, like pea, can also cause gastrointestinal upset, especially in people with already sensitive digestive systems.
People with food sensitives may need to experiment with a few different protein supplements until they find one that’s a low irritant, and it can take a few days of testing each one to get genuine results.
Usually, though, plant-based proteins are gentler on the stomach and will cause less upset than their whey counterparts.
Protein supplements are generally used when someone is trying to manage their weight or build muscle, so comparing calories is helpful.
For the most part, whey protein and plant protein powders contain the same number of calories per serving, which is usually less than 150 calories per serving.
However, it’s more common for plant-based proteins to feature few calories and have less than 100 per serving, so they could be more beneficial for someone trying to lose weight.
Furthermore, mixing them with almond milk or another plant milk will also be fewer calories than cow’s milk, so you have to look at the bigger picture.
When plant-based proteins came out, they were sold for a higher price than whey-based ones because they catered to a specific market of people.
Today, you can find comparably priced plant and whey protein powders in varying degrees of quality, depending on the brand and the ingredients included.
One reason why either of these protein powder types may be more expensive is if they’re marketed as keto, organic, or paleo, so it depends on what you’re shopping for.
Other times, the specific ingredients or benefits of a powder could increase the price. You should also consider the serving size and how much powder is included in a package to get a more accurate idea of the price per serving.
Protein powder has come a long way in taste, and what used to be chalky and bland is now smooth and virtually tasteless. This is true for both whey and plant protein powders, but it also depends on the other ingredients included.
Some people find that whey protein has a blander taste compared to plant protein which can be nutty, however, this depends on the product.
Most protein powders come with some sort of flavoring including vanilla, chocolate, and coffee, depending on your preference.
Vegans should be cautious when choosing a plant-based protein though, as they’re sometimes sweetened with products like honey, so it’s important to check the labels.
Preparation and Usability
The texture of plant and whey-based proteins is similar and so too is their usability in cooking and preparing foods.
The best way to enjoy these protein powders is mixed into a smoothie, stirred through breakfast cereals, or placed into meals that are being baked or cooked, and as long as they’re mixed well, they should dissolve easily.
How you prepare a protein powder also impacts the final texture, as well as what ingredients you add to it.
Most people find adding plant milk, including some chopped frozen fruits, adding natural sweeteners like vanilla bean extract, or just plain water to be the best when preparing a protein supplemented snack.
When it comes to shelf life, plant-based protein is the winner, with an estimated 24 months of usability. Whey-based protein is still impressive though, with between nine and 19 months of shelf life possible.
Of course, how you store it, whether additives were included, and weather conditions can all impact these numbers.
Can Athletes Use Plant-Based Protein?
There was once a time when hearing about a vegan athlete would be a rare thing, and perhaps even laughable.
Today, though, athletes promoting a plant-based diet are becoming more common, and this includes consuming plants as their best source of protein.
Plants can provide enough protein for a serious athlete, through the consumption of whole foods and supplements like pea and hemp proteins.
As bodybuilders and athletes usually require at least twice as much protein as a regular person, it takes more work, but nothing is stopping a vegan from doing just as much by following a plant-based diet.
As well as protein supplements, there are loads of protein-rich foods including legumes, beans, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, spelt, oats, and more than you can enjoy while following a vegan diet.
You’ll get the benefits of enjoying more whole foods plus the boost of protein they provide, without having to resort to consuming animal products to get it.
Plant protein and whey protein can both provide an efficient, tasty, and nutritious source of protein to supplement your diet, and give you loads of benefits for weight management and muscle building.
With good and bad on either side, it’s up to the individual to decide whether plant or whey-based protein is best for them.
Choosing a protein supplement can take some trial and error to get right, as they’re not all created equally or cater to everyone’s tastes.
To help you get a better understanding of protein powders before you start shopping around, read on for a few FAQs that might help.
Can I Mix Whey and Plant Protein?
If you want the benefits of both plant and whey-based protein supplements, it is possible to combine them, but you must choose products that are compatible with each other.
Some people find they build muscle mass and lose fat faster doing so, but it’s not going to be a winning combination for everyone.
Does Pea Protein Cause Bloating?
One of the biggest benefits of pea protein and other plant-based proteins is that it’s gentler on your digestive system, which means fewer issues like bloating and gas.
Many people find that whey proteins trigger gastrointestinal upset shortly after consuming them, so a plant-based alternative might be better if you’re affected by them in this way.
How Much Plant Protein Do You Need?
Vegans and vegetarians eating plant-based sources of protein should aim for around 56g a day for men and 46 a day for a woman.
Of course, other factors can impact this recommendation, including people hoping to gain muscle mass, where more protein would be required per day.
Lorraine Pinnix is a passionate nutritionist and loves seeing people living healthy, and fulfilled lives. She believes that food is an essential piece of staying fit and strongly believes in going vegan. PureGrowthOrganic is a passionate work that details her research in helping you go on complete organic diets. She is available for questions, comments, and follow-ups.