Medically reviewed by
Diana Morgan, MS, CISSN
10 min read
Protein. It’s one of the most talked about supplements on the market and the amount of protein products on the market reflects its popularity. Protein is an essential building block that every person needs in their diet. Oh, and protein is definitely not only for weightlifters! So where do you begin? Protein supplements can be broken down into many categories, but one comparison in particular has surfaced over the past few years: pea protein vs whey protein. With the increasing number of individuals becoming vegetarians and vegans, pea protein has erupted as a supplement. Who should consider pea protein? Is pea protein better or worse than whey protein? Read on for more detail.
You don’t need to be a weightlifter to rely on protein powder as a supplement. In fact, you don’t even have to be an athlete. Protein is an essential component of any person’s diet and our bodies need protein for processes such as building muscle. Along with fats and carbohydrates, protein is an essential macronutrient. In addition to serving as a building block for tissue development, protein also serves as a rich energy source for our body.
Protein powders are a finely ground combination of protein sources and other ingredients. These powders normally have a consistency that is similar to flour and they can be mixed with liquids such as milk or water. Protein powders come in a variety of flavors, including classics like chocolate and fun flavors like cake batter. The large variety of flavor options make it easy to incorporate protein into your daily routine. For example, you could simply add the powder to water or mix it in with a smoothie. The amount of protein in a serving of protein powder is generally measured in grams (g). Typically, one serving of protein powder will deliver 20-30 grams of protein.
The primary factor that differentiates one protein powder from another is the source of protein. Most protein powders used to be derived from cow’s milk (whey protein), but there are many other sources of high quality protein available. Pea protein has become one of the front runners as a protein source. Many people want a protein powder that is not derived from animals and pea protein has become a very popular plant-based option.
Whey protein and pea protein are both great sources for a protein powder. It is likely that your individual preferences will determine which type of protein powder is best for you.
Whey protein is an animal-based product. Whey is derived from milk and is a byproduct of the cheese making process. In fact, whey is one of two types of protein present in milk. Once the milk is strained, whey is present as a leftover liquid substance. Lactose is present in whey since it is derived from milk. Given its origins, whey protein is not suitable for vegans or anyone that avoids consuming animal byproducts. Whey protein powders are available in almost any store that sells protein powders because they were the most popular type of protein powder for many years.
Protein selection is based heavily on personal preference. First, the grams of protein available in a single serving is often higher in whey protein products. Generally, whey protein contains more protein in a serving than plant-based proteins. For example, whey protein powders may contain over 30 grams of protein in one serving, whereas a comparable plant-based product may only contain 20 grams. Second, many people claim that whey protein is easier to digest and absorb. Protein powders often cause minor stomach and gastrointestinal (GI) issues, so it is a relief when protein powder does not cause any problems.
Pea protein is a very popular plant-based protein that has increased in popularity over the past few years. There are several other plant-based protein powders on the market (e.g. hemp seed, pumpkin seed, soy, etc.), but pea protein appears to be the most popular. Unlike whey protein, which is derived from milk, pea protein is derived from legumes (e.g. yellow split peas). Since pea protein is not animal-based, it does not contain lactose. Plant-based protein powders may be made solely from peas or as a combination of several plant sources.
Pea protein has exploded in popularity since the number of people following a vegan or plant-based diet has also increased. For those that prefer pea protein powders, two benefits are usually stated. First, pea protein is not derived from animals or animal byproducts. For those that are looking to avoid relying on animals as a food source, this often makes pea protein an ideal choice. Second, many people claim to have less allergic reactions or unwanted side effects when using a pea-based protein powder. For example, pea protein generally does not contain lactose or gluten, whereas whey protein normally does contain these components. Since many people are sensitive to lactose and gluten, pea protein is often an easy choice over whey protein.
The most notable difference between whey and plant protein is that plant protein fits into a vegan/plant-based diet, whereas whey protein does not since it is derived from an animal source. It is important to note two additional differences between whey protein and pea protein: (1) protein content, and (2) amino acids. For those that are on the fence about choosing a protein powder, these two differences are often important considerations.
As noted briefly above, whey protein often contains more protein per serving. Although the differences are often small between a whey protein serving and a pea protein serving (e.g. 27g vs 22g), the difference may be a big deal for some consumers. Protein isolates are products that contain more protein per serving, but have reduced quantities of carbohydrates, fats, and some beneficial ingredients. Whey protein and plant-based proteins are available in isolate forms if you are interested solely in getting more protein per serving. As a reminder, it is very important to read a product’s label to determine how much protein is in a given serving and how large a single serving is.
The second difference is amino acid content. Amino acids are the building blocks, or subunits, of protein. You may have heard of the “essential amino acids.” These essential amino acids are the amino acids that humans cannot synthesize on their own. Therefore, we must get these amino acids from our diet. Many whey proteins contain all nine essential amino acids (i.e. complete protein), but proteins based purely from pea proteins may be missing one of the essential nine (i.e. incomplete protein). To resolve this, companies often combine pea protein with another plant-based source to produce a product that contains all nine. If you want a product that contains all nine essential amino acids, you can often look for a product that is a “complete” protein powder. Alternatively, you can read the label for the nine essential amino acids: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
Given the major spike in popularity for plant-based proteins, most reputable supplement companies now offer both whey protein and pea protein options. When selecting a whey protein powder, it is important to find a product that has transparent labeling and is sourced responsibly. Similarly, when selecting a plant-based protein, you should look for a product with clear labeling that details the plant sources utilized for the protein itself. An ideal plant-based protein powder will contain pea protein and other plant sources—a plant-based protein blend—to increase the essential amino acids in each serving. A few other criteria to focus on when seeking for a high quality protein product (whey or plant-based) include low sugar quantities, organic ingredients, natural flavors, and no unnecessary fillers or additives.