Whey Protein vs Plant Protein: Top 10 Things to Consider

Two tall glasses with green liquid representing whey protein vs plant protein.

Are you in the market for a protein powder?

You kind of know what whey is, but is it really the best one for you?

Have you been trying to eat more plant-based foods and have heard of plant-based proteins but aren’t entirely sure what they are or if they’re good for you?

How do they even make protein from plants?

Perhaps you just want to make an informed decision?

We completely understand. So much so that we’ve compiled a top-10 list of things to consider to help. Which one is best for you?

Keep reading to find out!

What Is Protein Anyway?

Proteins are the building blocks of our bodies.

They’re important for structure and function and consist of a chain of amino acids linked together.

There are hundreds of amino acids in nature, but the human body only needs 20 to make proteins.

Amino acids can be essential or non-essential. That is, our food has to supply the essential ones, while our bodies can make the non-essential ones.

Nine amino acids are considered essential.

When a protein contains sufficient amounts of all nine essential amino acids, it’s considered a complete, or high-quality protein.

Furthermore, some essential amino acids are also called branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs).

BCAAs can have some effect on muscle mass, however, how they affect cancer patients remain unclear.

Does Protein Have Any Effect on My Weight?

Proteins can both help prevent weight loss and contribute to it.

By providing enough building blocks it helps maintain weight, and by reducing the appetite so you feel full longer, it can help promote weight loss.

What in the World Is Whey Protein?

Whey protein is one of the two main proteins found in milk products. It’s a cloudy liquid that you can see on top of yogurt and cottage cheese.  

How Do They Make It?

During the cheese and yogurt-making process, machines separate milk into solid milk curds and liquids.

Next, whey goes through a pasteurization, drying, filtration, and purification process. Here it turns into one of three main forms, whey protein concentrate, whey protein hydrolysate, and whey protein isolate.

  • Whey Concentrate: The cheapest, most basic form of whey protein powder. Has more nutrients. Amount of protein can vary, some lactose (milk sugar) and fat remain.
  • Whey Hydrolysate: More expensive because it’s partially digested making it quicker to absorb.
  • Whey Isolate: The highest amount of protein and the least amount of lactose, fat, and nutrients. More expensive.

What Are the Health Effects of Whey Protein?

Beneficial

  • Easily digested
  • Provides all essential amino acids
  • Filling
  • Includes branched-chain amino acids important for muscle growth but questionable for cancer patients
  • May play a role in immune defenses in cancer patients by providing cysteine, a precursor to the antioxidant glutathione

Watch Out For

Potential Side Effects

  • Reduced appetite
  • Upset stomach
  • Dehydration
  • Potential stress on the kidneys with overuse or kidney disease

What Is Plant-Protein?

Plant-based proteins are found only in plants.

Manufacturers make plant based protein powders and other products from sources such as pea, hemp, soy, brown rice, pumpkin, chia, and mixes thereof.

For instance, sometimes mixes of brown rice protein and pea protein make complete proteins.

Is It Vegan or Vegetarian?

Plant protein powders can be both vegan and vegetarian depending on the ingredients.

Plant-based protein powder made from hemp is completely vegan, but is whey protein vegan? Well, since it’s made from milk it’s only considered vegetarian for those that use milk products.

Other protein mixes may include protein from egg or milk sources and can be considered vegetarian for those that use eggs and milk.

What Are the Health Effects of Plant-Based Proteins?

The plant-based diet has gotten a lot of attention in recent years as it can help prevent heart disease and cancer, and help maintain a healthy weight.

From a nutrition standpoint, it prevents disease because of the high content of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and smaller substances that protect our bodies.

But unless the plant based protein powder is minimally processed, those nutrients can be lost.

Subsequently, we don’t know how many of the original nutrients from the whole food remain in the protein product.

What’s left is still a healthy protein, but not perhaps not a superfood from a disease prevention perspective.

Furthermore, most of the studies don’t separate plant-based proteins from plant-based diets when describing the health benefits, nor are vegans studied.

So, the benefits are sort of extended from plant-based foods and not specific to just plant-based proteins. That is, separating the different plant-based proteins from one another based on health benefits might be premature.

But as a group, here are some benefits and disadvantages of plant-based proteins:

Beneficial

  • Filling
  • Promotes muscle growth
  • Positive environmental impact

Unknowns

Potential Side Effects

  • Less of an appetite
  • Upset stomach
  • Dehydration
  • Potential stress for the kidneys with overuse or kidney disease

What Is the Difference Between Whey Protein and Plant Protein?

One difference when comparing whey vs plant protein is the amount of essential amino acids and branched-chain amino acids. Typically, whey protein is higher in both, while it can vary for plant-based protein.

Check out the table below of the top 10 things to consider when comparing whey protein vs plant protein sources.

TOP 10 THINGS TO CONSIDERWHEY PROTEINPLANT-BASED PROTEIN
1. Adequate Protein Quality XDepends*
2. All Essential Amino Acids XDepends*
3. All Branched-Chain Amino Acids XDepends**
4. Higher in Nutrients  X
5. Higher in Protein X 
6. Easily Digested X 
7. Least Processed  X
8. Least Additional Ingredients  X
9. Most Research Available X 
10. More Sustainable  X
* Pea, Hemp & Soy Protein = Quality Sources. **Pea and Soy = Quality Sources.

Which Is Better, Whey Protein or Plant Protein?

In the plant protein vs whey debate, it turns out they can both be good in different ways. It’s going to be up to what factors are more important to you.

If you want a high-quality vegan protein that’s gone through less processing and has more nutrients and fiber, maybe you choose plant sources.

The disadvantages of plant-based protein powders include a less complete amino acid composition. To be on the safe side, go for a mix of different plant based protein sources.

While, if you on the other hand want a powder that’s higher in protein, more easily digested, and well-researched, maybe whey is for you?

But if building muscle mass is important, you may want to choose whey protein powders because they have the most branched chain amino acids.

However, if you have cancer, remember that it’s unclear what effect branched-chain amino acids may have on your health.

Lastly, check the label for third-party testing to make sure there are no contaminants, check for any allergens you may have, or whether you need it to be vegan or gluten-free.

Questions

Is There a Specific Plant Protein That Is Equivalent to Whey in That It Is Absorbed Very Quickly?

A specific plant protein that is equivalent to whey in that it’s absorbed very quickly is probably a more processed version of the pea protein, such as a pea hydrolysate or isolate.

These non whey protein powders are digested and absorbed faster and come close to being a whey protein for vegans.

Because there’s less material surrounding the processed pea protein that has to be split by the digestive process, it can be absorbed faster than a regular pea protein powder.

A drawback to this form of protein is that it’s more processed and usually uses heat, acid, or enzymes or split the protein from the rest of the pea.

That means that fewer nutrients may be left in place.

What Are Some Suggestions for Plant-Based Proteins?

Plant-based proteins such as soy, pea, and hemp for the most part have the essential amino acids in adequate amounts.

But, if you’re concerned about whether you’re using a complete protein source, you can mix different plant based proteins, or buy a product with pre-mixed plant-based proteins.

That way you can be sure to get all essential amino acids in adequate amounts.

Plant proteins such as pea protein powder have a pretty neutral taste and texture.

You can mix it into smoothies and shakes, and add it to things like cereals, pancakes, and muffins.

What Is the Best Substitute for Whey Protein and What Is Its Source?

The best substitute for whey protein may be a pea protein product sourced from yellow peas. Pea protein is plant-based, lactose-free, gluten-free, and a more sustainable product.

It’s relatively plain tasting, has a creamy texture, and mixes well into smoothies and shakes.

On the flip side, although it has some fiber and iron and is considered complete, it may be low in one amino acid, methionine.

Hence, mixing in different types of proteins in your diet can make sure that amino acid gets sufficiently replenished.

There’s also some concern about the potential presence of anti-nutrients in plant-based proteins that bind minerals such as calcium which is bad for bone structure and teeth.

Although, it’s unclear if they’re present in protein powders.

Final Thoughts

Whey protein is considered a high-quality protein that’s safe, easily digested, and may play a role in immune defenses for cancer patients.

There is little research available specifically looking into the health effects of plant-based protein products.

Both whey and plant-based proteins can be good in different ways. Which one you choose is going to be up to what factors are most important to you.

If you want a high-quality vegan protein that’s gone through less processing and has more nutrients and fiber, choose a plant-based protein.

But if you on the other hand want a powder that’s higher in protein, more easily digested, and well-researched, maybe you pick whey.

Remember to read the label, check for third-party testing to make sure there are no contaminants, check for any allergens you may have, or whether you need it to be vegan or gluten-free.

WANT MORE ON PROTEIN?

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DISCLAIMER

These general suggestions for whey protein vs plant protein are for educational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice. For this reason, don’t substitute any content on this site for direct medical advice.

Please work with your health care practitioner to use this information in the best way possible to promote your health.

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