Whey vs Vegan Protein: Which is ACTUALLY Better For You?
If you’re here, there’s a good chance you already know dietary protein is not just important, it’s downright essential. There’s also a darn good chance you know few people get an ideal amount protein daily by eating whole foods alone. And that means they’re missing out on the metabolism-boosting, weight-management, muscle-building benefits of a diet that’s higher in protein.
In other words, you’re probably already privy to the fact that a high-quality protein powder is foundational for pretty much everyone—from aspiring athletes to individuals managing their weight to people maintaining a healthy lifestyle to health-conscious folks looking to age gracefully. Of course, you already know all that. The reason you’re here is because you want to know what’s better: whey vs vegan protein?
The simple answer is: It depends. Sorry, I know that’s not a sexy answer. But as you’ll see, who wins the whey vs vegan protein battle depends a great deal on your personal preferences. Yet there is more to the story as not all protein supplements are created equal. You see, there are key differences in protein quality, formulations, and manufacturing we need to take into account with the whey vs vegan protein debate. Don’t worry. I’ll help you sort all that out, so you can make the BEST decision for YOU.
What is Whey Protein?
The two major components of (cow’s) milk protein are whey and casein. Whey, which makes up 20% of the proteins in milk, is the liquid portion of milk, and it is separated from the curd (aka casein), which comprises the remaining 80%, during the cheese-making process.
Whey is a relatively all-encompassing term, as it contains 5 major proteins (including β-lactoglobulin, α-lactalbumin, and glycomacropeptide) and hundreds of low-abundance proteins (including lactoferrin). There are many emerging health properties of whey proteins beyond providing nutrition. For instance, they may promote immunity, boost mood, support memory, promote stress management, enhance morning alertness, and more.1
What is Vegan Protein?
Simply put, vegan protein is protein that’s isolated from plants. Some of the most common sources found in vegan protein powders include:
- Amaranth and other grains
There are quite a few other plant-based protein sources—such as sprouted beans and lentils as well as other whole grains like millet. In general, pea, rice, soy, hemp, and pumpkin are the primary sources found in vegan protein powders, with pea, rice, and soy really making up the bulk.
While soy is among the most popular plant protein sources, we tend to shy away from soy because of potential concerns over phytoestrogens (which may affect estrogen/testosterone levels), goitrogens (which may affect thyroid function), trypsin inhibitors (which can inhibit digestive enzyme activity and lead to GI distress), and genetic modification (> 90% of soy grown in the U.S. is GMO). Plus, when compared head-to-head with whey, research has shown that soy underperforms when it comes to fat loss, muscle and strength gain, and appetite control.
Whey vs Vegan Protein: Quality
When it comes to optimizing protein intake and reaping the benefits of protein, protein quality is the name of the game. Along those lines, there’s little debate that whey is king. On the flipside, isolated vegan sources of protein trail behind. But what the heck does protein quality mean anyway? Good question.
The term protein quality refers to the balance of amino acids (the “building blocks” of protein), the digestibility of the protein, and the availability of the absorbed amino acids. In particular, protein quality places emphasis on the essential amino acids, which are those the body needs, cannot produce, and must get through the diet. I know that may be a little confusing, but the take-home point is you want to emphasize high-quality proteins because they provide abundant amounts of usable protein and, in particular, essential amino acids.
Typically, protein quality has been measured using the protein digestibility corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS), and more recently, the digestible indispensable amino acid score (DIAAS), which is suggested to be the superior scale. You don’t have to remember the alphabet soup, but what you do need to know is that along with other animal-based proteins, whey protein reigns supreme across the scales for protein quality thanks to the fact that it is easily digested, rapidly absorbed, and is the most concentrated source of essential amino acids.
Let’s look at the DIAAS scores for whey vs vegan proteins, for instance. On one hand, whey protein isolate scores 1.09 (setting the bar with the top rating) while pea protein weighs in at 0.82 and rice protein stumbles in at 0.37. If we look at the PDCAAS ratings for whey vs vegan protein, we’ll see similar rankings with whey protein isolate scoring a perfect 100%, pea coming in with a respectable 89%, and rice bringing up the rear with a lackluster 42%.
When comparing whey vs vegan protein, another way to look at protein quality is that animal-based proteins deliver a higher protein density along with a lower energy (calorie) content compared to plant-based proteins. What’s more, whey provides a concentrated source of all the essential amino acids while plant-based foods are typically limited in one or more of them. For example, rice and hemp proteins are very low in the essential amino acid lysine while the limiting essential amino acids in pea protein are methionine and cysteine.
And while about 47% of the amino acids in whey are essential, vegan proteins tend to provide around 38% essential amino acids. In particular, compared to plant-based proteins, whey contains about 25% more branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are unique essential amino acids important for protein metabolism, neural function, and carbohydrate regulation. For instance, whey is very rich (about 12%) in the BCAA leucine while plant proteins tend to contain only about 6 – 8%.2 That may not seem like such a big difference, but leucine is crucial for muscle growth and recovery. In other words, leucine is the linchpin for building calorie-burning lean muscle, enhancing recovery from exercise, improving strength, and enhancing muscle function.
Practically speaking, 20 grams of whey protein isolate typically packs about 2.2 grams of leucine while a similar dose of isolated vegan protein provides roughly 1.3 grams. Again, that may not seem like much, but scientists believe there is a leucine threshold that must be triggered to reap the full benefits of protein.
What is that threshold, you ask? Super question. While the lower and upper boundaries of the leucine threshold are not entirely clear, research indicates that somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.7 – 3.5 grams of leucine are required (per feeding) to trip the proverbial trigger and saturate the threshold.3,4
What are the Benefits of a Vegan Protein
If whey is ostensibly superior to plant-based proteins, why would someone opt for a plant-based protein supplement instead? There are many reasons, including the following:
- The most obvious reason is that they’re, well, vegan or strictly vegetarian. While the lines are far from clear when it comes to the varying degrees of vegetarianism (some consume dairy, eggs, and/or fish), it can be even more challenging for folks who are exclusively plant-based eaters to get enough protein through whole-food sources (without overconsuming calories, carbs, and/or fats).
- Many people are embracing a flexitarian-style of eating, which emphasizes a plant-based diet.
- Some people are looking for a dairy-free protein powder.
- Some folks report a milk intolerance, which may be a protein sensitivity (e.g., casein), lactose intolerance, or sensitivity to FODMAPs.
- Certain diets (like Paleo, Low FODMAP, and elimination diets) are dairy-free or restrict dairy.
- Some people have concerns about artificial growth hormones and antibiotics that may be used on dairy cows.
- Although lower in essential amino acids (including leucine), plant-based protein sources tend to be higher in certain amino acids, such as glycine and arginine, which have a number of important roles. Glycine, for example, promotes relaxation, stress management, detoxification, and healthy muscle function. It is one of three amino acids needed to produce the energizing compound creatine, it is a crucial component of collagen, and it plays an important role in supporting a healthy digestive system.
- Another reason someone may choose a vegan vs. whey protein powder pertains to global sustainability. Plant-based foods require less water, land, and energy, pose less environmental burden, and lower the financial cost of food production.5
In the whey vs vegan protein debate, many folks think vegan protein powders are just an overall healthier or better choice because plant foods are typically regarded as healthier. However, this is not necessarily true, considering the following:
- Soy is one of the most popular sources of plant-based protein, and as mentioned above, this is one I’d suggest shying away from.
- Many plant-based protein powders contain GMO ingredients derived from corn and soy. While it’s a controversial topic, there’s enough potential harm (or question) that I’d suggest avoiding exposure to these types of ingredients from GMO crops.
- If there’s known potential harm from consuming GMOs, it can likely be traced back to herbicide (e.g., glyphosate) and pesticide residues, which may also be found on non-GMO plant-based ingredients as well.
- Plant-based protein powders, especially those containing predominantly rice protein, can contain high levels of lead and arsenic, which are both toxic heavy metals that can lead to a variety of health complications when consumed in excess.
- Taste and mixability are often sacrificed when it comes to vegan proteins. This doesn’t make them less healthy per se. However, if you can’t tolerate it, you’re not going to use it consistently, which means you may not get the results you expect.
Even Out the Playing Field
When it comes to the whey vs vegan protein debate, arguably the key difference comes down to protein quality. There’s no question whey is considered a higher quality protein than individual plant-based sources because: 1. It’s higher in essential amino acids; and 2. The protein tends to be more digestible and bioavailable.
And the beauty of this is that knowing why plant proteins are inferior provides the very clues we need to even out the playing field if you’re leaning toward a plant-based protein supplement. In fact, despite the apparent superiority of whey vs vegan protein, there are several simple strategies that can boost the quality and effectiveness of plant-based proteins:
- Eat more. We can close the quality gap by consuming larger doses of vegan protein sources, which would supply greater amounts of the key building blocks (particularly, leucine and the other essential amino acids). For example, in a study published in the Nutrition Journal, researchers found that young men who supplemented with 48 grams of rice protein per day for 8 weeks combined with 3 days per week of strength training experienced similar improvements in body composition (fat loss and increased muscle mass) and exercise performance as young men who supplemented with 48 grams of whey protein.6 This study provides evidence the differences in protein quality can be offset when enough plant-based protein is consumed (to “saturate” the leucine threshold).
- Combine proteins. While all vegan sources of protein are technically “complete,” meaning they contain all the essential amino acids, individual plant-based proteins tend to be very low in key essential amino acids. For example, rice and hemp proteins are low in lysine yet they’re sufficient in the essential amino acids methionine and cysteine. Meanwhile, pea protein, which contains sufficient amounts of lysine, contains limited amounts of the essential amino acids methionine and cysteine. Because they “complement” each other, pea and rice or pea and hemp are often combined and provide a more balanced, “complete” profile of essential amino acids, which enhances protein quality.
- Add enzymes. Protein digestibility is a major player in protein quality because it determines the bioavailability of amino acids. Generally speaking, the digestibility of protein from vegan sources is inferior to animal-based sources. A recent study, however, found the addition of a combination of protein-digesting enzymes (called proteases) and alpha-galactosidase (an enzyme that helps break down difficult-to-digest carbohydrates found in plants) to a blend of pea and rice proteins improved the digestibility of the plant-based proteins, and ultimately, the bioavailability of the amino acids. In fact, the addition of digestive enzymes to the blend of vegan proteins closed the gap on previously significant differences in protein quality compared to whey.5
Of course, plant-based proteins could also be fortified with amino acids (e.g., leucine, lysine, and/or methionine) to help close the gap on protein quality. While individual vegan sources of protein contain about 27 – 45% less leucine, adding leucine to a plant-based protein offsets the differences in protein quality compared to animal-based proteins. Not surprisingly, we’re starting to see vegan protein supplements with fermented leucine added.7
And while it may be somewhat controversial, we’re probably not too far off from the selective breeding of plants to improve the amino acid profiles, which would also be an option to even the playing field when it comes to whey vs vegan protein.5
Coach Tim’s Stance on Whey vs Vegan Protein
The bottom line is if you’re leaning toward the plant-based side of things, you have options. Personally, I use BOTH whey and plant-based protein supplements. I prefer to use a high-quality whey protein isolate after exercise, when I make smoothies, and when I want to add a protein boost to yogurt and coffee. I like to use my vegan protein to switch things up from time to time, especially as a thick, creamy shake or a protein boost in oatmeal and other plant-based recipes.
When it comes to vegan protein powders, I’ve tried quite a few of them, and my top choice is Harvest Complete Vegan Protein Powder Blend. For starters, it is a combination of pea, hemp, and pumpkin, which complement each other to provide a balanced, complete profile of amino acids. For example, each 20 gram serving of protein provides nearly 3.7 grams of BCAAs including over 1.7 grams of leucine, which seems to be sufficient to satisfy the leucine threshold.
In addition to combining complementary proteins—which is a key factor in leveling the protein quality playing field between whey vs vegan protein—Harvest also contains ProHydrolase (a blend of protein-digesting enzymes) and alpha-galactosidase. As you may remember, the addition of these types of digestive enzymes are very effective at closing the typical gap in protein quality seen between plant-based and whey proteins.
Of course, Harvest Complete Vegan Protein Powder Blend is dairy-free, and it is also free from GMOs, herbicides, pesticides, soy, gluten, and artificial sweeteners and additives. It’s also tested for heavy metals, it contains 6 grams of gut-friendly fiber, it has no added sugar, and best of all, it mixes and tastes great—unlike virtually every other vegan protein I’ve used.
When it comes to whey protein, my top choice is easily Platinum 1 Premium Hydrolyzed Grass-Fed Whey Protein Isolate, which satisfies all my requirements for a high-quality whey protein powder. Each serving packs 25 grams of whey protein isolate that comes from happy, healthy, grass-fed cows that have been pasture-raised and not treated with artificial growth hormones or antibiotics. In terms of protein quality, Platinum 1 serves up over 11.8 grams of essential amino acids, more than 5.5 grams of BCAAs, and 2.7 grams of leucine per serving.
Platinum 1 is carefully cold-processed to ensure the highest quality, undenatured, bioactive whey protein isolate, and the natural filtering process removes fats and carbs, including lactose. That equals a dense source of high-quality protein that contains minimum calories and is very low in carbs and lactose.
Plus, it’s hydrolyzed, which means it’s “pre-digested,” and it contains the natural enzyme blend ProHydrolase, which promote digestion (think “stomach friendly”) and optimize protein use. It’s non-GMO and free from pesticides. Plus, it’s naturally sweetened and free from artificial sweeteners and other additives.
What about you? Where do you sit on the whey vs vegan protein debate?