For a long time, whey protein has been the sought-after supplement for muscle and strength building. However, with the increase in the popularity of veganism and vegetarianism, more people are seeking plant based protein powder in place of whey protein. This has led to increased demand and supply of plant protein powder.
When faced with a choice between the two, you may wonder whether one is better than the other. This article will compare whey protein vs plant protein to determine if either protein supplement is better for strength and muscle building.
Whey Protein Vs Plant Protein Comparison
Whey protein is derived from cow milk. During the production of cheese, milk is curdled and the liquid part (whey) separates from the solid part. For many years, the liquid part was considered waste and was thrown away, until fitness and sports nutrition scientists discovered that it contains high protein content that could be a beneficial protein source for bodybuilders.
The separated whey is heated, micro-filtered, pasteurized, and then dried for packaging. Preservatives and sweeteners are added to make what we now know as whey protein powder.
There are three main types of whey protein:
Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC): When it comes to whey protein, this is its most basic form. It contains high levels of lactose and low levels of fats and carbohydrates. The protein concentration varies strongly from 30% up to 90%.
Whey Protein Isolate (WPI): WPI is a whey protein concentrate that has been processed even further than WPC. This is done to get rid of fat and lactose. It contains high levels of protein starting at 90% and is the purest kind of whey protein.
Whey Protein Hydrolysate (WPH): WPH whey protein goes through partial hydrolysis. It is considered predigested as the hydrolysis process breaks down the concentrate further for easy absorption and reduces allergen potential. As such, apart from being used as a bodybuilding supplement, it is also used in infant formulas and medical protein supplements.
On the other hand, those looking for a vegan protein powder or vegetarian protein powder often turn to plant based protein powders to up their protein intake. Plant protein powders are derived from different types of plants. The most commonly found ones are brown rice, hemp, soy, and pea protein powder. A few brands also use chia seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sacha inchi. Some plant protein powders are derived from only one type of plant protein while others use a combination.
Whey protein has higher quality protein than plant-based protein. This is because animal protein contains all the nine essential amino acids in high levels.
Essential amino acids are a form of protein the body cannot produce. Yet, they are crucial for promoting muscle recovery and building muscle. Notably, whey protein has high levels of leucine and cysteine essential amino acids which are crucial for muscle gain, growth in muscle mass, and a better metabolism
The level of protein content in plant-based proteins depends on the type of plants the powder is derived from.
Soy protein is unique in that it is the only plant-based protein that is a complete protein, and contains the complete range of essential amino acids. Brown rice also contains all the essential amino acids although it is very low in lysine. Its form of protein is quite easy to digest.
Pea protein lacks in the methionine amino acid but it is packed with leucine, valine, and isoleucine. Hemp protein is derived from the cannabis plant but contains minimal levels of euphoria-causing THC. It is packed with omega-3 and fatty acids and is also an excellent source of iron, zinc, and magnesium.
Generally, plant protein is much easier to digest than whey protein. Since it is plant food, it contains fiber which improves digestion. Also, it is lactose-free and lactase may cause digestion issues in people with lactose intolerance.
Some plant protein powders contain digestive enzymes that assist the body in assimilating protein efficiently. Therefore, if you have lactose intolerance, plant-based protein may be a better alternative.
Whey protein contains more calories per gram than plant protein.
Aside from protein and amino acids, whey protein might have some carbohydrates and fats that vary depending on the type of whey protein. Being a milk derivative, it contains calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and a small amount of iron and B12. Unless it is fortified for better protein quality, it does not contain a wide range of vitamins.
The specific nutrient content in plant-based protein varies from brand to brand and the type of plant used. While they have a narrower range of amino acids, they have a wider range of micronutrients. They are low in fat but may contain high levels of carbohydrates.
Whey protein has a bland taste. In order to enhance its taste, most brands add flavorings, sweeteners, and additives. Always check the whey protein ingredients label. Be on the lookout for artificial sweeteners and additives c such as sucralose, maltodextrin, and aspartame, which could have long-term effects on your health.
On the other hand, plant-based protein powders have a neutral taste characteristic of the source plant, which minimizes the need for additives and sweeteners.
Whey protein is cheaper than plant protein powders. Since whey protein has been in the market for a longer time, there’s a huge supply from different brands which makes the prices competitive. Of the different types of plant protein powders, brown rice protein is the most readily available and the cheapest.
In terms of muscle synthesis, whey protein is more efficient than plant-based proteins. It contains high levels of essential amino acids necessary for the muscle synthesis process.
When it comes to weight loss, plant-based proteins are more effective. They have fewer calories and contain fiber. The fiber improves digestion and leaves you feeling full for longer. Therefore, they help to maintain a calorie deficit, which is crucial for weight loss.
With that said, whey protein can also help you to lose weight as it keeps you feeling energized and fuller due to the high protein content. However, since it has more calories per serving, you need to be mindful of how it fits into your daily meal plan.
So, Which is Better?
Both whey and plant-based protein powders are effective. However, your choice between the two comes down to factors such as the specific reason why you are taking it, if you are allergic to any of the components, whether you are mindful of the additives and sweeteners in the product, and your diet preference.
Since whey protein contains high levels of BCAAs it is more suitable for bodybuilders. On the other hand, if you want a protein powder that has a wider range of micronutrients, plant-based ones are a better option. Plant proteins are also the best option if you experience digestive issues or you have lactose intolerance. It is also suitable for people who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet.
Both whey and plant-based protein powders support muscle growth, strength building, and weight loss. Assess your needs and preferences to determine which is right for you. If you are not lactose intolerant or a vegan, you may try out both to see which ones work better for you.