Whey Protein vs. Plant Protein: Which One is Best?
Building muscle is a complex process. You need to stay consistent at the gym, watch out for foods that lower testosterone and choose the right workout supplements. Whey protein is the most widely used nutritional supplement, used for its high protein content and essential amino acids. Whey protein has been shown to have positive effects on exercise training and muscle healing and seems to be especially effective when ‘hydrolyzed’, a processing method that we will discuss below.
Dietary patterns have been shifting in our country, so plant-based proteins have become nearly as popular as whey. These natural proteins provide many of the same benefits as whey products, including substantial amounts of protein, without adding too much fat or carbs into your diet. The two proteins share many similarities, but there are also some essential differences that we will explore today.
What is Whey Protein?
Whey is a byproduct of the cheese production process. By adding enzymes to milk, liquid whey is separated from the solid curds. The curds (consisting of mostly milk fat) are then used to make cheese, while the whey (a combination of 8 proteins) is pasteurized and dried. The resulting whey is then processed into a variety of products, including:
- Whey Concentrate: This is the most common whey product and is used in protein powders, infant formula, energy bars, and more. Whey concentrate contains all the natural components of whey, including protein, fat, and lactose (a sugar that naturally occurs in milk). The exact ratio of these components will differ in each individual product.
- Whey Isolate: This form of whey takes the processing a step further to reduce the amount of fat and lactose, leaving mostly protein. Whey isolate is prized by bodybuilders, as it maximizes the protein content without adding much fat and sugar into the mix.
- Whey Hydrolysate: Whey isolate can be further processed, or hydrolyzed, to break down the protein chains and make them easier to digest. Whey hydrolysate is thought to maximize muscle growth, as the protein is more readily available for your body to use.
While the protein content of your whey supplement is important, branch-chained amino acid (BCAA) levels should be monitored as well. These amino acids—leucine, isoleucine, and valine—help promote muscle protein synthesis, which leads to improved muscle repair and recovery. BCAAs are naturally occurring in whey protein, but some products have added amino acids for improved performance.
Many commercial protein powders—such as Optimum Nutrition’s Gold Standard—offer a 100% isolate formula that incorporates a portion of whey hydrolysate to aid in digestion. The same company also provides a completely hydrolyzed powder, Platinum Hydrowhey, for an ultra-pure, rapidly-absorbing protein source (with an added portion of BCAAs, in addition to the naturally occurring levels). When purchasing any Optimum Nutrition products, you can receive 15% off with my code: CODY15.
What is Plant-Based Protein?
Plant-based protein is a vegan alternative to traditional whey powders. Plant protein is exactly what it sounds like: a protein supplement (usually a powder) derived from plant sources, such as:
- Pea Protein
- Hemp Protein
- Brown Rice Protein
- Sacha Inchi (Mountain Peanut) Protein
- Chia Seed Protein
- Ancient Grains (Quinoa, Amaranth, Millet)
Each individual plant protein lacks a full suite of amino acids, but when taken two or three at a time, they complement each other. Plant-based proteins are thought to be easier to digest, in general, although this depends on the exact plants used in the mix.
In the case of Optimum Nutrition’s Gold Standard 100% Plant, the combination of protein sources (pea, brown rice, and sacha inchi) provides a full suite of essential amino acids. Each serving of the plant-based protein powder delivers 4 grams of naturally-occurring BCAAs, in addition to 24 grams of protein. This is comparable to the levels found in whey products.
Comparing Whey and Plant-Based Protein
Using Optimum Nutrition’s products as a standard guide, we can explore the differences between whey and plant-based protein supplements.
- Whey and plant-based protein sources provide branch-chained amino acids.
- Both protein sources contain calcium, but whey powders will usually have slightly more.
- Whey and plant-based products are low-fat and low-carb, although the exact contents will vary slightly.
- Both products contain a small amount of potassium.
Whey Protein Benefits
- Whey products tend to have more protein and amino acids per serving (especially the hydrolyzed varieties).
- They contain less carbs than comparable plant-based proteins.
- Whey protein tends to be cheaper than plant-based, as whey is mass-produced and more popular.
- Plant-based protein can be eaten by most people, while many are unable to consume whey protein due to an intolerance to lactose or a vegan diet.
- Depending on the source of the milk used in whey products, there may be trace amounts of antibiotics or growth hormones. Plant-based products don’t have this concern. When choosing a whey powder, look for products that don’t use artificial growth hormones.
- Plant-based proteins provide a substantial amount of iron in each serving.
- They contain high amounts of B12, an essential vitamin not usually found in whey products.
Which One Should You Choose?
Whey protein and plant-based protein are relatively similar in nutritional content: they both provide a high amount of protein in each serving and a good dose of essential amino acids to assist with muscle protein synthesis and bulking up. The choice between the two usually comes down to diet preferences.
Food restrictions lead many people to plant-based protein sources. Vegetarian and vegan fare is becoming ever more popular, the latter of which calls for the elimination of dairy products from one’s diet. Given that whey protein is a milk-derived product, then the choice is already made for vegan or dairy-free eaters.
Rather than choosing between whey or plant, the bigger decision lies with the protein powder producer that you choose. Some companies use whey derived from cows treated with growth hormones, while others use artificial sweeteners and colors. Look for a simple, clean ingredient list to maximize the benefits of your protein supplement. It’s hard to go wrong with Optimum Nutrition’s Gold Standard 100% Isolate and 100% Plant powders—use CODY15 at checkout for 15% off your order.