Deciding on a protein powder often comes down to choosing between animal-sourced whey protein and its plant-based counterparts.
Protein powders are some of the top-selling nutritional supplements out there.
Many brands offer whey protein powder, which comes from cow’s milk, and options derived from plants, to cater to various diets and ways of life.
Given the variety of protein powders, you might be curious about which is the best and which aligns with your preferences.
This article breaks down the differences between plant-based and whey protein powders to guide you in your choice.
Whey vs. plant-based protein powders compared
Plant-based and whey protein powders share some similarities, but they also have notable differences.
Whey protein powder
- Lactose-free: no
- Vegan-friendly: no
- Complete protein: yes
- Provides 20–30 grams of protein per scoop: yes
- Helps build muscle: yes
- Supports weight loss: yes
- Cost: depends on brand
Plant-based protein powder
- Lactose-free: yes
- Vegan-friendly: yes
- Complete protein: no (except soy or specific mixes)
- Provides 20–30 grams of protein per scoop: sometimes
- Helps build muscle: yes
- Supports weight loss: yes
- Cost: depends on brand
How they’re made
Whey protein powders come from whey, a milky fluid that’s a byproduct of cheese production. This liquid gets processed, removing carbs, fats, water, and other elements, leaving only the protein. This protein is then turned into a powder form through spray-drying.
Being a product of cow’s milk, whey protein powder has lactose, a milk sugar. However, due to varied processing methods, whey protein isolate has lower lactose content than whey protein concentrate.
On the other hand, plant-based protein powders are sourced from plants. Common sources include brown rice, pea, soy, and hemp. Some powders use just one plant source, while others might blend several.
Since these powders are purely plant-derived, they’re free from dairy and lactose. This makes them suitable for those on a vegan diet or for those who are lactose intolerant.
Whey and plant-based protein powders usually offer similar protein levels, typically around 20–30 grams per serving.
Whey protein powder is known as a complete protein because it has all nine vital amino acids, which are the protein’s foundation. It also includes leucine, isoleucine, and valine, essential branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) vital for muscle growth.
The protein quantity in plant-based powders varies depending on the plant source. Generally, these powders have fewer BCAAs compared to whey. Among them, only soy protein powder is categorized as a complete protein.
To offer a full amino acid profile, some brands blend various plant proteins in their products, ensuring they have all the necessary amino acids and BCAAs.
To determine if a protein powder offers a decent protein content (20–30 grams per serving) and a balanced mix of amino acids, always check the nutrition label.
Digestibility and food sensitivities
Whey protein powder has lactose, which some people find hard to digest. Choosing whey protein isolate reduces lactose content, but if you’re very lactose intolerant, it might still cause digestive issues like bloating and gas.
Plant-based protein powders have a range of ingredients. Some might have allergens like soy and gluten. It’s essential to check the labels and go for products marked as soy-free or gluten-free if necessary.
Some plant-derived protein powders, particularly those with pea protein, can lead to bloating and discomfort, especially if you’re sensitive to FODMAPs or have irritable bowel syndrome.
Suggested read: Pea protein powder: Nutrition, benefits and side effects
For those with food sensitivities, the best approach is to sample various protein powders and maintain a food and health journal. This can assist in pinpointing any reactions from different products.
The cost of plant-based and whey protein powders varies based on the brand.
In general, you can find either type with similar pricing. Still, products advertised as organic, keto, or paleo or have other specialized qualities come at a higher cost.
Keep in mind that some plant-based protein powders, like hemp, have larger serving sizes than others, such as pea. As a result, you may end up using more powder in less time, which could increase the total cost.
If you’re looking for a cheaper plant-based option, choose one with a similar serving size to whey products.
Summary: Whey protein powder is derived from cow’s milk and contains lactose, while plant-based protein powders, made from brown rice, soy, or pea, are vegan-friendly and lactose-free.
Effectiveness for muscle growth
To gain muscle, it’s essential to do strength exercises and consume enough protein that includes all vital amino acids and BCAAs.
Whey protein isolate is often viewed as the best for muscle development since it’s a complete protein, rich in BCAA leucine, and is quickly digested.
Yet, plant-based protein powders can also be complete and have high leucine levels, especially if they blend multiple plant proteins or add BCAAs.
Research indicates that both whey and plant-based protein powders can support muscle growth equally, provided they offer similar protein and BCAA levels per serving.
A quality protein powder should have 20–30 grams of protein and 5–12 grams of BCAAs, with at least 3 grams being leucine, in each serving.
Suggested read: Casein vs. whey protein: What's the difference?
Though protein powders are a handy protein source, they shouldn’t be your primary one. Prefer whole food protein options like chicken, fish, tofu, eggs, or legumes, using powders as a supplement when extra protein is needed.
Daily protein intake is crucial for muscle development. Generally, one should aim for 0.6–0.9 grams of protein per pound (1.4–2.0 grams per kg) of body weight daily or 20–40 grams per meal.
Summary: For muscle building, both whey and plant-based protein powders are effective. Look for a powder with at least 20g of protein per serving.
Effectiveness for weight loss
Losing weight hinges on a calorie deficit, meaning you take in fewer calories than your body expends daily. Typically, this is accomplished by reducing calorie intake and boosting physical activity.
Both whey and plant-based protein powders can aid weight loss by enhancing satiety and maintaining lean muscle mass, which is the body’s non-fat component.
Below are some factors to consider to enhance your weight loss journey:
- Stick with protein-only supplements. Many protein powders contain ingredients that add calories, such as added sugars. Opt for a protein powder that contains just protein.
- Look for 100–150 calories or fewer per serving. The product likely contains additional ingredients if the number is any higher.
- Limit smoothies. If you add protein powder to a smoothie, stick with a 1-cup (250 mL) serving. Adding other ingredients, such as milk, fruit, peanut butter, or juice, can make your smoothie significantly higher in calories.
- Add it to other foods. Try adding protein powder to whole foods like pancakes or oatmeal.
- Don’t use it as a meal replacement. Protein powders and drinks don’t contain enough nutrients or calories to be considered meals. Relying on them for meal replacements can lead to hunger and excess daily snacking.
- Incorporate strength training. Strength training at least a few times per week can help preserve muscle mass and promote muscle building. Having more muscle mass may increase your metabolism to support weight loss further.
Summary: Adding protein powder to a healthy diet can promote fullness and preserve muscle mass, aiding weight loss. Choose protein powders with minimal ingredients for the best results.
Selecting a protein powder depends largely on individual preferences.
Suggested read: Whey protein: The ultimate beginner's guide
If you’re happy with your current whey protein powder, there’s no pressing need to switch to a plant-based alternative.
On the other hand, if you’re having digestive nuisances or are keen to explore a non-whey variant, there’s a multitude of plant-based protein powders that can equally satisfy your protein requirements. Ideally, select an option that integrates more than one plant protein component.
In the end, the most optimal protein powder for you is one you like, that adheres to your dietary preferences, and provides 20–30 grams of protein per measure.
Protein powders serve as an excellent additive that assists in muscle development and fostering weight loss.
Depending on your particular necessities, you might lean towards an animal-derived whey protein powder or a plant-derived powder. Both can supply ample protein to bolster your fitness aspirations.
In your quest for a protein powder, seek out options that have a short ingredient list and contain 20–30 grams of protein and 5–12 grams of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) per measure. If you decide on a plant-based protein, opt for a composite blend.