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If you’re new to protein powder, you’re likely wondering what kind is best to take, or maybe you’ve been chugging whey protein for years, but you’re curious about how plant-based options like pea protein compare. As a Certified Nutrition Coach, I’m here to break down the differences.
- The main difference between pea and whey protein is pea is plant-based from yellow peas; whey is from milk. Also, whey is a complete protein with more leucine content, which is crucial for muscle growth; pea lacks some amino acids. Pea tastes earthier and grainier, while whey is smoother with a milk-like flavor.
- Pea protein is best for those who follow a plant-based diet and those with dairy allergies; however, whey protein would be my top recommendation for everyone else.
- Regardless of the protein powder you choose, you can achieve your dietary goal by hitting your daily protein target. Ideally, from a combination of whole food sources and protein supplements.
What Is Pea Protein Powder?
Pea protein powder is a dietary supplement derived from yellow and green split peas.
Like other legumes, split peas are naturally high in protein. Half a cup of cooked split peas has about 8 grams of protein for 115 calories.
When split peas are processed into protein powder (by shelling, drying, and milling the peas into fine flour), the result is a protein powder that offers 21 grams of protein in a 27-gram scoop for only 100 calories.
What Is Whey Protein Powder?
Whey protein powder is a dietary supplement derived from milk, specifically from the naturally occurring whey protein in milk.
Milk is separated into curds and whey, and the liquid whey is concentrated, purified, and dried into a powder.
Depending on the degree of processing, the result is either whey protein concentrate or whey protein isolate, with 80-95% protein by weight in the final product.
Whey concentrate will still contain some carbohydrates from the naturally occurring sugar in milk (lactose) and some fat, whereas whey isolate is nearly pure protein and can be lactose-free and fat-free.
Whey protein isolate (unflavored) has 24.5 grams of protein in a 27-gram scoop and only 100 calories.
7 Differences Between Pea vs. Whey Protein
1. Nutritional Information
Below, I’ve indicated the nutrition information per 100 grams for whey protein isolate and pea protein.
|Nutrient (info per 100 grams)||Whey Protein Isolate||Pea Protein Isolate|
|Calories||364 calories||370 calories|
|Protein||90.9 g (99% of calories)||77.8 g (84% of calories)|
|Fat||0 g||5.6 g|
|Carbohydrates||0 g||7.4 g|
|Fiber||0 g||3.7 g|
|Sugars||0 g||0 g|
|Calcium||91 mg||74 mg|
|Iron||0.91 mg||23.3 mg|
|Sodium||682 mg||963 mg|
|Cholesterol||0 mg||0 mg|
As you can see, whey protein isolate provides more protein per serving than pea protein isolate, and pea protein isolate provides more calories, carbs, fat, fiber, iron, and sodium.
The right protein powder for you will depend on your overall intake of various micro- and macronutrients for the day.
For example, whey protein might be more helpful if you struggle to get enough protein without overconsuming carbs and fats. However, pea protein could be the better choice if you’re trying to eat more fiber or iron.
Remember that no matter which type of protein powder you choose, it is a supplement and should be supplemental to your normal meals and snacks.
“It’s always best to get as much of your nutrition as possible from whole foods and just utilize supplements to fill in the gaps.”– Tara Allen, Registered Nutritionist
Pea protein powder is plant-based, whereas whey protein powder is animal-based since it is made from milk, which comes from cows.
Depending on your beliefs, preferences, and dietary requirements, this can cause you to choose pea protein over whey protein.
For example, some people are sensitive to whey protein and find that consuming it causes inflammation that presents itself through digestive upset, headaches, or skin issues. For these individuals, pea protein would be better.
- Related: Protein Powder vs Pre-Made Shake
3. Leucine Content
Leucine content determines the quality of a protein powder because this essential amino acid is a limiting factor for muscle growth. Therefore, the higher the leucine content, the better.
On average, pea protein powder has 8-9% leucine content, whereas whey protein powder has 10-14% (25-50% more).
The good news, if you’re plant-based, is that you can achieve the same muscle growth with plant-based protein powders like pea protein powder, as long as the total leucine content is matched to whey.
You can do this by taking more pea protein powder or looking for a plant-based protein “matrix” (a blend of different plant-based proteins, such as pea, rice, and hemp) to match the leucine content of whey.
If you’re not plant-based, using whey protein to meet your leucine requirements for muscle growth is easier and more cost-effective.
4. Amino Acid Profile
The following is a table from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) that outlines the amino acid profile of both pea and whey protein.
I’ve bolded the three amino acids with a significant difference.
|Isoleucine (*branched chain amino acid)||3.7||4.9|
|Leucine (*branched chain amino acid)||6.4||8.6|
|Valine (*branched chain amino acid)||4.0||4.6|
Whey protein powder is higher in all three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs): leucine, isoleucine, and valine. BCAAs are crucial for muscle repair, growth, and energy during workouts.
Also, amino acids are split between “essential” and “non-essential.”
The “essential amino acids” are the ones your body does not produce and you need to get from your diet. Each has a role in the body, including muscle growth, tissue repair, hormone production, immune function, and energy metabolism.
Whey contains all essential amino acids in sufficient quantities, so it is considered a “complete protein.” This completeness makes it a preferred choice for many aiming to optimize their protein intake for health and fitness.
Chelsey Schneider, oncology-certified dietician.
With that said, brown rice is higher in essential amino acids (i.e., methionine), so pea and brown rice powders are commonly combined in plant-based protein powder blends.
With the right combination of protein powders and whole foods throughout the day, it is possible to get a balanced and full amino acid profile. Plant-based eaters must put more planning and effort into ensuring this.
Finally, another noteworthy difference in amino acid profiles is that pea protein is higher in arginine than whey protein.
Arginine is linked to improved cardiovascular health, and it is a precursor for nitric oxide, a vasodilator (which opens the blood vessels to increase blood flow to the working muscles).
Improved blood flow to working muscles means nutrients can be delivered more quickly (and waste products can be cleared away).
Pea protein powder has come a long way in terms of taste (it used to have a distinctly “pea” flavor, especially when mixed with just water).
However, whey protein tastes much better with many more flavor options.
Most pea protein powder reviews have a similar negative sentiment:
Suffice it to say pea protein is an acquired taste.
So, if you’re looking for specialty flavors beyond the standard vanilla and chocolate, like birthday cake or pumpkin spice, you’ll have more success with whey protein powder.
In the past, some users complained that pea protein powder was grainy and did not mix smoothly the way whey protein does.
Although this has improved over time as different processing techniques have emerged, it still has a grittier texture than whey protein powder.
I still find that pea protein powder has a thicker, grittier, less fluffy texture when making protein smoothies or shakes.
However, I prefer it to whey protein for stirring into oatmeal or making no-bake protein bars because whey protein powder can get gummy when added to hot food and tends to be dry when used in baked and no-bake goods.
7. Environmental Impact
Pea protein has a lower environmental impact than whey, which may be the deciding factor for purchasing one or the other.
According to an article by Larissa Zimberoff in Time Magazine,
“Peas require less water, are drought resistant, reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizers…and make an ideal candidate for crop rotation.”
This puts them not only ahead of whey in terms of environmental impact for processing (think about how many resources go into raising, feeding, and milking dairy cattle just to get the milk needed to extract whey protein), but also ahead of other plant-based protein crops like soy and rice.
How To Pick Between Pea vs. Whey Protein (6 Factors)
1. Dietary Restrictions & Lifestyle
If following a plant-based diet is an important part of your lifestyle, perhaps for ethical or environmental reasons, it makes sense to choose pea protein powder instead of whey protein.
Additionally, a plant-based protein powder like pea protein would be best if you’re lactose intolerant or allergic to cow’s milk.
On the other hand, if you’re sensitive to higher amounts of fiber, that would be a reason to steer clear of pea protein and opt for whey protein.
2. How You Plan To Mix Protein
As mentioned above, if you mix protein powder into hot foods like oatmeal, soups, or stews, I think unflavored pea protein powder is better.
When mixed with hot foods or liquids, whey protein powder is more likely to develop a gummy texture.
On the other hand, when it comes to protein shakes and smoothies (especially if you don’t have a blender or shaker bottle), I recommend whey protein powder for the smoothest, creamiest texture with no weird lumps.
3. If Your Goal Is Weight Loss
If your goal is weight loss, the most important consideration is achieving an overall calorie deficit for the day, regardless of the type of protein you use.
Pea protein powder has a few more grams of carbs and fat per serving than whey protein powder, so whey protein powder is a better choice if you struggle to hit your protein target without going over carbs and fat.
But pea protein powder has more fiber per serving, which can improve satiety and keep you feeling fuller longer. Pea protein powder would be more helpful for managing appetite during a fat-loss phase.
4. If Your Goal Is Muscle Gain
If your goal is muscle gain, whey protein powder is advantageous over pea protein because of its higher leucine content.
Using whey protein will save you from calculating how much extra pea protein powder you need to get enough leucine.
If a plant-based lifestyle is important to you, you don’t have to abandon your muscle gain goals; it will just take more effort and larger servings of pea protein.
5. If Your Goal Is Overall Health
If your goal is overall health, then I would pick the protein powder that is easiest, most convenient, affordable, and pleasing to you. This will remove some stress from your nutrition, and reducing stress is a key component of overall health.
For the few (milli)grams of difference between each serving of whey protein vs. pea protein powder, if you’re not pursuing fitness and/or aesthetic goals at the elite level, it’s not worth nitpicking between these two types.
6. If Your Goal Is To Reduce Stomach Discomfort
If your goal is to reduce stomach discomfort, first, I would consider any dietary allergies or intolerances.
For example, whey protein powder might cause digestive distress like gas, constipation, bloating, or diarrhea if you are sensitive to dairy. However, some people find that pea protein makes them bloat because of the higher fiber content.
But, if you do not have dietary allergies or intolerances, the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score from the World Health Organization considers whey protein much more easily digested than pea protein:
- Whey protein isolate score: 1.00 (highest)
- Pea protein isolate score: 0.53
Pea Protein Recommendations
Transparent Labs Rice & Pea Protein
My top pick for pea protein powder is Transparent Labs Organic Vegan Rice & Pea Protein.
This blend overcomes the low methionine content in pea protein powder by mixing it with rice protein.
Another reason I prefer Transparent Labs is that it’s third-party certified, so you can be more confident that it contains the ingredients it claims to contain in the amounts specified.
Whey Protein Recommendations
Transparent Labs Grass Fed Whey Protein
My top pick for whey protein powder is Transparent Labs Grass-Fed Whey Isolate.
One of the primary reasons I recommend Transparent Labs is their commitment to transparency and quality, as evidenced by their open disclosure of testing results and ingredient specifics.
Their focus on science and clinical testing sets them apart from many other brands. The protein tastes great and mixes seamlessly without any clumps, providing a smooth and creamy texture that’s enjoyable with various liquids and even in foods like yogurt.
You can read our complete review of Transparent Labs Protein here.
- Related: Grass-Fed Whey Protein vs. Regular
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Pea The Best Plant-Based Protein?
No, pea protein is not the best plant-based protein. Soy protein is a more complete protein with a higher leucine content, and it ranks as high as whey protein for the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score.
Are There Any Potential Allergens In Pea Or Whey Protein?
Yes, there are potential allergens in both pea and whey protein. Individuals allergic to legumes, including peas, could have an allergic reaction to pea protein.
Whey protein may contain lactose (especially whey concentrate), which causes issues for those who are lactose intolerant.
Which Tastes Better: Pea Protein Or Whey Protein?
Whether you think pea or whey protein tastes better depends on your preferences. This can also vary by brand and by flavor.
In general, there are more flavor options for whey protein powder, so you are more likely to find a taste that you like with whey protein.
Can I Use Pea Protein & Whey Protein Interchangeably In Recipes?
No, you cannot interchange recipes using pea protein & whey protein powder. They have different textures and flavors and absorb different amounts of water.
Look for recipes that specifically call for the type of protein powder you have or provide instructions on substitutions.
Can I Get All My Protein From Pea Or Whey Protein?
Technically, you could get all of your daily protein from pea protein or whey protein, but this is not advisable and would not be optimal.
Getting your protein from various protein sources makes it more likely that you will get a balance of micronutrients needed to avoid deficiencies.
Can I Use Both Pea Protein And Whey Protein At The Same Time?
Yes, you can use both pea protein and whey protein simultaneously.
This is a great way to get the unique benefits of each type of protein, especially if you find that larger doses of any one type cause digestive issues but can tolerate a small serving of each type.
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van Vliet, Stephan & Burd, Nicholas & Loon, Luc. (2015). The Skeletal Muscle Anabolic Response to Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Consumption. The Journal of nutrition. 145. 10.3945/jn.114.204305.
Lynch, H.M.; Buman, M.P.; Dickinson, J.M.; Ransdell, L.B.; Johnston, C.S.; Wharton, C.M. No Significant Differences in Muscle Growth and Strength Development When Consuming Soy and Whey Protein Supplements Matched for Leucine Following a 12 Week Resistance Training Program in Men and Women: A Randomized Trial. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2020, 17, 3871. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17113871
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About The Author
Lauren Graham is a Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified nutrition coach. She focuses on helping busy professionals balance healthy eating and purposeful movement. Lauren has a background in competitive swimming and is currently competing as a CrossFit athlete. She has a passion for training, teaching, and writing.
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