Whey protein vs plant protein. This is a battle that has been raging over the last few years in the fitness world, with whey usually coming out on top.
As more and more people adopt a plant-based or vegan lifestyle, increasing numbers of the bodybuilding community are seeking alternatives to dairy-based whey protein. Even people who are not vegan have good reason to seek plant-based alternatives to whey protein; this cheap by-product of cheese manufacturing is known to cause stomach cramps, indigestion, diarrhea, and to damage the kidneys if used for long periods of time.
While plant protein powders are becoming ever-more popular, there has been a vociferous backlash against them from the fitness community. Everywhere you look, you’ll see people telling you that plant protein powders are useless; to gain muscle, they say, you need whey and nothing but whey.
This reeks of propaganda to us of course; the same websites that tell you plant protein powders are useless are often selling whey protein themselves, or they are at least supported in some way by whey protein manufacturers.
But what is the truth here; what is the difference between whey and plant protein. In a battle of whey vs plant protein, who comes out on top? Which is better for building muscle? Which protein is better for health? Let’s find out!
Whey is a by-product of cheese manufacturing. It is produced in large amounts when you curdle milk to make cheese.
Whey is actually the bulk of the product when you add enzymes to milk to make cheese. Up to 90% of the milk used to create cheese is converted to whey.
Contrary to popular belief, whey is not mostly protein; it contains a diverse array of nutrients which depends largely on the milk used, animal feed, and production process:
“About 90% of the volume used for cheese production is converted to whey, which retains approximately 55% of the nutrients contained in milk (Dragone et al., 2009). Among the nutrients found in the cheese whey, the largest portion corresponds to lactose 39–60 kg/m3, protein and mineral salts, 6–8 kg/m3, lipids 4–5 kg/m3, and dry extract 8%–10% (Dragone et al., 2011). These parameters make cheese whey a valuable product with applications in the food and pharmaceutical industries. However, the characteristics of cheese whey will depend on the quality of milk, animal, breed, animal feed, health, lactation, and among other factors (Prazeres et al., 2012)” (source).
Whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate are the two most commonly used supplements in the bodybuilding world. These products take whey produced in cheese manufacturing and refine it to concentrate – or almost completely isolate – the protein content.
However, it is impossible to completely isolate the protein content (and your body would not be particularly efficient at absorbing such a product anyway). So all whey protein still contains some amount of lactose, hormones, and enzymes from a cow mother’s milk.
Plant protein is exactly what it says it is; protein obtained from a plant source.
The most common plant protein products in use right now are rice protein isolate, pea protein isolate, and soy protein isolate.
There are also mass gainers which use plant-based protein rather than whey or egg albumen.
The extraction process obviously differs depending on the source of the protein. For example, the best rice protein supplements will isolate the protein and key target nutrients found in wholegrain brown rice. For soy protein isolate, the process is more similar to whey protein production (with protein concentrated from soy milk).
Now that we’ve had a brief look at what whey and plant protein products typically are, it’s worth jumping right into the most common myth spread by Big Supplement; that plant proteins are not “complete”, and therefore useless.
Are plant proteins “complete”?
Yes, plant proteins are complete proteins, just like every other natural food source of protein on the planet.
Protein deficiency is extremely rare; to become deficient in protein, or any one amino acid, you need to be starving. Large swathes of the planet eat a completely plant-based diet, or at least a diet low in animal products, and they do not experience protein deficiency if they are eating enough calories.
You will often hear the claim that things like rice protein and pea protein are not “complete”, and are therefore unsuitable for building muscle. This is stupid for two reasons.
First, rice, pea and soy protein ARE 100% COMPLETE PROTEINS just like whey. The claim that they are incomplete is based on the fact that they are relatively low in some amino a
cids. So in the case of rice protein, leucine make up 8% of the powder by weight, whereas for whey, leucine is ~10%. The same claim is made about all the branched chain amino acids: whey is about 21% BCAAs by weight, whereas brown rice protein is 18% – THAT’S 3% LESS!
That’s it; that’s what people mean when they call plant protein incomplete. Believe it or not, this is the kind of baseless propaganda that the supplement industry uses to push whey over cheaper, healthier, more ethically and environmentally-friendly plant proteins.
Whey vs plant protein: Muscle building
Dozens of studies have been done comparing whey and plant proteins for their ability to support muscle growth. In every single independent study we’ve seen, plant protein and whey protein perform almost identically when it comes to stimulating muscle growth.
In fact, some studies have found that plant protein is superior to whey protein for supporting lean muscle growth and recovery.
In this study for example, researchers put participants through a relatively intensive training regimen, consisting of 4 sessions per week of high-intensity functional training. The participants were given either whey or pea protein before and after exercise on training days, and between meals on rest days. The researchers found no discernible difference between groups after 8 weeks:
“Both groups experienced increased strength for 1RM back squat (p = 0.006) and deadlift (p = 0.008). No training effect (p > 0.05) was found for body composition, muscle thickness, IMTP peak force, IMTP rate of force development, or performance in either WOD. Using PRE values as the covariate, there were no group differences for any measured variable. We conclude that ingestion of whey and pea protein produce similar outcomes in measurements of body composition, muscle thickness, force production, WOD performance and strength following 8-weeks of HIFT.”
So whey protein and plant protein seem to be at least equally good for building muscle, according to independent clinical research.
Whey vs plant protein: Digestion
This one is an obvious one. Anyone who has used whey protein before knows that it can cause havoc in your digestive system.
Whey is not a food product that people have ever consumed in large quantities before. It is a concentration of milk produced as a by-product in cheese manufacturing. It is full of lactose and digestive enzymes meant for infant cows.
If you are even remotely lactose intolerant (as most people are to some degree), then whey is going to cause some serious digestive issues, from gas and bloating to full-on diarrhea.
Plant protein, on the other hand, is something your body is very much used to processing. Few people experience the kind of digestive discomfort they get from cheese when eating things like brown rice, peas, or tofu. This is because these proteins do not typically come with strange digestive enzymes, hormones, and proteins like lactose. Instead, they come packaged with fiber, promoting rather than hindering digestive health.
The best vegan protein powders will be infused with digestive enzymes to promote digestion and nutrient uptake.
Whey vs plant protein: Health
This one is still very much open to question as long-term studies have not been done on heavy plant protein powder users.
But we do know that whey protein consumption – if in large quantities and on a daily basis – puts immense strain on the kidneys. Currently, the evidence suggests that whey protein consumption can cause kidney damage in people with existing kidney problems. However, the fact that whey protein consumption exacerbates kidney issues leads us to believe that it most probably stresses the kidneys in healthy people too; it is just that it doesn’t cause diagnosable kidney damage.
Kidney health aside, both whey and plant protein seem to be pretty much on par in terms of the effect on overall health.
If you have a low protein intake, increasing it will most probably result in several health benefits, including increased muscle density, higher energy levels, and better weight management.
Whey protein vs plant protein: Which should you use?
In the battle of plant vs whey protein, we think there is a clear winner. Regardless of what your specific goals are, plant protein is preferable to whey protein.
Plant protein powders are “complete”. The notion that plant proteins do not provide all 9 essential amino acids you need to build muscle is, quite simple, a lie. Brown rice protein, for example, DOES contain all 9 essential amino acids; it just provides slightly less of some of those EAAs than whey, although it provides MORE of others. The same goes for branched chain amino acids: whey is 21% BCAAs by weight, rice and pea protein are around 18-20%.
WOW – BIG DIFFERENCE!
If you think an extra 3% of BCAAs is going to mean the difference between building muscle and not building muscle, you are already a slave to supplement industry marketing.
Plant protein also demolishes whey in terms of its effect on digestion. Stomach cramps and diarrhea are just part and parcel of consuming whey protein; not so with brown rice protein or pea protein.
Studies have conclusively shown tat plant protein is at least as good as whey at promoting muscle growth.
All things considered, plant protein is far superior to whey protein on almost every measure. The complete protein complaint is an outright lie spread by the whey manufacturers, as is the claim that whey is more effective for building muscle.