Getting enough protein is important, especially if you’re actively trying to gain muscle mass, improve recovery from training, or achieve sustainable weight loss. Striving to obtain the majority of protein from a variety of whole foods allows for the consumption of the broadest spectrum of vitamins, minerals, and beneficial plant compounds. On top of this, incorporating high-quality protein supplements can provide a convenient, efficient, and affordable method to enhance protein intake, helping to meet the optimal protein requirements necessary to achieve various health and fitness goals.
When choosing a protein supplement there are two main types to choose from: whey protein (the most popular animal-based protein supplement), or one of the variety of plant proteins now available. Both whey and plant-based options can be used to top up overall protein intake, which can help with muscle repair and growth, and both can be highly convenient, especially when on-the-go.
Alongside these similarities, there are also some key differences between whey and plant-based proteins. In this article we take a closer look at each, to help you make an informed decision as to which might be best for you.
What Is Whey Protein?
Whey protein has long been a popular choice among fitness enthusiasts. Since it was introduced in the 1950s to help bodybuilders increase their protein intake to build more muscle mass, little has changed in its overall content profile.
Whey protein is sourced from cow’s milk, and is a mixture of proteins taken from the liquid part of milk that separates from casein — the other main type of protein in milk. This watery portion of the milk is then concentrated, processed and spray-dried to turn it into powder form.
What Are the Benefits of Whey Protein?
Because it’s cheap to produce, whey has become the most popular protein supplement and, as such, has attracted more research than any other protein source. Over the years, many have found whey to be a convenient way to top up protein intake, and lots of research shows supplementing with whey protein, alongside resistance training, can help build muscle1.
Some like to label whey as a “complete” protein source, because it’s rich in all nine of the essential amino acids (the amino acids the body can’t produce, and so must come through the diet). Whey is also considered a fast-absorbing protein, because it’s digested and absorbed faster than many other protein sources, causing a sharper rise in blood amino acids, which could lead to a greater short-term muscle building response.
What Are the Disadvantages of Whey Protein?
As you might suspect, whey protein contains lactose. If you are lactose intolerant (lactose malabsorption affects an estimated 68% of the global population3) you may experience some gastrointestinal discomfort like gas, bloating and diarrhea after consuming whey. It’s important to note that even whey protein isolate (sometimes referred to as “lactose-free”) isn’t completely lactose-free, but it does typically contain less lactose than whey protein concentrate.
Some other adverse effects of whey have been identified, especially with long-term or overuse without professional guidance. Some of these effects include an increase in presence of acne, dysfunction of the gut microbiota, and changes to the regular metabolism of the liver and kidneys4. More long-term studies of the health effects of whey protein are warranted.
Additionally, because whey protein doesn’t taste very good on its own, whey protein supplements often include additives such as artificial sweeteners, colors, flavorings, and other undesirable ingredients, which can irritate your digestive system and harm your overall health5,6.
The muscle-building capacity of whey protein is well documented, but it also contains lactose, and whey protein products often have other undesirable ingredients added. Long-term and over-use of whey protein may also have several adverse health effects.
What Are Plant Protein Supplements?
Relatively new to the scene (appearing first in the 1980s), plant protein powders, as the name suggests, are derived directly from plants. The most common sources of plant protein supplements include pea, rice and soy proteins, but there are many others including hemp, wheat, barley, and other legumes. Depending on the brand, plant protein powder may be made from one type of plant or a combination of plants.
What Are the Benefits of Plant Protein?
Although you may have heard that plant proteins aren’t “complete,” that is indisputably false. All plants contain all of the essential amino acids7. It is true that plant proteins are often lower in one or more of the essential amino acids, but a balanced and varied plant-based diet provides all of them in ample quantities.
This helps to explain why numerous studies find that consuming plant proteins can help to promote muscle-building just as effectively as whey protein. Such studies have been conducted for soy protein, pea protein, rice protein, and even potato protein8-11. Leading researchers in the field now agree that the source of protein doesn’t matter, as long as total protein intake throughout the day is sufficient12.
Aside from the protein content, the nutritional profile of plant protein supplements varies depending on the plant source used. Many, such as pea and soy proteins, contain appreciable levels of antioxidants that, on top of the muscle building effects of the protein, have the added benefit of improving antioxidant function in the body and providing other potential health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure13,14.
Most plant protein supplements also contain gut-friendly fiber, another important nutrient whey protein is devoid of.
On top of all this, plant proteins are lactose-free, which is great news considering the high prevalence of lactose intolerance and/or malabsorption. It should come as no surprise then that many athletes find plant proteins easier to digest than whey protein.
What Are the Disadvantages of Plant Protein?
In the past, plant proteins have left much to be desired in the taste and texture departments. But advances in the development of plant protein supplements have led to some great-tasting options that mix well in water, plant milk, or as part of a smoothie.
Although much less prevalent than lactose malabsorption, those with an allergy to soy, gluten, seeds, or nuts will want to make sure to check the plant protein source to ensure it’s free from these ingredients.
The protein content of plant-based protein supplements can vary from plant to plant, and from brand to brand. If you’re looking to ensure the maximum return on your training efforts, aiming for at least 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight at each meal can help to maximize muscle growth (across four meals this adds up to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day)15. For a 165-pound (~75-kilogram) adult, this would mean aiming for at least 30 grams of protein per serving, so check the label to make sure you’re getting the right amount of protein.
Plant proteins contain all the essential amino acids and can support muscle growth as effectively as whey protein. Additionally, plant-based supplements like FȲTA Elite Plant Protein often have the added benefit of containing antioxidants and fiber, are lactose-free, and may have other health benefits.
Environmental Sustainability: Whey Protein vs. Plant Protein
Another important factor for the environmentally-conscious consumer might be which supplement type — whey or plant protein — is more sustainable.
It’s clear that dairy cattle farming, required for the production of whey, puts immense stress on resources such as water, energy and land16. On top of this, the use of antibiotics in dairy cows is a growing public and global health concern17.
Conversely, research shows that plant protein requires fewer resources, like land and water, to produce18. FȲTA Elite Plant Protein goes a step further by featuring the world’s most sustainable protein, a blend made from Upcycled Certified barley — that produces five times fewer greenhouse gas emissions, uses 14 times less land, and consumes 34 times less water than whey protein19— alongside whole ground lupin, a high-protein ancient bean that helps to regenerate depleted soil.
The Take Home Message
While the foundation of a healthy diet should always be a balanced variety of whole foods, it’s often easier to grab a protein shake than to cook a protein-rich meal from scratch. And sometimes, getting optimal levels of protein depends on your ability to get it done quickly and easily.
While both plant protein and whey protein supplements can be a convenient way to boost your protein intake, the growing evidence highlighting the advantages of plant protein is difficult to ignore. Once chosen solely on principle, plant-forward diets and plant-based protein supplements like FȲTA Elite Plant Protein are now the preferred choice of some of today’s most prominent and powerful athletes. And, thanks to plenty of research and the growing number of options available, everyday athletes and people who simply want to level up their nutrition can confidently follow suit.
- Sepandi, M., Samadi, M., Shirvani, H., Alimohamadi, Y., Taghdir, M., Goudarzi, F., & Akbarzadeh, I. (2022). Effect of whey protein supplementation on weight and body composition indicators: A meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. Clinical nutrition ESPEN, 50, 74–83. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clnesp.2022.05.020
- Boirie, Y., Dangin, M., Gachon, P., Vasson, M. P., Maubois, J. L., & Beaufrère, B. (1997). Slow and fast dietary proteins differently modulate postprandial protein accretion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 94(26), 14930–14935. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.94.26.14930
- Storhaug, C. L., Fosse, S. K., & Fadnes, L. T. (2017). Country, regional, and global estimates for lactose malabsorption in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The lancet. Gastroenterology & hepatology, 2(10), 738–746. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-1253(17)30154-1
- Vasconcelos, Q. D. J. S., Bachur, T. P. R., & Aragão, G. F. (2021). Whey protein supplementation and its potentially adverse effects on health: a systematic review. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism = Physiologie appliquee, nutrition et metabolisme, 46(1), 27–33. https://doi.org/10.1139/apnm-2020-0370
- Gultekin, F., Oner, M. E., Savas, H. B., & Dogan, B. (2019). Food additives and microbiota. Northern clinics of Istanbul, 7(2), 192–200. https://doi.org/10.14744/nci.2019.92499
- Debras, C., Chazelas, E., Sellem, L., Porcher, R., Druesne-Pecollo, N., Esseddik, Y., de Edelenyi, F. S., Agaësse, C., De Sa, A., Lutchia, R., Fezeu, L. K., Julia, C., Kesse-Guyot, E., Allès, B., Galan, P., Hercberg, S., Deschasaux-Tanguy, M., Huybrechts, I., Srour, B., & Touvier, M. (2022). Artificial sweeteners and risk of cardiovascular diseases: results from the prospective NutriNet-Santé cohort. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 378, e071204. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj-2022-071204
- Mariotti, F., & Gardner, C. D. (2019). Dietary Protein and Amino Acids in Vegetarian Diets-A Review. Nutrients, 11(11), 2661. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11112661
- Messina, M., Lynch, H., Dickinson, J. M., & Reed, K. E. (2018). No Difference Between the Effects of Supplementing With Soy Protein Versus Animal Protein on Gains in Muscle Mass and Strength in Response to Resistance Exercise. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism, 28(6), 674–685. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2018-0071
- Banaszek, A., Townsend, J. R., Bender, D., Vantrease, W. C., Marshall, A. C., & Johnson, K. D. (2019). The Effects of Whey vs. Pea Protein on Physical Adaptations Following 8-Weeks of High-Intensity Functional Training (HIFT): A Pilot Study. Sports (Basel, Switzerland), 7(1), 12. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports7010012
- Moon, Jessica & Ratliff, Kayla & Blumkaitis, Julia & Harty, Patrick & Zabriskie, Hannah & Stecker, Richard & Currier, Brad & Jagim, Andrew & Jäger, Ralf & Purpura, Martin & Kerksick, Chad. (2020). Effects of daily 24-gram doses of rice or whey protein on resistance training adaptations in trained males. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 17. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-020-00394-1
- Pinckaers, P. J. M., Hendriks, F. K., Hermans, W. J. H., Goessens, J. P. B., Senden, J. M., VAN Kranenburg, J. M. X., Wodzig, W. K. H. W., Snijders, T., & VAN Loon, L. J. C. (2022). Potato Protein Ingestion Increases Muscle Protein Synthesis Rates at Rest and during Recovery from Exercise in Humans. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 54(9), 1572–1581. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0000000000002937
- Hevia-Larraín, V., Gualano, B., Longobardi, I., Gil, S., Fernandes, A. L., Costa, L. A. R., Pereira, R. M. R., Artioli, G. G., Phillips, S. M., & Roschel, H. (2021). High-Protein Plant-Based Diet Versus a Protein-Matched Omnivorous Diet to Support Resistance Training Adaptations: A Comparison Between Habitual Vegans and Omnivores. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 51(6), 1317–1330. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-021-01434-9
- Brown, E.C., DiSilvestro, R.A., Babaknia, A. et al. Soy versus whey protein bars: Effects on exercise training impact on lean body mass and antioxidant status. Nutr J 3, 22 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-3-22
- Stilling, K. (2020). Health Benefits of Pea Protein Isolate: A Comparative Review. SURG Journal 12(1). https://doi.org/10.21083/surg.v12i1.6111
- Schoenfeld, B. J., & Aragon, A. A. (2018). How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition,15,10. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-018-0215-1
- Rotz, A., Stout, R., Leytem, A., Feyereisen, G., Waldrip, H., Thoma, G., Holly, M., Bjorneberg, D., Baker, J., Vadas, P., Kleinman, P. (2021). Environmental assessment of United States dairy farms, Journal of Cleaner Production, (315) 128153, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2021.128153.
- Groot, M. J., & Van't Hooft, K. E. (2016). The Hidden Effects of Dairy Farming on Public and Environmental Health in the Netherlands, India, Ethiopia, and Uganda, Considering the Use of Antibiotics and Other Agro-chemicals. Frontiers in public health, 4, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2016.00012
- Lynch, H., Johnston, C., & Wharton, C. (2018). Plant-Based Diets: Considerations for Environmental Impact, Protein Quality, and Exercise Performance. Nutrients, 10(12), 1841. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10121841
- Te Pas, C., & Gual Rojas, P. (2020). Life Cycle Assessment of the Production of Food Ingredients Upcycled from Brewers’ Spent Grains. Unpublished manuscript by Blonk Consultants, 3rd party panel approved by ESU-Services Ltd.