Pea Protein vs. Whey: Which Is Right for Me?

When it comes to protein powders, whey isn’t the only option. Pea protein is gaining in popularity as an allergy-friendly, 100 percent plant-based source of protein that is suitable for a range of dietary lifestyles.

But how does pea protein compare to whey protein and what potential benefits does it have to offer? Let’s take a closer look at pea protein vs. whey to help determine which is right for you.

What Is Pea Protein?

Pea protein is actually sourced from yellow split-peas, not the traditional green peas that many turn their nose to. Manufacturing plants pulverize the hard legumes into a fine powder, extracting the protein and removing the starch and fiber (1).

Pea protein is hypoallergenic, meaning that it is well tolerated by those with food allergies or sensitivities, and provides a good ratio of protein-to-fat-to-carbs: 85 percent protein, 7 percent fat, 3 percent carbohydrate. It also happens to be a good source of plant-based iron, providing approximately 5 milligrams per serving.

The fine powder that remains through processing contains all nine essential amino acids needed by the body to maintain lean muscle mass and proper cellular functioning, something that isn’t super common in plant foods.

Pea Protein vs. Whey Protein

Pea protein, unlike whey protein, is devoid of cholesterol and lactose, a type of milk sugar that some individuals have an intolerance to.

Pea protein is also a good source of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which other plant-based protein sources often lack. The three BCAAs, leucine, isoleucine, and valine, are especially important for assisting in post-workout recovery and muscle protein synthesis.

Pea protein also contains high amounts of the amino acid l-arginine, which is particularly important for the synthesis of new muscle. A study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutritionists found that individuals between the ages of 18 and 35 years old consuming pea protein powder had greater muscle gains compared to those consuming whey powders (2).

Whey protein powders are made by one of two techniques: separating milk solids (whey and casein) or collected as a byproduct of the cheese making process. Whey protein has been the “gold standard” among athletes and bodybuilders for decades, known for its high bioavailability and protein ratio (90 percent by weight). Whey is another source of all nine essential amino acids, and unlike pea protein, whey has sufficient amounts of the amino acid methionine, which pea protein has low amounts of.

Additionally, whey protein has been shown to increase the body’s stores of glutathione, an antioxidant that is essential for immune health and detoxification, is a good source of bone-building calcium, and helps regulate blood glucose levels when consumed prior to a high-carbohydrate meal (3).

Both whey and pea protein are moderately low in carbohydrates (1-6 grams per serving), low in fat, and excellent sources of easily absorbed protein. Here is a nutritional comparison between the two:

 1 Scoop (33g) Pea 1 Scoop (25g) Whey
Calories 120 100
Carbohydrates 1 g 5 g
Protein 24 g 20 g
Fat 2 g 1.5 g
BCAAs 5.9 7.8

Benefits of Pea Protein

If you are looking for a whey-alternative, have food or lactose sensitivities, digestive concerns, or follow a plant-based diet, pea protein has a variety of health benefits, including these top-three reasons to say “please” to peas!

MUSCLE MAVEN: A common misconception in vegan and vegetarian diets is a lack of sufficient protein intake. While certain plant-based foods do not contain the appropriate ratios of amino acids needed to build muscle, pea protein contains all nine essential amino acids our body must obtain through diet (since we cannot produce them ourselves). Not only does pea protein have the ability to enhance muscle mass more so than whey, but the human growth hormone-stimulating effects of arginine-rich pea protein powders further enhance lean muscle mass deposition in individuals consuming it post-workout, according to a 2015 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutritionists (4).

HAPPY HEART: Certain peptides in peas have been shown in various studies to help support healthy blood pressure levels, due to their ability to balance specific enzymes in the body responsible for regulating water balance and circulation. A study in the Journal of Food Science showed that animal models suffering from imbalanced blood pressure readings saw improvements in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure after consuming formulations of pea peptides (5). Another cohort study reviewed in the American Journal of Epidemiology showed significant correlations exist between high intake of animal-based proteins and arterial plaques/cardiovascular risks, compared to those consuming a more plant-based diet and plant-based proteins such as peas (6).

WHITTLE YOUR WAIST: Consuming 0.8-1.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day helps to maintain lean muscle mass. Lean muscle mass is responsible for regulating proper metabolic activity, allowing one to burn through the calories and nutrients consumed instead of storing them as excess (fat). Therefore, higher protein from sources such as pea protein can “rev up” metabolic rate, causing the body to burn fat as fuel (thermogenesis). Consumption of pea protein also helps to slow down the rate at which food, including carbohydrates, is released into the bloodstream. Delayed diffusion of sugars in the blood helps to balance proper insulin and blood sugar ratios, while moderating the level of the body’s hunger hormone ghrelin. Excessive amounts of ghrelin have been shown to increase hunger and cravings, leading to increased consumption of calories. A study in the Journal of Nutrition showed that consuming 20 grams pea protein prior to a high carbohydrate and high-fat meal reduced the average number of calories consumed by 20 percent (7).

Choosing the Right Pea Protein Powder

Simple is best when it comes to choosing the proper pea protein, as some manufacturers add unwanted artificial sweeteners and flavorings. Selecting an organic, unflavored variety will give you the power to add sweeteners (we love flavored stevia drops) or flavorings (superfood powders for the win) to your liking. If you are looking to round out the methionine that pea’s lack, then getting your hands on a pea-rice blend will make up for it. (Rice is rich in methionine but low in lysine, which peas are high in, making them a perfect pair!)

So Which Is Better, Pea Protein or Whey Protein?

To summarize, pea protein is an inexpensive, plant-based, allergy-friendly protein whose high levels of arginine help fuel muscle protein synthesis. Being a bit more slowly digested, pea protein powder is perfect to use in meal-replacement shakes or post-workout smoothies where one is looking to feel fuller for longer,  plus its rich iron content helps fuel both nutrient and oxygen delivery to muscles and tissues.

Whey, on the other hand, is perfect for those who don’t have any intolerances to dairy or lactose, and are looking for a quick-to-absorb protein that is great for post-workout muscle recovery. Its amino acid profile also helps to support glutathione production, which enhances immunity, and it helps to balance post-meal blood sugar levels.

At the end of the day, both pea and whey protein are great options for those looking to maintain lean muscle mass, or increase intake of BCAAs to promote muscle recovery. The decision really depends on your current needs and goals.


What’s your favorite source of protein? Let us know in the comments!


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