Is whey the way to go or is plant the better choice? Let’s settle this million-dollar question today.
Dietary protein is important for your overall health. Your body requires protein to build bones and muscles, repair cells and tissues, supply oxygen to the blood, make and regulate hormones and even digest your food. It is not only essential for you to get the right quantity of protein in your diet but also to make sure you’re eating the right types of proteins.
Before diving into the discussion, let’s try to understand the most basic question - what is a “complete protein”? A protein can have as many as 20 different amino acids. Our bodies only make 11 of these on their own. As a result, we rely on our food to get the other 9, which is why they are called essential amino acids. Some protein sources have all 20 amino acids while others have only 9. Remember this because it is relevant as we get into the differences between whey and plant-based proteins.
What is Whey Protein?
Whey Protein is a vegetarian source of protein. It is a byproduct of cheese. When a coagulant is added to milk, the curd and whey (liquid portion) separate. We are sure you encounter whey every day - when you open a container of yogurt, the liquid you find on the surface is whey. We bet you didn’t know that!
Now, whey protein is a complete protein and is especially high in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) like leucine. Leucine is effective for muscle growth, recovery and repair because it activates a route in the body that prompts muscle protein synthesis. It is probably the most important amino acid when it comes to muscle building.
Given that whey protein is derived from milk, it contains a certain amount of lactose (natural sugar). The amount of lactose that remains in whey during processing determines how much protein you get per scoop. Here are the most common grades:
- Whey Protein Concentrate - Usually 80% protein.
- Whey Protein Isolate - Usually 90% protein.
Apart from the above two, you will also find hydrolysate whey protein, which contains a similar amount of lactose as whey protein concentrate but is known to be absorbed faster than the other forms. Hydrolysis of protein is an effective method to accelerate its digestion and absorption rates. Rebekah Blakely, a nutrition expert for The Vitamin Shoppe says, "The hydrolysis process normally includes either protein digestive enzymes or heating a protein with acid. Both help to break proteins down into singular or smaller-chained amino acids for easier digestion and absorption." Thus, whey protein hydrolysate goes easier on your stomach. However, the acid treatment process also kills any bioactive peptides that benefit the cardiovascular and immune systems.
So in terms of whey proteins which type should you choose to buy? Isn’t isolate or hydrolysate better than concentrate?
In terms of strength and muscle mass, there is no difference. The differences lie in the protein, fat and lactose content. The difference between concentrates and isolates is minimal. The concentrate has a little less protein, a little more fat and a little more lactose than the isolate, but that’s it. The cost difference for the tiny difference is huge however and so it does not warrant the use of isolates over concentrates. Hydrolysates, on the other hand, are predigested proteins that are denatured which means that your digestive enzymes will not be able to produce health-promoting peptides from them. Even though they are promoted as being better for muscle building than the concentrates or isolates, studies show that that isn’t the case.
What is Plant Protein?
As the name suggests, plant protein comes from various plant sources. If you are a vegan or suffer from lactose intolerance then you should be considering plant sources of protein. But here’s the thing, most plant proteins are not “complete protein” sources.
The most common plant-based proteins are:
- Pea Protein - Pea protein has a high protein content and contains all nine essential amino acids. However, it is not considered a complete protein because of inadequate methionine and cysteine. Having said that, pea protein is packed with the three other important essential amino acids - isoleucine, valine, and leucine - famously known as BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids) that are necessary for muscle growth. If you are eating well during the day and supplementing once with pea protein, then chances are that whatever amino acids are lacking in pea protein are covered by your diet.
- Soy Protein - Soy protein has a high protein content and is a complete protein that contains all twenty amino acids. It is also a good source of both essential fatty acids. However, soy protein has proven to be controversial in recent years, as it contains phytates, also known as antinutrients. Phytates reduce the availability of iron and zinc in soy protein. Soy protein isolates are addressing this problem and brands like Soylent are big proponents of soy protein.
- Hemp Protein - Hemp protein powder has a moderate protein level and a notable amount of fiber. It is, however, high in omega-3 and omega-6 fats, which are good for your heart and are an excellent source of zinc, magnesium and iron.
- Brown Rice Protein - Brown rice contains 37% of the total protein as essential amino acids and 18% as BCAAs, making it an optional source of plant-based protein. However, brown rice protein is also not considered a complete protein source because it lacks lysine, amongst other amino acids.
Let’s summarise some of the differences between these two types of protein:
1. Protein content
Whey protein is considered a complete protein since it contains all nine essential amino acids as well as all eleven non-essential amino acids. Given Whey’s high levels of leucine, isoleucine, and valine, it is the go-to choice for athletes and bodybuilders.
Plant-based proteins typically contain fewer BCAAs. Plus, only soy protein provides all twenty amino acids Generally, multiple plant proteins are combined together to ensure they contain all the essential and non-essential amino acids, such as rice and pea.
Whey protein powder contains lactose. As we grow older, our ability to digest this natural sugar decreases. You will know when you are sensitive to lactose because you will start experiencing stomach issues like bloating and gas. Having said that, if you are consuming whey protein concentrate of 80% and above then you are usually safe because you will consume much below the Lactose Intolerant Limit of 12 grams at once. For example, the Whey Protein Concentrate that Happy Ratio uses has approximately 25 grams of protein and less than 3 grams of lactose. Everyone’s bodies are different. No one knows your tolerance levels better than you do. So know your limits and if you are severely sensitive then look at plant-based alternatives.
Most plant proteins are hypoallergenic (does not trigger an allergic reaction). Plant proteins are high in fiber and enzymes that additionally help with the digestive process. If you are lactose-intolerant, plant protein will be a better bet for your digestive tract. In India, 60 - 65% of the total population suffer from lactose intolerance. This may be one of the reasons why vegan protein is gaining popularity.
3. Weight gain and muscle growth
Whey protein contains all three BCAAs that promote muscle repair and growth. Whey protein is also the gold standard when it comes to protein supplements. It not only increases the release of anabolic or muscle-building hormones but is also high in leucine, which stimulates muscle protein synthesis. Here is a fun fact that I am sure you did not know - Human milk has 50% - 80% whey depending on the stage of breast milk production, and whey from Cow’s milk makes up 80% of the protein market! (source: examine’s whey protein guide)
Plant protein derived from brown rice, peas, and soy also aid in building muscle because they have the three BCAAs as well. However, plant-based proteins have less of an anabolic muscle-building effect due to their low essential amino acid profile, particularly leucine, and deficiency in other essential amino acids, including lysine.
4. Nutrition content
Whey protein tends to have fewer calories. Some of the nutritional benefits of whey protein are:
- High in protein
- High in calcium
- Low in fat and carbohydrates
- Contains vitamin B12 and folate, which helps keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and prevent other age-related diseases
- Contains other vitamins & minerals in low quantities, which can be added externally
Different plant-based proteins exhibit different nutritional values. However, most of them are very nutrient-dense. Some of the nutritional benefits of plant-based protein are:
- High in protein
- High in fiber
- Tends to be higher in carbohydrates than whey protein
- High amounts of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants
- Contains essential fatty acids
But, how do you figure out which one to choose?
As you can see both types of protein have their pros and cons. Here are the factors that you should keep in mind before deciding.
Food sensitivity: If you are lactose-intolerant, try whey protein concentrate (80%) first. If you do not experience any bloating or stomach issues then your lactose intolerance is not getting triggered. If you do experience discomfort, however, then you can either try whey protein isolate (90%) or try vegan proteins. Pea protein is a good alternative. Happy Ratio creates health shakes for both vegetarians and vegans and uses whey and pea protein as their sources. If one does not work for you then you should try the other.
Protein content: If you are looking at protein powders, both whey and plant-based proteins typically contain the same amount of protein, which is 20-30 grams per serving. While it is quite possible to consume all 9 essential amino acids with plant-based protein, you will be missing the potency of what whey protein offers with all the twenty amino acids.
Taste: Whey is a better-tasting protein. Since it is derived from milk, it tastes like a milkshake. Pea protein on the other hand has a grainy texture whereas soy protein has a beanie taste profile. Everyone’s taste buds vary but once you get accustomed to a certain drink, it is worth sticking to it.
Cost: This varies. Whey is usually priced at a premium because India does not make good whey, most of it is imported. Even plant-based proteins are imported but you can expect them to cost as much as half of what whey costs.
Happy Ratio is a formulated protein drink steered towards complete nutrition. It contains all the 39 essential nutrients that your body needs, including the 9 essential amino acids. You can claim your Happy Ratio All-In-One Nutrition protein shake with just one click here.