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Pea protein vs. whey protein: What's the healthier protein powder?

Both whey and pea protein are sources of high-quality complete protein — but there are nutritional differences that can make one a better choice for you.

Protein is one of three dietary macronutrients necessary for good health. It is associated with proper growth and development of our skin, bones and muscles, plus increases satiety, all which may aid in weight management. Once consumed, it’s broken down into amino acids the body utilizes for various functions.

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein daily per kilogram of body weight, according to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In a balanced diet, protein should account for anywhere between 10 and 35% of all calories consumed. For an adult who weighs 150 pounds, that’s about 54 grams of protein a day.

If you have a hard time hitting this daily benchmark, utilizing protein powder to bolster your snacks or meals can be helpful. But one look at the protein powder aisle proves there is no shortage of options, which can be overwhelming. The first major decision you need to make is: Animal or plant-based protein?  

Whey and pea protein are some of the most popular sources of animal and plant protein respectively. Both are great protein sources and are highly versatile in the diet. However, they offer unique differences as well that may make one a better choice for you.

What’s the difference between whey protein and pea protein?

Both are gluten-free, considered nutrient-dense, and offer an easy way to add more protein to your diet. But there are a few main differences between the two types of protein:

  • Source: Whey protein is animal-based, while pea protein is plant-based.
  • Digestibility and tolerance: Whey protein may be easier to absorb with higher bioavailability, but since it’s derived from dairy products, it may not be tolerable to individuals with lactose or casein tolerance. Pea protein is hypoallergenic and free of allergens, making it an optional source for individuals with food allergies and intolerances.
  • Muscle building: Some studies indicate that whey protein may offer a slight advantage in muscle-building. Both whey and pea may aid in fullness, satiation and weight loss. And studies indicate that higher-protein diets from any source may increase satiety.
  • Taste, texture, and nutrition: Pea protein creates a creamier texture and provides more iron. Whey protein may have a more milk-like taste and provides more calcium and potassium.

Here’s a deeper look into both types of protein:

What is whey protein?

Whey is one of two proteins found in milk. When cheese is made, the whey is separated from the casein (the other protein found in milk). Whey is abundant in branch-chain amino acids (BCAA) and is considered a protein with high digestibility. Whey protein is often found in dairy products such as yogurt, cottage cheese and ricotta cheese and as a supplement in protein bars, cereals and drinks. It’s also commonly found in protein powders that can be added to meals and snacks for added protein.

Nutrition facts: Whey protein powder (2 scoops)

  • 120 calories
  • 2 grams fat
  • 3 grams carbohydrate
  • 25 grams protein

Benefits of whey protein

A 2022 study published in the British Medical Journal found that consumption of whey protein before meals helped in the management of blood sugar in type 2 diabetics. The study found that just a small amount of whey helped to reduce the time spent in hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) compared to a placebo. Whey protein supplementation has also been associated with helping lower blood pressure in prehypertensive individuals and may also play a role in controlling cholesterol. Whey may be an ideal protein supplementation source for senior citizens as well. A 2018 randomized controlled trial found that whey protein was highly effective in helping older individuals regain muscle mass after inactivity or prolonged illness.

What is pea protein?

Pea protein is derived from yellow split peas, is rich in iron, and provides a vegan source of protein.

Nutrition facts: Pea protein powder (2 scoops)

  • 120 calories
  • 0.5. grams fat
  • 2 grams carbohydrate
  • 27 grams protein

Benefits of pea protein

Pea protein may aid in building muscle, especially when paired with strength training. A 2015 study found that pea protein consumption in individuals engaging in resistance training resulted in thicker muscle thickness compared to placebo. Pea protein has also been found in studies to be beneficial in individuals with kidney disease and may also assist with lowering blood pressure.

Which protein source is the best for you?

Both whey and pea proteins offer high-quality complete protein (complete proteins are proteins that contain all nine amino acids necessary for good health) that can be utilized in various ways. The decision on which option is best will depend on your personal and dietary preferences, as well as your overall health goals.

Pea protein may be best for:

  • Vegans or vegetarians
  • Individuals who have food intolerances or allergies
  • People interested in foods with less fat and more fiber
  • An alternative to whey protein in cases of excess gas or bloating

Whey protein may be best for:

  • Individuals seeking protein supplementation for muscle building
  • People interested in a protein solution to help manage blood sugar
  • A more budget-friendly alternative
  • An alternative to pea protein in cases of excess gas or bloating

The bottom line

Getting enough protein is an essential component of good health. Both whey protein and pea protein offer a variety of nutrients and can help increase protein content in your diet. Once you choose the protein type that's right for your lifestyle and dietary needs, it’s important to remember there are other considerations to make when evaluating the healthfulness of a protein powder. Individuals may want to consider other ingredients in their protein powder, such as additional vitamins, minerals or added sugars, when deciding which option makes more sense.