Whey protein has been marked the gold standard of protein supplements for many decades, with plenty of scientific backing that puts it in its deserved spot amongst bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts. However, over the past few years, I was quick to notice the rise in a variety of protein supplements from what seems to be an unexpected source – plants. From chia to hemp (yes, from the seeds of a cannabis variety!), the market is just saturated with choice, often leaving most people clueless on what to choose.
Pea protein is one of the most popular plant-based protein choices, and it comes from the cousin of the green sweet peas we had in our soup as kids- yellow split peas.
In this article, we’ll be comparing how grandma’s favorite soup ingredient stacks up against the gold standard of protein supplements used by tough guys all over the world.
Pea protein powder is made by grinding up dried yellow peas into a flour. The process is more complicated than that, but you just need to know that the starch and fiber are removed through mechanical processes, leaving us with a pure pea protein isolate. Pea protein is completely vegan and vegetarian-friendly, thus suitable for those with diet restrictions. Not to mention, harvesting peas is more environmentally sustainable for those that are going that route.
Whey protein comes from cow’s milk and is a byproduct of cheese production. Enzymes are added to separate the curds from the liquid whey. The liquid whey is then processed into powder form using a process called pasteurization. It’s natural to assume that whey protein has a lot of lactose, but a lot of the lactose has been removed during processing. Those who are sensitive to lactose would typically opt for a whey isolate powder.
If you’re vegan, it’s a no brainer. But if not, don’t skip out on pea protein, because I believe the underdog has a few added benefits against whey protein. Just a side note, it’s plant-based protein tend to be cheaper than animal-based protein due to lower costs of production.
Obviously, the nutrition label varies according to brands and serving size. But for our purpose, we’ll be comparing the labels for Myprotein’s Pea Protein Isolate and Impact Whey Protein, as Myprotein is one of the big brands that carry both plant-based and animal-based protein powders.
Because the serving sizes are different, it would only be fair to make a comparison down the per gram level. Obviously, whey protein has a higher calorie, carbohydrate, and fat count, which may be a bummer if you are on a strict low-carb diet. But, it has more protein per gram compared to peas.
These differences are rather minute for the average joe, but if you’re calculative about what comes in, I suggest going for pea protein.
Amino Acid Profile
In the battle between pea protein vs whey, I think it’s important that you go through the amino acid profile of these two products. There are 21 amino acid kinds, in which 11 are non-essential (can be manufactured by the body) and 9 essential amino acids (must be obtained from diet). A complete amino acid profile is when the supplement you are taking contains all the essential amino acids in the right proportions. Here’s a list of the essential amino acids:
Now, this begs the question: Is pea protein complete?
The short answer is yes. Unlike many plant-based proteins, peas have all the 9 essential amino acids. However, peas have been found to be especially low in methionine. Off all the 9 essential amino acids, the trio that is required to maintain muscle mass is leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Leucine has been shown to be the amino acid which “triggers” the creation of muscle.
Now, let’s compare the average contents of these three amino acids in pea protein vs whey (per 100 gram serving):
It seems like pea protein amino acid profile takes a hit, but it is a big problem?
A study found that men who consumed pea protein supplementation had similar muscle thickness gains compared to men who had whey protein supplementation, with similar gradual strength increases.
When it comes to muscle gain, there are plenty of variables to consider such as genetics, diet, and sleep. I wouldn’t consider the amino acid profile a deal breaker, since they aren’t that far off apart.
Side Effects and Allergens
This is where the battle gets interesting. A lot of people can have either milk intolerance or milk allergy. Milk allergy is when the body’s immune system abnormally response to milk and products containing milk, with symptoms from wheezing, swelling, to anaphylaxis. Those who are in this category should avoid whey protein at all costs.
Milk or lactose intolerance on the other hand doesn’t involve the immune response, but it’s due to the individual doesn’t produce enough amylase, an enzyme needed for digesting lactose. Depending on the severity of your situation, you may opt for a whey protein isolate that has lower lactose levels if you still prefer consuming whey.
Pea protein isn’t completely safe either. Peas are legumes, like peanuts and soybeans. If you’ve had a history of allergy towards other legumes, be cautious when you introduce it to your diet. Recently, a pediatric allergist warned that the allergies people have towards peanuts can also be triggered by peas after a 2-year-old experienced a anaphylactic reaction after consuming a non-dairy yogurt which had pea protein.
Use your due diligence when choosing the right protein product. You should always consult your medical professional if you have any concerns.
Dairy products are also linked with acne. Whey protein especially increases the production of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), a hormone that is associated with increased sebum production that can clog pores and cause acne.
As far as my research goes, I couldn’t find if there is a solid relationship between pea consumption and acne. But one thing’s for certain: peas have a low glycemic index, which does not cause blood glucose to spike rapidly and keeps your insulin levels stable.
If you have acne prone skin and you’re insecure of it, it’s a no brainer to try out the pea protein. Your skin plays a big role in boosting your confidence, and it goes together with how your body looks!
Pea vs Whey Protein: Benefits Compared
If you’re still confused after all that reading, I’ve summarized their pros and cons in the following table. Personally, I don’t think there’s any way in saying which one is better or worse. It mostly comes down to your dietary restrictions and lifestyle.
Yellow split peas (plant-based)
Lower in protein, calories, carbohydrates, and fats (suitable for low-carb diets)
Higher in protein, but also higher in calories, carbohydrates, and fats (great for non-restrictive diets)
Amino Acid Profile
Less in muscle-building BCAAs (still a negligible amount)
Higher in muscle-building BCAAs
Not suitable for: Those with nut and legume allergies
Not suitable for: Those with lactose intolerance and Vegans
Low glycemic index
Will not exacerbate acne
May have properties that strengthen immune system
Cheaper due to simpler extraction methods
More expensive due to complex extraction processes
Whey protein has proven time and time again to be beneficial to athletes all around the world for the past few decades. Once pea protein becomes mainstream, I personally believe it’s going to change the entire protein supplement industry. As a consumer, your responsibility is to look for products from a reputable manufacturer that has a proven track record. Whether it’s whey or peas, your body deserves high-quality food.
Do note that protein supplements are NOT magical powders that will make your chest pop and sleeves ripped overnight. You still need to get your training, diet, and rest right if you wish to see any results. Think of protein powder as convenience in a bottle. It’s great to have, but not necessary if you’re doing everything else right or can’t afford it. If your body reacts negatively to any of the above supplements, do consult your doctor. What may work for most people may not work for you.
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