Are Plant Protein Powders as Good as Whey?
Plant-based protein powders have made serious progress and have grown in popularity. But can they still help you perform at your best?
Whether you’re a frequent gym-goer or just trying to improve your diet, a common dietary goal is to eat more protein. After all, it’s been well-advertised for years that protein is a necessary part of a healthy diet to build lean body mass and make meals more satiating.
Beyond repairing and building muscle, protein has plenty of other vital functions not to be taken lightly. For one, the amino acids that make up the protein you eat support neurotransmitter and hormone production. Second, you need enough protein to support the immune system and maintain strong bones.
It’s no wonder that among the fitness crowd, protein powders have long been held in high regard. They’re a convenient way to get a hefty dose of this macronutrient after you’ve beaten your body up in the gym or at any other time of day to make sure you’re getting enough of it.
Most active people require at least 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight to support training needs. That means a 125-pound (57-kilogram) woman should aim to consume no less than 68 grams of protein each day. A powder that delivers 25 grams of protein will contribute 38 percent of this daily need. Keep in mind that women going through menopause and post-menopause need even more protein because as estrogen levels drop, it’s harder to build and maintain muscle. Consuming more protein can help prevent too much loss of lean body mass.
The New Whey
For decades, whey has been the king of protein when it comes to supplement powders, essentially monopolizing the market in the protein supplement category. But now, the emergence of a new breed of plant-based protein powders has been a boon to vegans and those with dairy sensitivities.
The rising tide of plant-only powders coincides with the increasing popularity of plant-based eating for health and environmental reasons. And by employing new isolation and filtering technologies, manufacturers have been working hard to improve the taste, solubility and protein quality in plant-based protein supplements. In the past, those in the market for plant protein struggled to find a product that provided the right blend of essential amino acids that also didn’t taste like stale grass clippings. If you know, you know.
These days, all sorts of vegetables, beans, grains, seeds and nuts are being turned into powders to give your shakes and smoothies a protein punch. But how do they stack up to the mighty whey, and how do you get one that works to build muscle without unwanted baggage?
Here’s everything you need to know about plant-based protein powders.
What Are Plant Protein Powders?
Though production methods can vary among manufacturers, plant-based powders are essentially made by dehydrating a food item if needed, grinding it into a powder and then isolating the protein from the fat and carbs. Protein isolates go through an additional filtration step after being extracted. This process creates a product that’s roughly 90 percent protein by weight, meaning fewer carbs and fats.
These days, you can find some powders that contain soy or pea protein isolate. Just keep in mind that with isolates, you’ll receive less fiber and micronutrients found in the actual plant food. It’s not a big deal if you’re looking to focus on protein in your powder and eat plenty of whole-plant foods to get all the fiber, vitamins and minerals you need.
Although plant powders typically have more earthy or vegetable flavors than whey and other animal-based protein powders, this is generally mild.
The most popular plant-based protein nowadays is sourced from peas. According to Bloomberg, peas are the fastest-growing source of protein in the plant-based category of the market. Compared to green peas, the protein content is even higher in split green and yellow peas, which is the core ingredient most often used to make pea protein powder. Since pea protein does not contain soy or wheat, it makes for an attractive alternative for customers with food sensitivities and allergies.
Can Plant Protein Build Muscle?
One of the most important things to consider when it comes to protein powder is the protein source, or where the protein comes from. To this day, one of the most popular sources is whey, and for good reason. Whey is the watery part of milk that separates during the cheese-making process, and it contains a robust amino-acid profile, including high amounts of essential branched-chain aminos that make it an anabolic gold standard. It’s a super well-researched supplement for building new muscle.
But fear not, plant-based crowd. Science is increasingly showing that they are a viable alternative for those who are looking for a non-animal-based protein source to support bodily needs — including stimulating the formation of new lean body mass.
A recent study in the journal Sports Medicine determined that in healthy young males, a high-protein diet (1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight) made up exclusively of plant-based foods and soy protein isolate was just as effective at increasing muscle strength and size in response to weight training as a protein-matched mixed diet made up of animal- and plant-based whole foods along with a supplement of whey protein.
Another study published in the journal Nutrients looked at the effect of whey versus pea protein (0.9 grams of protein per kilogram divided into three doses a day) on muscle damage following an eccentric-based workout designed to elicit maximal muscular damage. The researchers found that whey protein was only modestly more effective at minimizing muscle damage for several days following the workout.
In a 2015 double-blind randomized controlled study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, participants enrolled in a 12-week resistance-training program were given either 25 grams of pea protein, 25 grams of whey protein or a placebo. The results showed a significantly greater effect on muscle thickness in the pea protein group compared to the placebo group, with no clinical difference in strength between the pea and whey treatment.
A more recent study conducted at Lipscomb University in Tennessee compared 24 grams of whey and pea protein supplementation, taken twice daily during eight weeks of CrossFit-style high-intensity functional training. It showed comparable benefits in body composition, muscle thickness and strength.
A report in Clinical Nutrition discovered that there was no significant difference in muscle protein breakdown or muscle protein synthesis between casein and soy powders. While a study in the March 2021 issue of the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition discovered that when soccer players bumped up their protein intake to 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight daily using either whey or soy protein, both did an equally good job at helping maintain muscle strength and endurance during training as well as lowering reported levels of postworkout muscle soreness.
Plants Can Hold Their Own
Hot off the press, a new study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition discovered that pea protein isolate has a digestible indispensable amino-acid score (a method of determining protein quality based on the number of amino acids that are absorbed by the body and contribute to protein needs) that is nearly as high as milk-derived casein protein and can help meet the amino-acid requirements of the body. This report comparing various plant-based protein isolates found that pea protein has the highest essential amino-acid content as a percentage of total protein, nearly rivaling whey protein in that regard. Soy and brown rice aren’t too far off.
Since pea protein is hypoallergenic, highly digestible and has a comparable amino-acid profile to proteins from animals like whey, it’s no surprise that it has become the darling of the food and supplement industry.
Hemp is another complete plant protein source, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids and has a higher protein quality than many other seeds, nuts and grains but not pea or soy. And perhaps we might see tubs of potato protein at the GNC in the future. Recent research found that consuming potato protein isolate as a way to bump up total daily protein intake can help speed up the rate at which female muscles make new protein.
This makes sense when you consider that, somewhat surprisingly, potato protein isolate contains higher amounts of essential amino acids, including leucine, than other plant proteins and even egg and casein. Just remember that there’s no chance you’d get this amount of protein from eating whole spuds — that would put you into some serious carb-loading territory.
Fingers crossed that we see more studies involving active women of various ages to make sure the benefits of plant powders extend past active males. Studies that compare whey with a greater variety of plant-based proteins than just soy or pea also would help solidify — or dethrone — pea protein as the king of plant-based powders.
Formulations that contain a blend of plant-based proteins can be beneficial in that they may better approach the amino-acid profile of their animal-based counterparts. For instance, pumpkin and sunflower proteins are low in the amino acid lysine, but pea and soy protein are a good source of this. Pea is relatively low in the essential amino acid methionine. But add hemp or rice protein to the mix and you get the necessary methionine to better form a “complete” protein. All amino acids are required for muscle growth and recovery, and the lack of one or more in a protein powder may compromise this process.
With all this said, it’s worth noting that animal-based protein powders, including whey, casein and egg, are still higher ranking than almost any plant-based contenders. It’s a simple fact that their amino-acid profile is a cut above that from plants. This includes a higher concentration of leucine, the amino acid most responsible for turning on muscle building in your cells and one of the three essential branched-chain amino acids.
You would need to consume at least 30 percent more protein powder from most plants, including peas and soy, to get the same level of leucine found in whey. In the grand scheme of things based on current research, this difference might not be enough to make a noticeable impact on body composition gains as long as total protein needs are met.
Related: Here’s Exactly How Much Protein You Should Eat and When
Things to Consider When Shopping for a Plant Protein Powder
There are a few things to keep in mind before shopping for a plant-based protein powder and using it. First things first, consider the amount of protein you’re getting. You want to make sure it’s not considerably less than what you’d get from a whey powder.
Although protein content can vary by brand, you’ll probably want to seek an option that contains at least 20 grams of protein per serving, which is often about 35 grams of powder or a ratio of about 150 calories per 20 to 25 grams of protein. This can be one or two scoops for a serving, depending on the powder.
Ideally, you want something higher in protein in relation to calories, carbs and fats. Some brands will list the amino-acid profile on the label or its website, so you can take a look at the amount of leucine — the amino acid most important for firing up muscle protein synthesis. Bonus points if it contains 1.5 grams of leucine or more.
With so many options on the market, don’t be afraid to judge by taste and texture. Some powders are befallen by an overly chalky texture, have an unappetizing aftertaste, or are much too sweetened and make for an uncomfortable experience for taste buds. Some sugar alternatives like stevia and monk-fruit extract can alter flavor in a way that does not appease everyone.
These days, there are many flavor options, including blueberry, peanut butter, cookies and cream, caramel, birthday cake and more. Flavored powders are sweetened with low- or no-calorie sweeteners like monk fruit or stevia, or actual sugar. Keep added sugars to less than 5 grams per serving. If you’re looking to pair your protein with better-quality carbs, blend the powder with fruits like frozen berries. There are also unflavored powder options if you aren’t keen on consuming any sort of sweetener and don’t want its flavor to impact what you’re adding it to.
Veggie powders, fruit powders, probiotics and prebiotics can be nice add-ins. Just make sure they don’t wedge too much of the protein out of the product.
You also can choose powders that are third-party tested for quality and safety assurance like Informed Choice or NSF Certified for Sport. These companies test the products for banned substances and sometimes contaminants like lead, and they make sure what’s on the label is actually in the product.
You may need to experiment with a few different types to see what settles best with you and doesn’t bring on uncomfy bloat. Your stomach may cry foul when exposed to certain compounds in some plant-based powders, like oligosaccharides in soy protein or prebiotic fibers such as inulin. You can look for “isolated” soy protein, which contains very little gas-producing oligosaccharides. If you’re opting for pea protein because of allergy reasons, make sure the product you pick isn’t mixed with other protein sources that you may not handle well.
And of course, be sure to check the expiration date on the protein powder you purchase. Every tub or bag has a given shelf life for optimal quality. It’s fine to consume a product that has reached its best before date, but several months past this date and it’s best to restock with something less stale. To maintain the freshness of opened products, you can stash them in the fridge.
Last, it’s best not to make protein powder of any sort your primary source of this macro. They can’t mimic the nutrition matrix you’ll get from whole-food sources of protein like fish, beans and beef. Always consider them a supplement to a well-balanced diet.
Don’t forget that you can use plant-based protein powders in more ways than smoothies. Stir into oatmeal and yogurt, blend unflavored powders into dips or sneak them into pancakes and baked goods. When used in baked goods like muffins and cakes, whey or casein protein powder tends to result in a rubbery, less tender texture — not so with plant-based options. They’re not as heat-sensitive as dairy proteins and produce items with better texture. Experiment by replacing about 25 percent of the flour in a recipe with plant protein powder and see if you like the results.
10 Power Powders to Get Your Plant Protein Fix
If you’re looking for a protein boost to your diet, a good protein powder can be a great place to start. There are many, many options out there, so we’ve put together a shortlist to help you find one that hits the mark to help you bounce back faster when you don’t feel like pounding back a bunch of beans.
Zhou Plant Complete Vanilla
Crafted with a blend of pea and rice protein, Zhou Plant Complete provides 21 grams of protein with a complete amino-acid profile. The protein sources are also fermented, which improves digestibility and results in a smoother texture.
Live Conscious Organic Protein Cosmic Cacao
A deliciously rich chocolate flavor from real cacao instead of a mystery natural flavor and a power-packed blend of plant proteins create a complete amino-acid package.
Manitoba Harvest Hemp Yeah! Balanced Protein + Fiber
Made with just one ingredient — hemp protein powder — this option gives you a lofty 8 grams of fiber to go along with the protein. That makes each spoonful an enemy to hunger.
Nutiva Organic Plant Protein Superfood Smoothie
This mix of protein powders, including pea, sunflower and pumpkin, is bolstered by prebiotic fiber and powdered fruits and veggies for a nutritional boost.
Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Plant
Long known for its best-selling whey protein, Optimum Nutrition also makes a great plant-based option with a praise-worthy calorie-to-protein ratio and 4 grams of muscle-friendly branched-chain amino acids in a scoop.
KOS Organic Plant Protein Chocolate Peanut Butter
Beyond the crave-worthy flavor, the protein blend of pea, quinoa and chia will flood your body with all the necessary essential amino acids. There is also the stealth inclusion of a fruit and veggie blend, giving each scoop plenty of vitamins and minerals.
Natreve Vegan Protein Powder Strawberry Shortcake
A multi-sourced powder blend delivers 25 grams of high-quality protein in an undeniably fun flavor. Probiotics and nutrient-dense greens, including spinach and broccoli, are also here, and the company is now plastic- and carbon-neutral.
Ritual Essential Protein
This pea-based powder is third-party tested to guarantee it’s free of contaminants, and it sneaks in some choline to help support brain health.
Bob’s Red Mill Almond Protein Powder
Made from defatted ground almonds, each serving delivers 20 grams of nutty protein. You also get good amounts of fiber, calcium, iron and potassium. This powder offers one of the better options for stirring into oatmeal or using in your baking.
FitFormula Pro Vegan Creamy Vanilla
Featuring pea protein isolate and hemp protein, this powder is the complete package, and flaxseed powder adds a hit of heart-healthy omega-3 fat. Probiotics are included in the mix.
Banana Protein Muffins
- 2 large eggs
- ¼ cup milk
- 3 medium-size very ripe bananas, peeled
- ¼ cup honey
- 1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
- ½ cup almond flour
- ½ cup plain or vanilla plant-based protein powder
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- ½ tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp baking soda
- ¼ tsp salt
- ½ cup dark chocolate chips
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Place eggs, milk, bananas and honey in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth.
- Blend in whole-wheat pastry four, almond flour, protein powder, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Stir in chocolate chips.
- Divide batter among 12 standard-size greased or paper-lined muffin cups. Bake until set and lightly browned on top and a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out nearly clean, 22 to 25 minutes.
- Let cool a few minutes before unmolding, then cool completely on a metal rack.