Picking your Protein: Whey vs Pea

Are you looking to reach your protein PEAk? Trying to decide which is the best WHEY to go? 

Now that we’ve humoured ourselves and exhausted our protein-powder related puns, we’re planning to share some hopefully helpful information to assist you in deciding whether pea or whey is your preferred protein source. 

This is not the first time we’re delving into this topic. In fact, there is a Maxichat podcast (Season 1, Episode 7) that explores this very thang! So, if you’re more of an auditory learner, tune in to hear Maxine talk through some of the facts. If articles are your chosen medium, then read on to see some of the key points outlined below. 

Let’s set the scene with a little background info: 

What is protein? 

Protein is one of the three main macronutrients that make up the foods that we consume. The other two are carbohydrates and fats. Each has a unique and important role to play in how our bodies function 1. For now, we’re popping protein in the limelight to unpack a little more about this nifty nutrient! 

Protein has significant purpose in the repair and growth of our bodies, our brain functioning and our digestion. It is important across our whole life span, and is needed by those who are very physically active, as well as those who are not 1

Protein is made up of amino acids. There are 21 of these little guys: 11 of which can be created by our bodies, and 9 of which must be consumed through our diet. These 9 are called “essential amino acids”. When they are all present in one protein source, we regard it as a “complete protein” 2

What are our sources of protein? 

We can consume ‘complete proteins’ through both animal and plant-based foods. Meat, dairy and eggs provide a high quantity of all 9 essential amino acids. This full complement of amino acids can also be found in vegan proteins; however, some of these may be available in much lower quantities. This is important to consider, as different amino acids play different roles in our bodies. Leucine, for example, is necessary in stimulating muscle growth and repair. Consuming adequate amounts of it may therefore be important to you if you are focusing on building muscle and body re-composition. Leucine is generally available in high quantities in animal proteins, but less so in most vegan proteins…except for peas! Peas are naturally high in leucine and therefore good to consume if you’re looking to up your leucine levels 2

How is protein digested? 

Plant and animal proteins are digested by the body in different ways mainly due to differences in their cell composition. Plant proteins can be more difficult for the body to breakdown and, as a result, the degree of amino acid availability may be less than that of animal sources. Plant cells have a cell wall which is surrounded by indigestible fibre. Although this fibre is a treat for your gut, it can make it hard for all the amino acids to make their way into your bloodstream. But, dear vegans, don’t despair! Increasing your total daily protein intake can make up for those proteins that are not readily digested by your bod. Clever protein combos at mealtimes, such as eating legumes and grains together, can also ensure you get all the essential amino acids that you need 2.

And so, having proven that my life sciences teacher knew exactly what she was talking about when she said, “Stop turning your notes into a family of origami swans. This will have relevance in your life”; we hope that the biology behind protein is a little clearer to you.

With that as a foundation, lets hone in on protein powders: 

How do protein powders compare to whole food protein sources? 

In the production of protein powders, the protein undergoes a refining process. In plant proteins, this breaks down the fibrous outer membrane of the plant cells, making the amino acids more easily available to the body. Challenges that the body faced in accessing amino acids from whole food plant protein sources, are therefore overcome when that plant is made into a protein powder 2.  

How do protein powders compare to one another? 

As a result of the manufacturing process, vegan and whey protein powders can be very similar to one another in terms of how their proteins are digested by the body, as well as their amino acid profiles. During the production of plant protein powder, the fibrous coating is not only broken down, but proteins from different plants are also normally combined to produce one powder that contains optimal quantities of all 9 essential amino acids. For example, peas can be added to boost leucine levels, whilst adding rice protein can enhance the quantities of methionine 2

The plant-protein powder that is most comparable to whey, is a pea isolate blend. These compare best in terms of their levels of essential amino acids and how their proteins are digested by the body. Other vegan protein powders can provide you with protein, but might not give the same quality and quantity of essential amino acids or be metabolised in the same whey (soz…we couldn’t resist) 2

The big question: Whey or pea? 

In general, whey and pea protein powders provide a very similar amount of protein per serving – pea giving about 85% and whey approximately 90%. They do differ a little in the quantities of other macronutrients that they provide, but these differences are fairly insignificant. As mentioned, their proteins are digested similarly and their amino acid profiles are almost the same 2.

Choosing between them therefore comes down to your personal preference. Your tastes, lifestyle and dietary choices, budget, allergies, and accessibility; could all play a role in deciding which you would like to use. Whether you go for whey or pea, the science suggests that your body will be stoked with the fuel and those necessary nutrients 2!

Before we go, some bonus whey-related info: 

If you’ve decided that whey is the protein powder for you, then your next choice might be whether to get a whey concentrate or a whey isolate. These differ in the extent to which they are refined and, as a result, their price.

Isolate is more refined, and therefore contains less lactose, a little less fat, and slightly more protein than the concentrate. It’s a bit more watery, less milky, and a lot more expensive. The isolate can be more easily digested by those with lactose intolerance, due to the lower lactose content. Unless you are sensitive to lactose, Maxine suggests in her podcast that whey concentrate is probs a better bet! This is because its more affordable and more delish. The small difference in protein content shouldn’t be problematic in a high protein diet – or could be remediated by an extra scoop of the concentrate if needed 2!

And so ends our crash-course in protein and powders. Crux of the matter is, if you’re trying to choose between pea and whey protein powders, don’t feel overwhelmed honey! They’ll both nourish your bod in similar ways, so go for the one that suits you best. 

Happy shopping! 

Written by: Claire Willows