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Whey vs Plant Protein Powder - Which Is Better?

The world is facing a real challenge providing sustainable protein sources. As we can get our protein from both animal and plant based sources, the decision is ultimately our choice based on whats important to us - be it ethical, financial or lifestyle choices.

Animal Protein

As mentioned earlier, animal protein is the highest quality protein available because it is a complete protein containing all nine essential amino acids. \

Animal protein contains higher saturated fat and cholesterol content than plant proteins. On the flip side, animal protein is a great source of vitamin B12, vitamin D, zinc and iron, all of which are essential nutrients for daily functioning.

Plant Protein

The majority of plant proteins are not complete protein sources as they don’t contain all the essential amino acids in sufficient quantities to meet standards for complete protein. But by no means we should disregarded plant protein. Consuming plant based protein is a more sustainable, environmentally friendly choice. The production of plant protein requires less land, feed, and produces less waste products than animal proteins. Consuming a broad spectrum of plant based protein typically adds up to a sufficient essential amino acid intake across a days worth of eating.

Plant protein often offers a lower calorie alternative than animal protein. It has been shown to reduce cholesterol and cardiovascular disease risk (13) and is high in antioxidants and dietary fiber to keep you feeling full for longer and promoting good gut health.

Whey Protein Powder

What Is Whey Protein?

Whey protein is one of the two types of protein found in milk. Cow’s milk contains these proteins at a ratio of 80% casein and 20% whey (14). If you’ve ever heated cow’s milk, you might have noticed two layers forming, the curd and the liquid leftovers. The liquid portion is liquid whey.

Whey protein has been well studied, it  is a very high quality protein available in a number of different forms. It is rapidly digested and absorbed meaning muscle protein synthesis is stimulated quickly.

Whey protein is the ultimate powder for growing and strengthening muscles. It is a complete protein containing a high concentration of the leucine amino acid, thought to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. It is used by the muscles much more effectively than the likes of soy protein (15-16).

Where Does Whey Protein Come From?

Whey protein comes from the process of cheese-making. In the production of whey protein powder, milk is shipped from the dairy farm to the cheese producer who then heats the milk (pasteurises it) to remove unwanted bacteria.

A substance is then added to the milk which helps the whey and casein layers separate. Casein is then used to make the cheese and whey is sent off to be made into protein powder.

Here, the whey is filtered to remove the unnecessary fats and carbohydrates and sprayed with air to dry it out and form a powder.

Believe it or not but being a by-product of the cheese making process whey used to be discarded and dumped by farmers as excess to production. Once studies realised how nutritionally dense whey protein is the production into sports manufacturing as a high quality, fast absorbing protein source begun.

 

Types Of Whey Protein

Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC)

Whey protein concentrate is around 80% protein. Each 30g serving contains ~24g of protein with the remainder of energy coming from a small amount of fat and carbohydrates.

One of the pros is that whey protein concentrate is the least processed of the whey powders. It is also packed full of all the branched-chain amino acids required to fuel your muscles.

Another perk is that it is the most easily sourced protein powder and generally the kindest on your wallet.

Whey Protein Isolate (WPI)

Whey protein isolate is one of the purest forms of whey on the market and is around 90% protein. Each 30g serving contains ~27g of protein and is virtually sugar and fat-free!

Whey protein isolate has an extra processing step which makes it suitable for lactose-free people. This powder could appeal to anyone on a calorie-restricted diet or who are already getting their fat and carbohydrates from other sources.

Whey Protein Hydrolysate (WPH)

Whey protein hydrolysate is what is known as the ‘pre-digested’ whey protein. During processing, it is partially hydrolysed which helps it to be absorbed by the body faster. Unfortunately, high-performance comes with a flaw. Hydrolysate tastes very bitter and to compensate alot of flavourings are added to consumer products. 

Types Of Plant Protein Powder

Pea Protein

Pea protein provides a dairy-free, sustainable protein source that contains a very small amount of carbohydrates and fat. It is very low in sugar, contains dietary fibre and has fewer calories than whey proteins while still providing 23g of protein for a 30g serve.

Pea protein has a much more complete composition of amino acids than many of the other plant-based proteins, although it is still not as high as soy or whey-proteins. Pea protein is a great vegan-friendly option

Soy Protein

Soy protein has sparked debate among the nutrition community as it is frequently genetically modified. Soy protein is a complete source but doesn’t stimulate muscle growth to the same extent as whey protein. Soy protein is made from defatted soybeans and provides about 27g of protein per 30g serve.

As Registered Dietitian, Amy Goodson points out, soy has been identified for its phytoestrogen content and potential impact on thyroid function.These properties are associated with eating soy itself, and not the soy protein powder specifically.

Hemp Protein

Hemp protein is relatively new to the New Zealand market after being authorised for sale November of 2018. It is made from hemp seeds and has a subtle nutty flavour. It is around 50% protein and each  30g serve provides ~15.g of protein. The rest of  the nutritive value comes from dietary fibre and healthy fatty acids.

Brown Rice Protein

Brown rice protein is made by removing the majority of carbohydrates and fat from the rice product leaving a concentrated source of protein. For a 30g serve, brown rice provides ~ 24g of protein. It is similar in energy density to soy protein though unfortunately lacks a complete amino acid profile and is therefore rarely used by itself and rather blended with other plant proteins. 

Is Whey or Plant Protein Better?

With so many protein powders on the market, shopping can drop from fun to frustrating very quickly when you don't know what you are looking for. This quick and easy checklist will help you navigate through the complex task of choosing what is best for you.

STEP ONE: Figure out how much protein you need

It is highly recommended to spend 1-2 days writing down everything you eat on that day. Then using the list under the ‘which foods are high in protein’ topic or by entering your food into an app like Myfitnesspal or Easy Diet Diary and calculate how much protein you are currently consuming each day.

This will allow you to determine if it is just a small top-up you need to meet your requirements or whether you’re really lacking in the protein department. Unless of course recommended by a health professional. 

Also, have a think about your current exercise regime. If you are mostly working out at a high-intensity or weight training, you are going to need much more than a yogi. 

STEP TWO: Determine your health and wellbeing goals 

If your ultimate goal is to gain and strengthen muscle, whey protein will likely suffice.

If you want to consume a vegan or vegetarian, choose a plant-based protein powder.

If you are watching your sugar intake, choose a whey protein isolate with sugars removed.

If you strive for a high fibre diet, or perhaps are following a low-carbohydrate diet then a hemp or pea protein powder high in fibre could be a good fit.

STEP THREE: Factor in your dietary restrictions.

Do you need to choose a protein powder low in lactose? If you suffer from upset stomachs frequently after taking protein powder or avoid lactose and dairy products, pea protein may be your best bet.

If you’ve tried a lactose-free powder and the stomach aches continue, choose a protein powder low in artificial sweeteners.

STEP FOUR: Budget

Consider how much you are willing and able to spend on your protein powder. Gram for gram, this will ideally cost less than a wholefood alternative.

STEP FIVE: Taste

Choose a protein powder that you’re going to enjoy the taste of or the reality is you probably won’t use it.

What Makes A High-Quality Protein Powder?

Just because protein powder is classed as a 'supplement' doesn't mean it should be treated any different than a quality wholefood. The same criteria you already use to tell the difference between high quality fruit, vegetables and meats can be applied the same way to choosing a quality protein powder. 

The Ingredients List

Check the ingredients list! The list is written with the most prominent ingredient at the beginning and the least at the end. Of course, our first checkbox is making sure protein is the first ingredient. Second checkbox is the size of the list, the less ingredients listed the better the protein powder and the more natural the product is. Check that the list contains no filler ingredients that may have been added to bulk out the product and rip you off. Some common filler ingredients include flour and milk powders. Another common method for companies to cut costs is creating protein 'blends' whereby higher and lower quality protein powders are blended together.

Flavour

You may have seen the term “natural flavours” on the ingredients list of your protein powder, and most people would automatically assume the best given the word 'natural'.

Unfortunately, the term can be pretty misleading at times. Natural flavours are created using substances extracted from plants or animals. Very few natural flavours come directly from the food they replicate the taste of. Food chemists often mix the original flavour source with different chemicals to enhance the flavour and increase its shelf life. Additionally, some of the natural flavour sources may come from genetically modified plants.

If you’re looking for an authentic taste and added health benefits, choose protein powders that use organic flavours.

Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners can result in bloating and stomach discomfort for some people and their effects on gut health have been poorly studied. Check that there haven’t been artificial sweeteners or too much glucose, sucralose or dextrin added to the product. These are used to give taste or thicken the product. High-quality protein powders will contain natural sweeteners if any at all.

Price

If the price is too good to be true, then it probably is. Protein powder is expensive, and more often than not, the price resembles the quality of the product. High-quality products contain high-quality ingredients that cost more to source, simple as that. And just like food there can be substantial  differences in the products results and nutrients your body receives.

The Brand

Do your research. Check in on the brand’s website to see what the company stands for, where their products are sourced from and whether their ethical and moral practice aligns with your own.

Final Word

Both animal and plant proteins have rather different pros and cons and it does not have to be a choice of one or the other. Rather than focusing on consuming only one type of protein, eating a balanced source of protein-rich foods may be favourable for health.

Remember that protein powders are there to supplement a healthy diet and not completely sustain it. If you life an active lifestyle or have dietary preferences that lean toward the use of a protein powder be sure to use the same factors in choosing a quality protein powder that you would wholesome, quality food.

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REFERENCES

14. Jay Hoffman & Michael J. Falvo (2004). “Protein – Which is best?”. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (3): 118–130.

15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17413102

16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15570142


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