Whey Protein vs Pea Protein: What’s the Difference

Whey Protein vs Pea Protein: What’s the Difference?

“Whey Protein vs Pea Protein: What’s the Difference?” was written by Sarah Schiffer, RDN (while a dietetic intern through Komplete Business Dietetic Internship) & reviewed/edited by Aly Bouzek, MS, RDN.

*This page includes affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

What is Protein?

Protein is one of the three essential macronutrients that play many crucial roles in our body. Macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, fat) provide us with calories or energy. Yay for energy!

Protein plays a huge role in regulation, functionality, and structure of our body’s tissues and organs.

Amino Acids

Amino Acids

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. In fact, protein is made up of more than 20 different amino acids. 

But, our bodies don’t store amino acids.

Instead, we have to rely on the protein found in our food to get the nutrients (and amino acids) that our body needs.

There are 9 amino acids that our body can’t make for us. Therefore, we must get these specific 9 amino acids from our food. 

This is also why it’s very important to make sure we are eating enough protein. So our bodies have the amino acids to create protein that we need!

Why Do We Need Protein?

Protein is in every cell in our body, and it has some very important roles:

  • Protein is responsible for repairing cells and tissues and creating new ones. We have protein in our muscles, tissues, skin, hair, and bones.
  • Protein plays an essential role in hemoglobin. Hemoglobin helps move oxygen throughout our body into our blood.
  • More than half of the protein we consume is used to create enzymes. Enzymes are important for chemical reactions and making our body work.
  • Protein helps make antibodies that fight off infections and illnesses to keep us healthy.

How Much Protein Do We Need?

How much protein we need depends a lot on our age. As we get older, we are more likely to lose muscle mass. How can we help prevent this? By increasing our protein! 

The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) recommends that adults 18 years and older get 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily. 

However, it’s recommended that adults aged 65 years and older get 1.0-1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight every day. (1)

But be careful that you aren’t consuming too much protein! 

Consuming too much protein can lead to dehydration and kidney damage. Talk with a geriatric dietitian and/or your doctor to determine how much protein is right for you. 

Where Does Protein Come From?

Protein can come from both animal foods and plant-basedfoods. 

Common animal protein foods are: 

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Meat
  • Salmon 
  • Yogurt, cottage cheese, and other dairy products
  • Nutritional supplements

Common plant-based protein foods are:

  • Nuts & nut butters
  • Seeds
  • Beans
  • Quinoa
  • Almonds
  • Nutritional supplements

You may have noticed that “nutritional supplements” appeared in both animal protein foods and plant-based foods above. This is because protein powder can be either type of protein! 

Protein powder is simply protein in a powder form that can be added to drinks and foods that you already enjoy to help increase your protein and/or calories. 

Check out our High Protein Foods SERIES for more high protein foods, a grocery list, and a high protein meal planner!

In this article we’ll discuss whey protein vs pea protein. Jump to that section by clicking here

Why Do We Need Protein Powder?

Most dietitians, including us at The Geriatric Dietitian, will advocate for getting most or all of our nutrients from food. However, there are times where supplements can help us get the nutrition our body needs.

Many times, people have a hard time meeting their protein needs. As discussed earlier, protein is essential for our bodies to stay healthy. 

If it’s too hard for someone to get all of their protein from food, then they can use a protein powder to increase the protein in their favorite foods.

Different Types of Protein Powders

Protein powder is a concentrated source of protein either coming from an animal or plant source.

Common animal protein powders:

Common plant-based protein powders:

What is Whey Protein?

Whey Protein Powder

Whey protein is an animal source of protein and is one of the most popular protein powders on the market.

It’s made from the byproduct of milk that is leftover during the cheese making process.

During the cheese making process, the milk undergoes high levels of heat to kill the harmful bacteria.

This process splits the milk into curds and a liquid form of whey.

During the heating process, some of the lactose (milk sugar) is taken away from the whey liquid. 

Therefore: 

  • Whey protein concentrate is less processed and keeps most of the lactose. Its protein content ranges from 35% to 80% pure protein. (3)
  • Whey protein isolate is more processed and contains less lactose, less carbohydrates, and less fat. It’s more than 92% pure protein. (3)

The liquid whey then goes under a process where it’s made into a powder and is ready for consumers to eat.

Whey Protein Benefits

Whey protein contains all 9 essential amino acids that our bodies can’t produce. This makes it a great complete protein source. It also has more calcium and potassium than pea protein. 

Like pea protein, whey protein is also a great source of BCAAs which promote muscle growth, a healthy heart, and healthy blood flow.

Whey Protein & Allergies

Whey protein powder contains milk, so if you’re lactose-intolerant, this may not be the best choice of protein powder for you. 

On the other hand, the isolated form of whey protein powder has a very low amount of lactose in it – it may not even cause you any discomfort at all. Talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian if you are unsure if whey protein powder is right for you. 

What is Pea Protein?

Pea Protein Powder

Pea protein is a plant-based source of protein. This makes it a good option for anyone that’s vegan or dairy free.

This protein is made the way you would likely guess: by extracting protein from yellow split peas. (2)

Pea protein is considered a complete protein, containing all 9 essential amino acids. However, it is considerably low in one amino acid, methionine. 

Types of Pea Protein

Pea Protein Concentrate

Pea protein concentrate has amino acids AND additional macronutrients such as fats, carbohydrates, and fiber. This type of pea protein has less protein than its isolated form. It’s a great pea protein choice if you are looking to increase your calories and gain weight

Pea Protein Isolate

Pea protein isolate contains just 2 things: pea protein and amino acids. This is a great choice if you’re looking to increase your protein (but not your calories or your weight specifically). 

Pea Protein Benefits

In addition to being a complete protein, pea protein is also a good source of iron and has more fiber than whey protein. A 20 mg scoop of pea protein powder contains 5 mg of iron.

Because this is a plant-based food, the iron in pea protein is less absorbable than iron from animal products. So, try pairing it with a food high in vitamin C (like an orange or some strawberries) to maximize iron absorption. 

You can learn more by reading our article on iron rich foods.

Pea protein contains branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) which play a major role in promoting muscle growth, heart health, and healthy blood flow. BCAA’s also play a role in boosting our immune system. 

Pea Protein & Allergies

And finally, pea protein is free of all top 8 allergens making it a great option for those with food allergies or food sensitivities. Those 8 allergens are:

  1. Milk
  2. Egg
  3. Wheat
  4. Soy
  5. Peanut
  6. Tree nut
  7. Fish
  8. Shellfish

It’s a great option for those that are gluten- or lactose-intolerant. 

Please note that pea protein might not be suitable for those allergic to soybeans and peanuts. 

Whey Protein vs Pea Protein: What’s the Difference?

There are a few differences between pea and whey protein. The main difference is the source of protein that the powder is coming from. If you remember, whey protein is made from dairy and pea protein is made from peas.

Whey protein has a bland and milky flavor. Pea protein has a raw and earthy flavor.

Differences

Whey Protein Nutrition

Most whey protein powders have minimal ingredients. A 28 gram scoop of whey protein powder provides 110 calories, 25 grams of protein, 121 milligrams of calcium, and minimal fat and carbohydrates. 

Nutrition information for 28g of whey protein powder:

Whey Protein Nutrition

Source: https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/1162804/nutrients  

Pea Protein Nutrition

Most pea protein powders are made from less than 5 ingredients. A 20 gram scoop of pea protein powder provides 80 calories, 25 grams of protein, 5 milligrams of iron, and minimal fat and carbohydrates.

Nutrition information for 20g of pea protein powder:

Pea Protein Nutrition

Source: https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/1162800/nutrients

Whey Protein vs Pea Protein – Which Should I Try?

Both whey and pea protein powders are great sources of protein. If you have allergies and can’t tolerate whey protein or don’t eat dairy, then pea protein is a great option. 

On the other hand, if you don’t have any allergies and are wanting a neutral-starting protein powder, then whey protein is a great option. 

We would also recommend trying both of them to see which one you like better. They both have very different textures and taste because of the source that they are coming from.

Pea protein and whey protein both blend well with other liquids. If you’re looking for a calorie boost, then try mixing them with milk. And don’t be shy about trying different flavors! 

When it comes to whey protein vs pea protein, both are good options. Choose the one that best meets your individual needs and personal preferences. 

Budget 

Are you on the hunt for a protein powder that fits your budget? 

Whey protein is widely used, easily found, and thus is cheaper when compared to pea protein. 

Pea protein may be harder to find on store shelves. Because this protein powder is harder to find, it will likely be more expensive than whey protein powder. 

Easy on the Tummy?

The answer to this question comes down to your individual tolerance of dairy. As we get older, our small intestine secretes less lactase (the enzyme that helps break down lactose). 

If we don’t have enough lactase, then it’s more difficult for our stomach to digest lactose. 

Some side effects of the dairy in whey protein can include:

  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Fatigue

Each whey protein powder may be different, so be sure to read the label to see which is best for you.

Since pea protein doesn’t contain lactose (the sugar found in milk), it should be much gentler on your tummy! 

How Do You Prepare It?

Protein powder should be mixed with other foods or drinks. Pick your favorites and add a scoop of protein powder to increase your protein, calories, and other nutrients!

Ideas for mixing protein powder with drinks:

  • Water
  • Milk
  • Shakes
  • Smoothies

Ideas for mixing protein powder with food:

  • Yogurt
  • Oatmeal
  • Ice cream
  • Baked goods: cookies, muffins, pancakes

If you have a favorite food, try mixing some protein powder with it. Just make sure that the food is a little moist (or calls for some liquid to be added while baking) to ensure that the powder is completely mixed. 

To kick up your snacks and meals a little further, try a flavored protein powder such as chocolate, vanilla, or a seasonal flavor. (Note: flavors vary depending on type of protein and brand chosen). 

Whey Protein Powder Options

And here are a few different whey protein powder options. Again, we all have our own brand and taste preferences. These are some ideas to get you started!

Whey Protein Powder Options

Pea Protein Powder Options

Here are a few different pea protein powder options. We all have our own brand and taste preferences. These are just some ideas to get you started! 

Pea Protein Powder Options

Note the size of the product prior to purchasing. Most pea protein powders seem to be sold in smaller batches where whey protein is sold in larger containers.

Conclusion

Whey protein and pea protein are very similar but do have a few differences to note: 

  1. Source
    1. Whey protein comes from milk (animals)
    2. Pea protein comes from peas (plants)
  2. Allergens
    1. Whey protein contains milk and may not be a good choice for those with lactose-intolerance (but the isolate form may be tolerable for most!) or those who are allergic to legumes 
    2. Pea protein is free of the top 8 allergens and is a great option for those who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet
    3. BOTH are good gluten-free choices 
  3. Nutrition
    1. Whey protein is great source of protein and has more calcium and potassium than pea protein, and may have fewer carbohydrates than pea protein depending on the brand and flavor
    2. Pea protein is a great source of protein and has more iron and fiber than whey protein

Check out our article on High Calorie Protein Powder for Weight Gain to learn more about protein powders! 

Resources:

  1. Bauer J, Biolo G, Cederholm T, et al. Evidence-based recommendations for optimal dietary protein intake in older people: a position paper from the PROT-AGE Study Group. Journal of The American Medical Directors Association. 2013;14(8):542-59. 
  2. Everything You Should Know About Pea Protein. Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/pea-protein/
  3. Chapter 15: Whey Processing. Dairy Processing Handbook. https://dairyprocessinghandbook.tetrapak.com/chapter/whey-processing

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