The best way to find the right protein powder for you? Stop paying attention to the marketing promises on the label.
"When finding the best protein powder, it's important to not look where marketers want," says Dr. Abbie Smith-Ryan, associate professor and co-director of the Human Performance Center at the University of North Carolina.
Protein is one of the best and safest supplements you can take, but you want to make sure you're fueling with high-quality protein powder. After all, there are thousands of different protein options, each from different sources and offering different quantities of protein per serving.
In this article, we will discuss the pros and cons of whey protein and plant protein, but first we’ll dive into what makes a high-quality protein.
What Makes A Protein 'High-Quality'?
In general, a high-quality protein depends on four things:
- Amount of protein per serving (how many grams)
- Protein digestibility (i.e. “Can your body break it down?”)
- Amino acid content (i.e. “What’s really inside the protein?”)
- Amino acid availability (i.e. “Will your body be able to use those amino acids the way you want it to?”)
Every source of protein has a different amino acid profile. These amino acids — or how the protein is broken down when you digest it — determine if a protein will help with muscle gain, fat loss, and recovery...or if you’re just adding more calories to your diet.
For example, collagen. It's a buzzy type of protein, but what most people don't know is that it's not a complete protein. It's not entirely a question of is collagen good or bad, because it can be if you’re hoping for healthier skin, joint health benefits, and potentially some help fighting inflammation, but to boost your workout or lead to faster fat loss, there are better protein options.
That's why you need to carefully look at the label before you buy a whey or plant protein. We want you to tap into the power of protein, and to do so, you need to make sure you're getting the right amino acids.
What is the Difference Between Whey and Plant Protein?
When wondering what's the difference between whey and plant protein, everything starts with sourcing and amino acids, and -- more specifically -- the essential amino acids (EAAs).
From a sourcing standpoint, whey protein comes from dairy. So if you have dairy allergies or follow a vegan lifestyle, this isn't the best option. Otherwise, it's a completely healthy protein source. On the other hand, plant protein comes from a variety of high-protein plants such as peas, soy, hemp, lentils, pumpkin, chickpeas, or brown rice.
Here's why the whey vs. plant protein conversation is important. Your body can produce many amino acids on its own. But, there are 9 it can’t make. These are the “essential amino acids,” and you must get them through your diet. Any food that contains all nine essential amino acids is known as a “complete protein.”
Whey protein is the most popular protein powder because it provides all of the essential amino acids. But, you need to be smart about what whey protein you select because some whey proteins could have less protein than it appears.
More importantly, if you’re looking for a plant protein powder, very few plant sources are complete proteins.
Which is Better for Muscle Gain?
Need help building muscle? Protein is essential, which is why supplementing with protein powders is a common practice. But, it's what's in the protein that helps your body build muscle (or even help with fat loss). In terms of muscle gain, your body will break down protein into amino acids, and the amino acids needed for muscle gain (such as BCAAs) will then support growth.
But, here's the catch: if you don't have all of the essential amino acids, your body might not be able to put the amino acids to use and help build muscle. So while both whey and plant protein can help you build muscle, if you choose a protein that doesn't have all the essential amino acids, then you won't see results. Here’s what you need to know to get the best whey or plant protein for your body.
Whey Protein Powder
As we mentioned, whey protein is the most popular protein powder supplement and comes from milk. During the process of making cheese, milk is coagulated, which causes it to split into solids and liquids. This process is known as ‘separating the curds and the wheys and the ‘wheys’ (the liquid part) is literally whey protein.
Whey is a complete amino acid source with moderate to high levels of most essential amino acids. Whey is low in calories and high in protein. In other words, whey helps your muscles, supports fat loss, and enhances recovery.
If you’re looking for a whey protein, you can buy concentrates or isolates, but — from a quality perspective — your best bet might be sticking with whey protein isolates instead of concentrates. That's because whey protein isolate is guaranteed to be at least 90% pure protein, whereas concentrates can be anywhere from 30-80% pure protein. Also, if you're sensitive to lactose, there's more in concentrate, whereas isolate has less than 1% lactose.
If you want to see how Ladder upgraded the traditional whey protein, click here to see all the benefits of the highest-quality whey and why Ladder only uses whey protein isolate.
Plant Protein Powder
When you go on a vegetarian diet, it’s hard to find many foods that are complete proteins. That’s because many vegetarian protein sources have a lot of crossover macronutrients, which means you don’t get much “pure protein.” For example, a grain like quinoa will be high in protein but also high in carbs, or nuts will have protein but also a lot of fat. Here's what to look for in a vegan plant protein powder.
Many plant-based protein sources don’t have all the essential amino acids. Rice protein or brown rice protein is the most commonly used plant protein source, but it's far from a complete protein (and it can cause stomach issues).
And, remember, if you don’t have all the essential amino acids, then you can’t put those aminos to use for building muscle or supporting fat loss and recovery.
There are workarounds, such as mixing different sources of plant-based protein together in order to get a complete set of amino acids. A common example is rice and beans. Together, those two foods provide a complete protein source. But that’s not convenient, and the beans approach isn’t a good fit for everyone’s stomach.
Plant-based protein offers a low-calorie solution like whey, but unlike whey proteins, many plant proteins are low in various essential amino acids, especially leucine (which is one of the BCAAs). This is important because leucine plays a critical role in turning on muscle protein synthesis (MPS), which is key for building and repairing muscle tissue.
The big exceptions are soy and select sources of pea protein (like pea protein isolate). These vegan sources contain all of the essential amino acids you require, and — in the case of pea protein — the amino acids are very similar to whey. In other words, if you are looking for a plant-based protein source, you’ll want to invest in a pea protein (or pea protein blend).
Vegan Protein Powder Comparison: Why Pea and Not Soy?
For starters, pea protein performs really well in research. It’s comparable to whey protein in terms of its leucine content. And there are studies where people perform just as well in terms of body competition change (ratio of muscle to body fat) and performance when they eat pea protein after a workout, compared to whey.
Additionally, there’s some research showing that soy protein, in large amounts, could potentially affect sperm quality and quantity in men.
There’s other research indicating that soy could potentially affect estrogen levels, but that’s less consistent. Some studies show it, some don’t.
Women probably don’t have to worry about this stuff because even if estrogen changes, you’d still be within normal, acceptable ranges compared to how much estrogen you’re normally producing.
The downside of most plant proteins is that they tend to have an earthy, gritty flavor. If you are accustomed to whey protein, which is very thin, this will be different than what you are used to.
However, Ladder sourced a higher-grade of pea protein and mixed with organic pumpkin protein to help the flavor profile, added natural cocoa and no artificial sweeteners, and created a plant protein that outperformed all other proteins in the category during blind-taste-test focus groups.
To experience the Ladder difference, click here to learn more about our high-grade Plant Protein.