Pea Protein vs Whey Protein

Which Is Better for Bodybuilding According to a Nutrition Coach

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTUpdated: April 3, 2024

Whey protein is the main ingredient in the vast majority of protein supplements. But more people are choosing plant-based options like pea protein for health and environmental reasons.

So, you might be wondering how pea protein measures up to whey. In this guide, I’ll compare pea protein vs whey to help you determine which is best for your health and fitness goals.

Pea Protein vs Whey Protein

Why Use Protein Powders?

Getting enough protein in your diet is essential for muscle growth, weight management, and better overall health. But it’s not always easy to eat enough protein, especially if you’re on a low-calorie or plant-based diet.

Protein powder supplements are a convenient way to increase your protein intake without adding too many extra calories or fat. Different types of protein powders are available, including plant-based and animal-based proteins.

Difference Between Pea Protein vs Whey Protein

The biggest difference between pea protein and whey protein is what they’re made of. Pea protein is made from yellow split peas, while whey protein is made from cow’s milk.

Other key differences include how the protein is made. Pea protein extraction involves an acid hydrolysis process, while whey protein is made by skimming and filtering milk.

Pea Protein vs Whey Comparison

In this section, we’ll look closer at the differences between pea protein and whey protein regarding nutrition, protein content, effectiveness, cost, and more.

Nutrition Facts

Pea protein and whey protein are very similar in terms of macronutrients. To illustrate, I compared the nutrition facts labels for pea protein and whey protein from the same brand, Naked Nutrition.

The table below shows that this brand of pea protein has more grams of protein with slightly less fat and carbohydrates. The calorie count is exactly the same as the equivalent whey protein powder.

Table 1. Macros & Calories per 30 gram Serving

  Whey Protein Pea Protein
Calories 120 120
Fat 2 g 0.5 g
Carbs 3 g 2 g
Protein 25 g 27 g

The graphic below shows a more detailed comparison of all the nutrients in pea protein vs whey based on supplement facts labels from Naked Nutrition.

pea protein vs whey nutrition facts

Complete Protein

A complete protein is a food that contains all 9 essential amino acids in the amounts necessary in the human diet. Plant-based supplements are not complete proteins, which is the biggest argument against them.

While plant proteins are generally less complete than animal proteins, peas are closer than other popular plant options like soy or hemp. In fact, a study by Maastricht University shows that peas protein’s essential amino acid content is comparable to casein1, another dairy product.

In addition, combining multiple plant-based proteins often results in a more complete protein. Therefore, it’s not necessary to consume only complete proteins. What’s more important is that you get enough amino acids within 24 hours.

pea protein vs other proteins

Adapted from Gorissen et. al.

Amino Acid Profile

In addition to the total amount of amino acids, their ratio relative to each other is also a critical factor in protein synthesis. First, let’s compare the overall amino acid profile for pea protein and whey protein.

The chart below illustrates which type of protein has more a a certain amino acid. Bars to the left indicate more in whey protein, while bars to the right indicate more in pea protein.

Interestingly, pea protein has significantly more arginine, which is an amino acid found in pre-workout supplements that helps with blood flow.

pea protein vs whey amino acid profile chart

This chart only tells part of the story. To explore the topic further, we need to compare the amounts of the specific amino acids that help build muscle.

The table below compares the essential amino acid profile between pea protein and whey protein.

Table 2. Essential Amino Acids per 30 gram Serving

  Whey Protein Pea Protein
Isoleucine* 1,491 mg 1,458 mg
Leucine* 2,982 mg 2, 747 mg
Valine* 1,395 mg 1,485 mg
Histidine 444 mg 453 mg
Lysine 2,310 mg 2,411 mg
Methionine 627 mg 583 mg
Phenylalanine 816 mg 797 mg
Threonine 2,127 mg 1,767 mg
Tryptophan 462 mg 425 mg

*Branched-Chain Amino Acids

BCAAs (Branched-Chain Amino Acids)

Leucine, isoleucine, and valine are the three branched-chain amino acids. They’re considered the most critical amino acids for muscle mass, with leucine being the top dog.

As a result, you should get twice as much leucine as isoleucine and valine. A good protein supplement contains at least 2.7 grams (2,700 mg) of leucine.

While pea protein has less leucine than whey, it still has the recommended 2.7 grams per serving with the recommended 2:1:1 ratio.

Therefore, pea protein is comparable to whey as a source of BCAAs.

EAAs (Essential Amino Acids)

Studies show that the presence of the other EAAs amplifies the muscle-building benefits of BCAAs2. So, getting enough is critical for people who partake in resistance training.

In this example, whey has 12.6 grams of EAAs compared to 12.1 grams for peas. Although whey has slightly more EAAs, the recommended amount per serving is 10 grams.

Therefore, pea protein is an adequate source of EAAs.

Based on its amino acid profile, pea protein should be as effective as whey. But how does this translate to actual muscle gain?

Read More: EAAs vs BCAAs for Bodybuilding

Muscle Building

A study published by the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition concluded that there is no statistical difference between pea and whey protein in terms of muscle size and strength gains3.

This evidence appears to confirm that getting enough protein and essential amino acids is more important than the source from which it came.

Other Factors

  • Environmental: It’s widely believed that plant foods have a lower environmental impact than animal products, but a 2019 study showed that this is not always the case5. Based on their criteria, whey protein has less effect on global warming compared to soy and pea protein.
  • Lactose Intolerance: Dairy products contain a sugar called lactose, which can cause stomach discomfort in some people. However, the lactose content in whey protein isolate is low enough that it should pose little risk for lactose-intolerant individuals.
  • Taste: Plant-based protein powders often have a chalky texture and grassy taste. By comparison, whey protein powders generally mix more easily and have a creamier taste.
  • Cost: Pea protein costs about 40% less than whey protein on average. The table below shows a more detailed cost comparison.

Table 3. Protein Supplement Cost Comparison

  Whey Protein Pea Protein
Avg Cost/lb $13.77 $8.81
Avg Cost/Serving $1.03 $0.59

Based on averages of five top-selling brands from Amazon.

Which Is Better, Pea Protein vs Whey

Pea protein and whey protein are very similar from a nutritional value standpoint, and studies suggest that both types of protein are comparable for building muscle. So, which one you choose comes down to dietary restrictions or personal preference.

If you’re following a vegan diet or have severe dairy allergies, then pea protein could be an ideal choice to meet your dietary needs. It’s also generally less expensive.

However, whey protein is the better option if you want a proven supplement for muscle recovery, and taste/texture is important to you.

When to Use Pea Protein

  • If you’re on a vegan diet
  • If you have a severe dairy allergy
  • If you want an affordable alternative to whey

When to Use Whey Protein

  • If you don’t have dietary restrictions for dairy or animal products
  • If you prefer protein powder with a creamier texture

Best Pea Protein Powder

I spent several hours researching plant-based protein and decided to try Naked pea protein powder. I like that it’s minimally processed and has only one ingredient—peas. In addition, it’s third-party tested for heavy metals.

One drawback is that it’s pretty chalky, which could be a deal-breaker for some. But I mixed mine with powdered peanut butter to add some flavor and boost the amino acid content.

Click here to visit Naked Nutrition to learn more about it.

Naked Pea Protein

Best Whey Protein Powder

I’ve always got at least one tub of whey protein powder in my supplement cabinet to use in shakes or as an ingredient in recipes. My go-to brand is Nutricost because they use high-quality ingredients with minimal additives at a reasonable price.

Nutricost has several flavors of whey protein isolate and concentrate. I typically buy whey protein concentrate because it costs less per gram of protein.

Read More: Comparison of Whey Protein Isolate and Concentrate

Nutricost Whey Protein

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