Pea Protein vs Whey: What are the differences?


“Protein” is a broad category on the modern supplement marketplace. Even if you’re only shopping for powdered forms of protein supplements, you’ll find dozens of different brands and formulations. Whether looking online or at a local retailer, two types of protein powder you’re likely to come across are pea and whey.


Pea protein contains no lactose and is absorbed more slowly than whey, which has a creamier texture and contains more branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). Like many issues related to health and nutrition, which kind of protein powder fits your needs depends on your individual profile and specific fitness goals.


In this post, we’ll compare whey and pea protein in-depth, talk about their effectiveness at helping you achieve different fitness goals, and guide you to decide which is best for you.


What's the difference between pea protein and whey protein?


Before judging whether whey or pea protein is best, you should know a bit about each type. The biggest difference between them is whey is a dairy product, while pea protein comes from yellow peas, a legume in the same family as beans and soy.

Whey protein


Whey is one of two kinds of proteins found in milk – the other is casein. Whey is a byproduct of the cheesemaking process. Since whey is a dairy product, it contains lactose, which can cause dietary issues for certain people. Whey protein powder is one of the most popular nutrition supplements on the market because it can be purchased in many places, digests quickly and has been shown to improve muscle synthesis when consumed after strength workouts1. It’s also available in many different flavors, typically chocolate, vanilla or strawberry. 


Pea protein


Pea protein is derived from yellow split peas. In the last decade, it’s become a popular choice for fitness enthusiasts looking for more natural supplements or those not made from animal products. Pea protein is a non-GMO, free of gluten and lactose, and typically doesn’t cause allergic reactions2. Pea protein is an especially good choice for athletes or active people living a vegan or dairy-free lifestyle, or people who are lactose intolerant or otherwise sensitive to dairy.


Is pea protein as effective as whey?


Whey protein powder has been a mainstay in the food and nutritional supplement markets for years – but pea protein is a fast-rising competitor. Research estimates the pea protein sector will grow almost 8% annually between now and 20273. Besides powder supplements, pea protein is also commonly used in meat alternatives that are beginning to pop up more frequently in supermarket shelves and freezers across the country.


But does the popularity of pea protein translate to results? Absolutely. In one 8-week study of CrossFit athletes in Nashville, it was found that “whey and pea proteins promote similar strength, performance, body composition and muscular adaptations.”4 Another new study suggests no major differences between pea protein or whey protein for recovery from post-eccentric exercise muscle damage5.


Can you build muscle with pea protein?


In other words, as long as you stay consistent with your daily macronutrient goals and exercise habits, you shouldn’t see much of a difference in the way pea and whey protein affect your body. 


Even if your goal is specifically to build muscle, pea protein is a fine alternative to whey protein powder. Research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine in 2015 examined biceps muscle thickness in athletes using pea protein and whey protein after a 12-week program of strength training. It found no difference in muscle thickness and strength between the group that used pea and the one that used whey protein6.  


So if they’re both equal, which one should you buy? It all depends on you. It’s always a good idea to give each one a shot and see which variety you prefer. Below, we’ll talk about situations where you might prefer one or the other.


Which is better, whey or pea protein?

Again, it’s ultimately a matter of preference. Both pea and whey protein powder can give you similar results. Here are a few factors to consider if you are comparing both of them head-to-head:

1. Some studies show pea protein is more satiating than whey or casein7. If you’re going to have protein before working out or first thing in the morning, you might try a pea protein blend so you can feel full longer.


2. Pea protein is great for vegans, lactose-sensitive and intolerant people, and those who prefer a natural supplement. Certain groups of people have trouble processing lactose in their digestive systems. Pea protein is a natural alternative.    


3. Ultimately, it’s about your choice. It comes down to whichever kind of protein powder you feel is best for your body, tastes, and dietary preferences. If your macros and exercise habits stay the same, you won’t experience much of a difference in body composition and strength. 


Keep in mind that exact formulations and ingredients in both whey and protein powder can vary significantly from brand to brand. For example, some manufacturers may use extremely fine whey filtration methods to reduce the amount of lactose in the final product. 


Choosing the best whey or pea protein powder


You shouldn’t need to adjust your lifestyle, diet or fitness habits around your supplements. Once you’ve done the research comparing pea protein and whey protein, you can always experiment with both kinds until you settle into a routine that makes you feel good and gets you closer to the fitness goals that work for you – and no one else.


1 - "The response of muscle protein synthesis following whole ...." https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27511985/. Accessed 22 Jul. 2020.

2 - "Pea protein isolates: Structure, extraction, and functionality ...." https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/87559129.2016.1242135. Accessed 22 Jul. 2020.

3 - "Pea Protein Market Size & Share - Grand View Research, Inc.." https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/pea-protein-market. Accessed 22 Jul. 2020.

4 -  "The Effects of Whey vs. Pea Protein on Physical ... - NCBI." 4 Jan. 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6358922/. Accessed 22 Jul. 2020.

5 - "Effects of Whey and Pea Protein ... - Preprints.org." 16 Jul. 2020, https://www.preprints.org/manuscript/202007.0343/v1. Accessed 22 Jul. 2020.

6 - "Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness ...." 21 Jan. 2015, https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-014-0064-5. Accessed 22 Jul. 2020.

7 - "Effect of different protein sources on satiation and short-term ...." 23 Dec. 2011, https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2891-10-139. Accessed 22 Jul. 2020.