Let’s start with what’s clear about protein: It’s an essential macronutrient—and consuming the optimal amount is important for supporting muscle protein synthesis and foundational health. While taking a “food first” approach is ideal—we should aim to meet the majority of our nutrient needs through a diversified, well-balanced diet of protein, carbs, and healthy fats—it’s not always realistic. While many people meet their protein intake requirements through what they eat, life can (and often does) get in the way. One great way to ensure you get enough on the regular can be to supplement with a quality protein powder.*
That’s where things get a little trickier. With countless formulas on the market, there’s a lot to consider (protein sources, amino acid profiles, varying nutrient levels, dietary restrictions) before making the commitment. Here, we get into the nuts and bolts of how two popular options—pea protein powder and whey protein powder—stack up against each other. Let’s get after it!
Pea vs. Whey Protein: So, What’s Actually the Difference?
First things first: Pea protein is plant-based, while whey protein comes from dairy. The biggest difference between whey protein and pea protein comes down to the source itself. Whey protein, which is often sold in powder form and includes whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate), is a protein made from cow’s milk (casein is also derived from cow’s milk)—and many whey protein powders contain dairy or lactose, making them unsuitable for those who identify as vegan or lactose intolerant (or simply want to avoid animal products and animal byproducts). Pea protein, on the other hand, is a plant protein made from legumes—often split peas—so it’s a great choice for vegan eaters and people who prefer a more plant-based diet. (Bonus: Our Essential Protein is made from regeneratively-farmed, U.S.-grown peas, courtesy of our supplier, PURIS.(9)
Gluten-Free? Opt for Pea
Pea protein powder can commonly be found without major food allergens, including gluten. This means people with food sensitivities, food allergies, and/or gluten intolerances may find the plant-based protein powder to be a better fit. (Along with gluten and wheat, pea protein can also be found without other common allergens, such as milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, fish, and shellfish. That said, each brand formulates their supplements differently, so it’s always important to do some due diligence by carefully reading the labels.)* (1)
While whey protein itself is naturally gluten-free, whey protein powders can end up containing added gluten via cross-contamination from additives like flavorings, stabilizers, and preservatives. This is where the importance of third-party testing and independent certification comes in when considering any supplement, protein-related or not. (As with all of our products, Essential Protein is third-party tested (for heavy metal and microbes), as well as Made Traceable™—the supplier, final location of manufacturing, and purpose of each labeled ingredient is on Ritual.com.)
Whey Wins on Calcium and Potassium—Pea has the Edge on Fiber and Iron
Because it’s derived from milk, whey protein contains higher levels of calcium and potassium. Pea protein comes from peas, which are a richer source of iron and fiber. The latter is especially notable, considering the vast majority of Americans aren’t commonly consuming the recommended dietary fiber intake, despite believing otherwise. Incorporating more plant-based protein is a fantastic way to help mitigate the fiber consumption gap. After all, if there’s one thing researchers have learned from Blue Zones—longevity hotspots where people are more likely to live to the age of 100 than people in other areas—it’s that shifting our diet to include more plants can only be a good thing. (In fact, Blue Zone researchers have found that whole foods—and beans in particular—are a foundational part of many centenarian diets.) (2, 3, 4, 5)
Both Pea and Whey Proteins Contain All Nine Essential Amino Acids
When it comes to choosing between different types of protein, you don’t just want to look at the grams of protein present—to maximize the benefits (like supporting building muscle), it’s equally important to assess the quality, too. A high-quality protein supplement contains more than just a high protein content; it takes into account ideally providing a complete amino acid profile.* (7, 8)
A quick crash course: Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Nine of said amino acids are considered essential (hence “essential amino acids”), which means the body can’t make them on its own—the only way you can get them is through our diet. (FYI: whether or not you’re into post-workout replenishment, protein shakes can be a great way to support protein intake—especially if struggling with consuming food sources. Check out our in-house, R.D.-created guide to building a nutritionally-balanced smoothie.)* (7)
When a food contains all nine of these essential amino acids in sufficient amounts, it’s considered a complete protein. Whey protein falls under this category. Pea protein also contains all nine essential amino acids, but it’s too low in one of them—methionine—to be considered a complete protein on its own. This can present a challenge for vegans seeking a protein powder that delivers a complete amino acid profile without the need for additional supplementation. That’s why we added L-Methionine to our Essential Protein: to provide a complete amino acid profile.* (7)
Pea Protein = Planet-Friendly
Pea protein might be a more sustainable option than whey protein since growing peas tends to have much less of an environmental impact than raising cattle—and studies show that a greater consumption of animal products tends to translate to a greater impact on the environment. Translation: If you’re looking for ways to walk a little lighter and ease your carbon footprint, dietary change matters—and adjusting your plate to emphasize more plant foods may help play an important role in conserving environmental resources. Another important step? Opting for brands that are willing to lift the curtain on how their suppliers grow and source their ingredients. (6)
Is Pea or Whey Protein Right for Me?
Both whey protein and pea protein are fantastic, mild-tasting sources of protein to help build muscle, so choosing the best one really comes down to individual preferences. If you’re looking for a protein source that’s vegan and/or kinder to the planet, pea protein may come out on top.*