Uncovering the truth, one protein shake at a time…
No whey José
Lately more and more people are swapping their steak knives for salad forks, embracing plant-based diets for a variety of reasons, ranging from health benefits to treatment of animals & concern for our earth’s environment.
This shift has sparked a growing interest in plant-based protein supplements, and business is booming. But whey powder, the big daddy or big mama of all protein powders, has a little debate brewing about its place at the plant-based table.
Does it belong or not?
Hence this article of mine that dives right into the murky mix & sorts it out. I’ll share as much useful info I have to help you make sense of it all, starting with a clear answer to that ongoing question that won’t go away…
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science and medical resources, clinical studies, & nutritional data used in this article.
So is whey protein vegan or not?
The short answer is no, it isn’t. It comes from the milk of a cow & that’s all there is to it, as far as pure veganism is concerned.
But don’t close the page just yet because there’s a whole world of context and helpful nutrition truth I’d like to share with you.
I’ll also be comparing high quality whey with high quality vegan protein powders, so you can see for yourself what the tradeoffs are. My goal is that you’ll be better equipped to make a choice that aligns just right with your diet, values, and health goals.
Understanding Whey Protein
Whey protein, a byproduct of cheese production, is a wonder in its own right. Picture this – you open a container of yogurt, and that clear liquid at the top, that’s raw whey.
Transforming that into the powdery supplement found in health stores involves intricate filtration, purification, and drying procedures.
It sells by the billions every year, but what makes it such a star?
There’s a simple enough answer: the quality of its protein & its positive effect in our bodies. Let’s peek into the nutrient profiles of two popular whey protein powders to see why that is so.
Opportuniteas Grass-Fed Whey Isolate
I chose this for our example because it’s one of the cleanest, most meticulously made whey products on the planet.
This high-quality whey protein isolate comes from pampered, grass-fed cows and undergoes small-batch, cold micro-filtration. Almost completely free of lactose, Opportuniteas Whey Isolate is a friend to those with lactose intolerance.
Two ingredients is all — whey protein isolate & sunflower lecithin (an emulsifier to help it mix better).
Its numbers per 30g serving are very impressive whether you’re a nutrition fan or a protein buff:
- 120 calories,
- zero fat,
- just 10mg of cholesterol,
- zero carbs,
- zero sugar,
- and the reason we all bought it, a whopping 28g of protein.
This means the powder is 93% protein by weight, which is a number very tough to beat, out in the massive whey powder market.
It’s also chock-full of essential amino acids (16g) and branched-chain amino acids (7.9g), with 33.5g of amino acids total.
ON Gold Standard
Next, meet Optimum Nutrition’s Gold Standard Whey, the world’s bestselling protein several years running. I picked it as a good contrast nutritionally to Opportuniteas’ whey, plus its so popular it has its own section in the Costco I go to; can’t miss it.
This one’s a blend of whey protein isolate, concentrate, and hydrolyzed whey protein, my nutrition numbers below are for the Double Rich Chocolate I drank for 15+ years.
It gives you:
- 120 calories,
- 1.5g of fat,
- 55mg of cholesterol,
- 3g of carbs,
- 1g of sugar,
- the artificial sweeteners sucralose & “Ace-K”,
- and 24g of protein per 30.4g serving.
So it’s 79% protein by weight, with 11g of essential amino acids, 5.5g of BCAAs, and a total of 23g of amino acids.
I mention the amino acids profile of both of these whey protein powders because aminos are really important to our bodies.
Plus we’ll be comparing the amino acids in the vegan powders we’re checking out to these, so you can get a feel why many physically active vegans take BCAA supplements.
Veganism is more than what’s on the plate.
It’s a way of life shaped by the choice to steer clear of anything that exploits animals, and this choice might come from different places for different people.
Some might be driven by their love for animals, some by their concerns for the environment, and others by a desire to enhance their health.
Now talking about the health aspect for a bit, a well-thought-out plant-based diet can be quite the powerhouse.
We’re talking about a meal plan filled with fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. This type of diet is typically high in fiber, packed with antioxidants, and low in saturated fat.
It might help in maintaining a healthy weight, taking care of your heart, and could even cut down the risk of certain health issues.
Whey Protein & Veganism: A Dispute
There’s a thread that connects whey protein & the dairy industry, and it’s impossible to miss: “Protein Powder, Meet the Cow That Made You”.
Whey is a by-product of cheese production, so it’s obviously animal-derived. This simple fact puts it in a tricky spot when it comes to veganism.
Some might argue that since whey is a leftover product, it should be okay for vegans, or at the least, vegetarians.
(But the word “vegetarian” has so many separate congregations with different beliefs, it reminds me of a big worldwide religion that has had the same issue going on for centuries.)
For most vegans however, the connection to dairy farming and its impact on animals swiftly & completely makes whey protein incompatible with a vegan lifestyle.
Plant-based Protein Sources
OK, time to shine the spotlight on the alternatives to whey protein.
Bottom line: there are a bunch of plant-based proteins out there that are a great fit for a vegan diet.
Pea protein is #1
In the world of vegan protein alternatives, pea protein reigns supreme, at least in my humble opinion.
I base that on the simple fact that it’s the main ingredient in many popular vegan protein powders, due to its high protein content and favorable, complete, amino acid profile.
And furthermore (as I’ll riff on in a bit), pea protein powder by itself is the best-selling ‘single ingredient’ plant-based powder, by a mile too.
I’ll be going over a handful of popular vegan powders in the next couple of sections. Two with ‘protein blends’ made up of pea protein + various other sources, and the two ‘pea-only’ protein powders that I buy.
Rice, chia, & others
Following behind pea protein are rice protein and chia seed protein, not as soloists like pea, but as accompaniment in many of the ‘protein blend’ combo brands you’ll come across, including those made by the giants of vegan powders — Garden of Life & Orgain.
There are other seed & grain proteins that are used by many brands, but again, just as additions. They don’t deliver enough protein on their own for any powder company to try & sell it by itself.
Soy & hemp
You’ll also find soy and hemp protein out there. But hemp isn’t as cheap as pea protein, and even worse it doesn’t have anywhere near the same amino acid oomph that pea does.
Soy used to be more popular, but has really fallen off the charts. Its gotten a lot of bad press in the past decade or two, though most of it is unjustified internet meme-level rumor stuff.
(Not many people hit the science research library before blasting on the socials, apparently.)
Comparing Whey & Vegan Protein Powders
We dealt with the ethical issues of whey already, this isn’t repeating that stuff. I want to zero in on the nutrition comparison between a top quality whey and a couple of very popular, high-quality vegan powders.
It’ll be the Opportuniteas Grass-Fed Whey Isolate we looked at earlier vs. Vega Sport Premium Protein and Orgain Organic Protein.
This is good stuff for us to know; it gives us a solid idea of where these plant protein powders stack up against the best of the whey bunch.
Opportuniteas Grass-Fed Whey Isolate keeps it simple with just two ingredients: whey protein isolate and sunflower lecithin.
It reflects the ‘less is more’ philosophy, focusing on providing a clean, high-quality source of protein.
In contrast, both Vega Sport Premium Protein and Orgain Organic Protein take a complex approach, combining multiple plant-based proteins to create their blends.
Vega Sport Premium’s blend includes pea as the main protein attraction, followed by pumpkin seed, sunflower seed, and alfalfa proteins.
These plus all of its remaining ingredients build you a rich nutrient profile, offering antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that go beyond protein.
Orgain Organic uses a blend of pea, brown rice, and chia seed proteins, as well as a fleet of other plants.
It too provides not only protein but also fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, confirming that vegan protein powders can serve multiple nutritional needs as well.
Leading the charge is Opportuniteas, which packs a punch with 28g of protein in every 30g serving. As mentioned, that translates to about 93% protein content, an outstanding ratio.
Vega Sport follows next with 30g of protein in a much larger 44g serving. This equals roughly 68% protein content, telling us that we’re getting a decent amount of ‘other’ stuff.
Not a problem since it’s vegan, compared to the ‘other’, artificial who-knows-what stuff found in many whey powders.
Orgain Organic delivers 21g of protein in a 46g serving. This equates to approximately 46% protein content, less compared to its competitors but again, you’re getting veggie carbs, fiber, & a little ‘good’ fat too.
Carbs and Fat Content
Next, let’s talk about carbs and fat, two essential components of our diet…as long as their sources are clean, we good.
If all you want to pay for is protein, you’re looking at the best bang for the buck around with each 30g serving of Opportuniteas’ powder — it contains zero grams of both carbohydrates and fat.
It’s perfect if you’re aiming for a high protein diet, or are trying to keep your carb number low.
Vega Sport has 6g of carbs per 44g serving, but when we subtract the 2g of dietary fiber, we end up with 4g of net carbs. As for fat, there are 4g in each serving.
This makes Vega Sport a balanced option, offering a good (low) measure of carbs and fat along with the protein.
Orgain Organic’s powder has the highest carb content of the three, with 15g in a 46g serving. Subtracting the 2g of dietary fiber, we’re left with 13g of net carbs. The fat content is the same as Vega Sport at 4g.
Amino Acid Comparison
Amino acids are where the best wheys can’t be matched by the best vegan powders. Not a problem, but a fact.
You’ll see below that even with serving sizes that are more than 50% larger than Opportuniteas, neither plant-based protein powder can match the top shelf Opportuniteas, in terms of Essential Amino Acids (EAA) and Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAA).
If you don’t know much about them, in a nutshell these types of amino acids are crucial components that help build and repair muscle tissue, among dozens & dozens of purposes they have in our bodies.
- Opportuniteas – 16g of EAAs and 7.9g of BCAAs per serving. These are impressive numbers, period.
- Vega Sport – 12.2g of EAAs and 5.6g of BCAAs per serving.
- Orgain Organic – 9g of EAAs and 3g of BCAAs per serving.
Vegan vs. whey protein powders (just nutritionally)
As we wrap up our comparison of these protein powders, it’s worth noting the nutritional differences between whey and vegan proteins.
Whey protein powders like Opportuniteas are derived from milk and often have a high protein concentration, we saw that even the top vegan powders have lower protein content per powder weight.
But that’s no downside, really. Products designed like these are a valuable source of protein for those following a vegan diet, where traditional animal-based proteins are not an option.
The numbers — mainly the amino acids — may be slightly lower in comparison to whey protein, but with careful planning and mindful eating, you can meet your protein needs without any trouble.
Meeting Vegan Protein Needs
Making the switch to a vegan lifestyle can be rewarding for a variety of reasons, but it also comes with its own set of challenges.
A common challenge is simply meeting your daily protein needs, especially if you are physically active or if you’re aiming for specific fitness goals.
Working out, lifting weights, intense cardio, competitive athletics…we have to make sure we’re getting enough protein to satisfy our body’s needs to build muscle, repair muscle, help us recover, all that.
Protein Requirements depend on individual needs
Protein needs can differ depending on factors like age, gender, activity level, and overall health.
If you’re physically active, looking to build or maintain muscle, your protein needs will be higher than people who just sit around. Consider a daily target range of 0.64 to 0.91 grams of protein per pound of your current body weight.
(This stuff’s approximate by the way, but it’s good enough to use if you’re on a consistent workout schedule that involves intense athletics or any kind of strength training.)
I did some quick math and here are the ‘grams of protein per day’ ranges for a few different body weights. This’ll give you an idea of your own daily protein needs.
Again, this amount of daily protein is for physically active workout regulars, like weightlifters & athletes.
The 3 columns are person’s weight, then the low & high ends of grams per day:
For those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, protein requirements are also higher to support baby’s growth. Consult a healthcare professional to help pinpoint your specific protein needs.
Ensuring Adequate Protein Intake on a Vegan Diet
- Diversify Your Diet: Include a variety of plant-based proteins like lentils, quinoa, tofu, and legumes.
- Pair Foods Wisely: Combinations like grains with legumes provide a complete protein source.
- Use Supplements: Quality vegan protein powders like the ones we’ve talked about can boost your protein intake.
- Check Labels: Make sure your protein sources are nutrient-rich and free of added sugars or unhealthy fats.
- Consult a Dietitian: If you have doubts about meeting your protein needs, a dietitian can offer personalized advice.
Vegan protein powder “Mythconceptions”
Roaming the world of protein powders can feel like navigating a maze of misconceptions, particularly when it comes to plant-based and whey proteins.
Let’s take a few moments to shine a light on these myths.
“Vegan powders are incomplete proteins”
A common belief is that plant-based proteins don’t match up to their animal-based counterparts.
The basis for this belief often comes from the fact that some plant proteins are considered ‘incomplete’ as they lack one or more essential amino acids.
“Vegan powders don’t have enough protein”
Additionally, some people think plant-based proteins can’t provide enough protein. That’s not true, you just need to pick a solid, high-quality product.
For instance, Vega Sport who we just looked at has 30g of protein in every serving; that’ll work. The serving size is bigger than 30g of whey would be, but that’s because you’re chugging down vegetables, grains, & seeds.
And if you compare the grams of BCAA & EAA of two protein powders we looked at earlier — Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Whey & Vega Sport Premium — you’ll see that Vega hold its own up against the #1-selling whey powder in the world.
Check out plain pea protein powder
I am super picky about my protein sources, and that includes my plant-based powders.
And I’m telling ya, a good pea powder (all by itself) can go toe to toe with most of the mass-produced whey protein powders out there, protein-wise & amino acids-wise.
Repeating something I said earlier, pea protein is the top-selling ” single ingredient” plant-based protein powder, well ahead of hemp, soy, rice, chia, whatever.
I drink both a cheap “buy it in bulk” pea powder & a small-batch, slowly processed, super-clean pea protein too.
They’re both unflavored because that’s how I roll, but I understand most people aren’t fans of unflavored vegan protein powders.
But I only drink them in ‘Vitamix’ smoothies that can have all sorts of tasty things: bananas, berries, pineapple, seasonal fruit, almond butter, etc.
Naked Pea from Naked Nutrition is the more budget-friendly one and uses non-organic American peas.
My other vegan fave is Folona’s SOLO Organic Pea Protein Powder. It’s slightly pricier (12¢ more per oz.) than Naked Pea, but its got high-quality grown organic Canadian peas that are carefully processed to preserve every last nutrient for you.
Both of these provide you with a strong plant-based amino acid profile.
Choosing a Vegan Protein Powder
Your choice of vegan protein powder depends on a mix of factors, the most important being the ones that are a perfect fit for you.
Key Aspects for Your Vegan Protein Pick
- Your dietary needs: Knowing your daily protein target is important. Leading an active lifestyle might push you toward a high-protein choice like Vega Sport or one of the ‘pea-only’ powders like I drink.
- Nutritional profile: Watching your carbs and fats? Again, a plain pea protein or a high-protein/low carb powder like Vega Sport could be a good fit. If that’s not a concern, Orgain Organic’s balanced nutrients might suit you.
- Taste and texture: We want our shakes to taste good & to feel good going down. Despite all my fixation on the nutrition side of things, most people focus on taste & texture. I know, because I’ve read or heard thousands of reviews by protein powder buyers in my career.
Look for third-party certification & ingredient transparency
Trust in your supplement is essential. Anything we swallow’s going to have an impact on our bodies, may as well be a good one.
That’s why third-party certification and ingredient transparency matter. They show a company’s faith in its products, reflecting a dedication to quality and safety.
So I say look for a brand that makes it a point to show you what lengths they go to in order to earn your trust in what they’re selling you.
Third-party certification provides assurance of tested purity and potency. Ingredient transparency lets you know exactly what you’re consuming, enabling you to avoid unwanted allergens or ingredients.
Whey protein & allergens
Turning our attention to whey protein, it’s worth noting that since it’s derived from milk, it may not be the best choice for those with dairy allergies, even the clean, lean, & mean one offered by Opportuniteas.
But let me clarify one thing: not all whey proteins are created equal when it comes to digestibility.
Opportuniteas uses whey protein isolate, which contains less than 1% lactose. This makes it a much more tolerable option for anyone with lactose sensitivity.
But for all the millions of tubs of whey proteins that aren’t isolates or are less meticulously processed (which make up a big chunk of the whey market), people with dairy product issues or sensitive digestive systems may get the tummy blues.
Here are answers to a few of the commonly asked questions regarding vegan protein powder.
Are vegan protein powders suitable for weight loss or muscle building?
Yes, vegan protein powders can be used as part of a balanced diet for both weight loss and muscle building.
They provide a concentrated source of protein, which can help you feel fuller for longer (aiding in weight loss) and support muscle recovery and growth after exercise.
Can vegan protein powders cause digestive issues?
Some people may experience bloating or gas when they first start using vegan protein powders, especially those based on beans, legumes, or certain seeds.
This may or may not be temporary, but you can fix it by either switching brands or starting with a smaller serving & gradually increasing your dose.
Are vegan protein powders safe for children and pregnant women?
In general, vegan protein powders can be a part of a healthy diet for children and pregnant women, but they shouldn't be the primary source of protein.
It's important to consume a variety of protein sources to get a range of nutrients.
What are the benefits of vegan protein powder vs. whey?
Some vegan protein powders provide similar amounts of protein as animal-based options, but they also come with a few extra benefits.
They’re free of animal products, making them suitable for vegetarians and vegans, and they often have a lower environmental impact.
Many are also organic, free of artificial sweetenrs (though many whey products are too) as well as lactose-free, meaning they’re suitable for people with allergies to dairy.
How much protein should I consume daily, and can vegan protein powders fulfill that requirement?
The answer to the first question is hotly debated in the US, because the government has posted very low protein numbers for the general public to follow.
Wisely most attentive athletes, weightlifters, bodybuilders, fitness models, strength & conditioning coaches, elite trainers, & other fitness fans ignore the government’s skimpy recommendations.
Their bodies are proof they do.
As for whether vegan protein powders can supply your daily protein need — they can help you get there no doubt.
Supplementing a vegan diet with a high-protein (20-30g per serving) plant-based powder can fuel your workouts & provide your body with beneficial nutrition.
But it shouldn’t be your only source of protein throughout each day, so eat smart.
What are potential side effects of vegan protein powders?
Aside from the potential for temporary digestive discomfort, vegan protein powders are generally safe for most people.
However, it’s theoretically possible for certain people to consume too much protein than their body can process, due to their kidney issues. But those cases are rarer than Bigfoot sightings.
A good move is simply to use these products as part of a balanced diet, whether it’s a high-protein balanced diet (like athletes, weightlifters, workout warriors, & physique models), or a non-active person’s balanced diet.
Can vegan protein powders be used as a meal replacement?
An easier & more common route is to use a vegan powder to build around it, creating a high-calorie protein shake that can definitely leave you feeling full & satisfied for hours until your next meal.
Combine your vegan protein powder with fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats, and you’re set. But they shouldn’t be used as a substitute for all meals, since it’s important to get a variety of nutrients from different foods.
How should vegan protein powders be used in a balanced diet?
Vegan protein powders can be used to boost protein intake at any time of day.
You might add a scoop to your morning smoothie, stir some into your oatmeal, or mix it with almond milk for a post-workout recovery drink.
Sneaking it in here & there throughout the day and within your usual meals will greatly improve your workout results & overall health, assuming you’re ticking the important boxes of regular exercise & proper rest & recovery.
Related articles here on heydayDo
OK, time to put a bow on it. Let me briefly recap what we covered.
Whey’s not vegan – not in the true sense of the word anyways, or in the spirit of veganism.
Whey protein comes from milk – It’s easily absorbed and packed with quality protein, but it came from a dairy industry cow.
Vegan protein powder is plant-based – A universally friendly option for everyone, not just vegans & those with certain allergies. Plain & simple, the best ones have only healthy ingredients in them.
Your daily amino acids requirement isn’t a problem – Vegan proteins, either from diverse food sources or from a protein powder supplementing your daily food routine, can deliver you all the essential amino acids your body is asking for.
At the heart of it all, it’s not a competition between whey and vegan protein. It’s about finding what resonates with you, your dietary needs, and your personal goals.
And if you want to live a life free of animal products, your daily protein needs can easily be met with vegan protein powders. They harmonize with your lifestyle, your deeply held values, and your health requirements.
Because when it comes to protein powder, it’s all about finding what fits ‘the whole you’ like a glove.
I hope this article is useful for you, & I wish you well on your fitness journey.