Pea Protein vs. Whey Protein: Which Is Better?

Both pea and whey are complete proteins, and they’re easy to add to a smoothie or oatmeal for a boost of protein in your day.

Protein powders may be a useful addition to your diet, especially if you're trying to increase your protein intake. These protein powders can also be useful if you do strength training.

The popularity of plant-based protein powders is on the rise, and with an abundance of protein powders on the market, you may feel overwhelmed with choices. Here, we'll help you understand how pea and whey protein differ to help you choose the best one for you.

a photo of someone holding a blender bottle and a scoop of protein
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Pea Protein vs. Whey Protein

Pea protein is made by extracting the protein from peas, a legume. Whey protein is made by extracting the protein from whey, one of the two proteins found in cow's milk. At the outset, they're very different. That said, they do share similarities. Here's a closer look.


Both pea and whey proteins are complete proteins, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids, which are the ones that your body can't produce on its own. They also pack around 25 grams of protein per serving (often one scoop), though the exact amount will depend on the brand.

Pea and whey proteins both have a creamy and smooth texture. And they're each available in unflavored or flavored options like vanilla or chocolate.

For those with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease, both of these options are gluten-free. You'll just want to double-check the label to be sure there aren't additives that contain gluten.


The most obvious difference between the two is that pea protein is plant-based, and whey protein is not. This may matter when it comes to digestibility. Research, including a trial published in Nutrients in 2019, has found that whey protein has a higher bioavailability than pea protein. This means that your body absorbs more of the amino acids (the building blocks of protein) in whey protein than in pea protein. Theoretically, you'd need to consume more pea protein in order to get the same amount of amino acids.

Pea protein has a more earthy, grassy flavor, while whey protein has a flavor somewhat similar to powdered milk. Both flavors are relatively mellow and will probably be masked if you mix them into a smoothie.

Another key difference is the lactose content. Pea protein is lactose-free. When it comes to whey protein, the lactose content depends on the type of whey protein you buy. The lactose content is minimal in isolated or hydrolyzed whey protein, but concentrated whey protein has a higher lactose content. If you have lactose intolerance you may want to be mindful of the type of whey protein you use and whether it upsets your stomach.

Pea protein also tends to be more affordable than whey protein.

Nutrition Profiles

Pea Protein Nutrition

The nutrition composition of pea protein powder varies based on the brand and specific product, but as an example, per the USDA, one (20-gram) serving of Now Health Group Organic Pea Protein Powder contains:

  • Calories: 80
  • Protein: 15 g
  • Total Fat: 2 g
  • Total Carbohydrates: 1 g
  • Fiber: 1 g
  • Sodium: 230 mg
  • Calcium: 58 mg
  • Iron: 5 mg

Whey Protein Nutrition

The nutrition composition of whey protein will vary not just depending on the brand but also on whether it is whey protein isolate, hydrolysate, concentrate or a combination of these. Whey protein concentrate will have slightly more carbohydrates and fat than whey protein isolate or hydrolysate.

As an example, here are the nutrition facts of Now Health Group Whey Protein Isolate Powder, per the USDA:

  • Calories: 110
  • Protein: 25 g
  • Total Fat: <1 gram
  • Total Carbohydrates: <1 gram
  • Fiber: 0 g
  • Sodium: 45 mg
  • Calcium: 121 mg
  • Iron: 0 mg

Uses of Pea Protein and Whey Protein

Good news! You can use pea protein and whey protein for many of the same health goals.

Gaining Muscle

Protein is an essential nutrient for muscle growth and repair, so it makes sense that protein powder is commonly used by gym-goers looking to build muscle. The amino acid leucine is particularly important for muscle growth, and while it's found in both pea and whey proteins, there is more leucine in animal-based proteins.

Overall, since pea protein is a newer product, there's not as much research on it as there is for whey protein. Whey protein has been shown to play a role in increasing muscle mass when paired with strength training.

When paired with high-intensity training, whey and pea protein supplementation for eight weeks was found to improve measures of strength, found a study in Sports (Basel) in 2019.

Whey protein was found to be more effective at reducing muscle damage from high-intensity exercise than pea protein, according to a randomized control trial published in Nutrients in 2020. However, both played a role in reducing muscle damage. Whey protein may also come out on top in moderate-intensity exercise, concludes a randomized control trial in Nutrients in 2023. Older adults who supplemented with whey protein for 10 days before and 3 days after walking a very long distance (we're talking more than 12 miles) had lower levels of creatine kinase, a marker of inflammation and muscle damage, after the exercise compared to pea protein and control groups. That suggests that whey protein may be better in helping your body recover from physical activity, which can be especially important in helping older adults stick with an exercise program.

Weight Loss

Protein helps promote satiety because your body digests and absorbs it more slowly than it does carbohydrates. This can be helpful in creating a well-rounded meal to hold you over until your next meal or snack. A review published in the Journal of Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome in 2020 found that a high-protein diet reduced participants' weight within 6 to 12 months; however, the authors acknowledged that longer-term studies are necessary.

Fueling on the Go

Protein powders can be a useful tool for fueling yourself on the go. They are easy to mix into a drink or smoothie and take with you to get a nutrition boost. If you're in need of an easy breakfast, you might consider making a balanced smoothie with fruit or oats for carbs, nut butter for fats, and protein powder, like this Almond Butter & Banana Protein Smoothie.

Choosing the Best Option for You

It may be tough to choose between the two. The best option for you depends on your needs, preferences and goals.

"Whey remains the most bioavailable and most complete protein source, particularly because it will always add good protein regardless of the product or brand, says Juliana Tamayo, M.S., RDN, at Fitness Clone. However, there are times when you want to use a vegan plant-based protein powder like pea, such as if you have a sensitivity to milk (and therefore may be sensitive to whey protein) or if you have a digestive condition. "Plant-based proteins tend to be easier to digest for individuals with chronic illnesses, such as Crohn's disease," says Tamayo.

Since they have slightly different flavor profiles, you may choose to experiment with both whey and pea protein and see which flavor you prefer.

If you have chronic kidney disease, you may need to avoid all protein powders since high concentrations of protein can stress your kidneys. And if you are minimally active, you can likely meet your protein needs from food alone.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can pea protein help you build muscle?

While pea protein is a complete protein with the potential to help build muscle, there is relatively little research on this since pea protein is a newer product. Some studies have shown that it has similar muscle-building effects as whey protein, while others found that whey protein more effectively reduced muscle damage from high-intensity training.

Is whey protein better than pea protein for weight loss?

There isn't enough research yet to make conclusions on these protein powders and weight loss. Working with a registered dietitian can help you build a balanced plan that aligns with your goals and provides your body with the nutrients it needs to be healthy and support a healthy weight.

Which is a better source of protein, pea protein or whey?

The best choice for you will depend on your unique preferences and needs. Whey protein has a higher bioavailability, so your body will more efficiently absorb its amino acids. However, it contains small amounts of lactose and may be harder to digest if you are lactose intolerant. Pea protein is a complete, vegan protein with a high iron content.

What are the cons of taking pea protein?

Pea protein is newer and, therefore, less studied, so its effects are lesser known than whey protein. The existing research shows that it may not be as easy to absorb the protein from pea protein. Also, pea protein may not prevent exercise-induced muscle damage as much as whey protein.

The Bottom Line

Whey and pea proteins are both complete proteins with different benefits for different people. Pea protein is a great vegan-friendly option that tends to be more affordable and is rich in iron. Whey protein is more readily absorbed and is a good source of calcium, but it may not be suitable for those with lactose intolerance or a milk allergy. The best choice for you will depend on your taste preferences and dietary needs.

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