The Truth About Whey Protein & 5 Plant-Based Alternatives

20 min read

key takeaways:
  • Plant-Based protein is the superior choice for any serious athlete looking to get the most out of their training and recovery.
  • Whey protein supplements have nasty side effects that can negatively affect overall health and performance.
  • The leucine threshold is an important factor in kickstarting muscle protein synthesis.
NUTRITION

There's a lot of misinformation about plant protein vs. whey protein. NFL fullback turned LYFE Fuel founder shares his personal plant-based journey and why he believes plants are the ultimate game changer. 

Like so many other fitness fanatics and professional athletes out there, I was guilty of thinking that whey protein is the gold standard when it comes to protein supplementation.

Fooled by loads of misinformation and lots of sexy marketing, I was convinced that whey protein was the most efficient, healthy, and convenient way to increase size and strength.

I now know that this couldn't be further from the truth.

Whether you're an elite level athlete, a weekend warrior, or just an average joe trying to look and feel a little better I hope my personal story and the science-based research herein will provide the insight you need to fuel your pursuit for optimal human performance and inspire you to "Live Your Fullest Every Day.

Before we dive in, let's lay the foundation for what whey protein is.

What is whey protein?

There are two types of proteins in dairy: casein and whey.Cow’s milk is roughly 80% casein and 20% whey.

And when cheese is made from milk, casein proteins curd together leaving behind liquid whey. This is why most articles about whey protein refer to whey as a byproduct of cheese making.

But what exactly is whey protein made of?

Whey protein is a group of proteins: alpha-lactalbumin, beta-lactoglobulin, serum albumin and immunoglobulins.

Alpha-lactalbumin and beta-lactoglobulin make up 90% of whey protein. These proteins are absorbed by the body and broken down into essential amino acids.

And beta-lactoglobulin is a known milk allergen which causes lactose intolerance.

Is whey protein plant-based?

Whey is a highly-processed commodity.

Whey is what is left over after separating curd from milk. The curd gets processed and turned into cheese and what remains is sweet whey and acid whey. The sweet whey gets ultra-filtered to become whey protein concentrate.

It then passes through additional subsequent stages of micro-filtration to make whey protein isolates, and hydro-isolates before undergoing a spray drying process to turn it from a liquid to a powder.

Not such a natural process is it?

But, that’s the goal of large-scale food and supplement companies — to make things so confusing that the consumer just accepts that because it is marketed as healthy, it must be.

It's exactly the same playbook used by big tobacco.

Large-scale industrialized meat and dairy producers don't really care about winning the debate about whether milk, dairy, and processed meat is bad for you.

They just want to protect their share of consumers' wallets.

So much so that they're trying to claim ownership over the right to call things milk that are only derived from animals.

No matter what the science shows, as long as the consumer is confused by mixed marketing messages they've won.

An article in Breaking Muscle by Anthony Roberts helps to clarify some of the confusing terminology commonly used by whey supplement companies and exposes some of the truths about what's really in your whey protein products.

In summary, there is a TON of processing required to arrive at usable raw whey protein before it is safe for human consumption.

And even if it’s safe for human consumption, is it really optimal?

Because 70% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant.

So…

Is whey protein good for you?

The one thing that whey protein has got going is the fact that it’s a complete protein.

A complete protein is a protein that provides all of the essential amino acids in sufficient proportions to support the body. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are 20 common amino acids that are split up into two types, essential and nonessential.

  • Eleven nonessential amino acids can be produced by the body and include alanine, arginine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine and tyrosine.
  • Nine essential amino acids cannot be produced by the body and must be consumed in the diet. The essential amino acids include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.

In fact, whey has a PDCAAS (Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score) of 1.0 making it one of the most complete and bioavailable sources of protein.

And this is the argument that companies use to sell whey protein.

They claim that whey protein is better than vegan protein because vegan protein sources don’t have all essential amino acids and are not complete proteins.

But they don’t mention the fact that combining different sources of vegan proteins can achieve the same thing: a PDCAAS of 1.0 which is the same as whey. (more on this later in the article)

Is whey protein vegan?

Frankly, I'm embarrassed to have to even answer this question.

Whey protein is not vegan or plant based.

But, as shocking as it might sound, there are actually protein supplements marketed as plant-based which contain whey protein!

This is because, unlike the vegan certification, there isn't yet an agreed-upon definition for plant-based.

It's loose regulation like this combined with shameful marketing tactics that stir up much of the confusion that exists in food in supplements. The easiest way to know what's really in your products?

Read the labels!

Now, with that out of the way, let's get into the different types of whey....

Whey Protein Isolate, Concentrate, And Hydrolysate

There are a lot of different types of whey in the market. And you might not realize the difference between them at first glance.

Depending on the filtration process (microfiltration or ultra/diafiltration) used on the liquid whey, you'll have two different forms of whey protein.

These are whey protein concentrate which is about 80% protein, and whey protein isolate which is around 85-90% protein.

Whey protein concentrate is less filtered, so it has some of the natural fats and sugar from milk in it along with some micronutrients. Whey protein isolate is more filtered and doesn't have these extra fats and sugars. But the extra filtration also makes it more expensive.

Then what’s whey protein hydrolysate?

Whey protein hydrolysate is pre-digested whey protein. Whey protein concentrate or isolate are treated with acid or enzymes to break down some of proteins and amino acids making it more easy to digest.

This extra step makes it more expensive. But we don’t know if whey hydrolysate is actually better than whey concentrate or isolate.It might just be a marketing gimmick.

Now that we know what whey protein is and the different types of whey protein, let’s get into whether it’s actually good for our health and the planet.

Health Impact of Whey Protein

After my days of bulking up to compete as an NFL fullback came to an end, I made a conscious decision to clean up my diet as a way to shed the excess weight I had put on and to reduce the inflammation and diet-related health challenges I was experiencing.

 It was during this transition from a standard American diet that puts meat, dairy, and protein shakes as the staple of every meal that I came to understand the many problems that exist in our industrialized food system.

To really understand the impact of food on health and performance, labeling entire food groups as “good” or “bad” is too narrow of an approach because they fail to consider the myriad of factors that go into food production.

As I began to research the food and supplement industry, I realized that more important than the type of food we eat is knowing where our food comes from in the first place. This is especially important for anything that comes in a package.

One of many problems with our food system as it exists today is that the food production chain is ambiguous, confusing, and impersonal.

Large food companies frequently take advantage of a weak and confusing regulatory environment by using clever marketing tactics to fool the consumer into believing they are eating clean and healthy, which is not always the case.

Is Whey Protein Even Healthy?

Whey protein on its own has a very sour or acidic taste to it.

In order to mask that taste, manufacturers add artificial sweeteners and unpronounceable chemical agents to create irresistible options like Chocolate Eclair, Confetti Cake Batter, and Orange Dreamsicle.

Sounds a lot like putting lipstick on a pig.

The reality is we're consuming milkshakes and candy bars masquerading as health products, which can be doing more harm than good by destroying our gut microbiome, causing inflammation, and contributing to poor skin quality.

It's been well documented that sugar actually triggers the dopamine pleasure sensors in the brain and is more addictive than cocaine! Recent studies also show that sugar alcohols can disrupt a healthy microbiome which can negatively impact everything from immunity to digestion and nutrient absorption.

 Of course we all crave a delicious and nutritious shake after a workout once we've busted our butt at the gym and worked up a sweat, but it doesn't mean we need a sugar bomb that wipes out all of our hard work!

The scary trade secrets of the dairy industry are becoming fairly well known and are more frightening and nightmarish than the latest scary movie you've seen.

A quick google search for "problems with dairy" or "treatment of dairy cows" will lead you down a pretty haunting road.

What Makes Whey Protein Dangerous?

Consuming whey protein does come with a lot of problems. Many of which I personally faced when I was trying to bulk up while playing for the NFL.

Side effects of whey protein include:

  • Increased acne
  • liver toxicity
  • increased oxidative stress
  • kidney problems
  • inflammation
  • bloating

Whey Protein — Bloating & Gut Health

For those who have even a mild case of lactose intolerance, which is at least 60% of the population, digestive problems are another dark side.

For the majority of the human race, the enzyme lactase, which digests the sugar present in cow’s milk, stops being produced between the ages of two and five years old.

When the undigested sugars reach the intestine, they undergo bacterial fermentation, producing gas that can cause bloating, cramping, flatulence, nausea, and even diarrhea in some individuals. Other possible symptoms may include fatigue, irritability, and headaches.

On top of that, there’s research that shows plant proteins are better for our gut bacteria.

Another study found that eating 5 plant based meals a week instead of meat based meal increased a group of bacteria that produce butyrate, a fatty acid that promotes digestive health and reduces inflammation.

So, clearly we should look for a whey protein alternative that gives the same benefits of whey but without the farting or bloating.

Whey Protein And Acne

There are several studies that have found a possible link between the consuming whey protein and acne:

  • A study involving teenage athletes found that whey protein triggered acne lesions in them, and they diminished once the drink was discontinued. However, further studies are required to determine the exact mechanism.
  • In another study, researchers observed that whey protein could enhance insulin levels or insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) and aggravate acne in healthy men.
  • In a study involving 30 patients, researchers found that females were prone to develop acne after taking whey protein. They also concluded that whey protein could trigger acne in people with no active lesions and no family history of acne.

This just goes to show that despite whey protein being called the best source of protein — it can causes digestive issue to almost everyone who consumes it.

You need to be statistical outlier to get away with consuming loads of whey protein.

But here's another question: is whey good for the planet?

recover smarter
Premium plant-powered nutrition from real whole foods to perform at your best.
shop now

Environmental impact of whey protein 

There are massive environmental issues tied to the production and disposal of whey protein.

This has been a rising concern for large-scale greek yogurt manufacturers due to the challenges with disposing of the byproducts of production.

Sweet whey can be turned into whey protein and easily re-used in food manufacturing but acid whey presents more of a challenge.

There currently isn't a market for this product meaning manufacturers are required to dispose of it. Often it gets dumped back into the land, contaminating our ground soil and drinking water.

So why then, with healthier options now available, do consumers continue to use this environmentally destructive food?

Recent data estimates that as a population, we consume about 2.2 lbs (1kg) of dry whey powder per capita. Based on 2014 U.S. population data (318.9 million), this equates to roughly 700 million pounds (318M kg) of whey protein powder consumed each year!

Whey protein production is not an efficient process, over 720 pounds (327kg) of raw liquid whey is required to make a 5-pound tub of whey protein powder.

Whey Protein — Side Effects (On The Planet)

Let’s assume for the sake of this article that you’re like I was.

You’re making a conscious effort to clean up your diet and reduce your carbon footprint and haven’t yet considered the protein powder you consume to really be a factor in achieving either of these objectives.

However, when taking a closer look, you might be surprised at how even the seemingly small decisions we make can be impactful at scale.

When I cut milk and dairy out of my diet, not only did I feel healthier, but I felt good about contributing to the health of the planet.

By substituting dairy milk with milk substitutes (coconut milk and almond milk) and eliminating yogurt and cheese from my diet, I had reduced my ecological footprint. I estimate that prior to making this change, I was consuming about 6kg per month of dairy products!

The problem was, I hadn’t yet stopped consuming whey protein.

On average, I was going through about a tub of protein (1 kg/2.2lbs) every month. Assuming that I was taking a high-quality whey protein (90% whey isolate by volume), I was consuming about 900g of raw whey monthly, which, by my calculations equates to 15 liters of raw milk (roughly 15 kg by weight).

By comparison, the whey protein I was consuming had 2-3x the impact of all the other dairy products that I had eliminated combined!

While the environmental impact from dairy pales in comparison to industrially raising livestock for beef, there is still an enormous negative effect due to the resources required to produce and ship products as well as resulting waste that leads to soil degradation and toxic methane emissions. 

The average dairy cow uses almost 5,000 gallons of water per day. 

The entire production chain is completely unsustainable and the animals themselves are inhumanely treated.

One solution that will certainly make an impact is to consciously reduce our total consumption of ALL meat and dairy products. Even simple choices like swapping whey protein for healthier, more eco-friendly and sustainable options is a step in the right direction.

As demonstrated by the Switch4Good movement, many olympians, elite athletes, and celebrities have already ditched whey and dairy for healthier more sustainable plant-based protein options.

Now it's your turn to join them and millions of others who are ditching dairy and going plant-based! 

Whey Protein Alternatives

The long-standing theory has been that if the goal of your training (like mine was) is to increase size and strength then whey may be the superior option.

Most of the studies done in the past looked at whey protein versus soy protein and have concluded whey to be superior in this regard.

However, with the recent advancements in the plant-based protein market, more recent studies have examined other types of plant-based protein in comparison to whey.

Plant Protein vs Whey Protein

One notable study looked at a high dose (42g) of rice protein consumed post-exercise versus an equal dose of whey protein powder.

The goal of the study was to evaluate whether the rice protein could increase recovery and elicit adequate changes in body composition compared to whey.

The authors’ conclusion of the 8-week study?

Rice protein isolate consumption post resistance exercise decreases fat-mass and increases lean body mass, skeletal muscle hypertrophy, power and strength comparable to whey protein isolate.

Keep in mind that the above study only focuses on a single-source of protein (whey protein vs. rice protein), however most plant protein powders on the market actually contain a multi-source blend of protein to make up for the limiting amino acid content of a single source.

This protein combining is known as complementary protein sources for the sake of achieving a PDCAAs score equivalent or greater than 1.0.

Building Muscle With Plant-Based Protein

To better understand the muscle-building properties of protein, we need to first understand what happens to the body when you do strength training, CrossFit, or any other type of high-intensity exercise.

Exercise is an acute stressor to the body and actually evokes an inflammatory response, causing muscle and tissue breakdown.

To replenish and rebuild these muscle fibers and tissues, it is imperative to provide the body with amino acids and more specifically, BCAAs (branched chain amino acids) - leucine, isoleucine, and valine - that serve as the primary building blocks for repairing the torn muscle fibers.

Protein from the diet and nutritional supplements is the primary source of providing the body with essential aminos that activate satellite cells to make the damaged muscle bigger and stronger.

Many athletes turn to protein supplements to refuel after a workout for this exact reason. BUT, as it turns out, your whey protein shake might be doing you more harm than good!

Sadly, the supplements industry is rampant with half-truths, dubious marketing claims, and a weak regulatory environment that allows companies to position their products as being healthy even though they lack the scientific evidence to back it up.

Many products are derived from highly synthetic and processed ingredients with a bunch of artificial sugars like sucralose or sugar alcohols that can actually damage the good microbiota in the gut. This poses some serious downstream health consequences that anyone trying to optimize performance would be wise to avoid.

Additionally, you may be shocked to learn that the majority of BCAA products on the market are actually derived from human hair and duck feathers, unlike better-for-you vegan options that are created through a natural fermentation process, not only making them more appealing to consume but also more digestible and usable by the body.

Another key point to consider is that for the goal of recovery and specifically muscle protein synthesis it is imperative to make sure you're getting all 3 branched chain aminos - leucine, isoleucine, and valine.

Research demonstrates that getting all nine essential amino acids can increase muscle protein synthesis by more than 50% than just BCAAs alone.

The problem with plant protein powders is they don't contain enough amino acids to help you enter into muscle protein synthesis — which means you're just wasting your money.

One particular amino that helps the most with muscle protein synthesis is leucine.

Your body doesn't care how you get your protein, it's really just simple biochemistry.

Whether it's from plant-based protein or animal-based sources like whey, it still needs to be broken down into smaller chains of amino acids that in turn can be utilized for building and repairing muscle.

In fact, because plant proteins usually contain more vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, your body actually will make better use out of a plant-based protein powder.

Just be sure that you choose a product that contains a PDCAAs of 1.0 or greater with a minimum leucine content of 2.5 grams or more per serving.

As the science and demand for plant-based proteins continues to grow, we can expect to see more data emerge that supports vegan protein powder as comparable to whey for the purpose of athletic training, recovery, and muscle growth.

At LyfeFuel, we're out to prove that plant-based protein isn't just equivalent to whey protein, but is actually SUPERIOR!

Best Sources Of Plant-Based Protein

Even though we recommend plant based protein over whey protein, not all plant based protein is the same.

Some sources are better than others.

CriteriaWheyPeaRiceSoyHempLyfeFuel*
PDCAA Score1.00.890.420.980.661.0
Complete Protein
Good for Gut Health
Environmentally Sustainable

*LyfeFuel uses a combination of yellow pea protein and sprouted brown rice protein to make a highly digestible complete protein. We source our Non-GMO pea and rice blend from Canada — which means it's traceable, sustainable, and tested for heavy metals.

1. Pea Protein

Pea, along with soy, is one of the most popular plant based sources of protein. The problem with soy which we talk about later makes pea protein isolate the superior choice of plant protein.

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.

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.

But not all pea protein is the same.

Cheaper pea protein is typically sourced from China which contains higher levels of heavy metals and uses hexane and other chemicals to isolate the protein. At LyfeFuel, we use a non-chemical mechanical process and source Non-GMO peas from Canada.

2. Rice Protein

Brown rice protein is a protein supplement made by treating brown rice with enzymes that cause the protein and carbohydrates that make up the rice to separate. The protein is isolated, resulting in a protein powder.

According to a 2014 article titled “Amino Acid Composition of an Organic Brown Rice Protein Concentrate and Isolate Compared to Soy and Whey Concentrates and Isolates” published in the peer-reviewed Foods journal, brown rice contains 37% of the total protein as essential amino acids and 18% as BCAA, making it an good source of protein.

Though brown rice has potential to be a great source of protein, it is not a complete protein because it lacks lysine and therefore needs to be combined with another lysine-containing protein such as pea protein.

3. Canola Protein

Canola protein isolate is the new kid on the block.

In fact, there are only a handful of suppliers in the world and almost no products that use canola protein isolate yet.

But that is changing soon as there are companies that are mixing canola and pea protein to get a PDCAAS score of 1, making it a complete protein that is also grain-free. Plus canola protein from Canada is Non-GMO, traceable, and sustainable.

Right now, canola is only being grown to produce canola oil, but with this new technology of canola protein — canola can be used for more and better purposes like being an amazing source of plant protein.

You might not see canola protein isolate on your store shelves right now but it’s coming sooner than you think.

4. Soy Protein

Soy protein is one of the cheapest sources of plant based protein. And this is also the problem with soy protein. The chemical process used to isolate soy protein often leaves behind substances you don't necessarily want to be eating, like aluminum and hexane.

On top of that, most soy used to make soy protein is GMO and uses a lot of fertilizer and pesticides to grow. And the soy is industrially farmed with monocrop agriculture which is not sustainable

5. Hemp Protein

From a nutritional standpoint, hemp protein is an excellent plant based protein source. There are very few side effects with hemp protein. But there are two problems with hemp protein:

One, it can have heavy metals which can be dangerous to your health. Two, it doesn’t taste good — at least when compared to pea and rice protein.

BONUS: Vegan Whey

A new wave of cow-less dairy is hitting the market.

Perfect Day is using genetically modified fungi to produce milk protein for ice cream at a commercial scale.

And pre-commercial companies, like TurtleTree and Better Milk, are engineering mammary cells to produce human and cow milk in laboratories, although these remain in the early stages of development.

An excellent advantage of vegan whey protein is that there are no hormones whatsoever. Just pure and healthy ingredients.

And it’s environmentally friendly:

- 97% less greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional whey production
- 99% less water usage
- 60% less non-renewable energy usage

This may be an alternative for people who don’t want to use plant based protein and also don’t want to use traditional whey protein from dairy cows. 

Plant Protein vs. Whey Protein

Infographic Created by artofwellbeing.com

Conclusion

In conclusion, I knew that in my quest to achieve optimal health and high performance it was necessary to evaluate ALL the food and products that I use and consume regularly.

Doing so has led to more conscious decision making and an overall improvement in my health.

Eliminating whey from my diet wasn’t even on my radar until I actually took the time and effort to question it.

Fortunately, the plant-based supplements industry has come a long way so you no longer have to sacrifice taste for quality.

If you’re serious about a healthier and more sustainable future and interested in waving goodbye to whey, check out LyfeFuel’s line of great-tasting protein + superfood powders.

Ongoing education, challenging old beliefs, and continuing to ask questions about the food and products we consume helps us make more informed decisions.

Sometimes the smallest and simplest choices we make can have the greatest impact.

References:

  • Howatson G et al., “Exercise-induced muscle damage is reduced in exercise-trained males by branched-chain amino acids: a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled study,” Journal of the Internal Society of Sports Nutrition, vol. 9, no. 1 (May 8, 2012): 20 [Epub ahead of print].
  • Reporter, Daily Mail. "That's Whey Too Bad for Our Environment! How the Toxic By-product of Greek Yogurt Is Causing a World-wide Pollution Problem." Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 22 May 2013. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.
  • SEMC7495. "Whey-ing the Costs of My Protein Powder." CU Bouler Sustain Food. N.p., 17 Nov. 2015. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.
  • Witard OC, Wardle SL, Macnaughton LS, Hodgson AB, Tipton KD. Protein Considerations for Optimising Skeletal Muscle Mass in Healthy Young and Older Adults. Nutrients. 2016;8(4):181. Published 2016 Mar 23. doi:10.3390/nu8040181
  • Lambertz J, Weiskirchen S, Landert S, Weiskirchen R. Fructose: A Dietary Sugar in Crosstalk with Microbiota Contributing to the Development and Progression of Non-Alcoholic Liver Disease. Front Immunol. 2017;8:1159. Published 2017 Sep 19. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2017.01159

Disclaimer: The LYFE Fuel blog is for informational purposes only. The information does not serve as a replacement for professional medical advice or treatment. We kindly ask you not to ignore professional medical advice because of any information you’ve read on https://lyfefuel.com/. If you have any concerns about your health, please consult a physician or appropriate health care expert.