The Battle of the Protein Powders - Is Pea the New Whey?
Sports Nutrition
09 November 2015
Protein Powder Dumbbell

Just like in the world of fashion, hype is something that can also surround food!

An ongoing “trend” is protein powders, with whey often being referred to as the “King of the Protein Supplements”.   However, no longer is whey protein the only contender for the throne as plant based protein becomes more available – pea protein in particular has been gaining a dedicated following of vegan athletes.

In this article we are going to take an in-depth look at why Pea Protein is gaining ground as a fabulous alternative to animal derived proteins - in particular Whey!

What Are They?

Pea protein is a natural, highly soluble and digestible plant-based protein that is derived from yellow peas, also known as split peas.  Whey protein is one of the two major groups of protein found in milk (around 20% - 30% is whey) and is produced when making cheese.  When the milk is curdled it splits into “curds and whey”, the curds are used to make cheese and the whey is pasteurised and dried into powder.  Whey is also highly soluble and easy to digest.

Why Supplement?

As most people will be aware, our bodies need a certain amount of protein each day to function at an optimal level.  Out of the protein we eat we need to obtain 9 essential amino acids from our food as our bodies cannot produce them.  Most people have no problem acquiring these important nutrients as protein is abundant in most of our foods - animal products in particular contain “complete protein” (containing all 9 essential amino acids), however, many vegetables, seeds and nuts also provide complete proteins.  The explosion in protein powder supplements has its roots in athletics and body building.  A growing body of evidence shows that consuming high quality protein has a beneficial effect on lean muscle mass and boosts energy levels - this in turn allows for more vigorous workouts and potential benefits in competition.  Protein powders are a quick and easy way to supplement your protein intake and protect muscles before and after training or competing.

Branched Chain Amino Acids

Both whey and pea proteins are high in something called “Branched Chain Amino Acids” (BCAAs) – these are three of the nine essential amino acids; leucine, isoleucine and valine – they are called branched-chain because their structure has a “branch” off the main trunk of the molecule.  The combination of these three essential amino acids makes up approximately one third of skeletal muscle in the human body.  In order to get energy the body can actually breakdown muscle to gain access to these BCAAs.  Therefore, by supplying them during or after a workout, muscles and other tissues are spared from breakdown which occurs as a natural part of metabolism.

Leucine, BCAAs, Protein Powders

Leucine is the most readily oxidised BCAA and works in conjunction with the other two BCAAs to protect muscle and act as fuel for the body.  They promote the healing of bones, muscle tissue and skin.  When looking for a protein supplement, athletes and bodybuilders will generally look for proteins that are particularly high in leucine - both whey and pea proteins contain a generous amount of leucine (approximately 8g per 100g in both proteins).

Isoleucine stabilises and regulates blood sugar and energy levels, when coupled with the other two BCAAs they enhance energy, increase endurance and aid in the healing and repair of muscle tissue.

Valine also aids in muscle metabolism, tissue repair and the maintenance of proper nitrogen balance in the body.

Whey and pea protein both contain similar amounts of BCAAs, whey is fast digesting meaning it is emptied from the stomach quickly resulting in a rapid and large increase in plasma amino acids.  Studies show that whilst pea protein has a 90% digestibility rate, absorption is slightly slower.  The advantage of this aspect of pea protein is the positive effect it has on satiety – this is the satisfied feeling of being full after eating. 

Recent scientific research demonstrated satiety is associated with certain gastro-intestinal peptides which stimulate your nervous system to start or stop you from eating.  Higher PYY (peptide YY) levels promoted by pea protein delay gastric emptying keeping you feeling fuller for longer.  Another peptide is ghrelin which is primarily secreted by the stomach and helps to stimulate your appetite – studies show lower ghrelin levels indicate a delay in the return of your appetite after a meal.  As pea protein promotes lower levels of ghrelin the potential for you to feel full could increase making it a great protein powder for weight loss!

Indigo Herbs Comparison:

As part of our commitment to plant-based power we compared a grass fed organic whey protein (containing 77g protein per 100g) to an organic pea protein (containing 78g per 100g).  The whey protein has a very silky texture and is pleasant to consume, the pea protein was denser in consistency also with a pleasant texture and taste.  Whey protein contains calcium, phosphorus and iron and is high in leucine (the essential amino acid known for its role in muscle protein synthesis), pea protein is a good source of B vitamins and the minerals phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, copper and manganese, is also high in leucine and high in the conditional amino acid arginine (also used for muscle building).  The protein shakes were used as a breakfast replacement in both cases – whilst they both certainly delivered in the energy stakes the pea definitely has the edge when it comes to satiety! 

Comparison of Essential Amino Acids in Whey and Pea Proteins

Taken from a research paper looking at Whey Protein as a functional food and whether Pea Protein can be substituted for people with sensitivities to whey (link provided below):

Amino Acid                                        Whey (g/100g)                  Pea (g/100g)

Histidine                                               1.3                                          2.52

Isoleucine                                            4.7                                           5.59

Leucine                                                8.09                                        8.44

Lysine                                                  6.87                                        6.82

Methionine & Cysteine                         3.57                                        2.07

Phenylalanine & Tyrosine                    4.65                                        9.25

Threonine                                           5.35                                        4.34

Tryptophan                                         1.43                                        1.06

Valine                                                  4.48                                        5.27

This table demonstrates that pea protein compares very favourably gram for gram with whey protein making it an effective substitute for dairy protein.  The Nutritionist and author of this paper, Carol Murrell, goes on to say about whey, “A comprehensive functional food which supplies key proteins such as lactoferrin and immunoglobulins in addition to amino acids”; and about pea, “Ideal for vegetarians (vegans) and/or individuals with sensitivity issues.” 

Lactoferrin is a glycoprotein which exerts its effect by regulating iron absorption, immunoglobulins have the potential to modulate immune response in humans.  This can be viewed as an added benefit to whey, however, pea contains the antioxidant minerals manganese and copper – oxidative stress being a major contributing factor to impaired immune function.  Copper is also known for its role in supporting the immune system and the transportation of iron in the body.

So is Pea the New Whey?

Both protein powders provide the 9 essential amino acids and contain high amounts of BCCAs.  Whilst whey is the more famous of the two, pea protein has certainly been gaining a lot of attention in nutritional circles.  Interestingly, a recent study involving 161 male participants (aged 18 to 35) showed that those taking pea protein had an increase in muscle thickness of 20%, whey 16% and the placebo 9%.  Pea protein was most effective on untrained subjects and those getting back to the gym after an extended absence.  It seems to be a dead heat - with both proteins offering similar health benefits, pea protein is an impressive alternative for those who are sensitive to dairy and/or are committed to vegan diet.

Sources for this article:

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