Wondering which protein source is the best one for you? You’re not alone! Variety can be a wonderful thing, but when it comes to protein supplements, there are so many to choose from it’s hard to know where to start.
Not all protein sources are created equal, so as a consumer, it’s important to know what you’re getting, as well as the pros and cons. In this guide, we’ll break down the differences between soy vs whey vs pea protein so you can make an educated decision about which type of protein will help you achieve your fitness goals.
What Makes a Protein Complete?
You’ll see the term “complete protein” a lot when you’re shopping for a protein supplement. What you need to know is that the human body contains 20 amino acids.
Of those 20, nine are considered essential to include in your diet. That’s because the body can’t produce them on its own… they have to come from outside sources like your diet or supplements. In general, food sources that qualify as a complete protein include dairy, meat, fish, and poultry.
Very few plant proteins have a complete amino acid profile, but lucky for the vegans and vegetarians out there, soy and peas are an exception to this rule. They both have an amino acid profile that’s similar to an animal-based protein source.
A complete amino acid profile is critical for supporting your fitness goals, which is why soy, whey, and pea are the top protein choices among athletic-minded individuals.
Soy protein is at the top of our list because it’s easy to digest, tastes great, and it is plant-based. Soy is the go-to complete protein source for athletes on a vegan or vegetarian diet because it provides all nine essential amino acids your body needs for muscle growth and development.
Soy is rich in iron, and micronutrients like copper, manganese, and phosphorus. It’s also cholesterol-free, and very low in fat and carbs. It also has a PDCAAS score of 1, making it the most digestible and bioavailable plant-based protein out there.
Since the late 1990s, soy has been used as a healthy protein additive in everything from cereal to meal replacement bars. It is also used to create meat and dairy alternatives for the vegan/vegetarian crowd. Edamame, a term used to describe soybeans still in their pod, is a fantastic and healthy high-protein snack.
If you’re shopping for a soy protein supplement, one of the first things you’ll notice is that there are three different types. Here’s how they compare:
- Soy protein concentrate: This type of soy protein is usually around 65% protein and includes most of the carbohydrates found in the soybeans. Basically, it’s what’s left over after the defatting process.
- Soy protein isolate: This is the purest form of soy protein. It contains mostly “defatted” soybeans, with minimal other ingredients.
- Textured soy protein: Textured soy protein is used to make plant-based meat substitutes. It is made from soy protein concentrates.
There is a common misconception that soy protein contains large amounts of phytoestrogens, which are chemical compounds that mimic hormones. This myth has been debunked. Although whole soybeans do contain phytoestrogens, soy protein is rinsed and filtered, which leaves behind only trace amounts of phytoestrogens.
It’s also important to note that there is no evidence of phytoestrogens having any effect on the body, neither positive nor negative. The only real drawback of soy protein is that soy is a common allergen. Obviously, you’ll want to avoid soy protein if you’re allergic to soy.
If you’re ready to give soy protein a try, soy-based protein shakes are a great option because they taste great, they’re ready to drink, and they’re portable. Take them to the gym for a pre- or post-workout snack or use them as a meal replacement when you’re on the go. They come in a variety of flavors, too!
Whey protein comes from milk, which means it’s not an option for those on a plant-based diet. The protein in milk is made of 80% casein and 20% whey. Casein is the protein responsible for most milk allergies.
Whey is usually fine for people with milk allergies, and it’s sold as a concentrate or an isolate. It’s popular among athletes who consume animal protein because it contains the essential amino acids required for muscle repair and development.
It is considered a complete protein on its own because it provides all nine amino acids and many athletes prefer it for building muscle strength. Its most efficient ingredient for muscle building is leucine. This amino acid is key for maintaining and growing muscle.
Whey is easy for most people to digest, and it’s available in low-fat and fat-free forms. If you consume animal-based proteins, whey protein powder is a good protein source to keep on hand for making smoothies and adding a protein punch to recipes.
Pea protein is a completely natural, plant-based protein derived from yellow peas. It has become increasingly popular among those on vegan and vegetarian diets. It’s easy to digest and doesn’t contain gluten or lactose, so it’s a good option for those with food sensitivities.
Pea protein contains branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), as well as all nine essential amino acids. BCAAs are beneficial for building muscle, decreasing fat, and helping you feel full longer. That makes pea protein a great choice for those who are trying to lose weight.
Unfortunately, pea protein does not contain nearly as many BCAAs as whey, so it’s not quite as effective for building muscle. Some people find that it has a “dirt-like” flavor, which is a big reason soy protein remains the more popular plant-based choice.
If you’re allergic to soy or don’t consume animal products… and you can get passed the taste… pea protein powder is a viable option as a meal replacement to support your weight loss efforts and help build muscle. Try it as a pre-workout supplement for boosting energy, as well as a post-workout supplement to support muscle recovery.
A Few Final Tips for Choosing a High-Quality Protein Supplement
When you’re looking to buy a protein supplement, be sure to read the product label carefully. Of course, you want a product that’s high in protein, but you also want to choose a product that’s free of cheap fillers, refined sugar, and artificial ingredients.
Choosing products that are made in the USA is also a good idea, especially when it comes to plant proteins like soy and pea. Other countries aren’t kept to the same standards American farmers are, and foreign products may have been grown in soil that’s contaminated with heavy metals.
To ensure that you’re getting the best value for your money when purchasing a protein powder, check the label to see how many servings the package contains. Avoid products with low protein content and a low number of servings per container. For the most benefit, you want at least 18g of protein per serving.