Vegan vs whey protein powder – What's the difference, and which is better?

Whether you prefer vegan and whey protein powder, either can help you lose weight and build muscle more efficiently

Vegan vs whey protein powder: pictured here, an attractive young man in a beanie hat drinking a protein shake
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Vegan vs whey protein powder: which is the best protein powder? Most importantly, is there a difference? There is, but not necessarily in a way you'd imagine. 

Modern plant-based protein powders have a very similar micro- and macronutrient profile to whey protein, and vegan protein products are also a lot more commonplace today. Has whey protein got any advantage left over the plant-based variety?

Adopting a vegan diet obviously has a lot of benefits, and you can more easily avoid most of the 'side effects' of the diet by supplementing your food intake. This is where vegan protein powders come into play: they are convenient, clean and high in certain micronutrients, as well as protein, of course.

Whey protein, meanwhile, has been used for muscle building and weight loss for decades. It was popularised by 'golden age' bodybuilders of the 1970s and 1980s as a magic elixir that will supercharge muscle recovery and make you as big as Arnold Schwarzenegger was in his hay days. Although whey protein powder alone can't do such a thing, when used properly, it can help you lose belly fat and also promote muscle protein synthesis.

protein

(Image credit: The Protein Works)

Vegan vs whey protein powder – Ingredients and nutrients

Vegan protein powder is usually made of either hemp protein, sunflower protein, pea protein, brown rice protein, soy protein, or a combination of these. One great thing about vegan protein powder is that it contains no 'milk sugar', a.k.a. lactose, making it the perfect protein supplement for lactose intolerant people. Apart from products that contain soy, vegan protein powder is also generally allergen-free, although we strongly recommend double checking the label for allergens.

Whey protein tends to contain more ingredients such as stabilisers (e.g. xanthan gum) to make this milk-based product more consistent and palatable. Where whey protein really shines is its branch-chain amino acid content: also called BCAA; these amino acids are the 'building blocks' of protein and make it easier for the body to synthesise protein when needed.

WINNER: Draw. From a cleanliness point of view, vegan protein is a clear winner; however, whey protein contains more micronutrients that make it easier to digest.

Man scooping protein dessert out of a glass bowl

(Image credit: Puriton)

Vegan vs whey protein powder – Texture and flavour

Despite the advancement in processing technology, vegan protein powders are still not quite there when it comes to replicating the palatability of whey protein powders. Thankfully, gone are the days of 'gritty' vegan powders, but when mixing with water, it's still pretty easy to tell the difference between plant-based and whey protein.

You can also mix protein powder with milk or milk alternatives to make it thicker and more 'milkshake-like'. That said, whey protein will actually turn water into milk, sort of, so mixing that with milk is a bit of an overkill. Mixing vegan protein with cow's milk doesn't sound right, but when you add soy or almond milk to it, vegan protein powder will usually result in a super thick sludge that's hard to get out of the shaker. Mixing both with good old tap water is your best option.

WINNER: whey protein. We're yet to sample a vegan protein that's genuinely tasty and mixes well with both water and milk/milk substitutes.

Grenade protein bar on a table

(Image credit: Grenade)

Vegan vs whey protein powder – Alternatives

Although it's highly unlikely you won't find a decent vegan or whey protein for yourself, there are alternative options when it comes to supplementing protein in your diet. 

Protein bars are high protein, low sugar snacks for those who feel like protein shakes just don't cut it. Many people find it hard to sate cravings with protein shakes, and for them, chewing on a protein bar might provide a viable solution. Protein bars certainly have more additives than powders, but they also have more fat and fibre, making them more palatable. We can wholeheartedly recommend Barebells (opens in new tab) and Grenade (opens in new tab) (both retailer links) protein bars if you fancy giving these types of protein snacks a go.

Mass gainers are a special type of protein powder that contains high amounts of carbohydrates and calories. Weight gainer powders are good for 'hardgainers', people who find it difficult to put on weight as they can sneak massive amounts of calories into the diet almost unnoticeable. You can concoct your own mass gainer by mixing oats and protein, but buying premade weight gainers is definitely a more convenient way to bulk up.

Vegan vs whey protein powder – Price and availability

Protein powder is cheap and available to buy both online and offline. You can choose from a million flavours, too, especially in the case of whey protein, but vegan proteins also offer a few exciting flavours nowadays.

In the UK, we recommend getting your protein powder fix from MyProtein (opens in new tab), the newly-rebranded Bulk (opens in new tab), The Organic Protein Co. (opens in new tab), The Plant Era (opens in new tab), Foodspring (opens in new tab), The Protein Works (opens in new tab), SF Nutrition (opens in new tab) and/or Amazon (opens in new tab) (all retailer links).

For people living in the US, it would be a shame not to give Dioxyme (opens in new tab) or Naked Nutrition (opens in new tab) a try, and ONNIT (opens in new tab) also sells decent quality protein. There is always Best Buy, Walmart (opens in new tab) and Amazon (opens in new tab), too (all retailer links).

Many protein powder manufacturers now offer unique protein powder mixes based on your DNA. NGX Nutrition has such a service, while others, such as Bio-Synergy (opens in new tab) (retailer link), offer DNA and epigenetics tests on which a free workout and meal planner is based to achieve one of the four 'dynamic health objectives' you might have. Bulk Labs (opens in new tab) (retailer link) also does a 'Diet & Nutrition' DNA test that offers 29 diet and nutrition insights based on your DNA.

Matt Kollat
Fitness Editor

Matt is T3's Fitness Editor and covers everything from smart fitness tech to running and workout shoes, home gym equipment, exercise how-tos, nutrition, cycling, and more. His byline appears in several publications, including Techradar (opens in new tab) and Fit&Well (opens in new tab), and he collaborated with other fitness content creators such as Garage Gym Reviews (opens in new tab).