Animal vs. Plant Protein Powder: How They Compare, According to Dietitians

Protein Powder in Smoothie

Getty Images / Yulia Lisitsa

For an extra boost of protein, it doesn’t get much easier than tossing a scoop of protein powder into a smoothie, your morning oatmeal, or even your favorite baked good-batter. Numerous varieties of protein powders can bump up your intake of this macronutrient from both plant and animal sources. Whey, casein, egg, and collagen powders come from animal products, for example, while soy, pea, hemp, pumpkin seed, brown rice, and others are plant-derived.

If you use protein powder frequently, you may already have a favorite go-to product. But keep an open mind—both plant and animal-based powders come with distinct advantages (and a few downsides).

Here’s a look at how they compare for nutrition, health benefits, taste, and usage.

Nutrition Information

The following nutrition information has been provided by the USDA. For comparison, we looked at a 39-gram serving of whey protein and a 40-gram serving of pea-quinoa protein blend.

   Whey protein powder Pea-quinoa protein powder
Calories 150 140 
Fat  2g 2g
Carbohydrates  7g 8g
Fiber  1g 1g
Sugar  2mg 1g
Sodium  170mg 290mg
Protein  26g  22g
Calcium  100mg 14mg
Potassium   270mg 237mg 

Nutritional Similarities

It’s important to bear in mind that every brand of protein powder—whether plant- or animal-based—comes with its own formulation of ingredients. Therefore, nutrition similarities and differences between powders can vary widely.

However, in general, animal and plant protein powders do have a lot in common, nutritionally. Calorie counts per scoop are often quite close between the two—around 150 to 175 calories per serving. And since protein powder isn’t a food most people eat in large quantities, calorie differences probably won’t have a large impact on your overall daily intake. Carb count and fat grams are also (often) fairly equivalent between the two but can depend on added ingredients like sweeteners and flavorings.

Nutritional Differences

Since animal products tend to contain more protein than plants, it’s no surprise that animal-based protein powders are typically higher in protein than their vegetarian counterparts. While not a guarantee, powders with an animal protein base often contain significantly more protein—4 grams more per serving in the brands we compared. If getting as much protein as possible is your goal, you may want to reach for a powder made with whey, casein, eggs, or collagen.

You’ll also find micronutrient differences between the two types of powders. Those derived from the milk products casein and whey are more likely to contain calcium than those made from plants, for example. But depending on the formulation of the brand you buy, a plant-based powder might contain higher amounts of other micronutrients like potassium or iron.

Another micronutrient of concern: sodium. Protein powders can be surprisingly high in this mineral—especially plant-based options that add it to boost flavor. The body needs sodium to perform lots of essential functions, but too much of it can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. If you’re watching your sodium intake, be sure to read nutrient labels on protein powders and choose one with a lower sodium level.

Health Benefits of Animal Protein Powder

Provides All Amino Acids

Let’s revisit high school biology for a moment—remember essential amino acids? “The nine essential amino acids cannot be produced by the body, which is why we must get them from food sources,” explains registered dietitian Caroline Thomason. “Animal-based protein is the easiest source to consume all essential amino acids at once.” Some plant-based may supply complete protein—but most do not.

May Be Better For Workout Recovery

For some people, adding a plant-or animal-based protein powder to a smoothie or energy bites is merely a matter of taste preference. But for athletes, an animal product powder may make a smarter choice. “Studies show animal protein in general and whey protein powder, in particular, is more effective at stimulating muscle synthesis after exercise,” says dietitian Anne Danahy, MS, RDN, of Craving Something Healthy. “However, I think for the average consumer who isn't an athlete or bodybuilder, the difference probably isn't that significant. What's more important is to get your protein from a variety of food sources and not rely solely on supplements.”

Health Benefits of Plant Protein Powder

May Contain More Fiber

In a tablespoon-sized scoop, plant-based protein powders may not contain tons of fiber, but they do typically have an edge over animal-based powders. Some soy powders, for example, boast up to 3 grams of fiber per serving.

Getting more fiber in your diet in the long-term can yield some impressive benefits like amplifying weight loss and reducing your risk of type two diabetes and colon cancer.

May Be Easier to Digest

Each person’s digestive tract is unique, but for some, plant-based protein powders may go down easier than those made with animal products—especially dairy. “Dairy—such as whey and casein powders—can cause bloating or stomach upset,” says Thomason. However, this isn’t necessarily true for everyone. “For others, plant-sources like beans, legumes, or soy may be hard to digest or cause gas and bloating.” To determine which powder is easiest on your system, you may need to do some experimenting. 

Suitable For Vegans and Vegetarians

The most obvious difference between these two powders (the fact that one contains animal products and the other does not) is a benefit in itself for people on a vegetarian or vegan diet. If you’ve chosen to take animal products out of your diet, you’ll want to stick to protein powders made from plants.

Uses and Taste

Nutrition and health benefits of various protein powders matter, of course, but so does taste! Even though protein powder usually isn’t a key ingredient for creating a signature flavor, it’s important to like the flavor of any product you choose. “All products will have taste differences, so try a few sample sizes of different brands before you commit,” recommends Danahy. When possible, avoid products that contain artificial sweeteners and flavors.

In addition to affecting taste, different powders may lend themselves well to different culinary preparations. “Some people find whey protein blends smoother and easier, while plant proteins can be grainier or chalkier when mixed with liquid,” Danahy notes. “I find either type of protein powder works very well in protein bars or energy bite snacks.”

Potential Concerns

Although protein powders can be a valuable addition to your diet, they are technically a processed food. To choose the best one for your needs, read ingredient labels carefully.

Artificial Ingredients and Additives

Many protein powders, especially those with flavors like cake batter or cookie dough, use artificial ingredients. “Many protein powders are artificially sweetened or have many additives,” says Thomason. Search for a wholesome option that has minimal ingredients and a significant source of protein—20 g per serving.”

Soy-Based Protein Products and GMOs

When choosing a plant-based protein powder, you may also have specific concerns about products that contain soy. “Some people worry about soy's estrogenic properties, although there's much debate about whether it's harmful. Soy is also a major allergen, so not everyone can tolerate it,” says Danahy.

Genetic modification adds more controversy to the mix. “Most soybeans grown in the US are genetically modified, so unless it says organic or non-GMO, your soy protein will have GMOs,” says Danahy. Research on the impact of GMOs on the environment and health is mixed, so whether to eat them (in protein powders or elsewhere) is a personal decision.

A Word from Verywell

If you’re an athlete, an older adult, or anyone else who needs extra protein in your diet, both animal- and plant-based powders can provide a convenient boost. Depending on your health goals and taste preferences, you can choose the one that makes sense for you.

If you have concerns about your protein needs or about which protein powder may be best for you, consider speaking with a registered dietitian. At Verywell, we use our Dietary Supplement Methodology to inform which protein powders we recommend.

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