Gone with the Wind: Whey-Based Protein and its Vegan Counterpart

Protein. Not to get all technical, but it’s weird stuff. Yes, you grew bored of protein in 4th period Biology, and your eyes glazed as the word began to appear all over boxes of your formerly favorite breakfast cereal. But from the ordinary to the wondrous—that is, from your awkward new haircut to the transcription of your DNA—protein is in the middle of the riddle; is driving Life’s Wonder Bus with both hands on the wheel. Proteins catalyze chemical reactions necessary to life, carry marching orders to various parts of the body to coordinate hormonal changes, produce insulin, and oversee a range of other biochemical business.

Guts and Glue

Protein materially makes up about 15% of the body’s physical mass, comprising our toenails, our hair, our skin, and the gooey connective stuff that hold our organs in place, as any annoyed surgeon will attest. Without protein, the human body would be little more than a bag full of inactive chemical sludge. If, when looking in the mirror, you feel your body is already a bag full of inactive chemical sludge, it’s time for the gym. And that is where protein puts on its public face, in the form of protein supplements. Significantly, protein builds bodily tissue, most spectacularly muscle, when that is the proactive goal. Proteins are made of amino acids. There are 20 known amino acids, and our lazy bodies only produce 10 of them. The other 10 we have to find in food and push down the pie hole. Meat, veggies, fruit, nuts, grains…you know the drill. Again, one can use a protein supplement to fill those gaps.

Though whey-based protein is the default in the consumer space, should it be? What’s the difference between the whey-based protein supplement—the one that dominates the shelves of nutrition outlets—and the plant-based supplements now slowly gaining traction? The fact is, a properly formulated plant-based protein supplement carries the same essential amino acids as its whey counterpart, and without some of the worrisome additives native to whey processing. Let’s compare and contrast these two sources of supplemental powdered protein. 

Whey’s Ill Wind

Whey protein is animal based. Derived from cow’s milk during the cheese making process, it is filtered and separated, and dried into a powder. That’s the short version. As a bovine milk by-product, whey protein is helpfully loaded with all the essential amino acids you need. It is also loaded with some other stuff; a lactose blow to the gut, for one. Whey protein is, among other things, a lactose delivery system, bloating the stomach and producing by-flatulence. As in “Don’t walk by, I have terrible flatulence.”

Whey protein is also typically treated with flavor additives like sucralose, or acesulfame potassium, a sweetening compound whose production uses methylene chloride, found by the FDA in the 70s to be a carcinogen when sufficiently concentrated. Furthermore, the separation of the animal protein in whey from the dairy biomass requires heavy processing that degrades the protein in the whey and/or decreases the percentage of total protein present in the finished product. Lastly, the antibiotics routinely administered to dairy cows makes its way into the milk, and thus into the whey protein supplement. The whey protein industry has been able to mitigate these negatives somewhat, and that is reflected in the sliding scale of whey protein product pricing. The more expensive the whey product, the least affected it is by the processing. In other words, the consumer pays more as the whey’s protein content approaches “baseline”.

Whole Grain and Buff

A plant-based protein supplement is as uncomplicated and lightly processed as one would suppose. Plant matter, being native to the human diet for eons, is easier to digest than cow’s milk, and its protein more readily metabolized. And though plant-based protein requires a combining of plants to create an amino acid arsenal equal in potency to that of whey, a much-referenced 2013 study conclusively found that whole grain brown rice protein yields the same results in muscle mass building, exercise recovery and strength increase as whey. Leucine, the so-called muscle-swelling “branched amino acid” that makes whey such a hit with weight trainers, is present in whole grain brown rice. Who knew? 48 grams of brown rice protein a day and you’re on your way to serious, lactose-free buffitude. And you won’t clear the circuit room while doing squats.

Carnivores are known to shy away from plant-based protein supplements, but this may just be a consumer persona issue. Remember, partaking of provably effective, plant-based, vegan protein doesn’t mean you have to throw your arms around a tree or give up Tri-Tip. It just means the protein supplement part of your life is carbon-lite, and is not contributing to insanely assymetric resource depletion associated with livestock.

Best of all, when the plant-based protein hits your biology, it will be welcomed as a very old friend. And aren’t very old friends the best?


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