We all know powders and shakes are among the most efficient ways (calorie-wise) for getting that much needed protein post-workout.

However, both the animal and plant-based products have their drawbacks.

Animal sources

Many are saying “no way” to whey because of the disgusting side effect of excess gas. Sure, protein farts can and do happen with any source, but the consensus among reviews tends to be that whey in particular might produce more and also create worse odors.

But whether it’s whey, casein, or another animal-derived source, there are a whole host of health concerns to consider.

One of the largest, longest, and most comprehensive studies ever done on human nutrition is what’s been coined the “The China Study.” 6,500 people, in 65 different counties throughout China, measuring 367 variables over a period of 20 years.

Not to mince words, the conclusions were clear: there are animal sources of protein which reportedly promote cancer growth. Plus, strong correlations with heart disease and a laundry list of other nasty things. These supposedly were the reason why Bill Clinton went vegan (though as is the pattern in his life, we hear that Slick Willie cheats on his diet, too). The China Study by Dr. T. Colin Campbell is one of the bestselling nutrition books.

The late Dr. William Harris had extensively studied the various plant vs. animal food studies and published the following charts from them:

charts showing correlation between meat/dairy and cancer rates

The cholesterol is often fairly high in the whey and casein products. That’s especially problematic for bodybuilders who may be using 3, 4, or more scoops per day. They may be maxing out on the daily intake of cholesterol from just powder use alone. Since only animals produce cholesterol, it’s a problem that’s unique to this category.

L arginine is considered a semi-essential/conditionally-essential amino acid. Even though humans can synthesize it, the reason it’s considered essential sometimes is because health conditions and age can affect how much you produce.

Bodybuilders and athletes will be interested in hearing that some clinical studies have suggested arginine may boost performance.

chemical structures of the 3 branched chain amino acidsIt has been claimed to stimulate the release of growth hormone (1). In resistance trained men, when 1.2 grams was ingested along with 1.2 grams of lysine, peak plasma of growth hormones were 800% higher after 90 minutes (2). The same effect was not seen when these 2 amino acids were used separately.

Dietary intake of it is important because unlike the other non-essentials, the rate of arginine synthesis in our body does not go up to compensate for when we’re not eating enough of it.

Unfortunately as you will see in its amino acid breakdown below, whey is a terrible source of arginine. Brown rice, pea, hemp, and pumpkin seed proteins all have 200-400% more than whey protein isolate.

The best thing whey has going for it is its high amount of BCAAs, which are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These are vital for building muscle. Some plant sources have significantly lower concentrations of them.

Plant sources

As you will see below, when you compare the amino acid profiles of whey protein versus hemp and pumpkin seed, the latter two have much less of the BCAAs. That’s their biggest pitfall.

What may be the most common vegan source, brown rice protein, isn’t exactly a model or perfection either, but for a different reason; levels of arsenic and cadmium can be alarmingly high in rice powders.

You may assume pollution among Chinese grown crops is the culprit – and that is a major cause – but even when it’s grown in the good ol’ USA that can still occur.

It’s not the fault of farmers or manufacturers (though we do fault manufacturers who don’t regularly test the raw ingredients they buy). The reason is because of how the rice plant’s roots are designed to take up as much silicate as possible, which is a natural substance found in soil that the plants use to strengthen their stems (3). Guess what’s similar in size and structure to silicate? Arsenic compounds.

So naturally, rice often times has higher levels than many other foods. It’s why you may want to reduce consumption of rice protein if you’re currently consuming a few scoops per day. Fortunately, the best vegan protein powders on the market use a blend of different sources, so you’re getting a fractional amount of it.

Though to be clear, brown rice is actually a perfect protein so long as it’s grown in areas without arsenic in the soil. But due to pollution, as well as naturally high levels in some regions, forgoing the best brown rice in favor of cheaper sources is a shortcut made by many manufacturers.

We’re not even going to bother including soy protein in this match-up. Most people shy away from it these days and we think that’s justified if you’re a man, given that it’s one of the highest estrogen foods (as in phytoestrogens, which can sometimes mimic the effects of human estrogen).

differences and similarities between estrogen and phytoestrogen

In the aforementioned estrogen foods list where we studied the 100 highest sources, you will be relieved to hear it’s really only flax, soy, and sesame to be concerned about in high amounts, if you’re a guy. Flaxseeds have about 3 times more phytoestrogen than raw soybeans and 13 times more than tofu.

For a food that does not contain those 3 ingredients, you would have to go all the way down to #16 on the list, which is doughnuts. Those measure at 2,904 versus 379,380 for flaxseeds (µg per 100g). In other words, flax is 130x higher than doughnuts.

So all other foods without flax/soy/sesame rank over 99% lower than the highest source.

As a guy, there is nothing wrong with eating tofu or tempeh a couple times per week. Flax in bread or oatmeal isn’t a worry either, given that the seeds only represent a small part of the ingredients (the aforementioned measurement was how much phytoestrogens are in 100 grams or about 3.5 ounces of seeds, which is a lot).

fat man

This? Thanks, but no thanks.

However chugging pure soy protein isolate a couple times daily might not be the best idea, at least if you’re a guy and don’t want man boobs (gynaecomastia). How much or how little soy can influence that is highly debatable, but the research does seem to suggest prudent precaution – only moderate consumption – is warranted.

When bodybuilders develop man boobs, evidence suggests it’s often caused by androgens AKA steroid use of testosterone, nandrolone, and danazol (4).

But even if soy’s phytoestrogen effects are greatly exaggerated, the protein bars and similar fortified sources that add the isolate are often using non-organic soy, which typically is made using hexane-extraction methods (a bad volatile solvent). Plus, the fact that soy is a major allergen gives us other reasons to cross soy powder off the list.

Though in all fairness, demonizing soy (or flax and sesame) is biased because reportedly it “turns out your “hormone-free” milk is full of sex hormonessuch as estrogen (5). And one would presume that estrogen from a cow’s milk is more closely related to human estrogen, when compared to the types produced by some plants. We are unaware of any studies to measure if whey protein isolate (derived from milk) contains elevated levels of hormones or not.

Animal vs. plant, who wins?

When you consider the pros and cons of plant vs. animal proteins, it’s easy to cherry pick research to make the case for either side. Both potentially have drawbacks.

handful of brown rice grainTaking them all into account, the winner may be brown rice as long as its safely sourced.

It actually has more total grams of protein on a per calorie basis when compared to whey. And for those who don’t believe plant sources can provide adequate amounts of the branched chain aminos, know that brown rice actually exceeds the amount of BCAAs found in whey for 2 out of the 3 (isoleucine and valine). For leucine, whey is higher but only by less than one-half of a percentage point.

Yellow pea protein is another excellent choice. Its drawback is that just like whey, it’s well known for causing gas (more than some of the other vegan sources). However, most people are in agreement that the smells from pea are not nearly as bad as the farts you get from whey or casein. Of course, your experiences may totally differ, but that’s generally the consensus.

A new option; pumpkin seed powder

bag of pumpkin seed proteinThis is definitely the one that people are least familiar with, so we will fill you in on some of its benefits.

Is pumpkin seed protein complete? Whether you’re a bodybuilder or any other athlete, it’s probably the first question on your mind.

You will be relieved to hear the answer is yes. How does it compare? Below we review its amino acid profile versus hemp, whey, brown rice, and pea.

Protein is not the only thing Mr. Jack O’Lantern has going for him. The reported health benefits of pumpkin seeds are particularly attractive to men and they include…

1. Libido benefits

There’s a good reason why we have it on our list of superfoods for men. They’re a potent source of the amino acid L-arginine, which plays an important role in our body’s synthesis of nitric oxide. A double-blind and placebo controlled study of men with ED found a “significant improvement” in the group receiving 5 grams of L-arginine supplements (6).

Guess what else has 5 grams of L-arginine? About 3.5 ounces of pepitas (shelled seeds). That’s what the powder is made from.

2. Alkaline-forming

One of the major benefits of apple cider vinegar is that its alkalizing, which means it may help your create a more basic environment in your body. Compare that to animal sources of protein like whey, which are almost always acid-forming.

What else is alkaline forming? Pumpkin seeds.

3. Supports sleep

man with insomniaAnother amino acid it contains plentiful amounts of is tryptophan. That one is particularly important when it comes to sleep, since our body needs it for creating serotonin, which is then converted to the “sleep hormone” melatonin.

4. Vitamins

While they have small amounts of all the B-complex vitamins (excluding B12) and vitamin K (important for bone health) the real standout is the antioxidant vitamin E.

Citing the exact amount per serving is difficult, because research has shown that vitamin E content varies greatly among different varieties of the species used for food, Cucurbita pepo L. (7).

How much vitamin E there is in pumpkin seeds, the version with the whole shell, is 35.10 mg per 100 grams. That’s 237% of your daily value. However a typical serving is a fraction of that size.

Vitamin E content for pepitas is not measured by the USDA, but whether you’re eating the whole or shelled seeds, what’s most intriguing are the forms of vitamin E they contain.

Less of the common alpha-tocopherol, but lots of other forms such as alpha-tocomonoenol, gamma-tocomonoenol, delta-tocopherol, and gamma-tocopherol. Some of these have been only recently discovered and are being researched for possible additional benefits (8).

5. Mineral-rich

A quarter cup of whole seeds will clock in at 180 calories and provide you with ample amounts of essential minerals:

  • manganese – 74% of RDI
  • phosphorus – 57%
  • magnesium – 48%
  • copper – 48%
  • zinc – 23%
  • iron – 16%

How their nutrition compares

Let’s start by comparing the nutrition facts for the best types of protein. As you know, most brands use a combination of ingredients (flavorings, things to make them creamy, etc.). In order to keep this comparison apples to apples, we chose a pure source for each. Yes, the whey does have a minuscule amount of soy lecithin, but that’s because they all have lecithin, which is an emulsifier needed to keep the powder from sticking together.

Pumpkin Whey Hemp Pea Brown Rice
Source Sprout Living Pumpkin Seed Protein Powder Jarrow Formulas Whey Protein Nutiva Hemp Protein Now Foods Pea Protein Powder Sunwarrior  Classic Brown Rice Protein
Ingredients cold-pressed pumpkin seed powder (organic) 100% ultrafiltered whey protein from milk and soy lecithin organic hemp protein non-GMO pea protein isolate [from yellow peas (Pisum sativum)] raw whole grain brown rice protein (organic)
Calories Per Serving 110 94 90  120  80
Protein (g) 19 18 15  24  17
Total Fat (g) 2 2 3  2  0
Cholesterol (mg) 0 50 (17% of DV) 0  0  0
Sodium (mg) 2 40 0  330  25
Carbs (g) 3 2 9 1  2
Fiber (g) 3 0 8 0  0
Calcium (% DV) 4% 10% 0 2%  0
Iron (% DV) 40% 2% 40%  35%  15
Vitamin A 0 2% 0 0  0
Vitamin C 0 0 0 0  0

As you see, how much protein there is in pumpkin seed protein is right on par with whey. True, the dairy-derived source does have a slightly higher concentration on a per calorie basis, but they’re neck and neck.

Where the pumpkin clearly beats it however is in fiber (3 grams vs. none) and cholesterol. A lot of men we know will use 2 scoops per shake, which means they’re getting 1/3 of the daily max for cholesterol from just that alone.

Keep in mind that humans don’t need any dietary cholesterol, as our body produces what we need. The excess we get from food is what causes those nasty cardiovascular side effects.

muscular man and womanHemp loses with protein but wins with fiber. Zero fiber is bad, but 8 grams might be overkill if you’re using 2+ scoops at a time.

A healthy amount of fiber reduces bloating and helps you stay regular. However all the food marketing fails to mention that there is such thing as too much fiber, which can cause stomach aches for many people.

For iron, whey is the real loser with a measly 2%, while the others provide up to 40% of your daily value per serving.

Amino acid profiles

In order to make the comparison as accurate as possible, we have re-calculated the amounts based on a 100 calorie serving for each type of protein (which is different than the serving sizes listed on their labels). All amounts listed below are in grams.

Pumpkin Whey Hemp Pea Brown Rice
Essential Amino Acids
Isoleucine (BCAA) 0.77 1.16 0.56 0.91 1.24
Leucine (BCAA) 1.21 1.94 0.89 1.67 1.93
Valine (BCAA) 0.60 1.09 0.78 0.99 1.28
Phenylalanine 0.77 0.65 0.56 1.10 0.93
Methionine 0.33 0.47 0.33 0.18 0.49
Lysine 0.60 1.61 0.44 1.50 1.09
Tryptophan 0.20 0.45 0.11 0.18 0.33
Threonine 0.48 1.31 0.78 0.78 1.01
Arginine (Semi-Essential) 2.25 0.45 2.67 1.70 1.45
Histidine 0.38 0.35 0.56 0.49 0.48
Non-Essential Amino Acids
Alanine 0.74 0.94 0.56 0.81 1.04
Aspartic Acid 1.23 2.52 2.00 2.35 1.93
Cysteine 0.25 0.54 0.33 0.30 0.51
Glutamine + Glutamic Acid 2.65 3.45 3.11 3.57 3.66
Glycine 0.94 0.35 0.56 0.82 0.67
Proline 0.60 1.12 0.78 0.87 1.30
Serine 0.73 0.94 0.89 1.04 1.05
Tyrosine 0.75 0.57 0.44 0.75 0.87
Total Protein Per 100 Calories 17.27 19.15 16.67 20.00 21.25
Source Sprout Living Pumpkin Seed Protein Powder Jarrow Formulas Whey Protein Nutiva Hemp Protein Now Foods Pea Protein Powder Sunwarrior  Classic Brown Rice Protein

There are benefits and drawbacks for each type. For those currently only doing whey isolate, it may be a good idea to reduce consumption and supplement with another plant source or two. Especially the men out there, given the above plant sources provide exponentially higher amounts of L arginine (remember the libido and athletic benefits that research suggests for it).

For purely plant-based or vegan protein, brown rice as a stand alone is actually ideal. Though to hedge your risks against the possibility of higher arsenic levels, we recommend using it as part of a blend (such as pea + pumpkin seed + brown rice). And as far as soy isolate, that one is a total disaster for hardcore supplementation. Though an occasional protein bar containing it is nothing to fret over.