Which Is Healthier, Hemp Protein or Whey Protein?

Whey protein powder has long been a favorite among athletes and fitness enthusiasts. In fact, this market was worth over $10 billion in 2018. Recently, a new trend has emerged in the fitness community as more customers are seeking dairy-free alternatives to whey, such as hemp protein powder. But what's the difference between the two and which one offers the most nutrition?

Hemp protein powder is higher in fiber, antioxidants and omega-3s compared to whey.
Credit: marekuliasz/iStock/GettyImages

Read more: 7 Popular Protein Myths Totally Busted by Science

Whey Protein at a Glance

This type of protein is prized for its high nutritional value and easy digestibility. It also comes in various forms, such as whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate and hydrolyzed whey. Each has a different absorption rate and varying amounts of lactose. Whey concentrate is 35 percent to 80 percent protein by weight, while isolate is more than 90 percent protein; hydrolyzed whey is the lowest in allergens and the easiest to digest, according to Examine.

Whey provides all nine essential amino acids, including the three branched-chain amino acids leucine, valine and isoleucine. Its nutritional value, though, varies from one brand to another. In general, one scoop of whey protein powder contains:

  • 100 calories
  • 20 grams of carbs
  • 20 grams of protein
  • 0 grams of fat
  • 9 percent of the RDA of calcium

Some brands, such as Gold Standard 100% Whey, are higher in protein and lower in carbs. This product, for example, delivers 24 grams of protein, 4 grams of carbs, 1 gram of fat and 120 calories per serving. Sugar- and lactose-free whey protein supplements are available too.

What Are the Benefits?

Without a doubt, whey protein is one of the most widely researched supplements on the market. According to a 2015 review article published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology, this food product may suppress appetite, promote lean muscle growth, protect against oxidative stress and improve glycemic control. Athletes and dieters often use it as a meal replacement or weight loss aid as well as a natural performance enhancer.

A 2014 clinical trial featured in Nutrition Research indicates that whey protein is more effective at regulating appetite and improving body composition aka muscle-to-fat ratio compared to soy protein. Another study, which was published in the journal Food & Function in 2017, has found that whey stimulates the growth of healthy gut bacteria and may provide relief from digestive disorders. Furthermore, it has been proven effective against obesity.

Is Hemp Protein Powder Healthy?

Vegans, as well as people who are allergic to milk or suffering from lactose intolerance, can opt for plant-based protein formulas. Hemp protein powder, for instance, is made from the seeds of the Cannabis sativa L. plant. According to a 2018 article published in Today's Dietician, these tiny seeds are rich in fiber, phytosterols, antioxidants and monounsaturated fatty acids; protein accounts for 20 to 25 percent of their content.

Read more: 13 Surprising Vegetarian Sources of Protein

Research shows that hemp seeds promote cardiovascular health due to their ability to lower blood pressure and reduce cholesterol levels. The same article points out that their amino acid profile is similar to that of egg whites and soybeans. Hemp appears to be an excellent source of cysteine, methionine, arginine and other amino acids that support physical performance and general well-being. Depending on the brand, one scoop provides the following nutrients in varying amounts:

  • 113 calories
  • 12.6 grams of protein
  • 7 grams of carbs
  • 4.8 grams of fiber
  • 3.4 grams of fat
  • 15 percent of the RDA of calcium
  • 23 percent of the RDA of iron

Like whey, hemp contains all nine essential amino acids. As far as hemp protein digestion goes, this supplement is slowly absorbed into the GI tract, fueling your body over several hours. Therefore, you may consume it between meals or before bedtime to provide your muscles with a steady supply of protein. It's important to note, though, that hemp has a lower biological value compared to whey.

Potential Health Benefits of Hemp

From facial creams and soaps to veggie burgers, hemp is used in a wide range of products. Some sources say that it has over 20,000 industrial applications. Yet research on this plant has been legal only since 2014, so its health benefits are still being studied. Most clinical trials involved hemp seeds, not hemp protein.

According to a 2015 research article published in the Journal of Food Processing, the functional properties of hemp protein isolate are poorer compared to those of soy protein isolate. Hemp, though, contains bioactive peptides and other natural compounds that scavenge free radicals. Additionally, this plant is rich in fiber and omega-3s. High-fiber diets promote digestive health, lower cholesterol levels and help keep blood sugar within normal limits.

The essential fatty acids in hemp protein may help to prevent and relieve inflammation, improve cardiovascular function, and protect against cognitive decline and age-related brain disorders. Other studies point out that hemp protein isolate is unlikely to cause allergic reactions because all known hemp allergens are eliminated during processing.

Hemp Protein vs. Whey Protein

It's hard to choose a winner in the hemp protein vs. whey protein debate. Hemp is lower in protein than whey but contains more fiber, calcium, iron and healthy fats. Additionally, it's packed with phytonutrients and antioxidants that cannot be obtained from milk and dairy.

Read more: 10 Vegan Protein Sources - Some Will Surprise You

Whey protein powder, on the other hand, has proven health benefits. Thousands of studies confirm its ability to reduce body fat, improve blood lipids and stimulate muscle growth. Some formulas are lactose free, so they can be safely consumed by those with lactose intolerance.

At the end of the day, the choice is up to you. If you don't eat animal foods or have trouble digesting milk, consider using hemp protein powder. It's a simple, effective way to boost your daily protein intake, get more fiber in your diet and fill up on omega-3s. Whey is lower in antioxidants and contains no fiber, but it has a faster absorption rate and delivers more protein per serving.

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