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Whey Protein vs Hemp: Your Best Choice

As you get older, it is important to eat enough protein to keep your bones and muscles strong. You might be looking at protein powders and considering whey protein vs hemp.

Let’s take a look at these two protein sources. What is the difference, and which one is right for you? 

A Primer on Proteins

First, a reminder about how protein is made. Your body takes molecules called amino acids and combines them in chains that take on the unique characteristics of each protein. There are only 20 or or so amino acids, but they are combined in a different order for every protein.

You can make some of the amino acids in your body. Others need to come from the food you eat. These are the essential amino acids.

Nutrition in Whey Protein

Whey is an animal product that comes from milk, which can be from a cow, sheep, goat, camel, or other mammal. It is the liquid that is left when you separate the solid curds from milk. 

All the essential amino acids are present in whey in the amounts your body needs to make protein. This form of protein is bioavailable, meaning it is easy for your body to use.  It is also easy to digest and absorb.

Other nutrients in whey protein include calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, selenium, choline and B vitamins (1).

Whey protein contains a lot of sulfurous amino acids that are important for detoxification. It has a number of bioactive peptides with beneficial properties. For instance, lactoferrin is a molecule in whey that can inhibit growth of bad gut bacteria.  Other bioactive peptides in whey have antioxidant and immune modulation effects (2).  

Whey Protein Isolates and Hydrolysates

Sometimes whey is ultra filtered and fractionated through membranes. The result is whey protein concentrate. This can have up to 80% protein. An additional purification step to remove more fats and carbohydrates results in whey protein isolate, which is 90% protein.

Concentrates and isolates are still large protein molecules. They need to be broken down in the digestive tract. However, manufacturers sometimes predigest protein by treating it with acid, enzymes or heat.

This process breaks the whey down into amino acids and peptides which are easily and rapidly absorbed. These are called whey hydrolysates (2).

Whey products may have a slightly different protein content per serving, depending on how the powder is manufactured. However the USDA Food Database reports ⅓ cup whey protein powder has 25 grams of protein (1).

Nutrition in Hemp Protein

Hemp protein comes from the seed of the Cannabis sativa plant. This type of protein is plant-based and vegan.

Hemp contains all of the essential amino acids. However like many plant proteins, not all of them stack up to the same amounts as an animal product. A handful of amino acids are there only in amounts below what the body needs to make a complete protein.

The amino acid  in hemp that ends up limiting the production of protein is lysine. This means that when your body is using hemp protein, it runs out of lysine first (3).    

You can fix this by pairing hemp up with pea, soy or microalgae protein, which contain plenty of lysine (4).   

Hemp protein is an especially good source of arginine, an amino acid that is important for cardiovascular health. It also contains significant amounts of methionine, a sulfur-based amino acid that is deficient in many types of plant-based protein.

Some plant proteins have anti-nutrients, such as phytates, that make them hard to digest. This is not the case with hemp. In fact, hemp has a digestibility over 90%, which is similar to milk protein. 

Hemp has low allergenicity and is a low histamine food (5). This food also contains potassium, iron, calcium and a significant amount of fiber (6).

Hemp protein has a very healthy 3:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties. Research also shows hemp seed protein hydrolysates are powerful antioxidants (5). You might need to get a a hydrolysate form (see the description in the whey section above) in order to activate some of these properties.

The USDA Food Database lists Bob’s Red Mill Hemp Protein Powder as having 12 grams of protein per ¼ cup (6).  

The Bottom Line

If you eat animal products and can tolerate milk, whey protein provides more of the essential amino acids that you need to build muscle. 

Hemp protein does not provide all of the essential amino acids you need for muscle-building. You need to supplement it with another type of protein like pea protein, containing the amino acids that are insufficient in hemp.

If you do not eat dairy or animal products in general, hemp is a good choice for a protein powder. It is highly digestible, and you get a bonus of omega-3 essential fatty acids. 

Hemp is a good choice for vegans and vegetarians, and people who can’t tolerate dairy or histamine. 

Both whey and hemp protein contain molecules with antioxidant properties, and various healthy bioactive compounds. They are both healthy foods, but the choice just depends on what you want to eat, and what your body can handle.

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