Plant vs Whey Proteins in 2019: What you need to know

Although plant-based alternatives have made great strides within the field of sports nutrition whey protein isn’t going anywhere soon, says Annette Brune

Over the past few years we’ve seen a staggering rise in the number of people making the switch to plant-based diets and veganism as consumers become more open to the alternatives offered when they limit or exclude dairy products and meat. At the same time this has driven increasing debate centered on the use of whey and plant-based proteins in sports nutrition.

Whereas traditionally in sports nutrition protein was once derived from milk, latterly this has been replaced by whey as people in the health and wellness segment have become more conscious of what they consume. With a 600 percent increase in the number of Americans identifying as vegan in just over three years, numbers from Global Data bear that out too.

Whey the gold standard

As a result, whey has become the gold standard for protein within the health and wellness sector as it’s free from controversy and doesn’t come with any obesity connotations. Whey is also high in quality and easily absorbed for sports nutrition, with anabolic benefits, such as increased muscle protein synthesis and muscle growth, meaning it is ideal for athletes and consumers alike.

Yet, while it seems inconceivable today that just one percent of Americans identified as vegan back in 2014, a greater awareness of the health benefits of a plant-based diet is driving some sharp step changes in the market. Last year, research from Mintel revealed that non-dairy milk sales had grown by more than 61 percent in just five years, with figures topping more than $2bn in 2017. But when it comes to whey protein there are other drivers too.

Plant-based proteins and cost

While manufacturers are largely driven by changing consumer demands they must also consider other factors such as cost. Plant-based proteins, such as soy, are typically much cheaper than whey to produce and to date this remains the main predominant threat to whey in sports nutrition.

However, more recently this has had its detractors too, with opinions on genetically modified (GMO) soy differing widely depending on which country you reside in. The vast majority of soy, which is produced in the US, Brazil and Argentina is GM soy, but in Europe the reception from within the health and wellbeing community to this has been tepid at best.

This has seen increasing consumer demand for suppliers to look at alternatives such as pea protein. But these too come with certain caveats. Of course, there are issues here too in terms of production as it is seasonal. The main one being that the fitness industry and demand for sports nutrition isn’t. It’s all year round. Add to this its earthy flavour, which requires masking in the production process, and it’s easy to see why alternatives, such as pea protein, are up and coming.

In Asia, where many are lactose intolerant, rice protein is already viewed as a comfortable alternative, as it is part of the stable diet and produced there. This means it’s also popular for the market’s wider communities in the US, North American, Europe and Australia – where many manufacturers buy rice protein from compounders and blenders in Asia.

And while GM-free soy is available, this tends to be more of a specialized bean to produce, but one that is also increasingly attractive to farmers because of the prices involved. Indeed, according to a Rabobank Grain & Oilseeds update published last year, demand for “specialized” beans, such as organic, certified or plain non-GM, is expected to rise in line with consumers wanting to verify the sustainability of food production whilst tracking its origin.

The end for whey?

But does the overall trend towards a more plant-based diet and protein mean the end for whey? Not if consumers have anything to do with it. We are, of course, creatures of habit for the most part and many believe this will see us sticking with what we know – and view as an informed choice – for the foreseeable future.

According to, demand for whey saw it top the $9.4bn mark in 2017, with this expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.5% during the next four years. So, it’s not going away anytime soon. Add to this the effect of an emerging developing world sports nutrition landscape which relies on imports and, for now, takes its lead from the US, European, Canadian and Australian markets, and it becomes clearer to see how whey might remain the de-facto standard even if plant-based proteins seem attractive for cutting costs.

With soy and whey consumers are the winners

When evaluating what’s on the market, there is also a widespread held belief that consumers are already getting a good product that fits varied requirements, with a wide variety of choices available in terms of whey, milk and plant-based proteins. Consider amino acids and the twenty-two types used by the human body. With only thirteen able to be synthesized, the rest must be taken from dietary sources. Both soy and whey are what we refer to ‘complete’ proteins, as they contain the missing nine.

What can differ is the concentration of amino acids. Whey protein tends to have higher quantities of leucine, isoleucine, methionine, and lysine. Soy, on the other hand, has higher levels of arginine, phenylalanine, and tryptophan. Historically, this saw many bodybuilders choosing whey, as lysine was seen to aid muscle growth, while methionine was associated with accelerated fat loss.

Users will pay a premium

However, one thing remains clear. These products aren’t cheap and consumers who use sports nutrition are willing to pay a premium for it as they flex between brands offering different concentrations in protein and specific amino acids or additives such as glutamine. Looking at the supermarket shelves there is also a growing trend towards customers wanting specific minerals and vitamins in the form of capsules and gels, as they look to tailor their supplements to individual preferences and training requirements. Women are now playing a major part too, with more and more products appearing tailored specifically to weight loss and toning as this becomes one of the fastest growing sectors.

Back to the future?

Yet, despite changing consumer demand there is growing evidence of a definite reluctance on the part of suppliers to move away from whey proteins. As a bi-product of the cheese making process it is widely available all year round at ample volumes and at a price that suits. And while the demand is there it remains a compelling choice for producers worldwide.

Niche sources such as goat’s milk are definitely having an impact in some nutritionals categories, notably in China’s infant formula marketplace, but volume constraints are severe, so the extent to which they will have an impact as we move forward remains to be seen. One thing is for certain, even though plant-based alternatives are growing at astonishing rates, whey protein isn’t going anywhere soon.

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