Typically, when you think about a protein powder, your mind goes to whey. For decades, it’s been the gold standard and top choice for athletes, bodybuilders, and just about everyone in between.
But in more recent years, we’ve seen other superstars enter the market.
The protein you choose will ultimately boil down to your goals, budget, and whether you have food intolerances or preferences.
As the prevalence of dairy intolerance becomes more commonplace, in addition to more people turning to plant-based lifestyles, you see more and more people staying away from dairy-based products and shifting towards plant-based alternatives that are equally effective.
So, if you’ve been looking for a new protein powder and aren’t sure which side of the line you fall on, we’re going to give you a rundown of everything you need to know about whey protein and brown rice protein. By the time you’re done reading, the choice will be simple!
The Benefits Of A Protein Powder
One of the major selling points of a protein powder is obviously convenience. If you’re in a pinch for time or have just finished an intense workout, downing a protein shake is the easiest way to ensure you’re filling up on amino acids and not compromising the muscle you just worked so hard for.
But the reason athletes and fitness buffs love protein powders is because they serve as a concentrated source of all the amino acids required to build functional proteins.
And in general, they offer a concentrated source of complete protein; incomplete proteins do not contain all the essential amino acids needed to build proteins. Most single-origin plant proteins fall into the incomplete protein category.
These are the top 3 reasons having a good protein powder in your stack is great:
- Supports muscle growth—Amino acids form the basis of muscle tissue, and without adequate protein and amino acids coming in from your diet, your body is going to pull from endogenous stores (i.e., muscle). A good quality protein powder supplies all the amino acids, especially leucine, required to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and repair.
- Convenience—Don’t want to carry a chicken breast or beans around in your gym bag? A good protein powder offers ultra-convenience for those days when you don’t feel like a huge meal, don’t have time to cook, or just need something to tide you over between meals.
- Increases protein intake—Of the three macronutrients, protein is the most essential. While your body can survive with minimal carbohydrates, it can’t survive without protein. It serves as the structural and functional foundation for your body, and getting adequate amounts of it daily is critical to optimal body function. And if you follow a plant-based diet, getting enough protein each day can be challenging, never mind if your needs increase due to exercise.
Besides MPS, protein is also required for the synthesis of:
- Digestive enzymes
- Transport molecules
- Structural proteins
- Immune defense molecules
- Contractile proteins
- Storage molecules
See why we’re so partial to protein?
Whey vs. Brown Rice Protein
Now let’s get to the goods. If you’ve narrowed your search down to whey and brown rice, here’s what you need to know about both of them.
Whey protein is undoubtedly one of the go-to protein sources for any athlete or fitness lover. It's a rich source of leucine, the most important essential amino acid for muscle protein synthesis, and offers a highly bioavailable complete source of protein.
Studies show that whey powder induces a dramatic but short-term increase in plasma amino acid concentrations and stimulates postprandial protein synthesis by 68% compared to 31% after casein consumption 1.
The speed of protein digestion and amino acid absorption from the gut has a major role in whole-body protein anabolism. Compared to casein, whey protein elicits higher whole-body leucine oxidation over 7 hours, supporting why whey is so popular post-workout.
And that’s not all.
One study sought to investigate the effects of various types of protein ingestion on mixed muscle protein synthesis (MPS) at rest and following resistance exercise in young men.
Following strength training, participants consumed an equivalent amino acid content (10g) from either whey hydrolysate, micellar casein, or soy protein isolate 2.
Ingestion of whey protein resulted in a more significant increase in blood essential amino acids, branched-chain amino acids, and leucine concentrations than casein or soy. Mixed MPS at rest and MPS, in general, were both higher for whey over casein and soy proteins.
Despite the speed of protein digestion and absorption between whey and soy, whey hydrolysate stimulated MPS more significantly than soy after resistance exercise, which may be attributed to the digestion speed and higher leucine concentrations 2.
Brown Rice Protein
This one may come as a surprise to you, and if you’re a fan of animal-based proteins, it’s probably not even on your radar, but brown rice protein is ranking pretty high up on the scales in terms of efficacy and, more recently, taste.
As the long-standing champ of protein powders, it may be time for whey to step down.
Plant-based proteins have always been considered inferior to animal-based protein powders due to varying concentrations of amino acids and lacing the appropriate ratios to induce MPS; lower EAA contents and a lack of sufficient leucine, lysine, and/or methionine may be responsible for the lower anabolic capacity of plant-based proteins 3.
And although the average essential amino acid contents of plant proteins are generally lower than animal-based proteins and human skeletal muscle protein, certain plant-based proteins appear to have a relatively high essential amino acid content.
This suggests they could theoretically provide sufficient essential amino acids to allow for post-prandial stimulation of MPS.
Brown rice protein is one that falls into that category.
Compared to whey protein concentrates that are generally 75-80% protein, Oryzatein—is roughly 79% total amino acids (TAA) by weight.
However, it is important to note that whey protein isolate contains 46% EAA and 22% BCAA and is a richer source of isoleucine, leucine, lysine, and threonine but lacks phenylalanine 4.
Here is something else that might shock you. Oryzatein-80 brown rice concentrate contains 77% TAA by weight, 36% EAA, and 18% BCAA, quite similar to the brown rice isolate.
Not bad for a plant protein! Whey protein concentrate, on the other hand, contains 99% TAA, 53% EAA, and 24% BCAA 4.
So, while it may seem that whey protein is superior in terms of essential amino acids and BCAAs that are a critical part of muscle growth, whey protein can often cause gastric issues for people sensitive to dairy lactose, making it a bit of a questionable choice.
What’s Better - Whey or Brown Rice Protein?
Based on available studies looking at the effects of whey protein versus brown rice protein, whey may offer some additional benefits in terms of essential amino acid concentrations. Still, the overall benefits between the two are mostly comparable.
But not so fast. There are several areas where brown rice protein may have the upper hand to whey:
- It’s not genetically modified
- It does not contain lactose, which can be difficult for some to digest
- Not derived from animals treated with growth hormones, anabolic steroids, estrogens and other hormones, antibiotics, and chemicals that may negatively affect human health
- It’s hypoallergenic for people who are sensitive to gluten, dairy, corn, soy, and eggs
- Fast absorbing making it an ideal choice for post-workout nutrition
And if that wasn’t enough, the benefits received from consuming either whey protein or rice may not be all that different.
A study by the University of Tampa looked at 24 college-aged, resistance-trained males supplementing 48g of rice or whey protein isolate on training days completed three times per week for eight weeks 4.
While rice protein did not show any significant improvements over whey, what’s interesting is that there were minimal differences between the two groups in terms of psychometric scores of perceived recovery, soreness, or readiness to train.
Researchers concluded that higher doses of rice protein (48 g) are comparable to an equally high dose of whey protein in its effects on body composition and exercise performance after resistance training, eliciting changes in strength and body composition similar to whey protein isolate.
What’s more, Oryzatein is the only rice protein with 3rd-party clinical trials showing it acts as a complete protein and has been shown to be as good as whey for building muscles and aiding exercise recovery.
Leucine, one of the key amino acids involved in MPS, was clinically shown to be absorbed 30% faster from Oryzatein than leucine from whey protein.
What To Look For In A Protein Powder
1. Clean And Minimal Ingredients
When purchasing any supplements—like your food choices—less is always better. Protein powders and other athletic supplements are notorious for containing artificial colors and sweeteners, additives, bulking agents, and other things that don’t contribute to overall health and athletic performance.
Most commonly, you’ll find things like carrageenan, lecithins, carboxymethylcellulose, and silicon dioxide that are used as emulsifiers and anti-clumping agents, as well as psyllium husk, dextrins, xanthan gum/guar gum, and inulin as thickening agents.
In small amounts, they’re shown to be safe for human consumption, but it’s better to avoid them altogether whenever possible.
2. Third-party Tested
Like all other nutritional supplements, protein powders can be a little dodgy regarding what you’re getting in them.
To avoid things like artificial ingredients that can do more harm than good, you want to ensure your powder is third party tested and backed by science to guarantee its efficacy.
Look for NSF certified, NSP, ConsumerLab, or US Pharmacopeia, which guarantee and certify that products comply with safety and health policies and regulations.
3. Processing Method And QualityIn general, there are three types of protein powders you’ll find on the market:
- Concentrates: Produced by extracting protein from whole food sources using heat and acid or enzymes. Concentrates are typically 60–80% protein, with the other 20–40% coming from fat and carbs. Concentrates are the cheapest to buy.
- Isolates: These go through an additional filtering process to remove fat and carbs, providing around 90–95% of pure protein.
- Hydrolysates: Produced by further heating with acid or enzymes to break the bonds between amino acids, allowing for faster absorption and improved utilization.
Concentrates tend to be lower in protein content and slower digesting. In contrast, isolates and hydrolysates are higher in protein concentration and faster digesting, but also require more processing to mask the bitter taste.
Keep in mind that more intense processing also removes compounds that have positive benefits on immune health, mood, and digestion.
Once thought of as the super chalky, not-so-good tasting vegan protein, brown rice protein has made a comeback, and it’s better than ever.
Rigorously tested and compared to one of the highest absorbing and most effective proteins on the market, whey concentrates or isolates, brown rice protein offers comparable, if not better, effects for muscle building, endurance and power, recovery, and appetite control.
Not to mention it is produced using minimal processing and low heat to retain its natural enzymes and aid digestion and absorption to maximize its effects.
So, it's clear that you've got nothing to lose by giving it a try.
- Y Boirie, M Dangin, P Gachon, MP Vasson, JL Maubois, B Beaufrère. Slow and fast dietary proteins differently modulate post-prandial protein accretion. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1997;94(26):14930-14935.
- JE Tang, DR Moore, GW Kujbida, MA Tarnopolsky, SM Phillips. Ingestion of whey hydrolysate, casein, or soy protein isolate: effects on mixed muscle protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in young men. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2009;107(3):987-992.
- SHM Gorissen, JJR Crombag, JMG Senden, et al. Protein content and amino acid composition of commercially available plant-based protein isolates. Amino Acids. 2018;50(12):1685-1695.
- DS Kalman. Amino Acid Composition of an Organic Brown Rice Protein Concentrate and Isolate Compared to Soy and Whey Concentrates and Isolates. Foods. 2014;3(3):394-402.
- JM Joy, RP Lowery, JM Wilson, et al. The effects of 8 weeks of whey or rice protein supplementation on body composition and exercise performance. Nutr J. 2013;12:86.