Is Hemp Protein Better Than Whey Protein?

Updated on August 19, 2018
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Jon has a Ph.D in chemistry. Living an active outdoor lifestyle, he also has an interest in nutrition science and nature conservation.

Hemp Protein

In recent years, increased research has been performed on the benefits of hemp protein in comparison with other more traditional protein sources. Hemp protein is plant based and has the benefits of being a natural, environmentally-friendly, and sustainable source of protein suitable for human consumption.

Hemp protein is extracted from the seed of the hemp plant and is composed mainly of the easily digestible edestin and albumin forms of protein. The protein is part of the meal that remains after oils have been extracted from the seed and contains not only protein but also important unsaturated fats such as omega-3 and omega-6, in addition to other beneficial nutrients.

Hemp protein contains most of the essential amino acids in suitable quantities and supporters claim that it is a high-quality protein with especially high levels of arginine, and, therefore, it is a better choice than whey protein.

Yet, despite the fact that it is a sustainable, vegetarian source of protein, there are other key factors that need to be considered.

A close up of hemp seeds sitting in the hemp plant.
A close up of hemp seeds sitting in the hemp plant. | Source

Whey Protein

Whey protein is a readily available and inexpensive protein supplement. Whey protein is usually extracted during the process of cheese production. It is commonly dried and grinded into a powered form for later use, such as a diet supplement. Whey protein contain all thr essential amino acids and it has a fast metabolic uptake in the body. Bodybuilders tend to favor whey protein over other forms of protein as it is particularly high in branch-chain amino acids with the best biological value as explained below.

The main drawback of whey protein is it being sourced from milk, making it unsuitable for some people with lactose intolerance even in it's purest form as whey isolates. It is also an animal product and thus unsuitable for people pursuing a vegan lifestyle.

Biological Value and PDCAAS

To measure the quality of a protein a scale called the biological value is often used. By calculating the nitrogen used for tissue formation divided by the nitrogen absorbed from food and then multipling by 100 we get a number that expresses the percentage of nitrogen utilized by the body. The biological value provides a measurement of how efficient the body utilizes protein consumed in the diet to build muscles. Therefore, the biological value of a protein is a key factor for bodybuilders and strength trainers.

The biological value however fails to take into account some key values concerning human digestion and the essential amino acids, therefore another scale called the protein digestibility corrected amino acid score or PDCAAS for short is now considered the gold standard in comparing the efficiency of proteins for overall health as it looks at a variable of factors such as the availability of essential amino acids for example.

The table below shows the biological factor and PDCAAS for several common sources of protein in addition to hemp protein and whey protein.

Comparison of Biological Value and PDCASS

Biological Value
Wheat Gluten
The table shows the biological value and PDCAAS for a few sources of protein. (Hoffman, 2004)

From this table we see that the biological value of hemp is lower than both whey protein and eggs. More importantly the PDCAAS of hemp is only 0.61, being lower than 1.0 means it lacks some essential amino acids as evident from the table below. For this reason hemp cannot be considered a high-quality source of protein, such as whey, eggs or soy and should never be considered a source of protein to substitute for a normal diet.

Essential Amino Acids mg per gram. Hemp vs. Whey

Amino Acids
Amino acid profile (mg/g protein) of WPC 80 and hemp meal. Sindayikengera and Xia, 2006. House, 2010.
All the amino acids and their structure.
All the amino acids and their structure. | Source

Which Protein is Best? Hemp vs. Whey

The question on weither hemp or whey protein is better depends entirely on the needs of the consumer.

From the perspective of a bodybuilder a protein source with a high biological value and a diverse amino acid profile where BCAA's are high is the best choice. Looking at the table above we see that whey protein is clearly the best choice for body builders or anyone primarily interested in strength training due to it's superior biological value and a full mark in PDCAAS.

From the perspective of people that need a source of protein primarily as a supplement for a protein deficient diet, the biological value becomes less important. Looking at the same table we see that a variety of whey, eggs, soy and casein is the optimal approach as these sources contain all the amino acids needed for a healthy lifestyle.

However, for those that pursue a vegan diet, the only reasonable sources of protein supplements are then soy and hemp. Again, since soy has a PDCAAS of 1.0 while hemp has a value of 0.61 soy is a better choice for overall health.

It is only in the case of supplementing for strength training while on a vegan diet that hemp protein shines. The relatively high biological value of hemp makes it the ideal choice assuming that all necessary amino acids are already obtained form regular diet.

Barbell for weightlifting
Barbell for weightlifting | Source

So is Hemp Rubbish Unless You're a Vegan Bodybuilder?

Not at all. Hemp meal is low in saturated fat and contains the essential fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6, in the optimal 3 to 1 ratio. Hemp meal is also rich in fiber as opposed to whey isolate which has none.

Of most interest is a animal study published in 2008 which suggested that hemp seed protein may have anti-fatigue and immune enhancing benefits (Li, 2008).

Another animal study published in 2011 found that hemp protein supplemented diets improved kidney function and cardiac hypertrophy associated with kidney disease (Aukema, 2010).

Nevertheless, for a bodybuilder whey protein supplements are clearly the best choice unless you are on a vegan diet, in which case hemp protein becomes better as long as you are getting all the essential amino acids from your regular diet.

Which do you prefer to use?

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Aukema, HM. Gauthier, J. Roy, M. Jia, Y. Li,H. Aluko, RE. Distinctive effects of plant protein sources on renal disease progression and associated cardiac hypertrophy in experimental kidney disease. Mol Nutr Food Res. 7(2): 90–98. (2011)

Hoffman, JR and MJ. Falvo, MJ, Protein – Which is Best? J Sports Sci Med. 3(3): 118–130. (2004)

House JD, Neufeld J, Leson G. Evaluating the quality of protein from hemp seed (Cannabis sativa L.) products through the use of the protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score method. J Agric Food Chem. 58(22). (2010)

Li Y, Yang R, Hu X, Long Z, et al. Initial study of Hemp seeds protein on antifatigue and the immunomodulation effects in mice. Wei Sheng Yan Jiu. 37(2):175-8. (2008)

Sindayikengera, S and Xia, W, Nutritional evaluation of caseins and whey proteins and their hydrolysates from Protamex. J Zhejiang Univ Sci B (2006)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2016 Jon Sigurdsson

Have You Tried Hemp or Whey Protein? What do You Think?

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