Vegan diets can provide more than enough protein for most people, especially when focusing on foods like tofu, tempeh, beans, nuts, and high-protein plant-based milks.
Some people have higher protein needs, however, and find protein powders to be extremely helpful in meeting their protein goals. Pea protein and hemp protein are two popular plant-based protein powders, but is one better than the other?
I’ll discuss each of these supplements in more detail so you can make the most informed choice when deciding between pea protein and hemp protein!
What is pea protein?
Pea protein is a dry protein powder made from yellow split peas, a type of legume. The main ingredient in pea protein powder is generally pea protein isolate.
Pea protein powder is sold as a dietary supplement, meaning it isn’t regulated by the FDA. It’s often used as a convenient way to add extra protein to the diet, especially for the purpose of building muscle.
What is hemp protein?
Hemp protein is a dietary supplement also used to improve protein intake. It’s made from hemp hearts, tiny nutritious seeds obtained from a specific type of cannabis plant. This plant is extremely low in THC, meaning there’s no risk of getting “high” from hemp protein.
Health benefits of plant-based protein powders
Protein powders are heavily processed, but this doesn’t automatically mean we need to avoid them. They can be a helpful tool for meeting certain health and fitness goals and can even provide health benefits, as we’ll see in the next section.
Can make meals more balanced
Ever find yourself hungry again soon after a fruit smoothie or bowl of oatmeal? It may be because you didn’t include enough protein sources.
Protein has a satiating effect, helping you feel full for longer periods of time. Adding a scoop or two of vegan protein powder to your morning smoothie or overnight oats can help you feel full until lunch by making the macronutrient profile of your meal more balanced.
Can help build bigger, stronger muscles
In order to build muscle size and strength, the body requires extra protein. Specifically, it requires amino acids, which link together to form proteins.
While most people who are moderately active can meet their protein needs through whole foods, bodybuilders, powerlifters, and athletes have higher requirements and often find protein shakes helpful in getting enough protein without overshooting their calorie needs.
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This is the minimum needed to avoid protein deficiency in sedentary people.
If you’re active, you’ll need more than this. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition1, protein intakes in the range of 1.4 to 2 g/kg/day is effective for building muscle and strength. For a person weighing 150 pounds, this is about 95 to 136 grams of protein per day.
Supports healing & recovery
The body requires extra protein to repair damaged tissues, whether that damage happens due to trauma, surgery, or exercise. Plant-based protein powders are a convenient, easy-to-consume way to meet increased protein needs when healing2, especially if you have a low appetite.
They’re also helpful in repairing microtears in your muscles that occur during resistance training.
How they compare
Now that we know the benefits of pea and hemp protein, let’s discuss how they compare to each other in more detail.
I’ve included nutrition information for both products based on the recommended serving size listed on the nutrition facts label. As you can see, the pea protein provides more protein per serving, so I’ve also included a column showing the nutrition information when matching for protein content.
This pea protein powder is a protein isolate, meaning it contains minimal carbohydrates and fat. This is why the recommended serving (2 scoops) contains 7 more grams of protein compared to the hemp protein, which is a protein concentrate.
When matched for protein content (20 grams), pea protein contains more leucine. We’ll discuss the importance of this amino acid a little later on.
Because Naked Nutrition Pea Protein is a more concentrated source of protein, it has fewer carbohydrates and fat per serving than Hemp Yeah! Max Protein.
Hemp protein contains more fiber than pea protein does, which makes sense considering that fiber is a type of carbohydrate and hemp protein powder is higher in carbs.
Much of the fat in hemp protein is omega-3 fatty acids. The higher fat content in hemp protein is the main reason it’s higher in calories than pea protein.
Overall, pea protein and hemp protein are both good sources of iron and provide small amounts of calcium.
Hemp is a much better source of potassium and is high in zinc. It’s incredibly high in copper, providing 90% of the daily value in one serving! Pea protein is likely also a good source of zinc, although this information isn’t provided on the label for this product.
Protein quality is determined by the bioavailability and digestibility of a protein source – basically, how well you can absorb the protein. Its amino acid composition is also considered. When determining protein quality, we can look at its Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS).
Here’s how we interpret DIAAS scores:
- 100+: Excellent quality protein
- 75-99: Good quality protein
- <75: No protein quality claim can be made
According to a 2022 randomized controlled trial3, pea protein isolate has a DIAAS score of 100, making it an excellent high-quality protein source.
Pea protein concentrate, on the other hand, has a DIAAS score of 70 – just missing the cut-off for a high-quality protein.
Hemp is technically considered a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids in proportions similar to that of human muscle tissue.
Interestingly, however, it has a DIAAS score averaging below 604, although it isn’t clear whether researchers tested whole hemp hearts or hemp protein powder in that study. Whole hemp hearts may not be digested as efficiently as a protein powder.
For most healthy adults, these differences in protein quality aren’t a huge deal, especially when protein powders are used as a supplement to a balanced diet. For bodybuilders and other people looking to build muscle, older adults, and people with conditions such as cancer that lead to muscle wasting, it’s particularly important to consume high-quality proteins.
For these people, pea protein may be a better choice since it’s a higher quality protein and contains more leucine, a key essential amino acid for stimulating muscle protein synthesis (the process of building muscle).
To get the recommended 2.7-gram dose of leucine required for stimulating muscle growth, you’d need just over one serving of Naked Nutrition Pea Protein (about 32 grams). You’d need much more Hemp Yeah! Max Protein, about two servings (8 total tablespoons, about 64 grams).
That said, there’s no need to avoid hemp protein if you love it – you may just need to consume more of it compared to other protein powders to get the same benefits for muscle.
Pea protein is most commonly found in the form of protein concentrates or protein isolates. These are produced slightly differently and result in different amounts of protein.
Pea protein concentrate is produced using a dry process, while pea protein isolate is produced using a wet process. In both, split peas are milled into flour and have much of the carbohydrates and fat removed. Protein isolates go through additional filtration to remove even more carbohydrates, resulting in a higher protein product.
Some pea protein powders are made using chemical solvents to extract unwanted particles, while others are produced with water and don’t require the use of solvents. Peas may also be soaked or fermented to increase the bioavailability of many nutrients.
To make hemp protein powder, hemp seeds are processed to remove most of their carbohydrates and fats. The process includes:
- Harvesting fresh hemp seeds and drying them
- Washing the hemp seeds and removing their tough outer shells, leaving the tender hemp “hearts”
- Cold-pressing the hemp hearts to remove most of the oil
- Grinding the remaining dry, protein-rich solids into a fine powder
- Adding other additives like flavorings, if desired by the manufacturer
Pea protein tends to cost less than hemp protein, but this really depends on the brand. Protein powders are more likely to cost more when they’re certified organic, gluten-free, vegan, or non-GMO since these certifications cost the brand money to obtain.
Products made with protein isolates rather than protein concentrates are also pricier since the production process is more involved and results in a higher concentration of protein.
You can usually save money by buying pea and hemp protein from bulk websites or the bulk section at health food stores. These may not taste as great or mix as well in water or non-dairy milk since they lack flavorings and emulsifiers, but your wallet will love them!
Other than their primary ingredient (pea protein or hemp protein), there aren’t any real differences in ingredients between these two products. You can buy unflavored, “pure” versions of both consisting only of protein concentrates or isolates, or you can find products that include:
- Food additives that act as thickeners and emulsifiers to improve consistency when mixed with liquids (guar gum, xanthan gum, soy lecithin, etc.)
- Fruit and vegetable extracts
- Artificial sweeteners
- Natural zero-calorie sweeteners (monk fruit, stevia)
- Sugar alcohols (xylitol, erythritol)
- Vegetable oils or other fats (for creaminess)
Some manufacturers also add brown rice protein to pea protein powder in order to balance its amino acid profile.
Thanks to their nitrogen-fixing abilities and low water requirement, peas are an incredibly sustainable crop.
According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development5, hemp is also sustainable. It doesn’t require much energy to grow and helps absorb carbon dioxide from the environment. It likely requires more water than peas, but less than almond milk and much less than dairy milk.
Practically speaking, though, any differences in sustainability between pea and hemp protein are negligible – especially in the context of a healthy plant-based diet.
How to choose between pea protein vs hemp protein
Pea and hemp protein can both help you eat more protein. So how do you choose between them?
Pea protein may be a better choice for you if:
- You’re trying to build muscle and strength in combination with resistance exercise
- You’re looking to save money
- You want to choose a protein powder with a lower environmental impact
On the other hand, hemp protein may work better for you if:
- You want to include more omega-3 fats in your diet through the use of protein powder
- You have an allergy or intolerance to peas or other legumes
If you’re still not sure which product would best meet your needs, try a variety of different brands of each and see which products taste the best to you. You can also alternate between pea and hemp protein to get more variety in your diet.
Pea and hemp protein can both be used to add a convenient source of plant protein to your diet. They are both gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegan, as long as no additional ingredients containing gluten or dairy are added to them.
The nutrition profile, protein content, cost, ingredients, and processing method will all vary based on the brand and product. That said, pea protein is a higher-quality protein containing more of the amino acid leucine, potentially making it a more effective protein supplement for building muscle compared to hemp protein.
You may need to consume a larger amount of hemp protein to get the same benefits. This can get pricey, so I typically recommend pea protein over hemp protein for people looking to build muscle. However, it’s truly up to you.
For most people, taste trumps all – so don’t hesitate to try different protein powder brands and flavors. With so many options available, you’re sure to find a brand of pea or hemp protein that you love!
Looking for other ways to get more protein on a plant-based diet? Check out my list of the top High Protein Plant-Based Milks.
Pea protein vs hemp protein – FAQs
Is pea protein or hemp protein better?
Pea protein is considered a higher-quality protein than hemp protein. Pea protein isolate has a DIASS score of 100, pea protein concentrate has a score of 70, and hemp has a score of less than 60.
This means pea protein is likely better for building muscle. Hemp protein may also be more effective in higher amounts, but more research is needed. Both can help increase your total protein intake.
What is the disadvantage of hemp protein?
Hemp protein is lower in leucine, a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) that is particularly important for building muscle. You’ll likely need to consume more hemp protein compared to other plant-based proteins like soy or pea protein in order to get the same amount of leucine.
Is pea and hemp protein good for you?
Pea and hemp protein are both great, convenient ways to get more plant-based protein in your diet. They’re more processed than whole peas of hemp, but provide more protein in a smaller volume. They’re best used as a supplement to a nutrient-dense diet that includes plenty of whole foods and are especially helpful for people looking to build muscle, lose fat, and who struggle to get enough protein through whole foods alone due to poor appetite.
The scientific information in this article was accurate at the time of publishing but may change over time as new research becomes available.
- Jäger R, Kerksick CM, Campbell BI, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:20. Published 2017 Jun 20. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8
- Hirsch KR, Wolfe RR, Ferrando AA. Pre- and Post-Surgical Nutrition for Preservation of Muscle Mass, Strength, and Functionality Following Orthopedic Surgery. Nutrients. 2021;13(5):1675. Published 2021 May 15. doi:10.3390/nu13051675
- Guillin FM, Gaudichon C, Guérin-Deremaux L, et al. Real ileal amino acid digestibility of pea protein compared to casein in healthy humans: a randomized trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2022;115(2):353-363. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqab354
- Herreman L, Nommensen P, Pennings B, Laus MC. Comprehensive overview of the quality of plant- And animal-sourced proteins based on the digestible indispensable amino acid score. Food Sci Nutr. 2020;8(10):5379-5391. Published 2020 Aug 25. doi:10.1002/fsn3.1809
- United Nations. Commodities at a glance: special issue on industrial hemp. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. No 16. eISBN: 978-92-1-001995-8. November 2022.