Whey protein is very popular these days, and for good reason. There are a lot of benefits to whey protein, and it can be super helpful to incorporate into your nutrition plan if you're looking to lose weight or build muscle.
Still, if you've never had a whey protein before, it’s understandable if you are hesitant to try it. Many people wonder, “is whey protein dairy-free or lactose-free?” Or, “will whey protein upset my stomach?”
These are both good questions to ask, especially if you have a dairy or lactose sensitivity/allergy. The answer is a little more complex than a "yes" or "no" though. See, whey is derived from milk, but not all whey protein powders have lactose ... so, "it depends" is probably the best overall answer.
To understand this better though, we'll need to dive into what whey protein actually is.
What is Whey Protein?
So, what’s up with whey protein? What is whey protein? Where does whey protein come from?
Well, whey protein is a protein that's extracted from milk. One of the reasons why it’s so popular and impactful is because it contains all 9 essential amino acids. When any protein has all of the essential amino acids, that makes it a complete protein source. These 9 essential amino acids are a core element of building and repairing muscle tissue.
In fact, they are required for the muscle building process. So, whey protein may be exactly what your body needs to reach your health and fitness goals since it can help with the following:
1. Whey Protein Can Promote Muscle Growth
Whey protein’s amino acid profile is arguably the best for muscle growth. It has a high concentration of leucine, which is an important amino acid for the growth of muscle tissue. If you are working to build muscle, whey protein can help with that!
2. Whey Protein Can Help Reduce Hunger
Whey protein can help you stay full for longer periods of time. So, if you’re trying to control portions or eat less in general, consuming more whey protein can help with that. You can replace high-calorie snacks with some whey protein and be even more satisfied!
3. Whey Protein Can Aid in Weight Management/Weight Loss
Whey protein's hunger satisfying properties can help you eat less calories in your day. Another bonus is that it can also help in the maintenance and growth of muscle tissue when you work out. The more muscle you have, the more calories your body will burn at rest. Therefore, if weight loss is your goal, whey protein can ultimately help long-term!
How is Whey Protein Made?
Whey protein comes from milk, but it's actually made during the cheesemaking process. The liquid that remains after milk is curdled and strained is called whey.
This liquid is then dried and processed to remove the remaining fat and lactose. After that, what's left behind is a high-quality source of protein.
There are three types of whey protein too: concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate. I'll give you a quick run-down of each of these whey protein types.
Whey Protein Concentrate
Whey protein concentrates are a whey protein blend that can contain anywhere from 34-82% protein by weight (1). The remainder of the whey protein concentrate isn't actually whey protein ... it's fat, lactose, and other nutrients.
So, the quality of a whey protein concentrate could vary quite a bit depending on the percentage of protein used. This type of whey is less processed than other forms of whey protein. The reason for this is because less of the nutrients are extracted (ex. lactose, fats).
You will often find whey protein concentrate in protein powders, protein bars, and other food products. That's because they are typically engineered to digest slower to replicate a whole-food protein source.
Whey Protein Isolate
Whey isolate is exactly what it sounds like: isolated whey protein. It's so isolated from everything else that it contains 90-95% protein by weight. This type of whey protein comes processed more than whey protein concentrate to remove almost everything other than the protein.
Whey protein isolate is especially popular with athletes and bodybuilders because of the high protein content. Not only that, but it also contains little to no carbs and fats.
Whey Protein Hydrolysate
The name "whey protein hydrolysate" makes it sound more complicated than it actually is, trust me. This type of whey protein gets processed with enzymes to break it down into smaller protein peptides. This makes it easier for your body to digest and absorb the nutrients as opposed to other forms of whey protein.
On the flip side though, it's also the most expensive form of whey protein because of this extra processing.
Is Whey Dairy-Free?
It’s time to answer the main question of the blog though: Is whey protein dairy-free? The answer is no, because whey protein is dairy. After all, it does come directly from milk, like I explained earlier.
If you have a dairy allergy, it’s generally best to avoid whey protein. This is true whether it comes in the form of a protein bar or a protein powder.
While whey protein powders get processed to remove most of the lactose and fat, it is still a dairy protein. Some people have issues with lactose, but others may have issues with the actual proteins in milk.
Now, that’s not to say that whey protein is bad because it comes from dairy. Believe it or not, cows aren't the only animals that make milk with whey protein and lactose in it.
Human breast milk, for instance, contains more whey protein in it than the milk from cows. Only about 20% of the protein in a cow’s milk is whey protein, but human breast milk contains up to 80% whey protein (2).
If you think about it, whey protein is the main protein mothers make to feed their newborns to grow big and strong. I'd say that's a positive sign that whey protein is good for the human body.
Still though, if you have allergies, it’s best to stay away from it. If not, it can be a great addition to your diet!
Is Whey Protein Lactose-Free?
Okay, so if whey protein is not dairy-free, does that mean it's also not lactose-free? The simple answer is, it’s complicated. Most whey protein powders do contain lactose ... but not every form of whey protein does.
For example, whey protein isolate is a good option for people who don't handle lactose well. This is because whey protein isolates typically have very little lactose remaining in them, and some can actually have none.
The number of whey proteins that truly have no lactose are few and far between, but there are some out there. My personal favorite lactose-free whey proteins are our fruity Phormula-1 flavors: Cherry Lime, Fruit Punch, and Juicy Watermelon!
Remember how I mentioned that whey protein isolate has more of the lactose and fats removed? This means whey isolate is more refined and functions as a more pure protein source. Plus, for lactose intolerant people, they can often handle whey isolates without issues!
Whey protein hydrolysate also has less lactose than whey concentrate, similar to whey protein isolate. So, as long as you don’t suffer from severe lactose issues, you can likely use whey hydrolysate, too.
If lactose is a major issue for you, the one you want to avoid would be whey protein concentrate. This is because it will contain higher levels of lactose that may upset your stomach if you don't digest it well.
Whey Protein Powder Alternatives
If you have issues with dairy or lactose, don't worry! There are plenty of other options to help you get more protein in your life! There are even plant-based proteins if you prefer to avoid animal proteins completely.
From the right brand, you can find a high-quality protein source that works well with your body. Here are some alternatives you may find to whey protein powder. Please do keep in mind though that not all of them are created equal though.
Peas & Rice Protein
This is the top plant-based option for many people. You can find protein powder made with peas and rice, which can be just as high in protein compared to whey. They are also free of gluten, fat, cholesterol, and lactose. Pea protein is especially beneficial since it has a good chunk of essential amino acids.
Although, pea protein alone doesn’t stand up to the complete amino acid profile of whey protein, adding in the rice protein covers the amino acids that peas are missing. This makes that protein powder a complete protein source.
We even offer our own pea and rice protein called Vegan Power Pro. I personally believe it is by far the best-tasting and best-mixing plant-based protein powder on the market.
Egg protein powder is another alternative to whey protein powder. It’s made from egg whites, so you are definitely getting a lot of protein when you use this kind of protein powder.
The only thing to keep in mind is that egg protein has less leucine in it compared to whey protein. Leucine is the most important essential amino acid for muscle growth and repair. So, as a result, athletes may need a bit more egg protein powder if they use it as a post-workout supplement.
Soy-based protein powder is another option if your body tolerates soy well. Soy protein is a complete protein source, but it is lower in leucine.
With that being said, you would likely have to take more of it to get the same muscle building benefits of whey protein. If your body can't handle whey protein well, and you don’t have a soy allergy, this could be a good option for you.
Another option for lactose-free protein is hemp protein. It is another complete protein source and gives your body all the essential amino acids it needs. However, hemp protein contains less protein per scoop compared to whey.
That means you may have to take more hemp protein as well. It does contain quite a bit of fiber though, which is helpful for digestion and gut health. Hemp protein is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids which are good for brain health and reducing inflammation.
How to Find the Right Whey Protein Powder
Those who are lactose intolerant, you can probably still have whey protein if it's whey protein isolate. That should be a relief for a lot of you because whey protein can taste amazing!
If you can’t handle whey protein without some serious discomfort though, there’s no need to get discouraged! Despite the many benefits of whey protein, it isn’t the only useful protein that you can add to your meals.
Protein is an important nutrient, and may still be one of the dietary needs you lack. You can always try alternatives like 1st Phorm’s vegan protein options, or one of the other whey protein alternatives that we discussed.
Just know that if you're trying to eat better or get more protein to reach your health or fitness goals ... we can help! If you need an all-in-one tool to help you reach your goals, check out the 1st Phorm App.
There are so many benefits to using the 1st Phorm App such as:
• Custom meal plans that work for your specific health needs or dietary limitations
• A full library of workout programs
• Calorie and macro tracking
• Progress monitoring
• 1-on-1 messaging with your own advisor
If you're willing to do the work to meet us halfway, we'll help get you where you're trying to go. If you need any other help, reach out to our customer service team. Many of them are NASM Certified Personal Trainers and Certified Nutrition Coaches who are happy to help in any way they can!
(1) “Whey Protein Concentrate Commodity Fact Sheet: Agriculture and Food Security: Food Assistance.” U.S. Agency for International Development, 22 Mar. 2023, www.usaid.gov/whey-protein-concentrate-commodity-fact-sheet.
(2) Martin CR, Ling PR, Blackburn GL. Review of Infant Feeding: Key Features of Breast Milk and Infant Formula. Nutrients. 2016 May 11;8(5):279. doi: 10.3390/nu8050279. PMID: 27187450; PMCID: PMC4882692.ABOUT THE AUTHOR