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Is Whey Protein Vegetarian?

Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD

Whey is a common protein source in protein shakes, which is what we will concentrate on here.  You’ll also see whey used in various forms in other food products such as ice cream, sauces, dressings, breads, and snack bars.

But is whey protein vegetarian? And is it even the best option for a protein supplement? Who even needs protein supplementation?

Is whey protein vegetarian? What is it?

Whey is one of the proteins found in milk, making it a vegetarian product, but not appropriate for vegans.

Whey protein is essentially a by-product of cheese and yogurt making.  The two proteins in milk are casein (making up about 80% of the total protein content) and whey.  Whey is extracted from milk by coagulation (cheese) or straining (yogurt).

After the liquid whey is removed, it can be dried to form whey protein powder. Further processing can yield “whey protein isolate” which will have more lactose removed, making it higher in protein in a smaller “dose.”

Example of whey protein supplements

The following examples are affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I may earn from qualifying purchases.

Is whey protein the best protein supplement?

This really depends. 

Traditionally, whey has been considered the best protein option for supplementation, particularly for muscle growth.  This is because it is generally easily digested, the protein absorbs quickly, it contains high levels of branched-chain amino acids, and is relatively inexpensive.

However, that all means nothing to the person that is allergic to whey, right? Or to a vegan? 

Ultimately, most studies show similar improvements in muscle growth when whey or other protein supplements are used.  While a body builder or a power lifter *may get slightly better results using whey protein shakes after a workout, most of us likely will never know the difference.

Ultimately, the amount of protein is more important than any 1 particular protein source. And none of us should be only getting protein from protein shakes (with the exception of those that rely on tube feeding for nutrition, but that’s a different topic).

What are some vegan options for protein supplementation?

By far, the most common vegan source of protein powders is pea protein isolate.  Those with IBS or legume allergies may experience bloating or stomach discomfort from these.

You’ll also see vegan protein powders made from hemp, soy, and brown rice. Less frequently, you might see pumpkin seed, peanut, quinoa, or chia seeds.

These products may be more expensive than a whey protein option, unfortunately.

Examples of vegan protein supplements

The following examples are affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I may earn from qualifying purchases.</span></p>

Are there any other protein powder options?

Yes, but they aren’t as common.

Casein Protein – also made from milk. Casein is the dominant protein in cow’s milk. Compared to whey, it is more slowly digested and absorbed, potentially making it satiating for a longer time period, but also not quite as good at muscle recovery after strength training.

Egg White Protein – egg white protein is very high quality and is very easily digested. However, there haven’t been quite as many studies on egg protein vs dairy protein on muscle recovery. In all likelihood, it is quite effective though.

Mixed Plant Proteins – because most plants have lower levels of at least one amino acid than protein from animal sources, some protein supplement options will mix different plants to get a similar make up to animal proteins. For general health, this isn’t necessary as long as you’re eating a varied diet.

Examples of these other protein supplements

The following examples are affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I may earn from qualifying purchases.

Who should be using protein supplements?

For healthy people, protein supplements likely aren’t necessary.  Even after a workout, food options will cover your protein needs for muscle recovery and growth.

However, for those of us (read: me) that don’t want to exercise with food in our stomach and gets queasy at the sight of food afterwards, protein shakes are a good option. They also work as an occasional breakfast when the morning didn’t go as smoothly as it could have!

Certain medical conditions can increase your protein needs above what you may be able to eat. Protein shakes and powders that can be added to other foods are very helpful in these situations as well. Also, as we age, it is very common for our protein needs to go up a little bit and our appetite to go down a little bit (or a lot a bit). Drinking a protein shake daily can help preserve our muscle mass and keep us moving as we age.

Is Whey Protein okay if I’m lactose intolerant?

Most likely, for most people with lactose intolerance, yes.  

Lactose intolerance isn’t an either/or situation. Rather, there is a spectrum and when you eat lactose in amounts of your individual threshold, you’ll experience the tell-tale symptoms of bloating, gas, and abdominal discomfort.

Whey protein naturally has some lactose, but not in large amounts and may be appriopriate for may people that are lactose intolerant, just like those that can have cheese and yogurt, but not a glass of milk or bowl of ice cream. 

Some protein shake companies actually purify their product so that there is no lactose present. This will be clearly stated on the label. Ensure and Boost are both lactose free, and so are many others.

That being said, it is important to note that lactose intolerance and milk allergies are very different things. If you are allergic to milk protein, and you don’t know for sure if it is a casein or a whey allergy, you should avoid whey protein supplements.  

Are whey protein supplements low FODMAP friendly?

The easy answer here is no.

The longer answer is “maybe.” Whey protein isolate (vs concentrate) will likely have very little lactose (found in the “D” in FODMAP). Products labeled lactose free might be okay.

However, other ingredients could make this trickier. Sugar alcohols (xylitol, sorbitol, and mannitol), other protein sources (such as soy or pea) or ingredients (fibers) can contain FODMAPs, especially products that are labeled prebiotic.

If you are in the low FODMAP elimination trial, you should be working closely with a dietitian. This is something that should be discussed with this healthcare provider.

I hope this information was helpful! 

Do you have any favorite protein shakes or powders? Let me know in the comments.

Next time someone asks you “Is whey protein vegetarian?” you’ll have the answer!

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