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Is Whey Protein Vegan? (Everything You Need To Know)

Connor Sellers
Published by Connor Sellers
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: September 28, 2022

My years-long experience in the fitness industry taught me that many vegans struggle to meet their ideal protein intake.

That’s why many of my vegan clients considered taking whey protein at one point or another, but most of them didn’t know what whey protein really is and if it’s vegan-friendly.

I’ve partnered with a dietitian to demystify this topic. We’ve spent hours researching scientific studies to determine whether whey is suitable for vegans and, if not, what to use instead.

Let’s first answer your question: is whey protein vegan?

Quick Summary

  • Whey protein is an animal product derived from cow’s milk that could be considered vegetarian, depending on the diet you follow.
  • Many protein powders that are plant-based are vegan-friendly.
  • Plant-based protein sources are better for people who are lactose intolerant or sensitive to dairy.

Is Whey Protein Vegan?

milk in a glass

Whey protein isn’t vegan because it’s derived from cow’s milk.

And vegans can’t consume cow’s milk because it’s an animal-derived product.

Whey protein is made from a liquid byproduct of cheese-making that undergoes processing to be turned into a powder [1].

Also, whey proteins are one of the two most abundant types of milk proteins [2]:

But not all vegans need supplements. If you eat adequate amounts of whole foods, a vegetarian or vegan diet can equip you with enough protein for weight loss, muscle recovery, and your other goals [3].

However, if your lifestyle doesn’t allow you to get enough protein solely from your diet, find several vegan alternatives to whey below.

For now, just keep in mind that whey isn’t only found in protein supplements. It’s also present in many processed foods since it’s highly inexpensive and a natural byproduct of cheese production.

For example, it’s present in cookies, bread, crackers, and other baked goods [4]. So, make sure you stray away from these products, too, if you’re vegan.

Is Whey Protein Vegetarian?

man holding up a tumbler and thinking

Whey protein can be considered vegetarian, but that depends on what type of vegetarian diet you have in mind.

Some vegetarian diets allow you to consume certain animal products. So, consider what type of diet you’re following before stocking up on whey.

There are five basic types of vegetarian diet [5]:

  • Lacto-vegetarian diets: These diets exclude meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and foods that contain these ingredients. They include dairy products, like milk and cheese.
  • Ovo-vegetarian diets: Ovo-vegetarian diets exclude all of the above, except for eggs.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian diets: Lacto-ovo vegetarian diets don’t allow meat, fish, and poultry but allow dairy products and eggs.
  • Pescatarian diets: Pescatarian diets only allow fish out of all animal products.
  • Vegan diets: Strict vegan diets exclude all animal-derived products and foods that contain them.

So, since whey protein is found in cow’s milk, it could be considered vegetarian only if you follow a lacto-vegetarian or lacto-ovo vegetarian diet.

Vegan Alternatives to Whey Protein

So, whey products aren’t vegan. But protein is still crucial for many bodily functions and reaching your fitness goals, no matter if you want to build muscles or lose weight.

Luckily, you can use vegan-friendly, plant-based protein powders instead of whey [6]:

Whey Protein Powder Vs. Plant-Based Protein Powder

bowl of powder and container of protein

It’s not easy to tell which powder is better because that largely depends on your needs. The section below will help you assess both options yourself.

I will say that plant-based supplements have some drawbacks compared to whey protein supplements. That’s why I’ll also show you how to make the most out of plant-based powders with some extra ingredients.

Whey protein powders are different from plant-based protein powders in three ways.

1. The Protein Content

Whey is considered a complete protein because it contains all nine essential amino acids.

On the other hand, only a few plant proteins are considered complete, like soy and quinoa [9, 10].

Since amino acids are essential for protein synthesis and other bodily processes, you should get them from other sources [11].

For example, you can add complete proteins to your protein shakes, like hemp and chia seeds [12]. That way, you’ll satisfy all your body’s needs in one go.

2. Effectiveness In Building Muscle Mass

shirtless man working out his abs

To grow your muscle mass, you need to consume proteins that contain all essential amino acids and BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids).

Whey protein contains both. It’s especially high in leucine, a BCAA that gives skeletal muscles energy during exercise [13].

Unfortunately, that isn’t the case for all plant proteins. Some lack certain amino acids, while others are low in BCAAs.

But some, like quinoa and chia protein, contain all of that good stuff [14, 15].

Still, that doesn’t mean you have to limit your options to just these two protein powders.

You can enhance the qualities of any plant-based powder by adding BCAAs to your protein shake [16]. BCAAs will promote muscle growth as much as whey protein powder does.

One nutritionist also suggests eating protein throughout the day to build muscle faster [17]:

“While inclusion of high amounts of protein post-workout and at dinner is typical, in order to build muscle, it may be best to spread protein intake throughout the day. To be most accurate, the current recommendation is to consume .25-.3 grams per kg of your body weight 4-5 times per day.”

- Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN

So, try to consume protein several times a day instead of all at once for maximum results.

3. Food Sensitivities

dairy products

Whey protein powders contain lactose. So, they may not be the most suitable option for those with lactose intolerance or dairy sensitivities.

Still, you can choose between three types of whey protein. Some of them aren’t as upsetting for your stomach as the others:

  • Whey protein concentrate typically contains the most lactose because it undergoes the least processing.
  • Whey protein isolate typically contains less lactose because it undergoes more processing [18].
  • Whey protein hydrolysate is pre-digested, so it’s easier to consume. Our bodies also digest it faster than both whey protein isolate and concentrate [19].

Related Article: Whey Protein Isolate vs Concentrate

Still, all these three types of whey may upset your stomach if you have related food sensitivities. Additionally, whey protein hydrolysate — the type of whey that’s easiest to digest — is pricier than other types of whey.

On the other hand, plant-based protein supplements are entirely lactose-free [20], so they might be a better option for your stomach than any type of whey protein powder.

FAQs

Are Vegan Protein Powders Healthy?

In general, vegan protein powders are healthy. Still, you should always read the nutrition facts and ingredients list on the back of the product. That way, you can check if a protein powder contains unhealthy ingredients, such as too much sugar, artificial sweeteners, or other highly-processed ingredients [21].

Is Vegan Protein Powder Bad for Your Kidneys?

No, vegan protein powder isn’t bad for your kidneys. Quite the contrary, new studies show that eating plant protein can improve health and lower the mortality rate in patients with CKD (chronic kidney disease) [22].

Will You Try Plant-Based Alternatives To A Whey Protein Supplement?

So, we’ve learned that whey protein isn’t vegan. Fortunately, it’s not your only option.

If you follow a vegan diet, you can still get high-quality protein from plant-based supplements. Soy, quinoa, chia, and hemp protein powders are particularly excellent options.

On top of that, you can always add extra ingredients and enrich your protein supplements. So, you have many options to choose from, even if you’re vegan.

Try a plant-based protein supplement and see how it goes. If you want more specific supplement recommendations, check out our article on the 7 best vegan protein powders.


References:

  1. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/whey-protein-101 
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5149046/
  3. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/13-of-the-best-vegetarian-and-vegan-protein-sources/ 
  4. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/vegetarian-diet/art-20046446  
  5. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/vegetarian-diet/art-20046446 
  6. https://www.onegreenplanet.org/natural-health/ultimate-guide-vegan-protein-powders-all-sources/ 
  7. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/protein/ 
  8. https://goldengateobgyn.org/how-to-help-your-body-absorb-protein/ 
  9. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2009/0101/p43.html
  10. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/food-features/quinoa/
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK234922
  12. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321474
  13. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx
  14. https://lazyplant.com/exercise/chia-seeds-protein/
  15. https://michaellustgarten.com/2014/07/30/which-grain-is-the-best-source-for-protein-essential-amino-acids-bcaa-and-arginine/
  16. https://levelsusa.com/blogs/supplements/bcaa-vs-protein-powder 
  17. http://kellyjonesnutrition.com/build-muscle-with-plant-protein/ 
  18. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/whey-protein-isolate-vs-concentrate
  19. https://www.progenexfit.com/blogs/post/view/name/hydrolyzed-whey-protein-isolate-most-effective-protein-for-recovery/ 
  20. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/whey-vs-plant-protein 
  21. https://nutritionguy.medium.com/your-vegan-protein-powder-is-not-healthy-34437e256b04
  22. https://www.ajkd.org/article/S0272-6386(15)01339-6/fulltext

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