Is Whey Protein Vegan? Can You Use This Supplement On A Plant-Based Diet?

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Do you exercise regularly? Maybe you lift weights? We have good news! A vegan diet (one consisting of whole foods, of course) is packed with natural sources of protein, which is essential for muscle recovery and countless other biological functions.

However, today’s “on the go” lifestyle poses a challenge: Rushing from gym to office or to an exercise class after work makes it hard to get the nutrients we need right when we need them!

When it’s difficult enough as it is to squeeze in the physical activity itself, a sure-fire way to quickly aid your body’s repair and rebuild process is to drink a carb-filled shake or smoothie with a heap of protein supplement added.

If you’ve done any research on the subject, you might’ve noticed that a popular choice among avid athletes is whey protein. But what is whey protein? Is whey protein vegan? Or is there a vegan form of whey? And if so, is it even really as healthy as some say?

Now that we’ve (mentally) warmed up, let’s (figuratively) tackle these questions head-on!

What is whey?

measuring cups full of whey protein on a wooden table

Are you familiar with the nursery rhyme that goes, “Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey?” Well, before a pesky little spider sits down beside her and frightens her away, Little Miss Muffet is, indeed, enjoying the very same whey that we’re currently discussing.

Whey (pronounced WAY) is one of two main proteins in milk (about 20%), the other being casein (about 80%). Specifically, whey is that liquid that’s purged during cheesemaking: When the milk coagulates, curds form, and these are then cut to expel moisture: This is whey.

In the past, if you’ve ever had (or are at least familiar with) dairy-based yogurt, whey is that watery substance that sits at the very top of the carton when you peel back the lid…

plant-based protein not whey infographic
Infographic courtesy of Art of Wellbeing

But what about whey protein powder? Is that any different?

While we don’t need to dive much deeper to be able to say that liquid whey is definitely not vegan—as it’s an essential component of milk and various dairy products—let’s talk about the terms you might see as it pertains to powered protein supplements on the market.

According to a well-cited write-up by Medical News Today, there are three different forms of whey protein:

Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC): Marked by low levels of carbohydrates and fat, the amount of protein depends on concentration level. Lower end WPCs tend to have 30 percent protein versus the higher end, which is up to 90 percent.

Whey Protein Isolate (WPI): Further processed to remove all of the lactose and fat, this form of whey protein is commonly 90 percent protein at a minimum.

This is perhaps the most commonly found form of powdered products among athletes seeking maximum protein.

Whey Protein Hydrolysate (WPH): Considered to be the “predigested” form as partial hydrolysis has already occurred – a process which is essential for the body to absorb protein.

As WPH doesn’t require as much digestion as the other two forms of whey protein, it’s also regularly used in infant formulas and medical protein supplements.

Joseph Nordqvist, medically reviewed by Natalie Olsen, R.D., L.D., ACSM EP-C | Medical News Today

Here’s a brief-yet-informative video that discusses all things whey and describes the bouts of further processing:

So, is whey protein vegan?

Regardless of “type,” whether WPC, WPI or WPH, liquid or powder, whey is a component of cow’s milk, and since dairy products are not vegan, they fall outside of our sphere of consumption.

However, while many companies like Beyond Meat are actively working to develop “mock” versions of animal products that are 100% plant-based, if you come across a whey protein supplement that claims to be a “vegan” version, steer clear. This is simply impossible and a totally invalid notion!

Instead, check out these articles on our recommended vegan protein powder and the best plant-based protein bars to begin researching and perhaps planning your vegan-friendly supplementation strategy!

Comparing whey to plant-based protein

plant-based protein vs whey infographic
Infographic courtesy of IdealRaw

While we know that plant-based is the better option for animals and our environment, how does plant-based protein powder stack up against whey? Clearly, whey is popular, but does that mean it’s necessarily more effective? Why does it seem like the go-to choice compared to plant-based protein?

Perhaps, it’s the same reason why meat eaters are constantly asking where we get our protein: With the current paradigm that meat and dairy is required to make us big and strong so deeply ingrained in our society, it can be tough for everyone to accept an option “outside the box.”

But, when it comes to the hard facts, not only can plant-based protein supplements provide the same “complete” benefits as whey when it comes to muscle repair and growth, they also offer far more nutrients and a lot less harmful side effects, such as digestibility issues (read: flatulence and other toilet-related problems). (1)

And, should you need further proof, check out the trailer for the upcoming documentary, The Game Changers, which features a whole slew of elite athletes thriving on plant-based protein. (2)

We can’t wait to see this one!

As always, give us a comment below with any further questions!

About The Author:
Carly Keyes

Carly Keyes is writer and personal trainer who decided to go plant-based after a visit to the True North Health Center in Santa Rosa, CA. The change has completely revolutionized the way she feels, looks, thinks and behaves, making her a very vocal advocate of the vegan lifestyle.

She’s also a keen singer/songwriter and has studied screenwriting at the University of Michigan. Carly lives in Bloomfield Hills, MI.

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  1. Ryan Raman, MS, RD | Does Too Much Whey Protein Cause Side Effects? |
  2. The Game Changers | Movie Homepage |


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