Whey protein is a type of protein isolate that is derived from whey and is used in a huge number of protein powders, protein bars and other similar products. We know that there are many great sources of vegan protein but is whey protein one of them? Well, this is a nice simple one and the answer is no, whey protein is not suitable for vegans.
The great news, though, is that there are lots of plant-based alternatives to whey-protein products. You can check out all of the best vegan protein powders and also vegan protein bars elsewhere on the site. We have also got information about specific types of vegan protein, such as pea protein, if you are looking for something specific. Leaving vegan proteins aside for now though, let’s return to whey and look in more detail at what it is and why it is unsuitable for vegans.
What Is Whey Protein?
Whey protein is, as said, and as the name would suggest, protein that comes from whey. “Protein” is not actually a single thing and indeed what we call whey protein actually consists of many different proteins. We talk about the different proteins and more generally what protein is elsewhere on the site so we won’t go into that in too much detail but the important, and obvious question is, what is whey?
Whey, as anyone with any knowledge of cheesemaking, will know, is a by-product of cheese production, as well as, of course, being one of Little Miss Muffet’s favoured snacks. The dictionary definition of whey is “the watery part of milk that remains after the formation of curds”. The curds are solid and are compressed to make traditional dairy cheese which is, of course, non-vegan (cheese lovers, check out our piece on the best vegan cheeses).
Whey is a thin, milky liquid that is very high in protein and though it has many uses, one of the most common is to separate out the protein, and then use one of a number of possible processes to turn it into whey protein powder. That said, not all whey protein comes from the cheesemaking industry as it can be produced in different ways.
What does not change, however, is that all whey comes from dairy milk, almost exclusively cow’s milk. As such, like milk and other related products including yoghurt, whey protein is not vegan friendly.
Why Is Whey Protein Not Vegan?
Whey comes from the milk of animals and for many that is all the explanation they will need. However, in our article Is Milk Vegan? we go into more detail about the dairy industry and the cruelty and suffering often endured by cows. An animal in the dairy industry is exploited and this shortens their life expectancy, and the processes used also cause them pain and mental duress.
Whilst it may be possible to produce milk in ways that are more sustainable and more ethical, there are none that are likely to satisfy too many vegans. More to the point, we certainly very much doubt that any of this less-bad milk, which by its nature could only be produced in small quantities, would be used to produce whey protein.
Is There a Non-Dairy Whey Protein?
There are companies that produce so-called vegan whey which is claimed to be “bioidentical” to dairy whey. It is certainly more environmentally friendly than “normal” whey and is lactose free. These products are essentially lab-grown, and use what one producer describes as “the cow gene”. Specially selected microorganisms then “imitate a cow’s milk production and … produce whey molecules when fed the same diet in the form of plant sugars.”
There are a few things to note about this, first and incontrovertibly, that such products are unsuitable to anyone with an allergy to milk proteins. As stated, the whey produced is bioidentical and that means anyone with a milk allergy should proceed with caution. Second, and far less clear-cut, is the issue of whether these “vegan whey” products are truly vegan.
Lab Produced “Vegan” Whey Protein
The manufacturer of one product rather confusingly claims that they are “Not vegan but vegan friendly” but also states that they do this “without using animals at all” and also “with zero animals used anywhere in the process”. Naturally, full details of the manufacturing process are not given but they do state that they use a “digital version of the milk-making genetic blueprint from a cow”.
“Zero animals” and “from a cow” certainly seem contradictory to us but, like lab-grown meat, which uses some small genetic animal material to begin the process, there is no doubt that this is “more vegan” than the traditional method. This would certainly be acceptable to many vegans but those that feel strongly about trying to be absolutely as vegan as possible would point out that with so many alternative, guaranteed-vegan options, why bother?
A more pressing issue with regards to these products, however, might render all of this redundant for many vegans. As far as we are aware, as of early 2023, this vegan whey protein is very difficult to get hold of, especially outside of the US. With that in mind, why not just check out our full range of vegan protein products instead?
Is Whey the Best Type of Protein?
The issue of protein is, like much when it comes to health and nutrition, extremely complex and much debated. We take a look at some of these issues in our article on Plant Protein v Animal Protein and also elsewhere on the site.
It is not possible to give one size fits all advice with any real certainty about the optimal protein levels and types to maximise muscle growth. However, what we can say is that for the vast majority of people, getting all the protein you need is possible on a vegan diet. For all but elite athletes or those with very particular fitness goals, a well-balanced plant-based diet, perhaps augmented with some form of vegan protein powder, will be more than adequate.
No matter what your aims, the most important factors will be your exercise regime, overall protein intake, sleep quality and overall lifestyle. Worrying about the minutiae of things like the type of protein, timing of intake and what other nutrients that protein is consumed with is simply not worth it for most people. Moreover, even experts, from scientists to personal trainers, and bodybuilders to professional athletes, often disagree on such matters.
There Are Plenty of Other Options
That said, there is evidence to suggest that whey protein is the most bioavailable type. It is thought to have better bioavailability than other non-vegan proteins, such as casein (also usually produced from dairy), and also vegan ones such as soy protein. In simple terms, that means the body can easily use it, rather than some of the protein you consume essentially going to waste. Absorption and utilisation is extremely quick, meaning whey is especially good for a post-workout shake or snack.
In addition, it is a complete protein, offering all nine of the essential amino acids, although as we have said elsewhere, the importance of this as a concept has diminished over the years. Different people may have different requirements though when it comes to what particular blend of amino acids they are looking for, or for what they want their protein to do. For example, whey is not generally considered to be a good slow-release protein, so is not ideal overnight. In contrast casein, and for vegans soy, are better in this regard.
All that said, we return to the fact that such considerations are only really going to matter for a very small segment of society. For most people, the type of protein they consume does not really matter. The consistency of their exercise and diet, and making sure they get enough sleep and protein in general are what will make the difference. Most importantly of all though, for vegans, whey is simply not a choice. Whey protein comes from dairy milk and is, therefore, not vegan.