Is Whey Protein Dairy-Free?: Where It Comes From & How It Affects Digestion

Athlete wondering if whey protein is dairy free while preparing his protein shake


Whey protein is one of the most readily available protein supplements on the market. It’s easy to pick up in various degrees of quality, but few people take the time to really understand what it is made of. So is whey protein dairy-free? And how does it interact with your body?

If you’ve found a suspicious link between your whey protein and your stomach problems, you’re on the right track. Whey may not be the best protein for your workouts for a number of reasons.

Today we will help you understand where whey comes from, what it does in your workout, and what kind of alternatives are available – such as dairy-free collagen proteins and vegan proteins.

So to get started, let’s answer the questions once and for all: Is whey protein dairy-free?

Is whey protein dairy-free?

Whey protein powders are made of whey, a natural by-product of the cheesemaking process.

Unpasteurized milk is heated and combined with any of several chemical compounds, most commonly rennet. The rennet acts as a binder for the milk proteins, causing them to separate into curds of cheese. Whey is the yellowish, watery liquid leftover from this process. 

So is whey protein dairy-free? Definitely not. 

I repeat: Whey protein isn’t dairy free

Separating from the majority of the milk proteins doesn’t remove all the milk proteins from whey. Whey also still contains the most insidious compound in dairy products: lactose. 

Since whey still contains lactose, whey protein isn’t dairy-free and isn’t a good protein powder for sensitive stomachs

That being said, whey protein is so inexpensive and readily available that many people with dairy sensitivities incorporate it into their supplement regimen – even though whey protein isn’t dairy-free. 

Part of whey’s power is in its versatility. Whey can taste sweet or acidic, easily mixes into liquids, and can be dried into a light powder that’s easy to ship (and buy) in bulk. 

The question is, how does it stack up to its competitors? And regardless of whether you have a dairy sensitivity, is it the best protein option available?

Now that you know whey protein isn’t dairy-free, it’s time to see what your other options are.

What is the best dairy-free protein option?

When it comes to big names in the protein game, collagen is rapidly gaining ground against whey. The question of collagen protein vs whey protein is something weighed by athletes, medical professionals, and scientists alike. So how are they different?

“Can you get dairy-free collagen?” is the natural follow-up once you’ve answered the question, “Is whey protein dairy-free?”  

Actually, all collagen is dairy-free! 

Collagen is also an animal protein, and while it can be sourced from cows, it doesn’t come from cow milk. 

Collagen is often sourced from bovine and porcine bones and hides, but some collagen supplements are sourced from the scales of fish. This makes collagen a great dairy-free protein option, but people with shellfish or seafood allergies should read labels carefully.

Collagen is usually produced through boiling the bones, hides, or scales – similar to the process used to make broth. The resulting liquid is then processed into either powder or liquid collagen.

If you’re asking: “Is whey protein dairy-free?” because you’re vegan, your protein options are going to require a little more digging. 

While there are several supplements marketing themselves as vegan collagen, true collagen isn’t vegan. Some of these so-called “vegan collagen” supplements contain the same chemical compounds as collagen, but they’re either sourced from plants or genetically engineered from ingredients such as yeast. 

Others have nothing in common with collagen at all and are intended to be “collagen boosters”, supporting your body’s natural production of collagen.

So, if you need a vegan and dairy-free protein option, what should you choose?

What is the best vegan protein option?

Vegan protein is unlike either whey or collagen proteins. 

Vegan protein production can vary intensely depending on the producer. Some are made with only yellow split pea protein, while others contain protein from a large variety of beans, nuts, and seeds. 

Some vegan proteins are complete proteins, meaning they contain all 9 essential amino acids. Others aren’t. And many need additional care in storage or dosage. 

Pea protein, for example, is very high in plant-based iron, making it difficult for your body to absorb. When you’re looking for vegan, dairy-free protein options, make sure you carefully read labels so that you can adjust your diet as needed.

Now that we’ve examined whey protein, collagen protein, and vegan protein at a glance, let’s dig deeper into each of these options to see how they do or don’t benefit you.

The nutritional breakdown of whey protein

“Is whey protein dairy-free?” isn’t necessarily the most important question. There are several other questions to consider when choosing a protein supplement. 

How large of a serving do you need to see the effects? 

How does this protein interact with your workout? 

When do you take it for maximum results? 

A cup (246 g) of liquid whey is 93% water. It also contains just 2.09 grams of protein and a whopping 12.6 grams of sugar. 

Refined whey powders have a higher percentage of protein, but they can also have a higher percentage of sugar. And the amount of protein per serving you’re getting depends on what kind of whey protein you have. 

Is whey protein dairy-free? That question has a blanket answer – no. But does whey have a high protein-to-sugar ratio? That depends. There are three main kinds of whey protein available: concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate.

Types of whey protein 

Whey protein concentrate is the least processed option. It can be as much as 80% protein or as little as 35%, depending on the brand. The remaining portion of the whey is fat, lactose, and minerals naturally occurring in milk. 

Whey protein isolate falls somewhere in the range of 85%-96% protein. It has a smaller fat and lactose content, but it also has fewer minerals. 

The process whey goes through to get to this point involves enzymes which “pre-digest” the whey and remove most of the fat and lactose, leaving behind more protein. 

Whey protein hydrolysate goes through a more intense version of the enzymatic treatment whey protein isolate goes through. This means it’s easier to digest, but it does cause up to a 40% greater spike in insulin levels compared to whey isolate. 

Isolate and hydrolysate also tend to be less appealing in terms of taste and texture, partly due to the way the whey interacts with the enzymes.

Digestion of whey protein

Whey is best taken after a workout, since its molecules are too large to easily digest, even in hydrolysate form. This means that if you take your whey before a workout, the protein won’t be bioavailable until the very end of your workout, if it’s available at all. 

Whey can take so long to digest that a majority of it often passes through your system before you’ve had a chance to absorb it. This slow absorption can also be the cause of a “too much protein” stomach ache.

So, if you’re really looking to see the benefits of your protein powder in your workout (which I assume you are), whey protein may not be the best option, whether or not whey protein is dairy-free. 

Instead, you may want to consider collagen protein. Let’s take a closer look at this dairy-free alternative. 

The nutritional breakdown of collagen protein

Collagen is pure protein. In fact, it’s the most abundant protein in the human body. But the nutritional value of collagen protein varies by brand, so we’ll use Frog Fuel’s Power Protein as an example. 

Our collagen contains 15 grams of protein per fluid ounce with 0 grams of fat, 0 grams of sugar, absolutely no carbohydrates, and just 60 calories. So – you’re getting far more protein (and far fewer extras) for your buck. 

Is whey protein dairy-free? Nope. 

Is collagen always dairy-free? Absolutely. 

Even brands that aren’t as high-quality as Frog Fuel don’t bring lactose along to the party. 

Digestion of collagen protein

Collagen molecules are much smaller and easier to digest, which is just one perk on a whole list of liquid collagen benefits. Frog Fuel’s nano-hydrolyzed collagen can be comfortably absorbed in just 15 minutes or less.  

Our hydrolysis process breaks your collagen down to just 2,000 daltons – a fraction of the size of whey protein molecules. That’s also smaller than the size of your stomach pores, which are 4,000 daltons in size. 

That means that none of our collagen protein is going to go to waste. It will easily pass through your stomach pores and be completely absorbed – so you can enjoy all the benefits of your protein supplement. 

Collagen has even been proven to boost musculoskeletal health in ways whey protein can’t. 

All collagen is naturally a dairy-free protein. Your collagen supplement can be used to make dairy-free protein shakes, or you can enjoy a single-serve liquid collagen pouch all on its own! 

The nutritional breakdown of vegan protein

Vegan protein doesn’t have much by way of averages. How much protein you’ll get compared to carbs and sugars will depend on what your protein is made of, so let’s use soy protein as an example. 

1 cup (186 g) of soybeans contains an incredible 67.9 g of protein. However, that protein comes alongside 13.6 grams of sugars and 56.2 grams of carbs. Not to mention the dense 830 calories and 9.3 g of fiber a cup of soybeans will bring along. 

Once those beans are processed into a powder, it’s anyone’s guess. Some soy protein supplements have been processed to contain less sugar and calories, where others have extra ingredients that add more

On average, soy protein also contains about 284 mg of sodium, so you’ll have to take that into account to make sure you aren’t getting too much sodium from other sources. 

Is whey protein dairy-free? No. Is vegan protein dairy-free? Yes, but you’ll need to keep a close eye on added and naturally occurring ingredients to make sure it doesn’t throw a wrench in your carefully planned nutrition regimen.

Strengthening your pre-workout with the right protein

So, is whey protein dairy-free? The simplest answer is no, but we all know a single ingredient doesn’t make or break a good protein supplement. 

The real questions to ask about dairy-free protein have to do with where it comes from, what its dietary makeup is, and when you plan to take your supplement. As athletes ourselves, we know that your pre-workout protein needs to meet exacting standards. 

Our dairy-free, hydrolyzed collagen is specifically designed to quickly and easily absorb into your body in all the ways whey protein can’t – while fitting into serving sizes small enough to slip into your pocket.

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