Vegan Whey Protein & Animal-Free Whey

Key Terms to Know

Are plant-based whey and dairy-free whey…

The same thing as vegan whey, animal-free whey protein, and non-animal whey?

Knowing the difference can protect your health and personal values.

Using information from scientific research and U.S. Food and Drug Administration documents,

This article defines…and distinguishes between…

All of these related terms.

Let’s jump in.

These definitions are based on 26 research papers, 8 patents, and 4 regulatory documents. Last updated: Sep. 17, 2023. See our disclaimer.


Whey Protein

Whey protein is a general term that refers to a family (a collection) of several milk proteins. Whey proteins account for ~20% of cow’s milk proteins (the casein family accounts for the other ~80%). Whey proteins have nutritional and immunological value.

An image that shows that casein makes up about 80% of bovine milk proteins while whey makes up about 20% of bovine milk proteins.

Traditional Whey Protein

Traditional whey protein is a term that refers to whey protein that’s derived from livestock milk. This is in contrast to whey protein produced by newer technologies that rely on microbes, plants, or cell cultures to produce the milk proteins found in traditional whey protein.

An image that shows that traditional whey protein comes from dairy animals like cattle, sheep, and goats.

Synonyms: Dairy-Based Whey Protein; Normal Whey Protein (informal).

Traditional whey protein is a term that’s found in regulatory documents on this topic. So we consider this term a bit more “official” and formal compared to its lay synonym: “normal whey protein”.

Normal Whey Protein

Normal whey protein is an informal term that often refers to traditional whey protein (possibly in non-isolate form). That is, normal whey protein is a reference to whey protein that’s produced from the milk of common dairy animals (such as cattle, goats, and sheep).

Synonyms: Dairy-Based Whey Protein; Traditional Whey Protein.

Related: Vegan Whey vs. Normal Whey: Nutrition & Safety

Precision Fermentation

Precision fermentation is a specialized type of brewing method, whereupon genetically modified organisms (like bacteria, yeast, and other fungi) are used to produce specific functional ingredients (like bovine whey proteins, vitamins, enzymes, fats, and pigments).

Related Article: Precision Fermentation Statistics

Plant-Based Whey Protein

Plant-based whey protein is a product that contains one or more milk proteins classified in the whey protein family. This product is produced by genetically-modified plants or their cell cultures, instead of animals or microbes. Examples include carrot cell cultures and modified soybeans.

An image that shows soybean plants and soybeans, as well as a lab beaker and petri dish, to signify that genetically engineered plants can created whey protein as well.

Synonym: Plant-Derived Whey Protein.

Currently, we classify “plant-based whey protein” and its synonym as an emerging term and of possible concern. See Discussion.

Microflora-Derived Whey Protein

Microflora-derived whey protein refers to a substance composed of one or more milk proteins classified in the whey protein family. Such a substance is produced by one or more species of microbes. Such microorganisms are commonly yeast, but can be other fungi, or bacteria.

An image that shows that microflora-derived whey protein refers to whey protein created by fungi or bacteria.

The term “microflora-derived whey protein” is a more technical term, often seen in regulatory documents.

Synonyms: Whey From Fermentation (emerging B2B term); Whey Protein From Fermentation (emerging B2B term).


The word “yeast” refers to microscopic, single-celled, eukaryotic, fungal organisms. Yeast are not plants nor bacteria. There are more than 1,500 species of yeast. Some of these yeast can cause infections while others are used to make bread, brew beer, and create life-saving medications.

An image that shows that people use yeast for a lot of things, like the production of bread, insulin, and beer.

Yeast Protein

Yeast protein is microbial protein that’s part of the natural structure and function of the yeast itself. The yeast protein can be harvested for nutritional purposes, such as for the creation of yeast protein powder used as a supplement.

An image that shows a yeast cell's structural proteins in the cell wall and functional proteins inside the yeast that can help the yeast grow.

Currently, we classify “yeast protein” as an established term and of possible concern. See Discussion.

Yeast-Derived Whey Protein

Yeast-derived whey protein refers to one or more milk proteins (of the whey protein family), produced via fermentation, and secreted by genetically engineered yeast. The secreted proteins are separated from the yeast and used to create final products, such as vegan whey protein powder.

An image that shows that a yeast cell's structural and functional protein is not the same as the whey protein molecules secreted by the yeast.

Synonyms: Yeast-Secreted Whey Protein, Fungally Expressed Recombinant Whey Protein (technical).

Yeast-Secreted Milk Proteins

Yeast-secreted milk proteins are proteins, of the casein and whey protein families, which are produced by genetically engineered yeast. These secreted milk proteins (not the yeast’s structural and functional proteins) are used in non-animal dairy products like animal-free whey protein powder.

Non-Animal Whey Protein

Non-animal whey protein refers to one or more milk proteins, of the whey protein family, which are produced by non-animal sources. Such sources include genetically engineered fungi (including yeast), plants (or their cell cultures), or bacteria.

Synonym: Animal-Free Whey Protein, Vegan Whey Protein.

The term “non-animal whey protein” is a more technical term often used in regulatory (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) documentation and on ingredient labels.

Conversely, this term’s synonyms are more consumer-facing (more likely to be found in blogs, product pages, etc).

Currently, we classify “non-animal whey protein” as a relatively common term and of possible concern. See Discussion.

Relevant Article: How is Vegan (Animal-Free) Whey Protein Made? 3 Ways.

Animal-Free Whey Protein

Animal-free whey protein is a substance that’s composed of one or more milk proteins of the whey protein family. Animal-free whey protein is produced by non-animal organisms, including one or more genetically engineered fungi (including yeast), plants (or their cell cultures), or bacteria.

An image that shows that animal-free whey protein can be produced by fungi, plants, or bacteria. Fungi-derived whey protein is already out on the market. Plant-derived whey protein is patented. Bacteria-derived whey protein is in research.

Synonym: Non-Animal Whey Protein.

The production of whey protein using animal cells (but not the animals themselves) may or may not be considered “animal-free”, depending on industry, profession, or personal interpretation.

Currently, we classify “animal-free whey protein” as a relatively common term and of possible concern. See Discussion.

Relevant Article: How is Vegan (Animal-Free) Whey Protein Made? 3 Ways.

Related Article: Is Animal Free Whey Vegan? What PETA & Surveys Say

Vegan Whey Protein

Vegan whey protein is a substance that contains one or more whey proteins produced by one or more non-animal organisms (plants, fungi, or bacteria). Depending on personal beliefs, the organism’s food source, and possible animal testing, such a product may or may not be viewed as truly vegan.

An image that shows that vegan whey protein may or may not be considered vegan due to three major factors in products labeled as vegan whey protein: the use of animal DNA, the possible use of animal substrates, and the possible need for animal testing.

Currently, we classify the term “vegan whey protein” as a relatively common term and of possible concern. See Discussion.

Relevant Article: How is Vegan (Animal-Free) Whey Protein Made? 3 Ways.

Related: Is Vegan Whey Protein Safe? What FDA Documents Reveal

Related: Vegan Whey vs. Normal Whey: Nutrition & Safety

Dairy-Free Whey Protein

Dairy-free whey protein is a term that implies a form of whey protein that’s produced by life forms other than dairy animals. Such life forms include plants (or their cell cultures) and microbes like yeast. Despite this, dairy-free whey protein contains milk allergens like those found in dairy.

Synonym: Non-Dairy Whey Protein.

Currently, we classify “dairy-free whey protein” and its synonym as an emerging term and of significant concern. See Discussion.


In the definitions above, we marked several terms as “concerning”.

For quick reference, here they are:

  • Plant-based whey protein
  • Non-animal whey protein
  • Animal-free whey protein
  • Vegan whey protein
  • Dairy-free whey protein
  • Yeast protein

Our concerns fall into two camps:

  1. Health and safety
  2. Personal values

(Related: Is Vegan Whey Protein Safe? What FDA Documents Reveal)

Plant-Based Whey Protein

Whey protein can be produced by genetically engineered plants…

…Or plant cell cultures (“test-tube plants”).

This is not equivalent to whey protein that’s produced by yeast (which are not plants).

What’s becoming clear is that bloggers and consumers confuse plant-based whey with yeast-derived whey.

Here is an article with a headline about plant-based whey…

We redacted the name and image of the author.

An image of a headline that reads: “No Way, Plant-Based Whey? Yes Whey!”

The headline clearly implies the article is about plant-based whey.

The author goes on to discuss plant-based whey multiple times, linking to products that are actually yeast-derived.

Although patents for plant-based whey technology exist…

We’re not aware of any plant-derived whey protein products that are approved for sale in the U.S.


Yeast-derived whey protein can (but doesn’t have to) be manufactured with the use of plant products.

For example:

The yeast can be “fed” plant derivatives and, in turn, produce whey protein.

Even so:

Calling a product “plant-based whey”…

Just because the yeast consume plants…

Is somewhat like calling whey protein obtained from cow’s milk, “plant-based”, just because the cattle consumed plants in order to produce the milk.

This is not purely semantics nor criticism.

This misinterpretation has documented real-world consequences.

In such an instance,

A consumer might believe that the yeast-derived whey product is fully plant-based and therefore free of animal proteins.

If the consumer has a milk protein allergy, they may have to be hospitalized.

Some consumers already believe that yeast-derived whey is created from (or by) plants.

Here’s an example review from a yeast-derived product:

An image with the following text: “Plant-based Whey! Yay!! Tastes good.NOT chalky or gritty. Amazingly smooth. Mixes well. Great macros for what I need. (The berry flavor does get a little foamy when mixing but it does go away). I blend the chocolate and vanilla.”

This same yeast-derived whey product had numerous reviews from people complaining about allergies to it.

Here’s one example:

An image of a review that read: “I believe I am allergic to something in the powder. I got incredibly sick when I consumed it.”

This might be as a result of an allergy to milk proteins in the yeast-derived whey, possibly because the individual wasn’t aware of the presence of such allergens. Possibly because they believed it was fully plant-based.


We did consider the possibility that a reaction to some other ingredient…

Was misinterpreted as an allergy.

But this doesn’t negate the concern at hand.

Similarly, we can imagine an actual plant-derived whey product causing the same type of confusion. By definition, it would contain milk allergens despite being “plant-based”.

Non-Animal Whey, Animal-Free Whey, & Vegan Whey

We group these three terms together due to related concerns. As such, we use all three terms interchangeably in this section.

To some, these three terms may imply the complete lack of animal involvement in the product itself and/or the product’s manufacture.

This may be the case,

But it doesn’t have to be…

All depending on manufacturing details and personal beliefs about what is “animal-free” or “vegan”.

(Related article: Is Animal Free Whey Vegan? What PETA & Surveys Say)

Consider this…


Non-animal whey protein is produced thanks to genetic code that was originally obtained from a milk-producing animal…

And that genetic code is then inserted into the non-animal organism that produces the whey protein.


Some non-animal organisms (like yeast) can be “fed” animal products in order to produce protein.

Based on our literature review…we suspect this is an uncommon practice in commerce and that simple sugars are the most likely substrate (“food”) used by the yeast for the production of whey…

But animal-based substrates remain a possibility, even if only in theory for now.

We point this out not to “fear-monger” but rather to state this obvious possibility…

And point out the need for vegans who are not fond of such a possibility to pay close attention to how their vegan whey protein powder of choice is actually manufactured now or in the future.


Depending on country specifics,

Some parts of the manufacturing process…

And/or the final protein product…

May involve…or at one point involved…animal testing.


It’s easy to imagine how a label of “non-animal whey protein” or “animal-free whey protein” or “vegan whey”…

May be unclear, confusing, or misleading depending on case specifics…

And a strong violation of some people’s personal beliefs:

An image of a review that state: ‘I ordered your vegan whey products because I am a vegan. I was drinking my second whey protein shake Sunday night and decided to read the label. I saw in tiny (albeit bold) letters that your vegan whey protein contains milk products. I spit out the drink in my mouth and poured the rest down the drain. I think you should be much clearer in your advertising and in font size and placement of the warning that your products contain dairy milk.”

In the end:

Labeling a yeast-derived whey protein as “vegan”…

May or may not be a form of “veganwashing” depending on your personal beliefs.

There’s something else here though…

Note how the reviewer above didn’t read the label prior to using the product. This is a common theme with many consumer goods.

Nothing new, nor unique to vegan whey.

But consequential.

A person may interpret the term “animal-free” or “vegan” as equivalent to “plant-based” as per the discussion in the prior section.

For people with milk protein allergies, this can be a serious problem. Recall: vegan whey protein contains milk allergens.

Here’s a review from a yeast-derived whey product alternatively advertised as “animal free” or “vegan”.

This consumer believed this product was vegan…

And apparently had an allergic reaction to it:

An image of a review with the following text: “It turned out that I was severely allergic to something in this product and it ended up making me really sick. It’s too bad since the flavor was great going down.. just not so much coming up. Despite the unfortunate circumstance, the support of the product was really good. When I wrote in, the CSR took some basic information down and ended up immediately refunding me without further questions. I’d recommend in a second to someone who was looking for a tasty vegan whey option.”

What’s just as worrying is the rise of AI-generated search.

Look at the results below.

Whey is an animal protein but this result tells us otherwise in multiple ways:

An image of an AI-generated Google search results for

Here’s another instance of a search for the same term

(without quotes this time)

That bleeds over into very dangerous territory:

An image of an AI-generated Google search results for

This AI-derived information goes against all scientific, medical, and regulatory knowledge for such a product.

We truly hope no one searches for, nor trusts, any AI information on any (even borderline) medical topics (especially emerging ones) unless the AI’s data set is vetted by medical professionals.

Dairy-Free Whey Protein

We classify “dairy-free whey protein” as an emerging term of significant concern.

It’s not a commonly used term…

But our worry is that it becomes more popular and/or misused over time.

An image with an article headline that reads: “Tech Startup Developing Dairy-Free Whey Protein From Yeast”

Whey protein, derived from any source, is a milk allergen.

Possible consequence:

An individual with a milk allergy misunderstands the term,

Believes the “dairy-free” whey protein contains no milk allergens,

Consumes the “dairy-free” whey protein,

And suffers severe consequences.

Yeast Protein

There are people who are allergic to yeast…

And there are people who are allergic to milk proteins.

Yeast protein contains yeast allergens.

Yeast-derived whey protein contains milk allergens.

It doesn’t take much for someone to confuse one product with the other.

Either way, an allergic reaction could follow.


Two things.


Whey protein supplements derived from non-animal sources…like those produced by plants or microbes…are part of a budding industry.


Precisely because it’s a relatively new industry, a lot of key terms haven’t been standardized.


Many uncommon terms in this industry are “emerging” (they’re just beginning to appear out in conversation)…or their definitions are morphing with time likely due to a lack of standardization.

What does this mean in practice?


We found that scientists, regulatory authorities, patent attorneys, bloggers, and consumers use many of these terms …in potentially confusing and conflicting ways.

This confusion leads to unintentionally misleading statements or interpretations…

In turn,

As described herein,

This confusion can affect a person’s nutrition, beliefs, health, and safety.


To get to the bottom of what all of the terms defined herein actually mean,

We analyzed 26 research papers, dissected 8 relevant patents, and studied 4 regulatory documents (from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration).

We reconciled the context, intent, and implications of each term…

Across all documents…

To distinguish and define each term more clearly.

Please note:

Except for the really common terms (like whey protein)…

You won’t see any links or in-line citations in the definitions herein (just a collection of references at the bottom). We’re not trying to hide anything.


There are no standard definitions for most of these terms.

That means we had to reconcile all of the information provided by all of the sources at the bottom of this article in order to define each term in our own words. We believe that citing specific sources in each definition is deceptive, as it implies that said sources contain our definition, when they don’t.

One last thing:

The definitions herein are not in alphabetical order…

On purpose.


We listed the terms in the most logical order we could think of. This way you can quickly move up or down the list to fully contextualize each term with its neighboring ones.

In the end:

The goal of this article is not to tell anyone what to do or think. The goal is to simply shine a light on a range of meanings and interpretations of emerging terms.

Hopefully this article helps you,

And goes a long way to finally standardizing or clearly defining all of these terms for everyone else as well.


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