Vegan Whey vs. Normal Whey

Nutrition & Safety

This article compares the nutrition and safety of vegan whey protein powder vs. normal (dairy-based) whey protein.

You’ll learn how vegan whey is better than normal whey in some respects,

But not in others.

(P.S. Vegan whey is also known as animal-free whey protein and non-animal whey protein.)

Let’s begin.

This article is based on 29 research papers and 6 regulatory documents. Last updated: Sep. 15, 2023. See our disclaimer.

This image compares the nutritional and safety profile of vegan whey vs. normal whey as described in this article's text.

Summary

Vegan whey protein and normal whey protein offer up a very similar nutritional and amino acid profile.

As it’s a pretty new type of product, animal-free whey protein tends to cost more (pound for pound) when compared to similar dairy-based whey protein powders.

Non-animal whey protein is sourced from only one type of whey protein, while normal whey protein brings forth the full range of whey proteins found in animal milk.

When it comes to safety, normal whey protein is more likely to have harmful substances than vegan whey protein.

Nutrition

Nutritional Profile

This image compares the nutritional profile of vegan whey vs. normal whey as described in this article's text.

As you can tell from the profile,

Per gram of protein,

Vegan whey wins out in terms of:

  • Fewer calories
  • Lower total fat
  • Lower saturated fat

While normal whey wins out in terms of:

  • Lower cost
  • Lower sodium
  • Fewer carbs

Both types of protein contain 0 cholesterol and provide all essential amino acids.

For this nutritional profile:

We made a comparison between Mooless Animal-Free Whey Protein (Chocolate Fudge Brownie) and Sports Research Whey Protein Isolate (Dutch Chocolate).

Here’s why.

Currently, there are two vegan whey protein powders for sale.

(Details: The Best Vegan Whey Protein Powders)

One of the vegan whey powders doesn’t provide an amino acid breakdown, so we naturally chose the one that did (Mooless).

Luckily,

The animal-free whey protein product (Mooless) and the normal whey protein product (Sports Research)…

Had similar flavors, ingredients, a known brand name, and both are isolates.

The only unfair point of comparison is that the vegan whey protein comes in small and pricey packs,

So it’s not possible to save as much money buying in bulk as you can with Sports Research or normal whey protein in general.

Proteins

This image shows that vegan whey contains only one type of whey protein while normal whey contains at least 5 different types of whey protein.

Cow’s milk has two major families of proteins: 1–3

  • Casein (~80% of proteins in milk)
  • Whey (~20% of proteins in milk)

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

Since whey protein is a term that refers to a family (a collection) of proteins,

That means there is no single whey protein.

The two major forms of whey protein are: 3–6

  • Beta-lactoglobulin (BLG). This protein accounts for about 50-58% of whey protein.
  • Alpha-lactalbumin (ALA). This protein accounts for about 17-20% of whey protein.

This image shows that the two major forms of whey proteinn are BLG and ALA.

Other types of whey proteins include: serum albumin, numerous immunoglobulins, lactoferrin, and lactoperoxidase. 1,3

In summary, normal whey contains a huge variety of proteins.

Now let’s compare that to vegan whey protein powder, which is made by fungi.

(Details: How is Vegan Whey Protein Made? 3 Ways.)

Purified vegan whey protein powder is up to 99.9% BLG, with a few stray fungal proteins making up the rest of the protein content. 7–9

This image shows that up to 99.9% of vegan whey protein powder is beta-lactoglobulin.

The fungal proteins are unlikely to cause any issues, by the way. 7–9

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

So:

Unless the purified vegan whey protein powder is mixed with other types of protein powders, a bag of vegan whey protein powder is basically just BLG in terms of its protein content. 7–9

Is that bad?

On the surface,

It may seem like it’s better to choose the wider variety of whey proteins in normal whey vs. just the BLG in vegan whey.

Perhaps.

But let’s briefly go over 3 reasons for why we shouldn’t jump to conclusions either.

First:

Proteins are made of amino acids.

Vegan whey protein powder contains all the essential amino acids, just like normal whey. Basically, the BLG protein in vegan whey is enough in that respect.

Second:

More is not always better.

Yes, normal whey has a larger collection of proteins vs. vegan whey.

But few things in life can always be good and never be bad from every perspective. And that goes for whey proteins.

For example, ALA (not found in vegan whey but found in normal whey),

Might have anti-inflammatory effects but it may also contribute to acne. 10,11

Third:

There have been no clinical trials that compare normal whey vs. vegan whey.

So, for now…

We think it’s best to reserve judgement,

On whether vegan whey is better or worse than normal whey,

And in which scenario,

Based on protein content alone.

Amino Acids

This image shows that both vegan whey protein and dairy-based whey protein powders contain all 9 essential amino acids.

Vegan whey protein powder contains all 9 essential amino acids. Normal whey protein powder does too.

Essential amino acids are the ones we must get from food, as our bodies can’t make them. 12

Neither protein powders have asparagine nor glutamine.

Amino Acid

(*essential)

Vegan Whey

(per 100g protein powder)

Normal Whey

(per 100g protein powder)

Alanine 5 g 3.17 g
Arginine 2 g 1.54 g
Asparagine
Aspartic Acid 11 g 7.85 g
Cysteine 2.5 g 1.73 g
Glutamic Acid 17.5 g 12.39 g
Glutamine
Glycine 1.5 g 1.02 g
Histidine* 1.5 g 1.27 g
Isoleucine* 7 g 4.56 g
Leucine* 10.5 g 10.1 g
Lysine* 10 g 6.93 g
Methionine* 2 g 1.49 g
Phenylalanine* 3 g 2.24 g
Proline 6 g 3.9 g
Serine 4.5 g 2.88 g
Threonine* 7 g 4.54 g
Tryptophan* 2 g 1.54 g
Tyrosine 3 g 2.24 g
Valine* 5.5 g 3.98 g

Neither asparagine nor glutamine are essential amino acids. 12

But:

Glutamine is sometimes called a “conditionally essential amino acid”. 12,13

That is:

In times of significant stress or illness,

The body can’t make enough glutamine to compensate for how much it uses.

So in these times, our body needs to consume additional glutamine.12,13

Safety

Allergies

This image shows that vegan whey and normal whey contain milk allergens.

Both vegan whey protein and normal whey protein can lead to milk allergy in people allergic to milk proteins.7–9,14

It’s also possible to have an allergic reaction after consuming whey protein but not after the consumption of milk.

This may be because,

For some people,

The highly concentrated dose (“amount”) of the milk proteins in whey is enough to cause an allergic reaction they otherwise don’t have to milk (which is mainly water, not milk proteins). 1,15

Lactose Intolerance

This image shows that vegan whey is unlikely to have, while normal whey may possible have, lactose.

Purified vegan whey protein doesn’t have lactose and won’t lead to lactose intolerance. 7–9

Of course,

Products made with vegan whey protein could mix in lactose-containing ingredients but,

To be clear:

Pure vegan whey protein is lactose-free.

As for normal (dairy-based) whey,

Unless the label says otherwise,

Assume the following:

Normal whey protein can have some lactose in it and may lead to discomfort in some people with lactose intolerance.16,17

Heavy Metals

This image shows that both vegan whey protein powders and normal whey protein powders may have small amounts of heavy metals.

It’s important to note two things.

First:

The data for heavy metals in vegan whey comes from information animal-free whey manufacturers submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 7–9

That’s two manufacturers and several batches per manufacturer. So it’s a small sample size.

It may or may not be a good representation of what’s actually in the bag of protein powder.

Second:

The data for heavy metals in normal whey is quite varied depending on manufacturer, exact type of whey protein, batch, and study in question. 18–26

There’s also a lot more data for normal whey protein than vegan whey.

Even so, these numbers should be viewed as estimates and not necessarily what’s in any one bag of normal whey protein powder.

Heavy Metal

Vegan Whey

(parts per billion)

Normal Whey

(parts per billion)

Arsenic <10.0–60.3 ppb 2.1–79.5 ppb
Cadmium <5.0–9.09 ppb 0.7–306.5 ppb
Lead <5.0–59.3 ppb 0.93–49.5 ppb
Mercury <5.0 ppb <0.2–123.48 ppb

Antibiotics

This image shows that vegan whey is unlikely to have, while normal whey may possible have, antibiotics.

Purified vegan whey protein is unlikely to contain antibiotics.

The fungi used to produce non-animal whey protein can, in theory, produce natural antibiotics.

However, this doesn’t happen under the manufacturing conditions used to produce the animal-free whey protein. 7–9,27

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

Things get a bit tricky when it comes to normal whey protein.

As you know…normal (dairy-based) whey protein powder is made from animal milk.

Technically, there shouldn’t be any,

Or any significant amount,

Of antibiotics in normal whey protein powder. 28–30

That’s especially true for whey protein powder made in countries with relatively strict health regulations on the dairy industry, like the U.S. 29,31,32

But some dairy farmers break multiple medical and safety rules,

And they don’t always get caught,

Which leads to worrisome levels of antibiotics in the respective milk supply. 28,33

Scientific evidence shows that if that milk supply contains a lot of antibiotics,

Then some (but not all) types of antibiotics can transfer over to the whey protein powder during processing. 34–38

Hormones

This image shows that vegan whey is unlikely to have, while normal whey may possible have, hormones.

There is no evidence to suggest that vegan whey protein powder contains any hormonal medications.

Of course, this hasn’t been independently tested…

But it’s unlikely given the manufacturing process and the fact that fungi (not cattle) are used to make vegan whey protein.

(Details: How is Vegan Whey Protein Made? 3 Ways.)

On the flipside,

Milk can contain various hormonal medications used in cattle, ones that may theoretically affect human health. 30,39,40

When that milk is converted to whey protein powder,

Some of the hormonal medications may survive processing and remain in the protein powder itself. 39,41

This doesn’t automatically spell danger, however.

So far there’s conflicting evidence if the type of hormonal medications found in milk,

In the amounts present in the milk,

Pose any significant danger to human health. 30,40,41

But we feel it’s always best to be a tad careful.

Maybe that’s also one reason why many countries,

And the European Union,

Banned the use of many hormonal medications in livestock. 39,41

Pesticides

This image shows that vegan whey is unlikely to have, while normal whey may possible have, pesticides.

There is no evidence to suggest that vegan whey protein powder contains pesticides.

However, there really isn’t much research on this topic so no definitive conclusion can be made.

Given the manufacturing process involved, though,

It’s unlikely there is any (or any significant) amount of pesticides in animal-free whey. It wouldn’t make much sense but it’s not impossible either.

(Related: How is Vegan Whey Protein Made? 3 Ways.)

But for normal whey protein, things are different.

Livestock are exposed to pesticides in the food they eat. 42

Evidence shows that these pesticides can show up in milk and in normal whey protein powder. 30,43,44

This includes pesticides that have long been banned due to their danger.

Why do they still show up in dairy products if they’ve been banned?

It’s because,

Once these pesticides (like ppDDT) have contaminated the land,

It takes decades for them to disappear from the environment. 30

BPA

This image shows that 55% of normal whey protein powders contain BPA.

It’s too soon for us to be sure if there are any other dangerous chemicals in vegan whey protein or not.

There’s just not enough independent research on this.

There is a lot more research on normal whey protein powder.

This research has shown that many (but not all) normal whey protein powders can contain plenty of chemicals,

Including bisphenol A (BPA). 25,26,43,44

In one study:

55% of tested whey protein powders contained BPA and one powder contained 25 times the maximum limit. 25

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