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It is estimated that up to 65% of the global population has lactose sensitivity.
If you find yourself in this 65%, you might have been staying away from all whey protein products out of fear of the gas, nausea, bloating, cramping, or diarrhea that they might cause.
While it is true that consuming lactose when you have lactose sensitivity could cause negative side effects like stomach upset, it’s also true that not all whey proteins have lactose and there might be an option for you to try.
Below I’m going to share some background on how different types of whey protein are made so you know whether they have lactose or not, and then I’ll share my top tips for consuming whey protein if you’re lactose intolerant.
- Different types of whey protein will have varying levels of lactose, from moderate levels to virtually zero.
- If whey has zero grams of sugar per serving, then you can be confident that it has no lactose as well
- You can likely still consume whey protein with lactose sensitivity, you just have to choose the right one – pick whey isolate or whey hydrolysate.
How Is Whey Protein Made & Does The Processing Get Rid of Lactose?
There are obviously quite a few steps to get the whey from its liquid form into flavored, shelf-stable powders.
The natural milk from the cow is around 3.5% protein, 3-4% fat, and 5% lactose.
Over the course of a few phases of processing, the milk gets separated into solid and liquid components.
The liquid portion is the whey protein, which at the early stages of processing, also contains the fat and lactose from the original milk.
However, the liquid whey gets moved along several extra phases of filtering to separate the protein away from the fat, lactose, water, and minerals.
After this filtering, the liquid whey is sent through one last step that involves drying the protein into a powder.
Depending on the level of processing, this whey can be classified into one of three types: (1) concentrate, (2) isolate, and (3) hydrolysate.
Each type of protein will have varying protein percentages (from 75 to 95% of total calories coming from protein) as well as varying levels of lactose.
Let’s dive into those three different types.
Types of Whey Protein & Their Lactose Content
1. Whey Concentrate
Whey concentrate proteins can range anywhere from 35-80% protein by weight, but typically a commercially available whey protein concentrate powder will fall between 70-80%.
The remaining percentage is made up of carbohydrates (including lactose) and fats. These products are typically less expensive and provide a bit more satiety than isolates.
They may also be higher calories than other protein types due to the slightly higher fat content.
A potential downside to whey concentrates is that they tend to be more reactive in people with dairy sensitivities as a result of the remaining lactose.
Key Takeaway: Don’t consume whey concentrate if you have lactose sensitivity.
2. Whey Isolate
A whey isolate is essentially just a whey concentrate that has undergone additional refinement to remove most of the leftover fat and sugar.
This process results in a product that is between 90-97% protein by weight.
Isolates are typically more expensive and mix up a bit thinner than whey concentrates.
They digest a bit more quickly than concentrates which makes them good for workout recovery and muscle building, but not great for fullness and satiety.
If you have lactose or dairy sensitivity, whey isolates are virtually lactose-free and tend to be well-tolerated by most people, with fewer incidences of gas, bloating, or indigestion.
As well, if you are tracking macros or are trying to limit excess fats or sugars, then an isolate is a great option.
Key Takeaway: It’s okay to consume whey isolate if you have mild lactose sensitivity.
3. Whey Hydrolysate
Getting a whey hydrolysate involves one further step in processing. The protein goes through either heat, enzyme, or acid manipulation to break down the amino acids in the protein into shorter chains.
This extra processing has resulted in a product that is considered “pre-digested” to absorb more easily into the body and will have even less lactose than an isolate.
Someone with a stronger lactose sensitivity who has not been able to tolerate whey isolate might be able to tolerate a hydrolysate protein.
The potential downsides to a hydrolysate are that they are the most expensive option and might not be budget-friendly for some consumers.
Key Takeaway: For stronger lactose sensitivity, consume whey hydrolysate.
Can You Drink Whey Protein If You’re Lactose Intolerant
Yes, you can drink whey protein if you are lactose intolerant. Find an isolate or hydrolysate with less than 1g of sugar per serving. You can also find formulas that have the lactase enzyme added, which helps to break down and digest lactose, further reducing the likelihood of any negative symptoms.
Most isolates and hydrolysates should be virtually lactose-free. Recall that lactose is the sugar found in milk, so if a whey protein contains 0g of sugar, then it should contain zero lactose.
Some countries have become more strict on label claims in the past few years, and as a result, many supplement companies can no longer advertise their dairy products to be lactose-free, even if that’s the case.
What Can Happen If You Drink Whey Protein With A Severe Lactose Intolerance
Consuming lactose with severe lactose intolerance can lead to negative digestive side effects including discomfort, nausea, constipation, gas, diarrhea, or severe abdominal pain.
This is likely to occur with a whey concentrate that still has a moderate percentage of lactose remaining.
While it’s not very likely to occur with an isolate and even less likely with a hydrolysate, it is still possible that someone with a severe allergy or intolerance might experience these symptoms with all forms of whey.
Note: This advice is specifically relating to lactose sensitivities and not dairy allergies. It is possible to be allergic to the actual proteins found in milk, in which case all whey proteins will be reactive.
5 Tips For Drinking Protein If You Have A Lactose Intolerance
1. Choose an Isolate or Hydrolysate
As discussed, whey isolate and whey hydrolysate have gone through additional refinement to remove most to all of the remaining sugar and fat from the protein. As a result, these products should have little to no lactose remaining and will likely be less reactive.
2. Look for One With Zero Sugars
Since lactose is a sugar, if your protein has zero grams of sugar per serving, then you can be confident that it has virtually no lactose as well.
3. Stick to Smaller Servings Throughout the Day
If you have a more mild sensitivity, it’s possible that you might tolerate lactose in smaller doses.
Research indicates that getting adequate protein throughout the day is more important than exactly how much you get in each specific dose.
To help you hit your daily protein goals, but avoid the negative side effects of your lactose sensitivity, try taking ⅓ to ½ scoop at a time and see if that is less reactive.
You can also combine your smaller serving of whey protein with other protein sources in order to hit your macros.
4. Find One With a Lactase Enzyme
Lactase is the enzyme that is responsible for breaking down lactose in the body. If you have a lactose intolerance, you are unable to fully digest lactose.
Consuming the proper enzyme may be enough to help your body and bypass the negative symptoms.
For instance, PVL IsoSport Whey is already a whey isolate and should have most of the lactose removed, but they’ve also added the lactase enzyme right into their formula.
If you cannot find a product with the lactase enzyme added, you can supplement with the enzyme on its own to see if that offers you some relief.
5. Go Vegan
If you have tried all of the above suggestions and still can’t find one that digests comfortably for you, it might be worth considering a plant-based protein.
There are a lot of options available, and the manufacturing technology has increased in such a way that a lot of plant-based proteins can mix smoothly and be great tasting like their whey-based counterparts.
When choosing a vegan protein, choose one that uses more than one plant source. For instance, choose one that uses peas and brown rice as opposed to one that just uses peas.
Many plant proteins are considered incomplete proteins, meaning they don’t contain all of the essential amino acids that we require in our diet. Companies will use specific blends of different plant proteins to ensure that you do obtain the full spectrum of essential amino acids.
Protein Powders For People With Lactose Intolerance
Transparent Labs Whey Isolate
Transparent labs has an incredibly clean formula, with only five ingredients and zero artificial flavors or colors.
- Read my complete Transparent Labs Whey Protein Review
Some flavors have 1g of sugar per serving (Oatmeal Chocolate Chip, Chocolate Peanut Butter, Vanilla Peanut Butter), some have less than 1g of sugar per serving (French vanilla, Milk Chocolate) and a few have 0g of sugar (Strawberry, Mocha).
Not only does it come in a variety of flavors, with 0 to 1 grams of sugar per serving, but this product will also be virtually lactose-free.
It is also gluten-free and soy free and should be well tolerated by most people.
On a personal note, I have a lactose sensitivity and the Transparent Labs Isolate is one of my absolute favorite proteins for taste and digestibility.
Ghost Vegan Protein
One of my favorite plant-based proteins is the Ghost Vegan Protein. It uses a blend of pea, pumpkin, and watermelon seeds as well as sunflower creamer to give it a nice, smooth texture.
If you’ve already read my review of Ghost Whey, then it should come as no surprise that the Ghost Vegan Protein flavors are unique and delicious. Ghost Vegan is available in chocolate cereal milk, peanut butter cereal milk, pancake batter, and banana pancake batter.
The product is also soy-free and gluten-free, and because it contains no dairy, it is guaranteed not to have any lactose.
Frequently Asked Questions:
How Much Lactose Is In Whey?
Lactose makes up around 5% of unpasteurized cow’s milk. Through the refinement process, that percentage can be brought down to less than 1%. The type of whey protein that offers the lowest concentration of lactose (virtually zero) is whey hydrolysate.
Is Whey Protein Considered Lactose-free?
Many government regulations now state that dairy products cannot advertise as being lactose-free. However, Whey Isolates have most of the lactose removed, and Whey Hydrolysates are virtually lactose-free. Whey Concentrates will still have a moderate amount of lactose.
What Else Does Whey Protein Contain?
- Is Cholesterol In Whey Protein Bad?
- Does Whey Protein Have Iron?
- Does Whey Protein Have Calcium?
- Does Whey Protein Powder Have Sugar?
About The Author
Jennifer Vibert is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Nutrition Coach, and supplement store manager. She has a Bachelor of Kinesiology with a major in Fitness and Lifestyle and a minor in Psychology from the University of Regina. She is a Certified Nutrition Coach through Precision Nutrition, with a passion for helping clients learn the fundamentals of nutrition and supplementation in order to build healthy, sustainable habits.