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If you’re like me, you want to be sure that you are picking the best possible protein powder. So, you might be wondering what the differences are between grass-fed and regular whey protein powder and if grass-fed whey is a better product.
Grass-fed whey protein is not higher in protein than regular whey protein, and it does not give you any special benefits. Grass-fed whey can still be a good choice though if you believe in a higher quality of life for the cows producing the milk that eventually is turned into protein powder.
I want to be sure that you are putting your hard-earned dollars into supplements that are actually worth it, and not paying extra for marketing hype that is not supported by the latest science.
- Milk from grass-fed cows does have a different nutritional profile than conventional milk, but these differences do not carry through when the milk is processed into whey protein powder, so you won’t get the benefits of grass-fed dairy products from using grass-fed whey.
- Grass-fed whey protein powder is not inherently safer or of higher quality than regular whey protein powder. The best way to ensure the safety and quality of whey protein is to look for a brand that is third-party certified with transparent labels.
- If the cows’ quality of life is important to you, then you SHOULD buy grass-fed whey.
Grass-fed Whey Protein vs. Regular Whey Protein: What Are They & How Are They Made?
Grass-fed Whey Protein
Grass-fed whey protein is made by processing the milk that comes from dairy cows that get their diet from grazing on grass outdoors in a pasture. The term “pasture-raised” means the same thing as “grass-fed.” While the source of the milk differs, the processes for turning it into whey protein powder are the same.
Both the macronutrients (specifically fat and protein) and micronutrients (minerals, vitamins and fatty acids) in grass-fed milk can vary compared to the milk coming from cows that are fed in an indoor feeding system that emphasizes grains vs. grass.
For example, milk from grass-fed cows is higher in CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) and has a higher percentage of unsaturated fatty acids versus saturated fatty acids compared to conventional milk. CLA has positive health impacts for heart disease, and the American Heart Association also recommends limiting intake of saturated fat for heart health.
But these benefits relate to the fat content of the milk, and nearly all of the fat is removed when milk is processed into whey protein powder, so these benefits do not carry forward to whey protein.
If you want to reap the health benefits of grass-fed milk, it is better to drink grass-fed milk and eat grass-fed butter instead of conventional milk & butter. These products will still have the beneficial fats.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that milk composition is affected by other factors beyond the type of feeding, including the breed, age, health status, and stage of lactation for the cow, so narrowing in on the grass-fed aspect is ignoring other elements that aren’t yet traced.
Grass-fed milk does have a higher milk protein content than “feedlot” milk, but this does not mean that the final whey protein powder is somehow higher in protein – just that you can get more protein powder from processing grass-fed milk than regular milk.
- Related Article: What Does Organic Protein Powder Do? (Is It Worth It?)
Regular Whey Protein
Regular or conventional whey protein powder is made using milk from dairy cows that may or may not get their diet from grass (pasture) or from an indoor feeding system that provides a mixture of hay and grains (usually corn).
The milk is separated into curds (used for making cheese) and whey, using enzymes. This liquid whey has 4 to 6 grams of protein per liter.
The liquid whey is pasteurized and then concentrated and purified, and the final product is spray-dried into a powder. Depending on the type of whey protein (concentrate vs. isolate), the final protein content by weight is 80 to 95%, regardless of the protein content of the original milk.
At each stage of the process, quality checks are performed. The dairy industry in the US and other industrialized nations is heavily regulated and has a high food safety record.
Other parts of the world and developing nations do not yet have the same food safety standards for their dairy industry, so be mindful of the source of your whey protein.
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Are There Really Differences Between Grass-fed Whey Protein & Regular Whey Protein?
Supplement companies that sell grass-fed whey protein powder like to make claims about grass-fed whey being superior to conventional whey protein powder, but are they really different?
I checked out several key claims to see if grass-fed whey really is better than conventional whey.
Here is a nutrition label from grass-fed whey isolate on the left, and conventional whey isolate on the right:
Protein Per Calorie
The difference in protein per calorie is negligible between grass-fed whey isolate and conventional whey isolate.
The protein per calorie is 0.233 for grass-fed whey isolate (28g of protein for 120 calories) and 0.223 for conventional whey isolate (27g of protein for 121 calories). This is a difference of 0.01g per calorie (1g different for every hundred calories of protein powder).
Even if you had 4 scoops of protein powder in a day (which I would recommend only in limited circumstances), that would only be 4g difference. That is a negligible difference.
Protein Per Serving / Per Gram
Conventional whey isolate has more protein per gram than grass-fed whey isolate. However, this varies by brand, so check your labels.
While the grass-fed protein appears to have more protein per serving because it has 28 grams instead of 27, the serving size is also bigger at 34.5g versus 30g.
This means that grass-fed whey isolate has 81% protein per serving, by weight (28g of protein for 34.5g serving) and conventional whey isolate has 90% protein per serving, by weight (27g of protein per 30g serving).
Many brands of whey protein isolate have 0-1g of fat per serving, and 1-2g of carbs, regardless of whether they are grass-fed or conventional.
There is no appreciable difference between grass-fed whey and conventional whey when it comes to fat and carbs.
Supplement labels are not standardized in terms of the information they are required to provide about micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) so a direct comparison between grass-fed whey and conventional whey is not always possible. Micronutrients also vary by brand, regardless of the source of whey.
For example, in the comparison above, the grass-fed whey protein isolate has higher sodium (270mg) and cholesterol (5mg) than the conventional whey protein isolate (45mg and 0mg, respectively).
When it comes to a micronutrient like the mineral calcium, casein is a better source of calcium than whey, and this is not related to grass-fed vs. conventional.
Both grass-fed and conventional whey protein powders may be unsweetened, use only “natural” sweeteners like stevia, or use artificial sweeteners. The source of the whey protein powder does not guarantee the type of sweetener that will be used, although many grass-fed protein powders are sweetened only with stevia.
For example, PERFECT Sports Diesel 100% New Zealand Whey Isolate, Grass-Fed & Pasture-Raised Triple Rich Dark Chocolate is sweetened only with stevia.
On the other hand, Jacked Factory Authentic ISO 100% Grass-Fed Isolate is sweetened with both sucralose and stevia, so a grass-fed protein powder is not a guarantee that there are no artificial sweeteners.
Grass-fed and conventional whey protein powders are both available in many different flavors, depending on the brand. What tastes best is largely individual and depends on your own personal preferences.
Here at FeastGood, many of us agreed that Transparent Labs Grass-fed Whey Protein Isolate tastes great (it ranked 4.5 out of 5 for taste/flavor), but we thought that Ghost Whey Protein tasted even better with a score of 5 out of 5 for taste/flavor, and it is not grass-fed.
So, we can’t conclude that grass-fed whey necessarily tastes better.
On average, grass-fed whey protein powder costs more than conventional protein powder. In our recent protein powder reviews, the average whey protein powder costs $1.34 per serving, but Transparent Labs Grass-Fed Whey Protein Isolate is $2 per serving, which is almost 50% more.
Of course, prices do vary from retailer to retailer, and many sites offer regular promotions and discounts, especially if you buy in bulk or are willing to sign up for an ongoing subscription where the product is delivered to you on an ongoing basis.
Dairy cattle do like being outside in the evening, and this study showed that they will work just as hard to get out to a pasture to graze as they will to access a trough of fresh feed. Farmers also share the opinion that pasture access is important for the well-being of dairy cows. Grass-fed whey supports this access.
If the quality of life for dairy cattle is a concern for you, then choosing grass-fed whey over conventional whey and other grass-fed dairy and beef products will help to support this industry as a whole.
Any other differences between protein per calorie, protein content, other macronutrients and micronutrients, sweeteners used and taste vary from brand to brand and are variable regardless of whether the whey protein powder is grass-fed or conventional.
Is Grass-fed Whey Protein Better For You? What The Science Says
No, grass-fed whey protein is not better than conventional whey protein. There are currently only limited studies looking at this distinction, but this recent dissertation finds that there is no benefit to pasture-raised (grass-fed) whey protein concentrate compared to conventional when it comes to muscle soreness.
There have been some recent studies that show that the meat and milk that comes from pasture-raised livestock (grass-fed) are higher in phytochemicals, which are plant-based compounds that come from the grasses the animals eat.
These compounds have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, so marketers of grass-fed whey have made the leap to say that whey protein powder that comes from grass-fed cows is better for you than conventional whey protein powder.
However, so far, there are no conclusive studies to support this claim. The study authors point out that this is a “research gap” that needs to be filled with more collaboration between researchers in agriculture and medicine.
Plus, these compounds are typically stored in the animal fat, and as I described earlier, nearly all of the fat is removed when processing cow’s milk into protein powder, meaning there is no difference in the protein powder itself.
Grass-fed Whey Protein: Pros & Cons
- Better quality of life for cows: If you are concerned about animal welfare, grass-fed cows with daily access to open pasture for feeding are less likely to get sick. Buying products like grass-fed whey protein powder supports this approach to raising dairy cattle.
- Range of flavors and sweetener options: Just like conventional whey, the product line for grass-fed whey is now big enough that there are many different flavors available, and some are unsweetened, some are sweetened only with stevia, and others use artificial sweeteners. You’ll be sure to find something to suit your individual preferences.
- Higher price: If you are watching your budget, expect to pay up to one and a half times as much per serving for grass-fed whey protein powder compared to conventional whey protein powder.
“While grass-fed whey protein sounds like it would be healthier and have more benefits, it’ll just take more money out of your wallet…Grass-fed whey protein isn’t any better than regular whey protein.”Josh Schlottman, CSCS Certified Personal Trainer & Nutritionist, Trainer Josh Fitness
Regular Whey Protein: Pros & Cons
- Lower cost: Conventional whey protein powder on average costs about a third less than grass-fed whey protein powder.
- Huge range of options for flavors, sweeteners, and types of protein: The market for conventional whey protein powder has exploded in the last decade and there are now products to suit all tastes and dietary preferences.
- No information on the source of the milk or conditions for the cows: Unlike grass-fed whey, conventional whey protein products usually do not disclose what type of milk was used or where it came from, or the conditions for the dairy cattle providing the milk.
Grass-fed Whey Protein vs. Regular: Which Should You Take?
My recommendation is for clients to choose the whey protein powder that they are most likely to take consistently and is in their budget. There is no value in choosing a type of protein powder if you hate the taste, or if you can only afford to take it from time to time.
For example, hydrolyzed whey protein and whey protein isolate protein powders are the fastest-digesting protein sources and are a good choice for a post-workout shake. But, if these protein powders don’t taste as good to you as a slower-digesting whey protein concentrate, or blend, then you are less likely to take them.
Similarly, if you really like grass-fed whey protein powder or you believe it is important to support animal welfare but you can only afford to take grass-fed whey protein powder once per week, then you are better off buying both conventional and grass-fed whey protein.
If, however, you are passionate about grass-fed whey protein and you have the budget for it, I do recommend our recently-reviewed Transparent Labs 100% Grass-Fed Whey Protein Isolate in Vanilla-Peanut Butter flavor (if you thought chocolate and peanut butter was, good, just wait until you try THIS combination).
Transparent Labs gets its name from the fact that they are transparent about what goes into their products, with testing results from every single batch of product available.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does Grass-fed Whey Protein Have More Protein?
No, grass-fed whey protein does not have more protein than regular whey protein. Both grass-fed and conventional whey protein isolate provide 25-28g of protein per 30g scoop.
Is Grass-fed Whey Protein Safer Than Regular Protein?
No, grass-fed whey protein is not safer than regular protein. The best way to ensure the safety and quality of whey protein is to look for supplements that are third-party certified to ensure that they contain only the ingredients stated, in the amounts stated.
Is Grass-fed Whey Protein Worth It?
Grass-fed whey protein powder is worth paying a premium if you are concerned about the well-being of the dairy cattle that provide the milk for grass-fed whey. Buying grass-fed whey protein powder supports the grass-fed dairy industry and can allow more cows to be pasture-raised.
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Garcia, S. N., Osburn, B. I., & Cullor, J. S. (2019). A one health perspective on dairy production and dairy food safety. One Health, 7, 100086. ISSN 2352-7714. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.onehlt.2019.100086.
von Keyserlingk, M., Amorim Cestari, A., Franks, B. et al. Dairy cows value access to pasture as highly as fresh feed. Sci Rep 7, 44953 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep44953
van Vliet, S., Provenza, F. D., & Kronberg, S. L. (2021). Health-Promoting Phytonutrients Are Higher in Grass-Fed Meat and Milk. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 4, 555426. https://doi.org/10.3389/fsufs.2020.555426
About The Author
Lauren Graham is a Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified nutrition coach. She focuses on helping busy professionals balance healthy eating and purposeful movement. Lauren has a background in competitive swimming and is currently competing as a CrossFit athlete. She has a passion for training, teaching, and writing.
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