12 Foods High In Whey Protein (Naturally Sourced)

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If you’re like many of my nutrition clients, you might not be aware that whey protein can actually be found naturally in foods.  

Key Takeaways

  • Foods high in whey protein are dairy-based, such as yogurt and cheese.  This is because whey protein is found in milk and then processed into a supplement in various powders.
  • Whey can also be found in commercial protein bars, ice cream, “protein chips,” and ready-made protein drinks.
  • While whey protein is naturally found in whole foods, using whey isolate protein powder allows you to consume whey in its most concentrated form without added carbs and fats. 

The Building Blocks of Whey Protein

Whey is the liquid that is left over when milk is separated into solid curds as part of the cheese-making process.  

Whey protein is then processed into a powder commonly sold as a supplement.

Commercial whey protein comes in four major forms:

  • Whey protein concentrate: Whey concentrates can range from as low as 29% to as high as 89% protein content by weight.  The remaining amount comes from carbohydrates in the form of lactose, the naturally-occurring sugar in milk, as well as low levels of fat and cholesterol.  This is why whey protein concentrate is usually less expensive than whey protein isolate.
  • Whey protein isolate: Whey isolates are 90% or more protein by weight, as they undergo additional processing to remove fat and lactose.  This makes isolate protein powder an optimal choice for supplementing protein.
  • Native whey protein: Native whey protein is extracted from skim milk instead of being a byproduct of the cheese-making process.  Often, this is marketed as a benefit, but native whey is not better than standard whey protein, so there is no need to pay extra for “native” whey.

Where Is Whey Protein Naturally Found?

Whey protein is obtained from milk and products made from milk, such as cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and sour cream.  

This is true for all animal milk, including cow’s and goat’s milk.  

Non-dairy milk, including plant-based milk such as oat milk, almond milk, or coconut milk, do not contain whey protein.

Natural Sources of Whey Protein

natural sources of whey protein

The following table includes foods that contain whey protein, listed in order based on how much of the total calorie content comes from protein.

FoodProtein per 100g% Calories from Protein
Ready-made protein shake, (Premier Protein)7.5g72%
Ultra filtered cow’s milk (Fairlife, nonfat)5.7g70%
Protein Chips (Quest)56g60%
Greek yogurt (nonfat)7.8g57%
Cottage cheese, (1%)12g49%
Protein bar (Quest Bar)35g37%
Protein Cereal34g34%
Milk, 1%3.4g32%
Ricotta Cheese11g29%
Goat Cheese23.5g26%
Goat Yogurt4.6g23%
Protein ice cream (Halo Top)5.8g19%

Ready-Made Protein Shake

Ready-made protein shakes are a great source of whey protein if you are on the go and don’t have time to stop and eat a meal. 

Keep in mind that some of these shakes on the market are plant-based, so be sure the one you choose is made with whey protein.

Ready-made shakes are also typically fortified with plenty of vitamins and minerals. 

Keep in mind that some of these shakes are meant to be full meal replacement shakes, so they will contain a good amount of carbohydrates and fat and less protein.

If you want your ready-made protein shake to be primarily made up of protein, choose an option such as Premier Protein, which is 50% protein.

Ultra Filtered Cow’s Milk

Unlike regular cow’s milk, ultrafiltered milk is processed and pressed through a thin membrane that removes extra carbs and water, making it higher in protein and lower in sugar and lactose (making it a great option for those sensitive to lactose).

For example, Fairlife 1% Ultra filtered milk contains 13 grams of protein per 1 cup serving, compared to regular 1% milk which contains around 8 grams.

Protein Chips

Chips are not normally considered to be a good source of protein, much less whey protein. 

However, protein chips’ main ingredient is a blend of milk protein and whey protein, making them a great source of whey protein, and a great on the go snack.

Quest protein chips come in a variety of different flavors and are gluten free.

Greek Yogurt

Greek yogurt is an amazing whole food source of whey protein. 

In particular, choosing a low fat Greek yogurt will give you the highest percentage of protein per serving.

Greek yogurt is also a superior food for gut health. It is a fermented food that contains healthy bacteria for your gut microbiome.

Cottage Cheese

Similar to Greek yogurt, cottage cheese is a great source of whey protein, and choosing a low-fat cottage cheese will allow you to get the highest percentage of protein per serving.

Cottage cheese is also an excellent source of potassium and B12, making it a great food to incorporate into your diet.

Protein Bar

Many types of protein bars are on the market, and they are not all made equally. 

If your goal is to get whey protein in your diet, make sure you read the labels and ensure your protein bar is using whey, and not other plant based proteins.

Some protein bars can also be excessively high in sugar, too. 

Going for a lower-sugar protein bar such as a Quest Bar will help to ensure you are getting a higher percentage of your calories from protein, as opposed to carbs.

Protein Cereal

Breakfast cereal is traditionally high in carbohydrates, but certain cereals on the market utilize whey protein as their main ingredient.

Enjoying protein cereal brands such as Magic Spoon cereal allows you to have your morning bowl of cereal without the high amounts of sugar and a good amount of whey protein.

1% Milk (Cow or Goat)

While not quite as high in protein as ultra-filtered milk, regular cow or goat milk is still a good source of whey protein, containing between 8-9 grams of protein.

Choose skim or 1% milk if you want the majority of your calories to come from protein rather than fat.

Ricotta Cheese

Ricotta is a soft cheese made from leftover whey from cheese production. 

It is exceptionally high in whey protein compared to most cheeses, which are mostly composed of casein protein.

This gives it a mild taste with a creamy texture, and is high in nutrients such as Vitamin B6, iron, and magnesium.

Goat Cheese

Goat cheese contains a good amount of protein per serving and is a great cheese option for those who do not digest cow’s dairy well, but still want the benefits of whey protein.

Goat cheese is a by-product of goat milk. Compared to the protein found in cow’s milk, goat milk’s protein is easier to digest and actually has more protein per serving (9 grams vs. 8 grams).

Goat Yogurt

While not as high in protein as Greek yogurt, goat yogurt provides a nice alternative if cow’s dairy is not an option and contains around 12 grams of protein in a ¾ cup serving.

Like regular yogurt, goat yogurt also provides probiotics that contribute to a healthy gut microbiome and is also fortified with Vitamin D3.

Protein Ice Cream

Protein ice cream is an alternative to regular ice cream if you are looking for a sweet treat that contains whey protein without all of the sugar and fat found in conventional ice cream.

It is important to note that regular ice cream contains a similar amount of protein per serving (6 grams) compared to protein ice cream (7 grams), but contains much more sugar and fat. 

When Should You Eat Foods High In Whey Protein?

foods high in whey protein

Foods high in whey protein can be eaten at any time of the day and will contribute to muscle growth as long as you eat enough protein throughout the day and pair that with resistance training.

With that said, there is an added benefit to consuming whey protein after your workout.  

However, it is important to limit fats post-workout so that the protein can be absorbed quickly by the body for repairing muscles.

This means focusing on foods that contain whey protein but are also low in fat such as low-fat Greek yogurt, cottage cheese and milk. 

This is why whey protein powder is so popular in post-workout shakes: the fat has been removed to provide a convenient way to consume protein at these times, without added fats.

Foods that contain whey protein but are higher in fat such as cheese or whole milk/ yogurt can be part of meals away from your workout times.  

Overall, ensuring sufficient total daily protein intake from a variety of sources is more important for building muscle size and strength and for general health than worrying about perfect protein timing.

Should You Substitute Whey Protein Powder With Foods High In Whey Protein?

I recommend getting no more than one third (33%) of your daily protein intake from protein powder. 

Relying too heavily on protein powder can result in nutritional deficiencies and potential digestive issues for certain people.

To ensure a good range of micronutrients for overall good health, it is important to include whole food protein sources in your diet.  

For Weight Loss

When losing weight, it is important to focus on foods that will keep you feeling full to help manage hunger and cravings that can come from a calorie deficit.  

Chewing whole foods vs drinking liquid calories can reduce energy intake and increase satiety, which means that eating whole food sources of whey protein vs. drinking a protein shake can make it easier to reach your goals. 

In this case, I recommend choosing more whole-food sources of whey protein, such as Greek yogurt or cottage cheese, over whey protein powder.

For Weight Gain

When gaining weight, it is important to focus on getting calories from foods that will not leave you feeling uncomfortably full so that you can achieve a calorie surplus.

Drinking calories such as protein shakes with protein powder can help with this goal since protein shakes do not contain any dietary fiber that contributes to feeling full after a meal. 

In this case, I would recommend making protein shakes with whey protein powder, or adding whey protein powder to existing foods.

Related: 30 Ways to Increase Protein Intake Without Protein Powder

Frequently Asked Questions

Are There Plant-Based Foods That Contain Whey Protein?

No, there are no plant-based foods that contain whey protein since whey is a by-product of animal milk. 

Plant based protein powders are made from plant foods that contain protein such as peas, soy, rice, and hemp, but none of these contain any whey.

Is Whey Protein In Foods As Effective As Whey Protein Supplements For Muscle Building?

Yes, the whey protein found in food is just as effective for muscle building as the whey protein in supplement form. 

As long as you are eating enough protein while regularly resistance training, you will build muscle whether it comes from a whole food source or a whey protein supplement.

Are There Any Foods That Naturally Contain Whey Protein Isolate?

There are no whole foods that are a natural source of whey protein isolate. 

Whey isolate undergoes processing to filter and remove the fat and lactose normally accompanying the whey protein in its whole-food form.

What To Read Next


Gomes-Santos, A. C., Fonseca, R. C., Lemos, L., Reis, D. S., Moreira, T. G., Souza, A. L., Silva, M. R., Silvestre, M. P. C., Cara, D. C., & Faria, A. M. C. (2015). Hydrolyzed whey protein prevents the development of food allergy to β-lactoglobulin in sensitized mice. Cellular Immunology, 298(1–2), 47-53. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cellimm.2015.09.001

Chen, L., Bagnicka, E., Chen, H., & Shu, G. (2023). Health potential of fermented goat dairy products: composition comparison with fermented cow milk, probiotics selection, health benefits and mechanisms. Food Funct., 14(8), 3423-3436. The Royal Society of Chemistry. https://doi.org/10.1039/D3FO00413A

Stark, M., Lukaszuk, J., Prawitz, A. et al. Protein timing and its effects on muscular hypertrophy and strength in individuals engaged in weight-training. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 9, 54 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-9-54

Brad Jon Schoenfeld, Alan Albert Aragon & James W Krieger (2013) The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis, Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10:1, DOI: 10.1186/1550-2783-10-53

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Hollis, J. H. (2018). The effect of mastication on food intake, satiety and body weight. Physiology & Behavior, 193(Part B), 242-245. ISSN 0031-9384. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2018.04.027.

About The Author

Lauren Graham

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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