If you’re like many of my nutrition clients, you might not be aware that whey protein can actually be found naturally in foods.
So, what foods have whey protein?
Foods that are high in whey protein are usually dairy-based, such as yogurt and cheese. This is because whey protein is found in milk and then processed into a supplement in various types of powders.
Whey can also be found in commercial protein bars and ready-made protein drinks.
Learning about natural sources of whey will give you more variety for your diet, which can make it easier to hit your protein targets to accomplish your goals. You can also save money compared with buying whey protein supplements.
In this article I’ll cover:
- What is whey
- Where you can find it
- What foods contain whey
- When to eat whey
- How to mix and match sources of whey protein
What Is Whey?
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 that is commonly sold as a supplement.
Commercial whey protein usually 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-occuring 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.
- Whey protein hydrolysate: Whey hydrolysates are whey proteins that have been broken down into a more easily digestible form. This makes them less likely to cause an allergic reaction than other forms of whey.
- 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.
Key Takeaway: My recommendation for clients is to go with a whey protein isolate, due to its high protein content. Hydrolyzed protein would only be a consideration if allergies to whey were a concern.
Where Is Whey Protein Naturally Found?
Whey protein starts with milk, and products made from milk such as cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and sour cream. This is true for all animal milks, including cow’s milk and goat’s milk.
Which Foods Contain Whey Protein? 10 Examples
The following table includes foods that contain whey protein, listed in order based on how much of the total calorie content comes from protein.
|Food||Protein per 100g||% Calories from Protein|
|Whey protein powder, isolate||90g||100%|
|Greek yogurt, non-fat||9.7g||70%|
|Fairlife ultra filtered milk, 0%||5.7g||70%|
|Cottage cheese, 1%||12g||60%|
|Ready-made protein shake, average||7.5g||50%|
|Protein bar, average||30.2g||30%|
|Halo Top protein ice cream||7.6g||20%|
You can see that pure whey powder isolate sets the bar as the gold standard for highest overall protein content. In second and third place are Greek yogurt and ultra filtered milk.
Cheese and sour cream are the worst sources of whey protein, as they provide more calories from fat than from any other macronutrient.
Protein bars and ready-made protein shakes land in the middle, meaning that they can be a helpful and convenient source of whey protein from time to time.
- Related Article: Meat Protein vs Whey Which Is Better? (Science-Backed)
When Should You Eat Foods High In Whey Protein?
The best time to consume whey protein is post-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.
Whey protein is also beneficial pre-workout. Again, fats should be low before a workout so that the food can be digested quickly to provide energy for the workout. This means focusing on the same foods (low-fat Greek yogurt, cottage cheese and milk).
This is why whey protein powder is so popular in pre- and post-workout shakes: the fat has been removed to provide a convenient and delicious way to consume protein at these times, without added fats.
Foods that contain whey protein but are higher in fat such as regular cheese or sour cream 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.
- Related Article: 15 Post-Workout Alternatives To Whey Protein
Should You Substitute Whey Protein Powder With Foods High In Whey Protein?
In general, I recommend getting no more than 20-33% of your daily protein intake from protein powder. Emphasizing whole food sources can benefit people trying to lose weight, and protein powder can assist people trying to gain weight.
To ensure a good range of micronutrients for overall good health, it is important to include whole food sources of protein 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 would recommend choosing more whole food sources of whey protein such as Greek yogurt or cottage cheese vs. 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.
In this case, I would recommend making protein shakes with whey protein powder, or adding whey protein powder to existing foods.
- 30 Ways to Increase Protein Intake Without Protein Powder
- 4 Protein Shakes A Day: Pros, Cons, & Should You Do It?
Can You Add Whey Protein Powder To Food?
Yes, you can add whey protein powder to nearly any food, including both foods that naturally contain whey protein as well as foods that have a very low protein content.
In either case, adding whey protein powder increases the protein content, which can make food more satiating and help with meeting protein targets.
One of my favorite ways to combine whey protein powder with other foods is in a protein smoothie. This is a great way to combine whey protein powder with fresh and frozen fruit and/or vegetables, or even oats.
When it comes to snacks, protein powder can be added to Greek yogurt to make a thick and creamy high-protein pudding, and you can add whey protein powder to ice cream for a higher-protein version of this creamy treat.
What To Read Next
- Will I Lose Muscle If I Stop Taking Whey Protein?
- 2 Protein Shakes A Day: Pros, Cons, & Should You Do It
- Can You Take Whey Protein Without Working Out? (Science-Backed)
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
Seal, C. J., & Brandt, K. (2007). 3 – Nutritional quality of foods. In J. Cooper, U. Niggli, & C. Leifert (Eds.), Handbook of Organic Food Safety and Quality (pp. 25-40). Woodhead Publishing. ISBN 9781845690106. https://doi.org/10.1533/9781845693411.1.25.
Hollis, J. H. (2018). The effect of mastication on food intake, satiety and body weight. Physiology & Behavior, 193(Part B), 242-245. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2018.04.027.
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.