If you’re a workout fanatic looking for a good source of protein without unnecessary animal ingredients you might be wondering: Is whey protein vegetarian? Why wouldn’t it be?
I’ll give you some basic information about whey protein so you can decide if it fits your personal diet requirements. And at the end I’ll also show you a couple of vegan alternatives if you want to go 100% sure.
First off though.. since there seem to be so many different shades of vegetarianism, we’ll go with the current wikipedia definition:
“Vegetarianism is the practice of abstaining from the consumption of meat [...]; it may also include abstention from by-products of animal slaughter, such as animal-derived rennet and gelatin.”
Let’s look at the production of whey protein
The production of cheese begins with the coagulation of milk into the solid (curd) and liquid (whey) parts. Curd is sold as a product of its own but is also further processed and matured to produce all different kinds of cheese. Whey is sold in liquid form and can also be further processed to end up with protein powders of different forms.
The coagulation is achieved by adding rennet to the milk. The active ingredient here is an enzyme called chymosin or rennin.
Now: Is whey protein vegetarian? It’s essentially a by-product from the manufacturing process of cheese, so the answer should be “yes” because it doesn’t contain any ingredients from dead animals per se. But..
Where does the rennet come from?
Traditionally rennet is taken from the abomasum, the fourth and final stomach compartment of cattle, specifically calves. With this source of rennin one could argue that whey protein could not be considered vegetarian, because one of the ingredients in the production process is an animal-derived product that is – in a small dose – still present in the final product.
However, mass production with its constant search for cheaper production resources has brought some animal-free alternatives to the market. There is either microbial rennet or FPC (Fermentation Produced Chymosin) that can both do the same job as the animal-based version but are perfectly suitable for vegetarians.
In fact as of 2008 almost all of the cheese production (approximately 80 to 90 percent) in the United States and Great Britain involved only FPC in the coagulation process. So it is highly unlikely that the whey protein you are looking at contains any ingredients not suitable for vegetarians.
What else is in the box?
With virtually every type of food being more and more processed it is always a good idea to take a closer look at the labels of anything you buy, especially if it’s something you plan on consuming on a regular basis.
Hardly any of the whey based dietary products you can buy contain nothing else but whey protein powder. Manufacturers always try to mix in some other types of substances to either make their product taste better, give it more marketing value or make it cheaper on the production side.
So you might want to take an extra close look before you decide on one special product or you could even get in contact with the manufacturer and ask them if the product is suitable for your type of diet. Since people have been becoming more aware of these kinds of questions in recent years, you should normally get a pretty decent answer to help your decision.
The vegan alternatives
Of course, you can always go for vegan protein products to be completely sure. But be aware that some of them might not be as efficient as the milk based products and some of them do have a very specific taste that not everybody will like. Another problem could be that they are not that readily available in your area because the demand is still pretty low. But why not give it a try?
These are the most common basic ingredients of vegan protein products. I also added a product suggestion with high user ratings on amazon for each one:
- Soy (e.g. “Hammer Nutrition Vegan Protein Powder“)
- Hemp (e.g. “Nutiva Organic Hemp Protein“)
- Rice (e.g. “SunWarrior Rice Protein“)
- Yellow peas (e.g. “Source Naturals Pea Protein Power“)
- Seeds and grains (e.g. “Garden of Life RAW Protein“)
A couple of side notes:
I had to find out in a pretty unpleasant way that I can personally not consume any products based on soy protein powder due to a part of my allergy I wasn’t aware of. So before jumping on to something that seems a bit exotic to you or that you haven’t consumed in a highly concentrated form you might want to start off slowly and/or consult your physician first.
Some of the explicitly vegetarian and vegan dietary supplements contain a considerably higher amount of carbs and therefore a lot more calories than the milk-based variants. If you plan on using them on a regular basis you might want to take a look at the overall energy you are consuming.
You should not forget that even if you don’t eat meat you can and probably do get a lot of protein from other sources anyway. Tofu, seitan, cheese, beans, lentils, corn, seeds, nuts and even bread, noodles, rice etc. contain more protein than you might expect.
In the end you have to decide for yourself how you define your diet and how far you want to go to ensure you are not buying products containing any ingredients that don’t fit your personal moral values. Whey protein might be one of the grey areas in the life of a vegetarian athlete, but with a high tendency to be ok.
I for one have decided to use it but at the same time I’m trying to reduce the amount of over processed food (especially supplements) to an absolute minimum anyway. So it basically comes down to striving for as balanced a diet as possible.
Do you have a different view? Do you have any product suggestions? Please let me know in the comment section below!