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Q: I'm dairy intolerant. Can I still use whey protein?

Many people have some intolerance to cow’s milk (a.k.a. dairy). Whether it be slight gassiness after drinking milk, or loose stools after eating cheese, these signs of digestive disturbances do not always mean you’re incapable of eating anything that comes from a cow, but the conditions depend on the person.

Not everyone knows that whey protein is a dairy food; it’s one of the two major proteins found in milk, with the other being casein. After whey and casein are separated in the process of making cheese, whey is highly filtered and cleaned so that the remaining product is a pure powdered protein food.

whey protein powder

Through the production of whey, lactose is mostly removed, which is usually the culprit behind most dairy issues.  For most people, lactose (the carbohydrate sugar found naturally in dairy) is indigestible and can lead to gassiness or frequent trips to the bathroom.  These people find relief when they consume milk products with the enzyme lactose added (like Lactaid milk), or take lactase pills. Oftentimes they can still eat small amounts of yogurt and some cheeses (like mozzarella) without too much problem because these products also have a reduced lactose content. Thus, for many people with lactose intolerance, whey protein does not pose any problem at all and can be consumed as desired.

lactose intolerance

For other people, lactose may be part of their dairy intolerance, but they may also be sensitive to one or both of the milk proteins (casein and/or whey). Those that can eat cheese but not whey protein powders without any gastrointestinal “issues” are thus sensitive to whey, while those who can consume the opposite are sensitive to casein. If you’re the later, rather than the former, you can also enjoy whey, but stay far away from cheese. 

dairy intolerance

In some cases, whey protein powders have added gums and thickeners, such as xanthan gum, guar gum, or carrageenan, which can be problematic. These added thickening-agents (which are special types of fibers) may pose a problem because they’re difficult for some people to digest and can also lead to gas and/or cramping. Because these thickeners are fibers, eating them is similar to eating a very high-fiber food, such as eggplant or beans, and experiencing bloating afterwards. If you eat a food with these ingredients added and have such unpleasant side effects, simply avoid them and you’ll be okay – or you can take a digestive enzyme supplement (containing cellulases and amylases) that’ll help you break down fiber and you won’t experience any embarrassment.

On the very end of the dairy intolerance spectrum is complete intolerance and/or a true allergy. Individuals who cannot, no matter what the food, and no matter what the enzyme added, consume a food from a cow without experiencing digestive upset, should avoid them completely; it’s just not worth for you, or the people around you. And, if it’s a true allergy confirmed with a blood test and produces side effects such as skin rashes, eczema, and chronic congestion, you really need to be careful and read all labels to ensure you’re staying away from any food that may contain dairy.

avoid dairy and lactose

Overall, for the majority of people with milk dairy intolerances, whey protein powders are highly digestible and will not cause any symptoms.  If you’re in doubt, check with your dietitian or allergist to ensure your reactions are not serious, but more than likely, whey protein should be fine to consume.


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