– Dairy-free protein supplements are a good option for those who have trouble digesting the lactose and/or peptides in whey and other dairy-based powders.
– Many types of protein powder have been shown to be effective for building muscle, and may be on par with whey in that regard, but they often require larger servings to have the same effect.
– Dairy products have been linked to pimples, but it isn’t clear if they actually cause skin problems.
The Truth About Dairy and Lactose-Free Protein Powder
If you’re sensitive to lactose, or otherwise avoid dairy, it can sometimes seem like the world is made of milk—especially when you’re shopping for a protein supplement. As whey protein has exploded in popularity, most commercial protein powders are dairy-based, and that can leave you feeling like you’re without options, or that the dairy-free ones are inferior.
There are, however, viable dairy-free protein powders out there that can help you build muscle and support your weight management efforts, but you may have to augment them to maximize results. Here’s what you need to know about milk-less muscle supps.
What is Dairy-Free Protein?
A dairy-free protein powder is one that doesn’t come from the milk of lactating animals such as cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, or camels. As whey and casein (two of the most popular types of protein powder) are derived from cow milk, they aren’t dairy-free. Many people choose dairy-free protein supps to avoid lactose, the sugar in milk that can be troublesome to digest.
Since there is ample protein in several types of plants, as well as other animals, protein supplements can be made from them. Widely accessible plant-based, dairy-free powders include soy, rice, pea, and hemp, while hydrolyzed beef, collagen, and egg powders exist as animal-based options.
All protein powders have their pros and cons, and the best one for you will depend on your taste, fitness goals, and food sensitivities or intolerances, if you have any.
Why Would I Not Want Lactose in My Protein?
If you’re lactose intolerant (you have an allergy to milk sugar), or have some degree of insensitivity to lactose, you may be better off using protein supplements that are lactose-free to avoid bloating, gas, and other gastrointestinal problems. Many individuals have a shortage of the lactase enzyme in their small intestines that’s necessary for proper lactose digestion. Without lactase, unabsorbed milk sugar is left in the colon, and becomes the culprit for gastric discomfort.
According to the National Institute of Health, approximately 65% of the human population has trouble digesting lactose in adulthood. Lactose intolerance is most common in people of East Asian descent (between 70% and 100% of them may not be able to digest it). West African, Arab, Jewish, Greek, and Italian people often have trouble with lactose as well.
Whey protein powder is made from whey, the watery portion of milk. Straight from the cow, whey is 75% lactose, but when it’s used in foods and supplements, whey must be filtered, and that reduces its lactose content considerably. Whey isolate protein powders are the most stringently filtered, resulting in whey protein with very low levels of sugar and fat. Whey isolate powders are about 90% protein, and, according to The Whey Protein Institute, are generally considered lactose free, but it’s important to check product labels if you are unsure. “There could still be a slight concern for gastrointestinal upset with a whey isolate,” says James Lucas III, RD, CSSD, owner of the Dallas-based JLucas Nutrition, “particularly if you’re sensitive to lactose.”
Aside from the sugar in dairy, there’s another component of whey powders that could be trouble for some users. If you still experience sensitivity using a lactose-free whey isolate powder, Lucas says it could mean that you aren’t digesting the bioactive peptides in the protein correctly.
Peptides, such as β-lactoglobulin, are small chains of amino acids (compounds that form protein) that are not completely broken down by the digestive system. As a result, some people can be sensitive or allergic to them. These peptides can be beneficial, accounting for some of the health-supporting aspects of whey protein, but they can also cause a reaction if your body identifies them as foreign substances, and, in an effort to protect you from potential pathogens, triggers an inflammatory defense response. Think of it as your body sounding an alarm to scare off an unwelcome intruder. The result might be some temporary pot-bellied bloating, or running to the toilet, but other more potentially life-threatening allergic reactions can occur—i.e., the same kind that those who have allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, milk, and eggs experience. Still, these are very rare as a result of ingesting whey protein isolate alone.
For those who have trouble digesting whey isolate, Lucas recommends whey protein hydrolysate. Hydrolysates are protein powders that are not only lactose free but are also “pre-digested.” That is, their peptides have been broken down in processing, which helps them absorb more easily. Unfortunately, processing the peptides strips whey hydrolysates of many of their health benefits, such as supporting the immune system and healthy blood pressure, and helping to control appetite and blood sugar.
Can I Build Muscle with Dairy-Free Protein?
Ultimately, you can build muscle using virtually any kind of protein supplement, but none are quite as efficient as whey (you’ll read more on this in the next section). Plant-based protein powders, while useful, are not optimal. A 2019 review in Nutrients reported that “plant-based proteins have less of an anabolic effect than animal proteins due to their lower digestibility, lower essential amino acid content (especially leucine), and deficiency in other essential amino acids.” They’re more likely to be oxidized, the review states, than used for muscle protein synthesis (the process by which muscles grow).
Another 2015 review of animal and plant-based proteins published in the Journal of Nutrition echoes these points, explaining that proteins in soy and wheat are converted into urea (the main compound in our urine), and can’t be utilized by the body as easily as animal proteins can to promote muscle growth.
With that said, plant proteins have been shown to be effective for supporting muscle gain. Soy is the most thoroughly studied plant-based protein, and it’s widely available. Much research has shown that it can nearly match whey on many fronts. However, it has also been shown to lower the body’s absorption of iron and zinc (1, 2). In addition, soy has been criticized because it can bind to the estrogen receptors in the body. This impacts hormones levels, making it one of the more controversial plant-based proteins, according to research from the Harvard School of Public Health.
A better choice, then, might be hemp. As we reported in our guide to hemp protein, a Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry study found that the protein absorption rate of hulled hempseeds is comparable to casein—whey’s counterpart dairy protein. It also doesn’t contain trypsin inhibitors like many soy protein powders do. These compounds hinder protein digestion.
Rice protein is another smart option. A rice vs. whey study from 2013 showed that subjects experienced equal gains in muscle thickness, body composition, and strength, regardless of which supplement they were on.
Pea protein stacks up well too. In our guide to pea protein, we referenced a 2015 study where subjects ingesting pea protein drinks made identical muscle gains as whey drinkers, while both groups outperformed the placebo.
If you want a dairy-free protein powder but aren’t interested in going plant-based, egg-white protein may be your second-best bet to a whey powder. Research has determined that egg protein ranks just below whey in its leucine content. Leucine is a branched-chain amino acid that scientists have determined to be the most important amino for muscle growth.
Beef protein isolate should also be on your radar. A 2019 meta-analysis found that it worked just as well as whey for promoting changes in body composition.
Is Lactose-Free Protein a Complete Protein?
One of the reasons that non-dairy proteins don’t get the credit whey does is that many of them—including hemp, rice, and pea—are not complete. That means that their protein doesn’t contain all nine essential amino acids (EAAs), or that it doesn’t contain them in amounts that are deemed significant. EAAs are aminos that you have to get from food, because our bodies can’t produce them on their own. It should be noted that all animal-sourced protein powders contain all the EAAs and are therefore complete. This includes egg and beef powders.
However, if you do choose a plant-based protein, you really should be able to make good gains, regardless of whether the protein is complete. For one thing, the problem is easy to fix. The same Journal of Nutrition review linked above noted that you can fortify your plant protein powder by adding in the EAAs methionine, lysine, and/or leucine (the ones that are generally lacking in plant powders) or, if you don’t feel like playing mad scientist in the kitchen, you can simply mix two or more plant-based powders together and get a pretty well-rounded supplement in seconds.
For example, pea protein contains all nine EAAs, but it’s low in methionine+cysteine. Rice protein is low in lysine. Mix the two together, and you have a balanced amino acid profile. But many protein powders are available that already contain a mix of proteins to offer a complete amino profile, so you don’t need to buy multiple powders if that’s out of your budget.
The real sticking point most people have with plant-based powders is their leucine content. Leucine is so powerful that it may stimulate muscle growth independent of all other aminos. Whey protein has the highest amount of leucine, gram for gram, of any protein source—whole food or supplement. Plant powders, on the other hand, are generally a little lower. Pea protein, for instance, has about 81 mg of leucine per gram, while whey has 105 mgs.
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, the optimal amount of leucine for stimulating muscle growth is somewhere between 0.7 grams and 3 grams per serving, and research shows that getting more than the top end of that range does not promote gains to any greater degree. While the difference seems daunting at first, all it means is that it takes less whey protein than pea protein to spike leucine in your body. It’s merely a matter of efficiency. Want to get just as much leucine from pea protein? All you have to do is take a little more of it. And the same goes for virtually all plant proteins. This typically ends up being a little more than one scoop, maybe two, depending on the serving size of the product you’re using. Over time, running through plant powders more quickly can lead to them being more expensive than supplementing with whey, but you shouldn’t sacrifice any strength or muscle in the process.
Pros and Cons of Whey Protein
In terms of overall efficiency and maximizing muscle growth, it seems you can’t top the benefits of whey protein supplementation. Not only does whey support weight training to build muscle, it also appears to promote faster recovery, aid body composition, and help maintain overall health (see our guide to whey for more info). Since whey is derived from cow’s milk, it’s a complete protein, so there is no need to mix powders to get the full spectrum of EAAs. It also has more leucine per serving than any other type of protein. Whey might be more expensive per ounce compared to plant-based protein, but you won’t go through your supply as quickly.
The speed of recovery factor is one of whey’s key selling points. If you’re an athlete who trains or competes two or more times per day, getting enough protein to help your muscles recover between sessions is extremely important. A study in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that subjects taking hydrolyzed whey were fully recovered six hours later. Nevertheless, even though whey hydrolysates absorb faster due to their pre-digested peptides, it’s not certain that they work better than an old-fashioned whey isolate. A trial in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition determined that whey isolate resulted in more rapid absorption of leucine than a whey hydrolysate. Whey isolate is also the less expensive option between the two, and will be enough for most people.
On the downside, as explained above, whey’s lactose and peptides can be hard to digest for some people. Whey concentrates contain more sugar than isolates, and isolates contain more unbroken peptides than hydrolysates, so none may be appropriate for someone with digestion issues.
Krista Large, an Austin, Texas-based nutritionist and owner of Living Large Wellness states, “If you are in digestive distress, it’s going to inhibit performance. Different people are going to have very different reactions to whey vs. brown rice, vs. pea protein… It really comes down to how well does it digest for you?”
Large says that regardless of what supplements they prefer, she focuses on making sure her clients’ protein intake is consistent, and primarily from whole-food sources.
Another consideration on whether to choose a whey protein is the environment. Most whey protein supps come from cows raised in a factory farm system, where humane treatment and environmental sustainability cannot be ensured. Cows living in these conditions typically produce large amounts of waste that hurt water and air quality. If you want your protein supplement to leave a lighter carbon footprint, you might consider whey protein drawn from grass-fed cows, or a brand that’s certified organic. As we explained in our rebuttal to the infamous What The Health documentary, grass-fed meat and dairy has been shown to offer more health benefits and fewer toxins than come from factory-farmed animals.
Pros and Cons of Plant-Based Protein
In terms of global sustainability, plant-based products are generally considered to have less of an impact on the environment. Research suggests that plant-based diets require less water, land, and energy, and that food production to support them is cheaper. So, if the health of the planet is as important to you as the health of your body, plant-based proteins are a wise and considerate choice.
If you’re shopping for a plant-based powder because dairy-based ones give you digestive troubles, plant proteins score again. With the exception of soy protein, most plant powders are easy for the body to process and won’t inhibit your gut’s ability to absorb nutrients. Rice protein typically isn’t associated with bloating, cramping, or other discomfort, and research in Food Chemistry shows it may be easier to digest than whey. Rice is a hypoallergenic food, and any difficulty you might have digesting brown rice due to its hull is negated by the fact that rice protein powders are made from grains where the hull (fiber) is removed.
The same holds for pea protein, which has had its fiber and starch removed in processing, making it highly digestible and bioavailable. Pea protein is also a natural thickener, and that can help to fill up the stomach, curbing your appetite, and, in turn, promote weight loss. A Nutrition Journal study had subjects consume 20 grams of either casein, whey, pea protein, egg albumin, a maltodextrin-carbohydrate drink, or water 30 minutes before a meal. Pea protein ranked second, behind only the super slow-digesting casein, in lowering appetite, resulting in subjects consuming fewer total calories for the meal.
On the other hand, you may find that plant protein powders don’t taste as good as dairy-based ones, and are therefore harder to use consistently. Many people report that plant-based shakes have a chalky texture, but sugar-free sweeteners such as monk fruit extract are becoming more common additions to plant powders, and could help on the flavor front. Avocado powder is sometimes added as well to improve flavor and mouthfeel.
As explained above, the big strike against many plant proteins is their incomplete amino acid profile and lower leucine content, but this can be compensated for by buying powders that contain a mix of proteins, and simply taking larger servings at a time.
Can Whey Protein Cause Acne?
Despite the numerous benefits of whey, if you have trouble keeping your skin clear, it may not be the best protein supplement for you. While pimples are caused by a number of factors, they have been linked to milk ingestion. Some research points to milk and whey-protein based products in particular as being problematic because they increase insulin secretion, causing sebaceous glands to kick into overdrive. Zits may pop up as an inflammatory response.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to say if whey or dairy are really the cause. Heather McConochie, RN, nutritionist and host of The Positive Thread Podcast, says there is a lack of research linking dairy to acne over time. “We have some experiential data [on the subject], meaning we talk to people and we observe our own bodies, but it’s really hard to do good research on this subject because most research studies are done for short windows of time—usually six to 12 weeks. If we’re really critical about the study design, we don’t know how dairy impacts acne over a period of one year or five years or 20 years because the research studies just aren’t there.”
McConochie notes the connection between dairy and skin problems can be different in women than in men. “We know that acne is impacted by hormones, particularly in women. There are other contributing factors such as stress and genetics that can also play a role. And synthetic hormones in commercial dairy that are given to cows could also be a factor.”
If you are experiencing skin flare-ups, try eliminating dairy from your diet for a month or more, and see if your symptoms improve. Plant-based alternatives could serve as a replacement protein supplement while you do so.