Lactose Intolerance: Which Whey (Protein) is the Right Whey?

According to the US National Library of Medicine, around 65% of the global population has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy. But how many are aware of it? For those with a severe allergy, symptoms of nausea, diarrhoea and stomach pains, will make the condition glaringly obvious with just about any amount of dairy consumed – leading them to avoid it. But for those who have a lower sensitivity to lactose and can tolerate it, the symptoms are less obvious. Weak stomach aches, flatulence and bloating and other symptoms might simply be ignored or attributed to other factors.

Want to find out all the details of what I discovered about this subject? Then read on for my personal account in Lactose Intolerance: Which Whey (Protein) is the Right Whey?

I found after consuming dairy my skin was affected, drying out and causing eczema or isolated cases of acne – however, it wasn’t until recently that I realised I had  lactose intolerance and that it was affecting me. A friend told me recently that he believed he had a slight degree of lactose intolerance because he always got a stomach-ache after having cereal or yogurt. These were the only times he would consume a significant amount of milk at once and it took a trip to a GP before he discovered the cause.

The Painful Realisation

During a 12-week preparation period leading up to a student bodybuilding contest, I decided to treat myself. I had a huge amount of points saved up with a sports nutrition store allowing me to get a 5kg bag of Whey Protein Isolate at a reasonable price – Christmas had come early for this poor student! As I was dieting for the contest at this point, I was avoiding fatty foods and higher calorie items, including cheese and protein bars.

Also, to further cut the number of calories in each shake (and to stop buying so much milk) I switched to mixing the whey powder with water – eliminating the final dairy source from my diet. I kept this up for 2 months, until after the contest. During the long drive, I bought a chocolate protein bar and ate what was my first source of dairy for a very long time. The result was severe stomach cramps, bloating and other factors that resulted in a very unpleasant car ride – hence my discovery.

When my fancy isolate protein ran out and I was left with a cheaper alternative, the problem started up again. It only resolved after several weeks of gradually reintroducing dairy into my diet.

Not All Proteins are Equal

For some gym-goers (and for an increasingly large number of regular people) protein-supplement shopping is based on either brand or price. Within the UK, the brands available are slightly more restricted than in the US, unless you are willing to spend significantly more money for a much lower quantity of powder.

If you are like me and live on a restricted budget or don’t fancy paying higher prices for your whey, you’re more likely to stick to the budget options, occasionally switching between brands and flavours before settling.  But until you read the label, you won’t know what you’re getting or whether it’s suited to your dietary or protein needs. If we take a look at the range of whey protein offered by sports nutrition brands in the UK, you’ll see there’s more than meets the eye.

Okay, so which Whey is the Right Whey?

1. Whey Isolate

Typically, Whey Isolate is the more expensive option on any nutrition site, it’s refined and created from a single source of protein: milk (unlike a blend which usually has egg white, soy or any other protein source).

The filtration process through which it is made ensures that fat and carbohydrate content is minimal, skyrocketing the protein content to 90%. More importantly, the majority of the lactose is removed through this process, meaning it is far safer to drink if you are lactose sensitive.

However, the high protein content is not fixed; it will vary significantly between brands and more importantly, flavour. Nobody wants to order a 5kg sack of chocolate peanut butter, only to discover it’s only 80% protein, rather than the promised 90%.

2. Concentrate

The most widely available protein and the cheapest (making it the most popular), a good concentrate will be 80% protein content plus. However, the lower price means a higher percentage of fat and carbohydrates – meaning it’s less forgiving for those that count their macros.

An additional downside is that a whey concentrate may include other sources of protein than whey, such as casein, a slow-release protein meaning you can’t be sure of how much is reaching your muscles at once (though this is becoming less common due to improved processes).

Back to lactose; whey concentrate is rife with it, making it unsuitable for those with lactose sensitivity and the likely source of your protein flatulence or stomach pains.

3. Hydrolysed Whey

Suitable for those with lactose intolerance, this is arguably the most expensive whey protein on the market. Potency seems to vary between brands, with some pushing 90% protein content and others back down to 80%. It’s designed to be absorbed rapidly into the body via the inclusion of digestive enzymes – meaning it hits the controversial half-hour post-workout protein absorption window. The only issue is the price point.

Which Whey Should You Go?

For me, protein content and gut-friendliness are the two key considerations in choosing a protein – regardless of brand. Many take protein supplements because they are told to, but do little research and don’t look at what’s inside the bag and whether they can digest it – merely chugging it down post-workout because they believe it will aid recovery.

The most important take-home message is to read the label. With a growing number of companies selling ‘high’ protein shakes it is vital to understand what designates them as high protein. The European Commission has clear guidelines:

HIGH PROTEIN – A claim that a food is high in protein, and any claim likely to have the same meaning for the consumer, may only be made where at least 20% of the energy value of the food is provided by protein.”

Therefore, a high-protein drink may well only be 20% protein and still be marketed as ‘high protein’ – a fact that some brands have taken advantage of. Of course, if you are lactose intolerant you could just consume shakes derived from alternate protein sources. However, I found that many of these either tasted poor and didn’t mix well (looking at your beef protein) or are controversial due to their rumoured side effects (soy).

To recap, whey protein does contain some lactose, which is a type of sugar found in milk. However, some people are intolerant to the levels of lactose found in whey protein and look for lactose-free versions. Fortunately, many protein powders and shakes now include whey protein concentrate or isolate from sources that are virtually free of lactose, allowing people with lactose intolerance to enjoy the Muscle-building benefits of whey protein with essential amino acids. As such, those who need to avoid lactose have plenty of options when it comes to buying high-quality protein powders and shakes that don’t contain any lactose.

As with everything, if you are considering changing proteins due to dietary requirements, consult your doctor first and thoroughly check the allergens section on any site. Do you have lactose intolerance or any other intolerance? Let us know how you manage it and if there are supplements that work well for you in the comments below and follow the conversation on FacebookTwitter & Instagram

Charlie Thompson

Charlie has recently finished his MA in Multimedia Journalism at the University of Kent and is aiming to throw himself into a career writing about all aspects of the fitness industry. A fan of niche sports, he is a 3rd Dan Black Belt in Jiu-Jitsu and an avid gym goer with an interest in both bodybuilding and strongman. Outside of the gym he enjoys reading, watching films and all things pop culture.

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