Written by Ben Carlisle
Last updated on: Sep 18, 2022
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For years, whey protein powder was considered to be the “gold standard” of protein powders. However, the marketplace is rapidly changing with the growing awareness of lactose intolerance and the alternative protein powders available. Fortunately, this means finding a high-quality lactose-free protein powder is straightforward.
Most lactose-free protein powders are derived from plant-based proteins such as pea, hemp seed, soy, and brown rice protein powders. However, animal lactose-free protein powders do exist; these protein powers are as effective and typically include egg white and beef protein powder.
What’s more, these protein powders don’t come with the unfortunate lactose drawback associated with dairy-based powders, like casein and whey protein. So, if you’re still unsure about switching to lactose-free protein powder, we’re providing seven great alternatives so that you can take the plunge once and for all.
The six most common lactose-free protein powders include the following:
• Pea Protein
• Hemp Protein
• Soy Protein
• Brown Rice Protein
• Egg Protein
• Beef Protein
If you ever find yourself feeling uncomfortable or bloated after consuming a dairy-based powder such as whey protein, it is often tell-tale sign you suffer from a degree of lactose intolerance.
According to MedilinePlus.gov (1), approximately 65 percent of humans have a reduced ability to digest lactose. If you suffer from lactose malabsorption, it means that your body does not produce enough enzyme lactase to break down the lactose (a milk sugar).
Additionally, lactose intolerance manifests itself in countless ways, including acne, headaches, fatigue, especially digestive issues like gas, bloating, abdominal cramps, and diarrhoea.
So, if you are lactose intolerant, not only will you experience the uncomfortable reactions of dairy-based protein powder, but your body won’t be able to absorb the protein properly, defeating the purpose of consuming a protein powder.
Fortunately, all plant-based protein supplements and several animal-based ones are lactose-free. They will, therefore, save you the discomfort of dairy-based protein supplement.
In addition to being lactose free plant-based supplements are also often hypoallergenic, one example is pea protein isolate. A lot of plant-based protein powders contain adequate levels of the nine essential amino acids (EAA's) the body requires for functions such as muscle growth and repair (2).
Pea protein isolate, is a vegan and hypoallergenic supplement made from yellow split peas. When isolated and milled into a flour it has a beige colour. Pea isolate is an excellent alternative to whey protein for vegans, individuals who suffer from lactose intolerance and those who require a dairy-free protein powder. It contains all nine essential amino acids. However, it is only rich in eight of these amino acids due to its low methionine content. This is not an issue as long as methionine-rich food sources added elsewhere in the diet (3).
Pea protein is an outstanding source of iron which aids in muscle growth and repair, weight loss, and heart health (4). However, iron derived from plant foods is less absorbable compared to animal products. Fortunately, you can improve this absorption by adding vitamin C to your diet.
Pea isolate is rich in arginine, a branched-chain amino acid which promotes heart health and healthy blood flow (5). It is also a superb source of the branch-chained amino acids (BCAA's); leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These BCAA's promotes muscle protein synthesis and aid with recovery . One study showed men who ingested 50 g of pea protein powder with a combination of resistance training experienced a similar increase in muscle growth compared to those who consumed 50 g of whey protein powder (3). As mentioned above pea protein is hypoallergenic, this means it does not contain any of the top eight most common food allergens: peanuts, tree nuts, cow’s milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, wheat, and soy (6).
Additionally, pea protein is derived through mechanical separation rather than chemical separation like soy and whey protein, this allows pea protein isolate to retain soluble fibre, which may be beneficial for cardiovascular and gastrointestinal health. However, it must be noted pea protein can have rather high levels of sodium which means it may not be suitable for individuals following a sodium-restricted diet.
Hemp is another popular protein supplement which is produced by grinding pressed hemp seeds into a fine brownish-green powder. Hemp seed protein powders typically have a nutty, earthy taste which works well in smoothies and shakes.
Hemp seed is characterised as an excellent protein source which contains adequate essential amino acids and digestibility (7). Additionally, the hydrolysed peptides (short strings of amino acids) exhibit various health benefits, including increasing antioxidant activity, helping to reduce hypertension (high blood pressure), and hypoglycemia(7).
Hemp seed protein is a high-quality vegan protein powder which has a complete amino acid profile. The amino acid profile of hemp is comparable to casein and soy protein (8). This lactose-free protein source is also a good source of fibre, healthy fats, and minerals. Moreover, hemp provides an exceptionally high level of amino acid arginine and glutamine. This promotes heart health, blood flow, and healthy intestinal cells.
Although hemp seed contains less protein per serving than highly refined pea or soy protein powders, it is preferred by individuals who prefer a less processed non-dairy protein powder. Generally, animal proteins digest easier than plant proteins. However, research indicates 91 to 98 percent of the protein in hemp seed is digestible (9). This may be due to the proteins edestin and albumin found in hemp seeds (10), meaning almost all of the vital amino acids in hemp protein powder are absorbed for bodily functions. This includes the repair of muscle tissue.
Finally, hemp seed protein supplements contain large amounts of fibre compared to other highly refined plant-based proteins (11), making it an excellent way to add protein and fibre to your diet, leaving you fuller for longer due to the effect these macronutrients have on satiety.
Soy is a somewhat controversial food and protein source; some think soy is a premium source, while others see it in a rather negative light. The protein source for soy powders derives from defatted soybean flakes which are washed in water or alcohol to remove the sugars; next, they are dehydrated and turned into powder. Soy protein powders contain all nine EAA's. These amino acids especially the branched-chain amino acids play an important role in muscle protein synthesis (12).
A study found soy to be superior to casein protein but inferior to whey protein when it comes to muscle protein synthesis. The research concluded the differences in performance may be due to the leucine content or the digestion rate (13).
The reason some view soy protein in a negative light is due to concerns regarding the protein source. It contains phytic acid (anti-nutrients) which is an inhibitory factor in iron absorption. This reduces the availability of iron and zinc in soy protein isolate (14).
Other concerns include isoflavones which can negatively affect a person’s thyroid function (15). And phytoestrogen, a chemical compound with estrogen properties which tend to attach to estrogen receptors in the body and disrupt natural hormone levels (16).
Brown rice protein supplements are made from grinding brown rice into powder form. Then treating the rice powder with enzymes. The enzymes help to break apart and separate the starch from the concentrated protein. Although brown rice protein is an incomplete protein as it has low levels of lysine. It does have a high protein content. Typically it provides a protein content of 78%. With an essential plant-derived amino acids content of 36% and a branched-chain amino acids content of 18% (17).
A research study over an eight-week-period found athletes given rice protein after resistance training increased muscle strength and development. Whilst improving their lean body mass, and decreasing fat levels. The results from individuals taking rice protein supplementation were comparable to those who supplemented with whey protein isolate (18).
This protein supplement is suitable for those who are lactose intolerant as it is hypoallergenic. This means it is not prone to eliciting allergic reactions in individuals suffering from the 8 most common allergies. Brown rice protein is also gluten-free and normally does not contain any monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Unfortunately, although brown rice protein powder contains all of the EAA's, it does not have high enough levels of lysine for it to be a complete protein. However, you can quickly solve this by combining it with a pea protein isolate which contains relatively high levels of lysine. Further benefits of brown rice protein are, it is an excellent vegan and non-dairy source of protein which helps regulate blood pressure and blood sugar levels, improve heart health, reduces inflammation, and assists with weight management.
Egg white powder is a superb alternative for individuals sensitive to dairy products and prefer an animal-based supplement. Although, in general, eggs are a great source of high-quality protein, they have the highest protein digestibility-corrected amino acid scores of all foods (19).
This supplement is made by separating the eggs whites from the yolks, which are then pulverised and dehydrated. Due to the powder being made from egg whites only, it is extremely rich in protein while completely lacking fat. In comparison, there is little nutritional difference between egg white and whey protein powder.
Egg white protein has a complete amino acid profile. Out of all the protein powders it only comes behind whey protein as a source of leucine. Leucine levels are important in protein supplements due to the role it plays in muscle protein synthesis (20).
Although beef protein powder is a relatively new protein powder, it has some interesting benefits. The amino acids of beef protein last longer in the bloodstream when compared to the dairy-based whey protein powders. Beef protein powders also show comparable results to whey protein when it comes to muscle growth and strength gains (21).
Beef protein powder mimics bone broth, it has similar collagen benefits, nutrients, and amino acids, specifically proline and glycine. Beef protein powder is made by boiling the beef in large cooking vats to create a liquid which contains protein and the EAA's. This liquid is then skimmed to remove additional carbohydrates and fats. The result is a fat-free, high protein concentration. Finally, the liquid is dried to produce beef protein isolate powder.
Beef protein powder contains nutrients and amino acids which support skin health, fat loss, and muscle growth (22). The full balance of EAA's in beef protein powder is similar to those found in human skeletal muscle which makes it an impressive amino acid source (23).
It also acts as a beneficial anti-inflammatory, promotes healthy digestion and gut function. Furthermore, beef protein powder contains glutamine, an essential amino acid that which the intestinal barrier and leaky gut (24).
However, it’s crucial to note all beef protein powders are not of the same quality. Cheaper versions typically contain unwanted beef products, including ligaments or hooves which make the protein powders higher in collagen and lower in protein. This should be checked on the labelling of any supplement before purchase.
An eight-week revealed whey and beef protein powder both increased muscle thickness. However, despite whey protein containing higher levels of BCAA's and EAA's, individuals who took beef protein powder had greater increases in arm size than those who took whey protein powder (25). This research makes beef protein power a promising alternative as a supplement for muscle growth in individuals who are lactose intolerant.
Research has found both whey protein supplements, have lactose levels which are low enough to not cause lactose intolerant individuals issues (26). This means those who suffer from lactose intolerance may not notice any adverse effects from consuming whey protein. However, side effects caused by whey protein are normally down to lactose. These side effects from whey protein include flatulence, diarrhoea, stomach pain and cramping. If any of these symptoms are suffered it is recommended to switch to a lactose free protein powder. Or if you are using a whey protein concentate switching to a whey with lower lactose levels such as whey hydrolysate or whey protein isolate.
If negative symptoms persist when taking any whey protein supplement it is recommended to stop consuming it immediately. If you are unsure of what is causing your symptoms you should consult with a medical professional.
Whether you want dairy free protein powder or an animal based protein which is suitable for those with lactose intolerance, both types of lactose free protein powder can be used to reach health and fitness goals. There are numerous plant-based protein powders suitable for those who suffer from lactose intolerance, including pea, hemp seed, soy, or brown rice. And similarly there are numerous lactose-free animal protein powders such as egg white and beef protein powder. Even whey supplements such as whey protein isolate may be suitable for those who are lactose intolerant.