Can you eat whey if you are gluten-free?

Gluten-free diets have become increasingly popular in recent years, both for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity and for those simply seeking potential health benefits of eliminating gluten. For those following a strict gluten-free diet, it’s important to understand which foods and ingredients contain gluten and which are naturally gluten-free.

Whey protein is one ingredient that often comes up in discussions around gluten-free diets. Whey is a byproduct of cheese production and is commonly used as a protein powder supplement or added to processed foods for a protein boost. But can you eat whey if you are gluten-free?

What is whey?

Whey is a liquid that separates from milk during the cheesemaking process. It contains a number of milk proteins, including:

  • Beta-lactoglobulin – the major whey protein
  • Alpha-lactalbumin
  • Bovine serum albumin
  • Immunoglobulins – antibody proteins
  • Lactoferrin – an iron-binding protein
  • Lactoperoxidase

Once whey is isolated from cheese curds, it goes through processing to create different whey products, including:

  • Whey protein concentrates – contain 25–89% protein
  • Whey protein isolates – contain 90% or more protein
  • Whey protein hydrolysates – partially broken down for faster digestion
  • Native whey – minimally processed

These whey proteins have become popular supplements, especially in sports nutrition and bodybuilding. They provide high quality, complete proteins with all the essential amino acids.

Is whey gluten-free?

Gluten is a group of proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye. It acts as a glue that helps breads keep their shape and develop an elastic texture.

The whey protein in milk-based products does not naturally contain gluten. Milk-producing animals like cows and goats do not make gluten proteins. Therefore, whey that is isolated directly from cheese contains no gluten.

However, whey protein supplements and products containing whey protein are at risk for gluten cross-contamination. Gluten cross-contamination can occur when a gluten-containing ingredient comes into contact with a gluten-free food. This contact can happen during growing, manufacturing, processing, transportation or storage.

For example, if a whey protein powder is produced in a facility that also handles gluten-containing cereals or grains, gluten particles can make their way into the whey protein. Some other potential sources of gluten cross-contamination include:

  • Shared equipment – e.g. spoons used for mixing
  • Shared storage bins and containers
  • Shared processing areas
  • Airborne gluten particles

Therefore, when looking for a whey protein supplement, it’s important to choose one that is certified gluten-free.

Certified gluten-free whey protein

Reputable whey protein brands will have their products tested for gluten by an independent lab. They can then label their whey as certified gluten-free, meaning the product contains less than 20 parts per million of gluten.

Some trusted gluten-free certification programs include:

  • Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO)
  • National Celiac Association Recognized Gluten-Free
  • Celiac Sprue Association Recognition Seal

You can look for these logos on whey protein packaging. Getting whey protein certified as gluten-free ensures rigorous testing is done to detect any trace gluten.

Some examples of certified gluten-free whey proteins include:

  • Isopure Zero Carb Protein Powder
  • Level Up Grass-Fed Whey Protein
  • Transparent Labs ProteinSeries 100% Grass-Fed Whey Protein Isolate

Checking the label for a gluten-free certification will give you confidence that measures have been taken to avoid cross-contamination in facilities and with equipment.

Other considerations with whey

In addition to gluten, here are some other things those with celiac disease or on a gluten-free diet may want to consider when choosing a whey protein powder:

1. Other allergens

Those with celiac disease are more likely to have other food allergies or intolerances. Be sure to check the label for potential allergens like dairy, soy, eggs or nuts. Look for a whey protein labeled as hypoallergenic.

2. Additional ingredients

Apart from the whey protein, check labels for other ingredients like flavors, thickeners, vitamins and minerals. Call or email the manufacturer if you are unsure about any additional ingredients that could contain gluten.

3. Hydrolyzed whey

Hydrolyzed whey protein has undergone partial hydrolysis, a process that breaks down protein peptides into smaller groups of amino acids. This makes the protein easier to digest. However, the process of hydrolysis sometimes uses enzymes derived from wheat or barley, which would introduce gluten. Check that any hydrolyzed whey uses gluten-free enzymes.

4. Cross-reactivity

Some people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity may also react to A1 beta-casein, a milk protein found in whey. Those with cross-reactivity may do better sticking to goat or sheep whey, which have different types of casein.

Is whey safe on a gluten-free diet?

Unpublished data 10/31/2023

In summary, whey protein can be safely consumed on a gluten-free diet, provided you choose products that are certified gluten-free. This ensures the whey is not cross-contaminated and guarantees it contains undetectable levels of gluten.

Sticking to reputable brands that voluntarily submit to third-party testing for gluten provides assurance. Look for certified gluten-free whey without any questionable additional ingredients. With the proper precautions, whey protein can be a beneficial supplement for those eating gluten-free.

Key Takeaways

  • Whey is the liquid byproduct of cheese production and is used to make whey protein products.
  • Whey protein does not naturally contain gluten but can become cross-contaminated.
  • Choose whey protein certified as gluten-free by an independent lab.
  • Look for trusted labels like GFCO, National Celiac Association, and Celiac Sprue Association.
  • Check labels for other potential allergens besides gluten.
  • Hydrolyzed whey should use gluten-free enzymes.
  • Sheep or goat whey may be better with casein cross-reactivity.
  • Certified gluten-free whey protein is widely considered safe for gluten-free diets when proper precautions are taken.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does whey protein contain gluten?

Whey protein concentrate and isolates do not naturally contain gluten. However, contamination is possible during processing and handling if the manufacturer also processes gluten-containing foods. Always look for certified gluten-free whey protein produced in a facility free from cross-contamination.

Can celiacs have whey protein?

Yes, people with celiac disease can consume whey protein as long as it is certified gluten-free. Independent lab testing ensures the product contains undetectable levels of gluten.

Is Impact Whey gluten-free?

Popular brands like Impact Whey test their protein powders to verify gluten levels are below 20ppm. Impact Whey protein has been certified gluten-free by lab testing, so it is considered safe for the gluten-free diet as long as you tolerate whey.

What are the symptoms of a whey protein allergy?

Possible symptoms of a whey allergy include hives, itching, eczema, swelling, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, runny nose, trouble breathing, and even anaphylaxis. Discontinue use if any adverse reactions occur and consult a doctor.

Is whey protein better than soy protein for gluten intolerance?

For those with only a gluten intolerance, both whey and soy protein that are certified gluten-free can be tolerated. Those with celiac disease or a soy allergy as well would need to choose gluten-free whey protein instead of soy.

Can whey protein cause gastrointestinal issues?

Some people may experience bloating, gas, cramps or diarrhea from whey protein. This is often due to lactose intolerance or irritation from overconsumption. Isolate protein powders contain little to no lactose so are less likely to cause GI issues.

Does whey protein powder go bad?

Unopened whey protein powder can last 12-18 months when properly stored in a cool, dry place. Some storage conditions like heat and humidity can accelerate spoilage. Signs of expired whey protein include changes in texture, color, taste and aroma.

Is hydrolyzed collagen gluten-free?

Hydrolyzed collagen, often from bovine, fish or egg sources, does not naturally contain gluten. Look for brands that are third-party tested or certified gluten-free to ensure no cross-contamination. Non-hydrolyzed collagen supplements should also be gluten-free.

The Bottom Line

Whey protein can fit into a gluten-free lifestyle as long as precautions are taken to choose certified gluten-free products that have been tested to confirm undetectable levels of gluten. Gluten contamination can occur during manufacturing, so extra care must be taken. With reputable brands meeting certification standards, whey protein is widely considered safe for those on a strict gluten-free diet. Just be sure to read labels carefully and check for other potential allergens besides gluten.

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