Whey protein is a popular nutritional supplement used by athletes and fitness enthusiasts to help build muscle mass. It is often added to shakes and smoothies as a protein booster. But an important consideration for anyone with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity is whether whey protein contains gluten. Let’s take a closer look at what whey protein is, where it comes from, and how it’s processed to determine if powdered whey protein is gluten-free.
What is Whey Protein?
Whey protein is a mixture of proteins isolated from whey, which is the liquid part of milk that separates during cheese production. It is a complete protein that contains all 9 essential amino acids. Here are some key facts about whey protein:
- Made up of a collection of proteins like beta-lactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin, bovine serum albumin, and immunoglobulins
- Contains high levels of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) like leucine, isoleucine, and valine
- Quickly absorbed and utilized by the body
- Has the highest biological value (BV) of any protein source
Due to its rapid absorption and muscle-building capabilities, whey protein is commonly used to aid muscle growth and recovery after exercise. It’s also added to meal replacements and protein bars to boost protein content.
Where Does Whey Protein Come From?
Whey protein is derived from cow’s milk. During the process of cheese production, milk is curdled by adding rennet, which separates the milk into curds (cheese solids) and whey (liquid). The liquid whey contains around 20% protein in its natural form.
To produce whey protein powders and supplements, the liquid whey first goes through a microfiltration process to remove fat and lactose. Then to concentrate the protein content, it undergoes ultrafiltration, ion exchange or microfiltration. The final whey concentrate contains between 25-89% protein.
Further filtering yields whey protein isolate, which is over 90% protein. Specialized filtration methods can also isolate individual proteins like lactoferrin and immunoglobulins. These isolated proteins provide benefits beyond basic nutrition.
Types of Whey Protein
There are three main types of whey protein powder:
- Whey protein concentrate: Contains 25-89% protein along with some lactose, fat, and vitamins and minerals. It’s the most common and affordable type.
- Whey protein isolate: Contains at least 90% protein with very little lactose, fat, or other non-protein components. It is more expensive but absorbs faster.
- Whey protein hydrolysate: Goes through partial hydrolysis, a process that pre-digests the proteins into smaller chains called peptides for faster absorption. It’s the most expensive form.
The type of whey protein determines how quickly it’s digested and absorbed. Whey protein concentrate takes about 1-2 hours to fully digest, while whey isolates and hydrolysates may digest in just 30-60 minutes. This makes isolate and hydrolysate versions ideal for consumption immediately before or after workouts.
Is Whey Protein Naturally Gluten-Free?
In its pure form, whey protein should not contain any gluten. However, because it is derived from dairy, there is a risk of gluten cross-contamination during production. Here are some things to consider:
- The main sources of gluten contamination come from grain-feeding practices for dairy cows.
- Cows are sometimes fed crops like wheat, barley, and rye that contain gluten, which can show up at low levels in milk.
- Most major whey protein brands state their protein is gluten-free, with lab testing below 20ppm gluten.
- Look for brands that source milk from dairy cows not fed gluten grains to reduce contamination risk.
While whey protein is not inherently gluten-containing, minor exposure during manufacturing is possible. Those who are extremely sensitive should look for dedicated gluten-free brands.
To provide assurance to gluten-sensitive consumers, some whey protein powders obtain voluntary gluten-free certification from reputable third-party organizations like:
- Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO)
- National Sanitation Foundation (NSF)
- NSF International
These certifications verify through audits and testing that products contain less than 10-20ppm of gluten. However, certification is not mandatory, and many reputable brands simply state their products are gluten-free without official certification.
Other Ingredients in Whey Protein Powder
In addition to the whey protein base, other ingredients are often added to improve taste, texture, mixing ability, and shelf life of whey protein powders. Potential additions include:
- Flavorings – Natural and artificial flavor extracts like vanilla, chocolate, etc.
- Sweeteners – Sugar, sucralose, stevia
- Thickeners – Guar gum, xanthan gum, lecithin
- Preservatives – Potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate
- Anti-caking agents – Silicon dioxide
- Colorings – Beetroot, caramel coloring
- Probiotics – Lactobacillus acidophilus
- Digestive enzymes – Papain, bromelain, lactase
When buying whey protein, check the ingredient list carefully for any gluten-containing additives, especially wheat-derived ingredients. Also look out for maltodextrin, an additive that sometimes contains gluten.
Common Gluten-Containing Ingredients
Avoid whey proteins that contain these ingredients as they indicate possible gluten sources:
- Wheat, barley, rye, triticale – grains containing gluten
- Maltodextrin – may be derived from barley
- Dextrin – may come from wheat
- Caramel color – can be made using barley malt
- Starch – might indicate a gluten grain source
- Natural flavor – may contain gluten barley malt
Call the manufacturer if any questionable ingredients are present to ask about their gluten status.
In products made without gluten grains, cross-contamination during manufacturing and packaging is still possible. Here are potential risks in whey protein production:
- Shared equipment – used to process wheat/gluten products
- Shared facility – airborne gluten particle migration
- Inadequate sanitation – gluten residue remaining
- Mislabeling – improper labeling of allergens
Reputable whey protein companies should follow good manufacturing practices and have dedicated equipment and facilities for gluten-free production. Contact the manufacturer to inquire about their protocols to prevent cross-contamination.
Factors That Increase Risk
These practices indicate higher risk of gluten cross-contamination:
- No “gluten-free” label claim
- Vague “manufactured in a facility…” statement
- No website/contact info on label
- Products also containing wheat/gluten
- Poor company allergen control reputation
On the other hand, factors that reduce gluten risk include:
- Laboratory-tested gluten-free claim
- “Manufactured in a dedicated gluten-free facility”
- Specific allergen procedures described
- Reputable gluten-free certification
Should You Only Buy Certified Gluten-Free Whey?
For most gluten-sensitive individuals, non-certified whey protein isolates from reputable brands that claim to be gluten-free are generally well-tolerated. However, for those with celiac disease or wheat allergies, certified gluten-free whey protein provides extra assurance.
Here are some pros and cons of certified gluten-free whey protein:
- Rigorous 3rd party testing ensures less than 10-20ppm of gluten
- Gluten testing often done on every production batch
- Strict standards for facilities and manufacturing controls
- Lower risk for those highly-sensitive to trace gluten
- More expensive price premium
- Usually fewer flavor and product options
- Overkill for people who tolerate non-certified whey
Ultimately it comes down to your comfort level. People unable to tolerate any gluten will benefit most from certified sources. But for many, non-certified whey protein is a more affordable option that provides adequate assurance.
The Best Gluten-Free Whey Protein Brands
Here are some top gluten-free whey protein powders from reputable supplement companies:
1. Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard
- Lab-tested gluten-free with under 10ppm
- Wide range of flavors like chocolate, vanilla, cookies & cream
- Trusted protein brand with rigorous quality controls
- No artificial colors, sweeteners or flavors
2. Dymatize ISO100
- Gluten-free certified by GFCO
- Whey protein isolate for faster digestion
- Contains BCAAs and 5g of glutamine
- Mix of natural and artificial flavors
3. Transparent Labs 100% Grass-Fed
- Sourced from grass-fed hormone-free cows
- Tested gluten-free to under 10 ppm
- Also soy-free, non-GMO and no artificial sweeteners
- Stevia-sweetened with clean ingredients
4. Naked Whey
- Unflavored pure whey protein from grass-fed cows
- No artificial sweeteners, colors, or preservatives
- Gluten-free manufacturing environment
- Just one ingredient – pure whey protein
5. Levels Grass-Fed Whey
- 100% grass-fed whey protein from pasture-raised cows
- NSF certified gluten-free
- No soy lecithin, gums or preservatives
- Available in chocolate and vanilla flavors
These top gluten-free whey brands offer high-quality whey protein powders with testing protocols and manufacturing practices that avoid gluten cross-contamination.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is whey protein isolate gluten-free?
Yes, whey protein isolate containing at least 90% protein content is generally well-tolerated by those with gluten intolerance when sourced from reputable gluten-free brands. Extensive filtration removes potential gluten protein traces.
What about whey protein concentrate?
Whey protein concentrates are also typically gluten-free, though they may have slightly higher theoretical risk due to lower protein content. For maximum assurance, choose a concentrate from a trusted gluten-free brand.
Should you take gluten out of your diet when using whey protein?
No, unless you have celiac disease or a wheat allergy requiring a 100% gluten-free diet. For those with mild gluten sensitivity, whey protein from reputable gluten-free brands can be used without removing gluten from the diet.
Can whey protein give you gluten symptoms?
In rare cases, whey protein may cause gluten-like symptoms even when testing below 20ppm gluten. This indicates you may have a whey allergy unrelated to gluten content. Switch to a plant-based protein powder instead of whey.
Is whey protein safer than soy or plant proteins?
For avoiding gluten, whey, soy, pea and rice proteins are generally comparable from reputable brands. Soy faces higher potential for cross-contact in shared facilities. Plant proteins are inherently gluten-free but may have lower protein quality.
The Bottom Line on Whey Protein and Gluten
When sourced responsibly, whey protein isolates and concentrates are generally safe gluten-free options for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. To reduce contamination risk, choose brands that:
- Use milk from non-gluten grain fed cows
- Describe rigorous gluten testing and safety protocols
- Produce in dedicated gluten-free facilities
- Are third-party certified gluten-free (ideal for celiac disease)
With reputable brands, whey protein can be an effective way to increase protein intake while avoiding the gastrointestinal problems associated with gluten exposure. Just be diligent about researching brands and reading labels.