Whey protein is one of the most researched supplements in the nutrition and fitness world. It’s known to help build muscle and repair tissue, among other benefits. But there’s one huge question that still remains: Is grass-fed whey protein isolate better than conventional whey protein?
Read on to discover the nutritional values of both grass-fed whey protein and regular whey, plus the environmental impact on the planet.
As always, it’s best to start at the beginning. Before you learn the differences between grass-fed and regular whey, you need to learn how they’re similar.
Most whey protein comes from cow’s milk, although you can find some from goat’s milk. Milk contains two primary proteins: casein (about 80%) and whey (about 20%).
When you separate dairy solids from the liquid, you get whey (the liquid) and casein (the solid). When the liquid is spray dried into a powder and filtered, you get either whey protein isolate or whey concentrate.
- Whey protein isolate(WPI): This is a concentrated form of protein, plus it’s super filtered and doesn’t contain much lactose, if any.
- Whey protein concentrate: This isn’t as filtered and still contains some lactose (a fermentable sugar that can cause digestive upset for some people), plus other compounds. This one also doesn’t contain as much protein as isolate.
If you have trouble with lactose and want the purest, high-quality form of whey, WPI is the way to go.
What’s in Whey Protein?
Whey protein is made up of amino acids, the building blocks of protein.
Different protein sources — meat, cheese, eggs, high-protein vegetables — all contain different amino acid profiles.
Whey protein contains all 9 essential amino acids, making it a complete protein source[*].
Essential Amino Acids
This is a big deal because you need to regularly consume essential amino acids. You can’t produce these on your own and need them from dietary or supplemental sources if you want to build and maintain muscle, repair tissues, or make neurotransmitters and hormones[*].
Non-Essential Amino Acids
Non-essential amino acids are the ones your body can generate on its own. You don’t technically need these as much as the essential amino acids, but supplementation is still necessary for plenty of people.
Whey also includes the branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine, and valine, which you’ll never find in plant protein.
BCAAs are the big gun amino acids that are well-documented for muscle gains and recovery, especially leucine[*].
Whey is also rich in the proteins lactoferrin, beta-lactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin, and immunoglobulins, all of which are antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal. They can help reduce inflammation and improve immune function[*][*].
Whey protein is accurately known as a muscle-building supplement. Whey increases muscle protein synthesis, strength, power, and tissue recovery[*]. No wonder it’s so popular in the weightlifting and fitness communities.
Now don’t go away thinking whey is only useful for bodybuilders and hardcore athletes. Whey isn’t just good for bulking up.
This effect is especially pronounced when whey is combined with a high-fat ketogenic diet. For example, researchers fed 25 people two diets — low calorie and keto — both including a whey supplement, then measured body composition afterward[*].
The results? The keto with whey group lost weight and maintained lean muscle mass, while the low-calorie with whey group only lost weight. This suggests that you’re more likely to keep that lean mass on a keto diet, assuming you’re getting adequate protein.
Whey protein supplements combined with resistance training also help prevent sarcopenia, or age-related muscle decline[*]. This means that older people can benefit from whey just as much as younger people.
But whey is more than just a complete protein. It also contains a handful of other compounds with powerful effects on your immune and antioxidant response systems.
Grass-fed whey comes from grass-fed cows. These animals are raised on organic pastures and eat natural, plant-based diets — not the corn or soy diets filling the troughs of conventional farms.
Because of this, grass-fed whey protein has higher levels of immune-boosting, bioactive compounds.
There’s science to back this up. In a 2012 review in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, researchers analyzed whey protein from both conventional and organic farms in Poland[*].
They found that organic whey contained more beta-lactoglobulin, lactoferrin, and lysozyme than conventional whey.
These compounds — and the benefits linked to them — deserve more explanation.
Beta-lactoglobulin (B-Lg) isn’t a compound inside whey protein. Beta-lactoglobulin is whey protein.
That’s right, B-Lg accounts for over half the protein in whey. And grass-fed whey, as you just learned, is the king of beta-lactoglobulin.
Beta-lactoglobulin is linked to the following health benefits:
- Stronger immune system: This bioactive milk peptide enhances immunity by binding to IgM receptors on immune cells, which then proliferate to fight infection[*]. B-Lg not only fights strong infections and inflammation, but it can also decrease oxidative stress, which leads to better overall cell health.
- Better cholesterol and anti-cancer effects: Beta-lactoglobulin also has the ability to bind to molecules like vitamin A, vitamin D, and palmitic acid (saturated fat). This “ligand binding” ability has benefits including better cholesterol, antimicrobial, and anti-cancer effects[*].
- Reduced blood pressure: B-Lg relaxes blood vessels as well as ACE inhibitors[*].
- Potent antioxidant activity: B-Lg is also an antioxidant — meaning it helps your body manage the metabolic stress of daily life. It also enhances the effects of other antioxidants thanks to ligand binding. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, is one example that works even better alongside B-Lg[*].
B-Lg is high in cysteine, a non-essential amino acid used to form glutathione — your body’s master antioxidant.
Think of glutathione as your internal cleanup crew. It rounds up reactive oxygen species (ROS) — normal byproducts of metabolism that, in excess, accelerate both aging and the development of chronic disease[*].
Replenishing glutathione can help with a variety of conditions. Luckily, you can replenish it by consuming cysteine-rich grass-fed whey protein. Research has shown that consuming cysteine can help treat liver disease and cancer[*].
A liver disease referred to as “fatty liver” is on the rise, and glutathione depletion is part of this disease progression. Restore glutathione status, and you help restore your liver.
In one study, 38 people with NASH — non-alcoholic steatohepatitis advanced liver disease — were fed whey isolate for twelve weeks. At the end of the study, these folks had more glutathione and healthier livers than they did at the beginning. Researchers believe cysteine was to thank[*].
Like victims of liver disease, cancer patients also have impaired antioxidant defenses. Whey seems to help. In both human and animal models, researchers have seen tumor shrinkage (for certain cancers) during whey protein supplementation[*].
Along with cysteine, another compound in whey — lactoferrin — also shows promise for treating cancer.
Like beta-lactoglobulin, lactoferrin — a protein in grass fed whey — has profound positive effects on the immune system. To help fight infection, lactoferrin stimulates natural killer (NK), neutrophil, and macrophage immune cells[*].
In one clinical trial, people with carcinogenic colon polyps were given either lactoferrin or placebo for one year. After the year was over, researchers noticed that the polyps had grown less in the lactoferrin group[*]. This is promising news for treating colon cancer.
Lactoferrin operates by inducing apoptosis, or cell death, in cancer cells. This could be helpful for treating out of control, radiant-resistant cancers[*].
But wait, there’s more. Lactoferrin also helps prevent iron overload — a condition in which too much iron is stored in cells, leading to chronic oxidative stress. Lactoferrin upregulates your iron clearance protein (transferrin) and downregulates your iron storage protein (ferritin)[*].
Last but not least, lactoferrin reduces inflammation by decreasing inflammatory particles like interleukin-6 (IL-6) and tumor necrosis factor[*].
This anti-inflammatory effect is extra strong when lactoferrin partners with lysozyme, which is another protein in grass-fed whey.
Lysozyme is a natural born killer. It works by shattering the cell walls of its victims — usually dangerous bacteria.
Take listeria. Listeria is a pathogenic bacterium — often food-borne, and sometimes fatal — that causes a nasty infection called listeriosis.
Lysozyme can help. Researchers have shown that whey protein with lysozyme inhibits the growth of listeria[*].
Research has also shown that combining lysozyme with lactoferrin significantly lowers intestinal inflammation in pigs[*]. Because of this, whey may help with inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease[*].
Conventional herding practices leave behind a trail of scorched earth. Whether you’re talking about continuous grazing or feedlotting — either the animals, the land, or both will suffer.
But there’s an alternative: rotational grazing. This just means that cows are confined, for a set amount of time, to a small parcel of land. They eat everything in that area, then move onto the next cell. Not only are the cows not overgrazing, they’re dropping nutrient-rich dung onto the grass to help it grow back richer and more plentiful.
Compared to the continuous grazing method, rotational grazing enhances soil quality and produces more nutritious milk.
“These changes in pasture composition,” write researchers in The Rangeland Journal, “may have long-term benefits with respect to erosion control, nutrient cycling, hydrological function and the stability of animal production at the cell grazed sites[*].”
How does this apply to grass-fed whey? Because organic farmers tend to employ rotational grazing methods.
So if you want to benefit the planet, you can cast your vote by supporting grass-fed products and shunning conventional dairy.
And as it turns out, this vote also benefits cows.
There’s a lot that’s wrong with conventional farming practices, not least of which is the treatment of animals. Most dairy and beef cows are kept in small spaces with zero access to grazing or fresh air.
The conventional system is designed to produce the biggest, highest milk- and beef-producing animals as quickly as possible. That means pumping animals full of growth hormones and antibiotics; plus, feeding cows soy- and corn-based pellets that their gastrointestinal systems aren’t built to digest.
What’s the diet of a feedlot cow? It’s certainly not grass[*]. Rather, cow feed is a mix of:
- Cottonseed meal
- Corn stalks
On conventional farms, cows are given hormones to fatten them up and increase milk production. They’re also given antibiotics to prevent the inevitable disease that comes with eating feed that their systems were never meant to digest. This has negative consequences including antibiotic resistance.
Here’s an astonishing figure: some 50-80% of all antibiotics are fed to livestock[*].
You can thank conventional farming practices for that. According to the research, conventional dairy cows are given up to 300% more antibiotics than organic dairy cows[*].
Antibiotic usage in livestock can lead to antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.” Here’s how it happens:
- Cows are fed antibiotics to increase size and milk production.
- Antibiotics kill most (but not all) bacteria in the cows.
- Surviving bacteria are now resistant to the effects of antibiotics.
- These antibiotic-resistant superbugs end up in dairy and meat products.
- Someone eats or drinks these products, ingesting the superbugs.
- People get sick and are given antibiotics to treat the infection.
- The antibiotics don’t work, which means the superbugs live on.
- The infection persists and sometimes becomes fatal.
Antibiotic resistance is a threat to humans. And without decreasing antibiotic usage, the problem will only get worse.
Enter organic farming. Organic farmers use far fewer antibiotics. This is not only good for the animals, it’s also good for you.
This doesn’t mean regular whey protein contains antibiotic-resistant superbugs. It doesn’t.
But buying conventional whey products does support the use of antibiotics on livestock. Which makes superbugs thrive.
To summarize, here’s the breakdown of how grass-fed protein compares to regular whey protein.
Grass-fed whey contains more:
- Beta-lactoglobulin, a potent immune booster
- Cysteine, which supports your antioxidant response
- Lactoferrin, shown to help with cancer and iron overload
- Lysozyme, a natural born bacteria killer
In the bigger picture, grass-fed organic farms:
- Use rotational grazing, which creates rich topsoils and contributes to a healthier ecosystem
- Don’t torture cows with unnatural diets and squalid living conditions
- Reduce antibiotic usage, which reduces the risk of superbugs
All things considered, this should make choosing your whey protein — grass-fed or conventional — about as easy as choosing between the aisle and middle seat on a full flight.
Grass-fed products are better not only for your body, but also for the planet. Here are some tips for going grass-fed to support your healthy lifestyle.
#1. Assess Your Fridge and Pantry
Open your fridge, your pantry, and review their contents. Be brutally honest. Are your snacks and supplement powders of the highest quality: non-GMO, gluten-free, soy-free, hormone-free, organic, and free of artificial flavors and ingredients? Or are they from conventional, GMO-heavy, pesticide-laden, antibiotic-rich farms?
If your entire stockpile is organic, congratulations. You’re doing better than most. But if you notice foods from suspicious sources, don’t worry — you can swap them out.
#2. Switch to Organic and Grass-Fed
Once you assess your pantry, it’s time to start swapping out conventional foods for organic foods and grass-fed meat and dairy products. Instead of regular spinach laced with herbicides, opt for organic spinach. Instead of regular whey protein powder, opt for grass-fed whey protein.
#3. Buy Local
When it comes to meat and produce, you can’t beat buying local. Small, family-owned farms typically use very few pesticides, herbicides, hormones, or antibiotics.
If you want to confirm, you can always ask the farmer directly.
Of course, you can’t buy everything at the farmer’s market. You still need keto-friendly protein bars, grass-fed whey protein powder, MCT oil, cocoa powder, almond milk — the list goes on. For these products, make sure the brand supports certified organic farming practices.
Grass-Fed Is Better for You
Both regular and grass-fed whey protein can go in your protein shakes. But grass-fed is the way to go.
Grass-fed whey not only packs a superior nutritional punch — beta-lactoglobulin, lactoferrin, and lysozyme — but also supports sustainable farming practices.
When shopping for grass-fed whey isolate, make sure to choose protein:
- Free from artificial sweeteners and fillers
- With at least 20 grams of protein per serving size
- Great customer reviews (you won’t use it if it doesn’t taste good)
Compared to regular whey, grass-fed whey is better for you, better for the animals, and better for the planet.
To help you put that grass-fed whey protein to good use, check out the Perfect Keto recipe section. You’ll find plenty of treats that are low in carbs like this delicious chocolate protein smoothie loaded with pure protein and no artificial ingredients.