Organic Whey Protein vs. Conventional: What’s the Difference?

Organic Whey Protein vs. Conventional: What’s the Difference?

Organic Whey Protein vs. Conventional: What’s the Difference?

If you search Amazon for protein supplements, you’ll notice a multitude of products on the market, including both organic whey protein and conventional whey protein. But what do these labels really mean? And is organic whey protein worth the price tag?

Let’s explore what you’re getting when you purchase organic whey protein, how it compares to conventional options, and what to look for before you buy. But first, let’s review why it’s worth taking a protein supplement in the first place.

Why Take a Whey Protein Supplement?

Whether you’re an athlete, bodybuilder, recovering from an illness, or simply want to improve your nutritional intake, it can be challenging to get enough protein from food alone. In these cases, a protein supplement can help fill in the gap.

Protein is an essential macronutrient that performs a variety of crucial functions in the human body, including:

  • Providing energy to fuel your activity
  • Building and repairing muscle
  • Regulating hormones
  • Boosting your immune system
  • Helping with weight management, including weight loss or weight gain (if you’re building muscle mass or need to increase your body weight)

There are many high-protein foods that can provide these benefits, as well as other protein supplements. However, whey is one of the most digestible and bioavailable, and it’s easily incorporated into other meals to boost your protein intake rapidly.

What Is Whey Protein?

Whey is a protein that comes from milk. When the solids are separated from milk, the remaining liquid is known as whey.

Whey is exceptionally high in protein and it contains all the essential amino acids that your body can’t make, especially the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) — leucine, isoleucine, and valine — which are critical for muscle growth and recovery.

It usually comes in one of three forms — whey protein concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate. All three are pasteurized and filtered but each goes through slightly different processes from there.

  • Whey protein concentrate: This is the least processed of the three and it contains the highest amount of lactose, fat, and carbohydrates, and the lowest concentration of protein.
  • Whey protein isolate: This goes through a further processing step to remove almost all the lactose, fat, and carbohydrates, making it ideal for those wanting to build lean muscle. It’s highly digestible with protein content that’s upwards of 90%.
  • Whey protein hydrolysate: Processing is taken a step further and is partly pre-digested, making it the most suitable for sensitive stomachs. It’s often used in baby formulas and medical protein supplements.

Which Whey to Go: Organic Whey Protein or Conventional?

Grazing dairy cows in a pasture

Organic and conventional whey are both great options with multiple benefits. However, differences in sourcing and processing have an impact on purity and nutritional value. Organic whey protein also costs more because of how it’s produced.

Most dairy in the U.S. comes from industrial-scale farms, where cows are kept in feedlots, which are fertile ground for disease. They are also usually fed on grains like corn, which are not part of their natural diet, and can therefore cause imbalances in their digestive system, among other things. 

To counteract the effects of these factors, the cows are routinely fed antibiotics, as well as other chemicals like growth hormones, which may cause health problems for the humans who eventually drink their milk (or milk-derived products) or eat beef.

Although the terms “grass-fed” and “free-range” are often used purely as marketing gimmicks, cows that are genuinely pasture-raised graze on their natural diet of grass — often on small family farms where they have space to roam — and as a result, usually don’t require antibiotics on a routine basis. 

What Does Organic Mean?

When a product is certified organic, every part of its production, from soil and seed through to animal welfare and final processing, has been evaluated by a certification authority like the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

If it passes all the checks, the product packaging will display a USDA Organic seal. This confirms that it contains at least 95% organic ingredients (excluding salt and water).

When it comes to whey, “certified organic” means that:

  • The cows that provide the milk were given organic feed that is free of pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
  • Cows graze on pasture at least 120 days a year. Grass-fed dairy has been shown to be higher in protein and fat, as well as other beneficial nutrients.
  • The cows have not been routinely treated with antibiotics and they are free of rBGH and rBST growth hormones.
  • The milk has been processed without industrial solvents.

Research also shows that organic foods may be higher in some nutrients, like antioxidants, than conventionally farmed foods.

What Difference Does the Processing Make?

Many whey products go through acid and heat treatment to remove excess fat, sugar, and impurities.

This saves both time and money, reduces the possibility of contamination, and increases shelf stability. However, if it’s not done exactly right, the final product often ends up more acidic and the protein structure can be damaged. This negatively impacts the nutrient profile and denatures the amino acids, making them less bioavailable.

Cold-processed whey is processed at low temperatures using mechanical microfiltration. This preserves the nutrient and amino acid profiles, along with the many benefits offered by these nutrients and amino acids.

What to Look For When Buying Organic, Grass-Fed Whey Protein Powder

Female athlete shopping for organic whey protein

There are many variations on organic whey protein powder available on the market, and they differ markedly in quality.

Start by deciding if you prefer conventional or organic whey protein concentrate or isolate. If you’re closely managing your weight or macronutrients, check the amount of fat, carbs, and protein per serving size — remember that whey protein isolate always contains more protein and less fat and carbs. If you’re following a keto or paleo diet, you’ll also want to check the lactose, gluten, and grain content.

Whether you choose sweetened or unsweetened is up to you, but avoid products with added sugars. Stevia, sucralose, or monk fruit extract are good, low-glycemic options if you still want a sweetened taste.

Following a few other basic guidelines will help you make the right decision. These are the elements to look for:

  • Simple ingredients — in this case, more is not merrier
  • Sourced from organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed cows
  • High in antioxidants
  • Cold-processed
  • High protein bioavailability
  • No fillers like milk solids or coconut flour
  • No artificial colors or flavors
  • No added sugars or artificial sweeteners
  • Soy-free (soy is a common allergen)
  • Gluten-free
  • Preservative-free
  • Hormone-free
  • Free of heavy metals
  • Free of pesticides and herbicides, like glyphosate
  • USDA Organic seal
  • Non-GMO Project verified

Note that third-party testing and verification adds extra credibility to a whey protein product. For example, ioWhey Protein is available as USDA Organic certified. It’s also proven to be more bioavailable and to cause less stomach discomfort than non-optimized whey powder. 

How to Use Your Organic Whey Protein Powder

Strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla organic whey protein smoothies

The taste of your organic whey protein powder will depend on the type and brand you choose. A high-quality, unflavored whey protein like ioWhey is often neutral tasting and can be added to many different foods like protein shakes, smoothies, or oats to boost your protein intake.

Some brands may have a slightly chalky aftertaste, so you may prefer a flavored version. Different brands offer different flavors, from natural or bourbon vanilla flavor to strawberry, chocolate, or even peanut butter. You can also add your own flavor if you so choose.

Organic protein powder is also a great base for other superfoods like cacao, goji berries, collagen, maca, or chia. You can increase your nutrient intake further by adding nutrient-rich ingredients, such as spinach, kale, bananas, blueberries, avocado, oats, yogurt, cinnamon, seeds, or nuts. 

Remember that supplements are just that — supplements. You should also get plenty of protein from other elements of your diet, including meat, poultry, and fish, as well as plant proteins like legumes, quinoa, and soy.

Is It Worth Buying Organic Whey Protein Powder?

Although organic and conventional whey protein both contain the same levels of protein, carbs, and fats, organic whey protein costs more. There are good reasons for this, including differences in purity and nutritional value. 

So, is it worth it? You decide.