Whey protein is one of the most widely used supplements. It’s cheap, easy to find, and effective in increasing strength, muscle mass, and performance. In this article, we’ll look at various sources to answer the question: is whey protein safe to consume.
TL;DR Whey protein is safe for the vast majority of people. The FDA accepts whey protein as a safe food based on both evidence and its ubiquitous use. The evidence does not suggest whey protein decreases bone mass or leads to kidney issues, at least in healthy populations.
Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS)
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for ensuring the nation’s food supply¹. Under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, foods and food additives are subject to FDA approval unless the food is generally recognized as safe (GRAS). Foods can be classified as GRAS either through experience (if a food has been around since before 1958, has been popular, and has not been associated with any adverse conditions) or scientific procedures (the use of studies, data, and conclusions)².
Whey protein is considered generally recognized as safe. This characterization means that the FDA has determined whey protein does not cause harm when used as intended.
Research on Whey Protein Safety
Older Adults. There used to be a concern that higher protein consumption led to decreased bone mass. A 2015 study looked at the effects of whey protein supplementation in the older population. The results did not show any differences in bone density between the protein and placebo groups³.
New Army Recruits. A 2020 study also looked at whey protein’s effects on bone mass. This study used a younger population: civilians entering the Army. Transforming civilians into soldiers takes 9–16 weeks and results in many musculoskeletal injuries. Calcium and Vitamin D are important in maintaining bone health; whey protein did not affect levels of either. The researchers of this study concluded that whey protein supplements did not adversely affect bone health⁴.
Obese & Overweight Adults. This study also looked at whey protein’s effects on bone health. This study used 113 overweight or obese adults. This study’s results were similar to the previous ones: whey protein supplementation did not negatively or positively affect changes in bone mass⁵.
Another area of interest is whether high protein diets cause kidney issues. Unfortunately, there is not much research on how specific protein types (whey, casein) impact kidney health. There is, however, evidence on how high protein diets affect overall health. In a study of 20 athletes on high protein diets, researchers concluded a protein intake of up to 1.27 grams of protein per pound of body weight (approximately 200 grams of protein per day) does not cause harmful effects to the kidneys⁶. There is also some evidence that high protein diets can increase kidney disease risk, especially in individuals with pre-existing conditions⁷.
The Bottom Line — Is whey protein safe?
Whey protein is safe for the vast majority of people. The FDA accepts whey protein as a safe food based on both evidence and its ubiquitous use. The evidence does not suggest whey protein decreases bone mass or leads to kidney issues, at least in healthy populations.
- FDA. What We Do. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/about-fda/what-we-do
- FDA. Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/food/food-ingredients-packaging/generally-recognized-safe-gras
- Kerstetter, J. E., Bihuniak, J. D., Brindisi, J., Sullivan, R. R., Mangano, K. M., Larocque, S., Insogna, K. L. (2015). The Effect of a Whey Protein Supplement on Bone Mass in Older Caucasian Adults. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 100(6), 2214–2222. doi:10.1210/jc.2014–3792
- Sefton, J. M., Lyons, K. D., Beck, D. T., Haun, C. T., Romero, M. A., Mumford, P. W., Mcadam, J. S. (2020). Markers of Bone Health and Impact of Whey Protein Supplementation in Army Initial Entry Training Soldiers: A Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Study. Nutrients, 12(8), 2225. doi:10.3390/nu12082225
- Wright, C. S., Mcmorrow, A. M., Weinheimer-Haus, E. M., Campbell, W. W. (2016). Whey Protein Supplementation and Higher Total Protein Intake Do Not Influence Bone Quantity in Overweight and Obese Adults Following a 36-Week Exercise and Diet Intervention. The Journal of Nutrition, 147(2), 179–186. doi:10.3945/jn.116.240473
- Poortmans, J. R., & Dellalieux, O. (2000). Do Regular High Protein Diets Have Potential Health Risks on Kidney Function in Athletes? International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 10(1), 28–38. doi:10.1123/ijsnem.10.1.28
- Schwingshackl, L., & Hoffmann, G. (2014). Comparison of High vs. Normal/Low Protein Diets on Renal Function in Subjects without Chronic Kidney Disease: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. PLoS ONE, 9(5). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0097656
Originally published at https://supplementdatabase.com on January 10, 2021.