What’s the Story on Whey Protein?

The popularity of whey protein supplementation has exploded in the last several years.  Go online and you can read 245,000 different opinions from self-styled experts on which whey protein is best to use.  Better yet, you’ve got a multitude of companies that claim their whey is the best because it’s got special nutritional additives, or the cows that produce the milk have golden horns.  Well, folks, I’ve done the hard work for you.  No, I have not consulted a shaman or rolled the bones, but I have brought the science, and with it comes the truth about what whey protein is, how it works, and who should use it!

Back in the day, when someone talked about drinking protein it was probably the “muscle head” at the local gym.  Now, it seems like everyone is using some form of powdered protein.  It’s been reported that the country of China is now buying the majority of whey protein in production.  This increased demand has put upward pressure on prices as suppliers struggle to meet production goals.  There are very simple reasons people like drinking whey protein-It’s incredibly good for you and has a wide range of health benefits.

Milk has two protein fractions-casein (80%) and whey (20%).  Whey is a complete protein with all essential amino acids and a high digestibility-corrected amino acid score.  Whey increases protein synthesis faster and is, therefore, the preferred form for exercise performance and enhancement, and post-exercise repair.  Whey protein is produced in essentially three forms-concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate.  Sometimes manufacturers will use descriptions like micro-filtered, ion-exchange, premium ultra-filtered, and cross-flow microfiltration.  Don’t pay any attention to these, they’re just different descriptions of the same process.  Companies love to confuse us!  Generally, if you see one of these descriptions the product has been processed correctly for the type of whey you are using.  Let’s look at the different forms of whey and why you would want to use that form over another.

Whey Concentrate:

Concentrates have a lower level of fat and cholesterol but, in general, have higher levels of bioactive (non-protein) compounds, and carbohydrates in the form of lactose.  A quality whey concentrate is 80% protein.  Beware, most inexpensive whey concentrates or blends can contain only 30-50% protein.  There are many different grades of concentrates on the market and many companies use the cheapest 30% concentrate and make you think you’re getting a quality product.  Whey concentrate takes longer to digest, so it’s a good choice if you are using whey to lose weight or want a steady supply of amino acids throughout the day.  Remember, whey concentrate is higher in calories and carbohydrates and lower in protein per serving than whey isolate.  Also, concentrate is the most economical protein on the market.

Whey Isolate:

This is the “gold standard” of whey.  If protein intake is your end goal, then whey isolate is your spirit animal!  A good isolate is 92% protein, meaning you get more protein per equivalent dose.  Do you want to know how much actual protein is in your whey product?  Divide the grams of protein by the serving size.  It may frustrate some of you to find out that you’re really not getting a lot of protein in that expensive whey supplement.  Whey isolate is easily digested and the amino acids assimilate efficiently, making it the best choice for post-workout recovery (always drink your protein within 30 minutes after a workout).  Isolates are also the preferred choice for medical applications like post-operative nutrition in bariatric surgery patients, wasting disease (cachexia), immune dysfunction, and failure to thrive illnesses.  Whey isolate has the highest level of  immune-supportive immunoglobulins.  Whey isolate has a naturally higher level of BCAA’s than whey concentrate and usually mixes better in a shaker cup.  Whey isolate is lower in calories and is usually 99% lactose-free.

Whey Hydrolysate:

Hydrolysates are whey proteins that are partially hydrolyzed for easier metabolizing.  The proteins have been exposed to heat, acid, or enzymes that break apart the bonds linking amino acids.  Hydrolysates can taste bitter, but they absorb more rapidly than concentrates or isolates (the difference is slightly better than isolate).  Also, they may be better for people with dairy sensitivities.  A whey hydrolysate product is really a hydrolyzed isolate that is 60% or more protein per serving with all the benefits of a whey isolate.  It could be argued that whey hydrolysate is an improved form of whey isolate.  Whey hydrolysate is the most expensive form of whey protein.

Regardless of which whey protein you use they all share some common health-promoting properties.  Muscle synthesis is modulated by extracellular amino acid concentration, not intracellular, thus dietary ingestion of amino acids is critical for muscle building (anabolism).  The science is conclusive-supplemental protein promotes muscle strength, function, and size!  If you’re an athlete and looking to increase human growth hormone naturally, try taking one scoop of whey protein (20-25 grams) before going to sleep.  Studies have shown a 400% or more increase in hGH while you sleep. Whey has antioxidant, antihypertensive, antitumor, hypolipidemic, antiviral, and antibacterial properties, and whey protein may be helpful in blood sugar control.  Whey has been tested as a treatment or supportive agent for cancer, HIV, hepatitis B, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis. It may also be helpful in immune function disorders.

So how much whey protein should you take?  If you are an athlete or highly active person attempting to lose body fat while preserving lean muscle mass, a daily intake of 1.5-2.2g/kg body weight is recommended.  If you are sedentary and/or using whey for a medical issue, a daily target of 0.8g/kg body weight is good.

Confused about which protein to use? Consider these two evaluations: What do you want to use the protein for and how much protein per serving do you want? It’s very specific to your particular goals.  If you’re using protein in a recovery drink, be aware the percentage of protein may be lower because of added carbohydrates.


Michael Chase, MS, NTP

Nutrition Science and Dietetics

DISCLAIMER: The information provided in this post is for educational purposes only, and should not be construed as personal medical advice or instruction. No action should be taken based solely on the contents of this information. Individuals should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being. The statements made in this informational document have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Any product discussed is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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