Last Updated: 19th September, 2017
If you are using nutritional supplementation at all, chances are you are either using or contemplating the use of whey protein. With the possible exception of creatine monohydrate, no other supplement has generated more positive press in the past five years than whey protein powder. The reasons are easily understandable; whey protein is a bona fide nutritional breakthrough and certain types are actually more potent than egg whites, long considered the gold standard for measuring protein assimilation and potency.
This article offers an in-depth look at the science behind whey protein. As we all know, raising awareness of good nutrition is an important preventative measure we can take against cancer; a disease that kills over half a million Americans each year.
Whey is the first product of its kind that actually exceeds the potency of egg whites. The bad news is that there are different types of whey and not all whey proteins are created equal. As an educated consumer you need to know the differences and be able to discern top drawer whey from cheap, ineffective imitators.
I receive dozens of inquiries each month regarding whey protein and, let’s face it, anyone who has attempted to make sense of the various whey products by reading labels has ended up confused and bewildered. Trying to decipher the difference between a $20 product and a $40 product will leave anyone with less than a degree in chemistry and nutritional science shaking his or her head as the choices are literally mind-boggling. Allow me to provide you with a crash course in terminology that can go a long way in clearing up the confusion.
Rest assured of one thing: whey works. Every serious progressive resistance devotee needs supplemental protein and whey is the Rolls Royce of protein supplementation. Once you arrive at a brand that works, try consuming a whey shake at the conclusion of every intense weight workout. You’ll be supplying traumatized muscle tissue with exactly the amino acid profile needed to speed recovery and accelerate the repair and rebuilding process.
WHEY PROTEIN: Whey is the waste product that occurs in the manufacture of cheese and, while loaded with high biologic value protein, it is also loaded with lactose. Removing lactose from whey requires heat. Filtration is one popular method and handled correctly can result in all but 15% of the lactose being successfully removed from the whey. The ion-exchange process is more expensive and can result in a final product that has all but 5% of the lactose removed.
Whey protein can also be derived from lactalbumin and, while more reasonably priced, is less potent than the filtrated or ion-exchange whey. Be sure and read labels and ask questions when purchasing a whey protein. While ion-exchange is the most potent, it is costly; filtration ranks second and lactalbumin whey, while the least expensive, is third in terms of potency. Properly made, whey is the most potent protein powder and the supplement of choice among the elite.
When it comes to assessing value, there are two issues of consequence…
1. How pure is the final product? Is it 80% pure? 90% pure? Whey protein contains impurities such as lactose milk sugar and ash. Whey protein filtration concentrates average around 80% purity while ion-exchange isolates may reach purity levels that are 90% or better. Consequently, filtrated whey protein and whey derived from lactalbumin are cheaper than ion-exchanged isolates.
2. To what extent have whey protein’s vital sub-fractions been compromised? Whey protein contains biologically active peptides, which have weight loss and muscle-building properties. These vital peptides are present in miniscule amounts in pre-processed form and, unfortunately, are filtered out of the final product or damaged (denatured) by a high heat or acidic filtering process. A denatured protein no longer displays any biological activity. What does this mean to the consumer? Even though ion-exchange whey protein is considerably more expensive, the process preserves peptides.
Concentrate whey protein averages around 80% in purity. Whey protein concentrates have undergone the ultra-filtration process and tend to be the least processed of whey proteins. There are certain advantages to using a whey protein concentrate. They are relatively cheap (always a bonus!) and, because they are relatively “unprocessed,” tend to have most of their vital sub-fractions intact. On the other hand, they contain a higher amount of impurities and can cause bloating and gas. If you are lactose-intolerant, you’ll definitely want to stay away from a whey protein concentrate. For those who need a reasonably priced whey protein, concentrates are a good choice.
Ion-exchange whey protein isolates contain the smallest percentage of impurities of any whey protein on the market today. That’s the good news. The bad news is even this product is not perfect. Ion-exchange whey protein isolates tend to contain almost none of the vital peptides – lactoferrin, alpha lactalbumin, immunoglobin, beta lactoglobin. These peptides contained in raw whey protein have amazing health properties. Though ion-exchange whey contains fewer impurities than a whey concentrate, it is lacking in biologically-active peptides present in the lesser-processed whey concentrate.
Micro/nano-filtration whey proteins are slightly higher in purity than ion-exchange isolates and leagues ahead of whey protein concentrates in terms of purity: 90% to 94%. These are cold-processed, cross-flow and probably the finest (and therefore the most expensive) whey protein on the market today. Special efforts are taken to ensure that the vital sub-fractions remain intact and biologically active peptides remain present. The protein is processed using low heat and the moderate temperature eliminates acidic chemical conditions that damage and dilute protein potency. These expensive filtration techniques are specifically designed to remove impurities without filtering out the vital sub-fractions. What you’re left with is a whey protein that contains little in the way of impurities and offers the additional health benefits of a fully intact whey protein. This process ensures a higher percentage of critical branch-chain amino acids.
Hydrolyzed whey protein is the most expensive of all. Extremely pure whey protein created from the micro/nano-filtration process is run through a hydrolysis process to break the protein down into much smaller groups of amino acids, or peptides. The benefit of hydrolyzed protein is that it is assimilated at an incredibly accelerated rate and, as a direct result, a far greater amount of protein is assimilated. On the downside, hydrolyzed whey protein is denatured and possesses no biological activity. Hydrolyzed proteins are often described as predigested. Though potent, the cost is prohibitive and the taste is extremely bitter.
To make matters more confusing, most whey proteins tend to be a blend of several different types of filtered whey. For example, a cheap concentrate might be mixed with a small amount of isolate or ion-exchanged isolate whey. Is this the best or worst of both worlds? The benefit to the consumer is lower cost. Once you decide on a budget, purchase a product and put the products to the test. I measure my clients’ body composition frequently using skin-fold caliper and have them keep a food journal. If they are hitting everything exactly the way they should and things are not moving, this indicates the supplements they are using are ineffectual. I don’t like to say anyone’s product isn’t good, but if by switching brands they begin to make progress then I draw the logical conclusions.
I am not an ‘expert’ in this field. I know the basic terminology and generally what to look for – just as you should. I wouldn’t want to debate someone regarding all the scientific facts and figures surrounding supplements.
But I am an expert when it comes to testing clients’ results. I train a lot of fitness and figure competitors. Their body fat is so low that I can immediately assess what’s working and what’s not. I therefore recommend the same quality products used by competitors for my basic getting-into-shape clients. Why would I recommend inferior products to them?
I have a new client who just started training with me. She is a figure competitor who has been struggling to come in to a show in her best condition. In addition to her regular diet, I upped her protein from one protein shake per day (33 grams of whey protein) to three shakes per day (99 grams of protein). The protein shakes didn’t replace a single bite of food; it supplemented what she was already eating. She complained of severe bloating and gas and I immediately replaced the protein drinks with an equal amount of protein food. I recommended that she go back to using the protein drinks but had her switch brands and use a higher quality product.
In hindsight she was not used to dairy and probably developed a bit of lactose intolerance. Once we settled on a low-lactose, ion-exchange whey protein she was able to go back to three shakes per day. The 100 additional grams of protein made all the difference; her body fat dropped from 13% to 9% in four weeks. In addition, she added five pounds of muscle and won her competition easily. Two of the judges sought her out after the competition and complimented her on her remarkable improvement. Some of her competitors accused her of taking anabolic steroids. One irate competitor said, “You can’t make that amount of improvement in four months.” My girl blew her off, “Actually I made the improvement in four weeks!” If you are looking for a way for you or your clients to bust through to next level of physical improvement, consider supplementing with whey.
NUTRITIONAL MENTOR: I consider my nutritional mentor to be John Parrillo. I had been studying sports nutrition for over a decade before I met John and frankly felt I was quite knowledgeable on the entire subject of performance nutrition. Only after working extensively with John did I come to realize how little I really knew. He introduced me to levels of sophistication that I never knew existed.
I began working directly with John Parrillo in 1996 and began adopting and applying his philosophies and techniques into my own training. John is an odd amalgamation of old school practicality and cutting-edge technology. On the one hand, he holds onto some very old ideas that have been known and used for forty years. Yet, on the other hand, he is continually searching and researching new ideas, formulations and concoctions.
I underwent an amazing physical transformation and was able to replicate the same amazing results with my clients. I made dozens of trips to his facility and began taking ‘stuck’ clients and dubious trainers along with me. In each instance, he was able to devise a strategy that lifted the dubious out of whatever rut they found themselves in. He mentored me for many, many years and made himself available in person and by phone. He conducted several seminars for my clients and trainers and he never failed to dazzle the participants with his theoretical and practical knowledge.
ONE FINAL CAUTIONARY TALE: I think we need to make at least some passing reference to the fraud and the deception that is rampant in the supplement industry. One trick of the trade with regard to sport nutrition bars is the emergence of net carbs. By definition net carbs means without fiber, glycerin and sugar alcohols. Bars that once revealed only the net carbs in the nutritional information are now required to show all carbohydrates. Now it may read 22 grams with only 2 net carbs. The consumer is led to believe that only 2 of the 22 grams of carbohydrates are having an effect on blood sugar. The fact is that while sugar alcohols release more slowly they are still calories derived from carbohydrates. The other 20 didn’t go away, they are still carbohydrates. This a slight of hand trick so read labels, particularly if it is one of the now fashionable ‘low net carb’ products.
Then there is out and out false advertising. Here is a blatant example of false labeling taken from Muscle Media 2000 Watch Dog Report, June issue 2003 that brings the point home. The name of the actual product is deleted:
“’Think of it as a Snickers bar on steroids,’ reads the marketing literature for this triple layer bar which, ‘takes the same great tasting ingredients, caramel, crunchy roasted peanuts covered in rich chocolate and delivers a nutritional profile unmatched in protein bar history.’ To see if there was any truth to their claims of a nutritional profile unmatched in protein bar history, we sent Lot ________ to an independent nutritional testing firm. Results confirmed why this bar tastes so good; it is a candy bar! According to the label, the ________ bar contains 9 grams of fat, however, laboratory tests revealed 12.8 grams of fat, 144% more than what the label claimed. What’s more the _______ bar claimed 6 grams of sugar while lab tests revealed 18.8 grams of sugar! This is 313% more than label claims! The news doesn’t get any better for the other nutrients: the claim of 32 grams of protein per bar was in fact 23.8 grams of protein. Carbohydrates were supposed to be 21 grams and testing revealed 29 grams. Fiber was claimed to be 3 grams and testing showed 1.7 grams. Total calories were pegged at 209 while the lab test found 326 calories.”
Let the buyer beware!