Whey Protein Review: Is It the Best Protein?

Whey Protein Review: Is It the Best Protein?

What’s the deal with whey protein?

My degrees are in Food Science; and when I was in graduate school, my research focus was on dairy foods. Thus, I couldn’t help knowing all about the “whey problem.” Whey was the unwanted, bastard child of the cheese industry, and they couldn’t get rid of the stuff fast enough. It was a major waste disposal issue.

How times have changed…

Even then, it was recognized that whey was a source of high-quality protein, but the technology didn’t exist to create commercially-viable products suitable for human nutrition. Thanks to modern, large scale purification methods, however, whey protein is big business.

whey protein shake

Whey protein… is it the best protein source?

What is “Whey Protein”?

Whey is the watery liquid left after the primary milk protein, casein, is removed. Whey contains most of the minerals/electrolytes, lactose (milk sugar) and an array of minor proteins. Although it represents only ~ 20% of the total milk protein, whey protein is highly nutritious and biologically active. The major whey protein fractions are:

  • Beta-lactoglobulin (approx. 50%)
  • Alpha-lactalbumin (approx. 25%)
  • Bovine Serum Albumin
  • Immunoglobulins (antibodies): IgG1, IgG2, IgA, IgM
  • Glycomacropeptide
  • Lactoferrin
  • Lactoperoxidase
  • Lysozyme
  • Beta2-microglobulin

Compared to other food proteins, whey tops the chart. Its biological value is even higher than egg, the “perfect” reference protein (104 vs. 100). Whey protein is a rich source of essential amino acids, including the critical branched chain amino acid, leucine.

Health and Therapeutic Applications of Whey Protein

Whey protein also has a (growing) number of health and therapeutic applications. These include:

In addition, specialized whey protein derivatives have been used experimentally to treat gastrointestinal infections, high blood pressure and psoriasis.

And—if that’s not enough—whey is a “fast” protein with a high insulin index. These properties make it useful for pre-/during and post-workout support. The rapid appearance of amino acids in the bloodstream triggers muscle protein synthesis and the release of insulin, which—in turn—facilitates post-workout recovery and anabolism.

Whey protein looks like fantastic stuff, for sure. Nonetheless, there are a few things to consider before you open your wallet.

Things to Keep in Mind

Not all whey protein supplements are alike. The method of purification can be important, if you’re interested in getting the full spectrum of whey proteins…and potential health benefits.

There are two primary processes for purifying whey proteins: ion-exchange and ultrafiltration. These are very different techniques that yield somewhat different results.

The Ion-Exchange Purification Process

The ion-exchange process separates proteins by charge. It involves adjusting the pH of a solution, so the proteins of interest have a net positive or negative charge.

When the solution is passed over an oppositely charged matrix, these proteins “stick,” while the other components pass through. The “stuck” proteins can then be removed simply by changing the conditions and washing them out.

There are pluses and minuses to this technique. On the one hand, it can produce a highly purified protein that is virtually carb and fat-free. On the other, critics charge that it selects for the major—and less interesting—proteins like beta-lactoglobulin, and depletes the lesser, more bioactive fractions.

The Ultrafiltration Purification Process

This is why the best quality whey protein supplements are made using the second process: ultrafiltration. Semi-permeable membranes are used, that permit water and very small molecules (such as electrolytes and sugars) through, but retain larger ones. This technique is perfect for producing a supplement with the full range of whey proteins. “Microfiltration” and “cross-flow microfiltration” are variations on the same theme.

Whey protein powders also differ in their protein percentages.

Many commercial supplements are based on whey protein concentrates, which typically average 75%–85% protein and contain some residual carbs (from lactose) and fat. These are less expensive than isolates, which contain > 90% protein, but may also be less suitable for people who are lactose-intolerant, or are on tightly carb-restricted diets.

Isolates Not Necessarily Better

Higher purity doesn’t make isolates automatically “better” than concentrates, though. Some products contain more additives than others, which can significantly reduce the amount of protein you get per serving—even if a highly purified isolate is the primary ingredient. It’s important to read labels (both nutrition AND ingredient labels) to make sure you’re not paying “protein dollars” for inexpensive fillers.

There’s no such thing as a “perfect” protein.

To hear some people tell it, whey is the be-all and end-all of protein supplements. Not so: there are some drawbacks to it, too. Remember that fast digestion/absorption rate? The rapid rise in plasma amino acids may stimulate protein synthesis, but it also accelerates the rate of amino acid breakdown and production of urea.

Unlike slower-digesting proteins, which gradually release amino acids into the bloodstream, the “peak” from whey protein rises and falls quickly, perhaps too quickly for optimal effects. S

ome authors have proposed that whey-casein blends offer the best of both worlds, and research comparing total milk protein (a natural whey-casein blend) to whey seems to bear this out.

So should I only use whey-casein blends?

Not necessarily.

Personally, I don’t see a problem with 100% whey protein supplements—after all, they’re going to be used within the context of a mixed diet with other (food) sources of protein, not in a lab under fasted conditions. But it does mean that fixating on whey as the perfect protein is short-sighted: it’s just not enough.

I’ve known some people who practically lived off whey protein shakes…and then wondered why they weren’t making any gains. Don’t go there.

The Bottom Line

Obsessing over finding the “best” brand isn’t worth it. To be blunt, there are a TON of good products on the market, and the hunt for the “bestest of the best” invariably leads to “paralysis by analysis.”

Is a “Cold Cross-Flow Ultra Filtered And Advanced Micro Filtered Whey Protein Isolate” better than a supplement containing “High Growth Factor Ultra-Filtered Whey Protein Rich In Lactoferrins And Immunoglobulins”??? Who knows?

More importantly, who cares? It’s just not worth all the stress, when there’s real work to be done in the gym (and the kitchen)! Pick something and move on. In the end, which whey protein you use isn’t going to make or break your gains in the gym: “good enough” is good enough.

And that’s just the whey it is… 😉

Summary of Whey Protein
  • Quickly digested.
  • Contains biologically-active proteins/peptides.
  • Useful for pre-/post workout nutrition.
  • High biological value.
  • Could improve health and body composition.
  • Not the “perfect” protein.
  • Shouldn’t be over-used – should not be prioritized over whole food proteins.
  • Should be avoided by people with dairy allergies.
  • Lactose-intolerant people may have problems with many products.

Author: elissa

Elissa is a former research associate with the University of California at Davis, and the author/co-author of over a dozen articles published in scientific journals. Currently a freelance writer and researcher, Elissa brings her multidisciplinary education and training to her writing on nutrition and supplements.

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