It continues to baffle me that many people appear to be confused about whey protein despite my significant contribution to the supplement’s rise to prominence. Why do so many people get whey wrong? Whey is a complex protein, and I can only infer that this confusion is due in part to dishonest marketing on the part of some unscrupulous supplement companies and poorly researched papers published by self-proclaimed “guru” types. This paper attempts to set the record straight, dispel the fog of mystery and falsehoods, and shatter the hyperbole surrounding this wildly popular dietary supplement.
When you’re done reading this article, you’ll have a firm grasp on the distinctions between various types of whey, such as concentrates and isolates, micro-filtered and ion-exchange whey, and the numerous other questions about whey that persist despite the best efforts of sage authors like myself to dispel the many myths and misinformation/disinformation that circulate about it. If whey ever comes up as a topic of conversation at your next barbecue (in which case you go to some dull cookouts! ), you will be the whey guru of the gym and will impress your pals.
To start, what is whey?
Protein, lactose, fat, and minerals are all components of whey, which makes it a complex ingredient. Beta-lactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin, immunoglobulins (IgGs), glycomacropeptides, bovine serum albumin (BSA), and minor peptides such lactoperoxidases, lysozyme, and lactoferrin are all protein subfractions found in whey. Different whey subfractions have other biological effects.
Large-scale separation of these fractions had been impracticable or too expensive for practical use until recently. Recent advances in filtration technology have enabled businesses to isolate lactoferrin and lactoperoxidase, two extremely bioactive peptides in whey.
Some of these subfractions are typically found in cow’s milk at concentrations of less than 1%. Whey protein from cows has just about 0.5% lactoferrin (whereas human milk protein contains up to 15% lactoferrin) while being one of the most promising subfractions for preventing numerous diseases, increasing immunity, and general health. Whey protein powders have dramatically transformed from low-protein concentrates to extremely high-protein isolates over the past few decades.
What makes whey so unique?
Whey protein is an excellent protein with a wide range of benefits, which is why it has become a standard supplement for many athletes and bodybuilders. Whey has recently gained popularity among those concerned with slowing the aging process.
Increasing evidence suggests they may have health benefits beyond their traditional use as a sports and nutrition supplement, including lowering the risk of cancer, fighting HIV, boosting immunity, lowering stress and cortisol, raising serotonin levels in the brain, easing the symptoms of certain types of hepatitis, lowering blood pressure, and enhancing performance. Whey contains an extremely high concentration of BCAAs and a very high biological value rating.
Whey appears to increase glutathione (GSH), one of its primary benefits. GSH’s significance in maintaining a healthy immune system is immense. The glutathione sulfate (GSH) in your body is one of the most vital water-soluble antioxidants.
Lymphocyte (an essential immune arm) reaction to a challenge is inversely proportional to intracellular GSH concentration, suggesting intracellular GSH levels can be used to regulate immunological function. L-cysteine, L-glutamine, and glycine are the three amino acids that combine to form GSH. While there are other factors in how whey affects GSH production, cysteine is the most important of the three since it provides the bulk of the free sulfhydryl group necessary for its formation.
Whey is a valuable addition to anyone’s diet since glutathione (GSH) is vital for immunity, oxidative stress, and overall health, and low GSH levels are linked to numerous illnesses. Whey may help prevent or lessen the effects of overtraining syndrome (OTS) in athletes, as reduced GSH is also related to this condition. While the study on the results of whey on athletic performance and muscle mass is still in its infancy, recent studies have shown promise. Some research has linked oxidative stress to muscle exhaustion; if you can keep your GSH levels up, you might be able to train for longer and harder.
Protein isolates from whey
The many whey products (isolates, concentrates, ion exchange, and so on) appear to be the primary source of whey-related confusion. In the following parts, I’ll do my best to explain everything clearly.
Concentrated Whey Protein:
Early whey protein powders had large lactose, fat, and undenatured proteins and only 30% to 40% protein. Whey concentrates are widely utilized in the food sector, particularly in baking. There is less lactose and as much as 70-80% protein in today’s concentrates. The removal of lactose during processing with ultra-filtration allows for a greater concentration of protein and fat in the final product. A well-made concentrate is still a high-quality source of whey protein, despite containing more lactose, ash, and fat than an isolate, which has been the target of considerable criticism from corporations that have invested extensively in marketing isolates.
Isolates: what they are and what they aren’t suitable for, plus the microfiltration vs. ion exchange discussion
Whey Protein Isolates (WPIs) protein content is typically 90-96%. Scientific investigation has revealed that only natively confirmed (i.e., undenatured) whey proteins possess biological activity. Whey protein undergoes careful processing to remove lactose, lipids, etc., without compromising physical activity. For the protein to exert its anti-cancer and immune-modulating effects, its native undenatured condition must be preserved. If you don’t want to “denature” the protein, process it at moderate temperatures and with mild acids. WPIs have a protein concentration 90%+ with 1% lactose and 1% fat.
Compared to concentrates, a high-quality WPI offers more protein and less fat, lactose, and ash per gram. It should now be evident to the reader that there is much more to whey than its protein level, and protein content alone is not essential when choosing a whey. Ion exchange isolate, for instance, appears to have the most proteins.
Is it then the most excellent option when looking to isolate? Even though it isn’t, numerous businesses continue to promote it as the pinnacle of whey. Ion exchange is achieved by passing a concentrate through an ion exchange column to produce an “ion exchange whey isolate.” While this process may sound sophisticated, it has some significant downsides. Whey protein, as explained, is a complex protein with various sub-fraction peptides that contribute to health and immunity in their unique ways. Some of these fractions are so minute that they never appear in nature. In reality, the subfractions set whey apart as a protein unlike any other.
By its very nature, Ion exchange preferentially removes the most valuable and health-promoting components. However, despite an overall rise in protein concentration, many of the most vital subfractions are lost or severely diminished. Even though many firms still use ion exchange isolates as their isolate source because of the increased protein content, they are not a good alternative for an actual third-generation whey protein supplement. Beta-lactoglobulin, the least exciting and most allergenic subfraction of whey, can make up as much as 70% of ion exchange isolates. In contrast, the more biologically active and intriguing subfractions are removed. The benefits of ion exchange whey are straightforward for individuals who care only about the protein amount per gram, but this comes at the expense of several whey-specific subfractions. Considering that the differences between a microfiltered type isolate and an ion exchange isolate are negligible, I do not think this is a fair trade.
This leads us neatly to discuss whey isolates that have been microfiltered. Whey protein isolates (WPIs) and their constituent subfractions can be extracted using a wide variety of modern processing techniques, including Cross Flow Microfiltration (CFM®), ultrafiltration (UF), microfiltration (MF), reverse osmosis (RO), dynamic membrane filtration (DMF), ion exchange chromatography (IEC), electro-ultrafiltration (EU), radial flow chromatography (RFC), and nanofiltration (NF).
CFM®* is perhaps the micro-filtered isolate that readers are most familiar with. The CFM® processing method utilizes a low-temperature micro filtration technique that enables the production of very high protein contents (>90%), the retention of essential subfractions, and low fat and lactose contents, with virtually no undenatured proteins. However, “cross-flow micro-filtered” is a generic term for several similar ways of processing whey. In contrast to ion exchange, which uses chemical reagents like hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide, CFM® is a natural, non-chemical process that uses high-tech ceramic filters. The calcium and salt levels in CFM® whey isolate are exceptionally high and low, respectively.
In conclusion, let us consider the following:
The benefits of ion exchange isolates include the highest protein content (gram for gram), the lowest fat content (gram for gram), and the lowest lactose content (gram for gram). The loss of vital subfractions in favor of increased levels of Beta-Lac is a drawback that, in my opinion, outweighs the benefits.
High protein content (90 percent or more), low lactose and fat levels, deficient levels of undenatured proteins, and the retention of critical subfractions in their natural ratios are benefits of well-made micro-filtered isolates. There aren’t any significant drawbacks unless you count the possibility that someone could prefer the optional extra compounds we’ll discuss below.
There’s a pesky trademark icon next to every instance of “CFM” in this article because “CFM” is a trademark of Glanbia Nutritionals, a multinational dairy firm headquartered in Ireland with manufacturing in the United States.
Whey’s Next Steps/Prospects
Creating and refining the next generation of whey proteins can go in several exciting directions.
Protein from the bioactive whey fraction
Bioactive Whey Fraction (BAWF) protein, a new generation of whey products, will soon be available on the market and may benefit athletes. These novel BAWF proteins have large protein concentrations (>70%) and significantly higher concentrations of bioactive chemicals that are beneficial to health. Both whey isolates and concentrates lack the quantities of components found in this cutting-edge product. Total growth factor levels, including IGF-1, TGF-ß1, and TGF-ß2, are much more significant in BAWF protein. Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), phosphotidyl-serine, phosphatidyl-choline, sphingomyelin, immunoglobulins, and lactoferrin are all in significantly higher concentrations.
Despite a lack of evidence, research will likely be conducted to illustrate the effects of BAWF protein on athletes’ muscle mass or performance. A recent study does support the idea that these substances have a variety of impacts that may be useful for everyone, from elite athletes to couch potatoes. The BAWF protein has significantly lower concentrations of these chemicals than industry-standard concentrates and isolates. Specifically, a BAWF protein has 350% more lactoferrin, 400% more CLA, 200% more PS and PC, and 150% more IGF than a regular concentrate (such as WPC 80). Isolates only include minute levels of PS, PC, and CLA. Hence they differ even more drastically from BAWF protein.
Ratios of subfractions optimized
Some of the processing above methods have allowed for the large-scale isolation of specific bioactive subfraction proteins from whey proteins, such as lactoferrin and Glycomacro peptide. This was not conceivable on a wide scale until recently, when certain corporations started using sophisticated filtering methods. The capacity to restore certain subfractions in quantities not found in nature paves the way for a protein supplement that is truly customized to the individual. Consider the subunit lactoferrin, for instance. Due to the processing methods, it is often absent from many whey products. Less than one percent, and more like half a percent of lactoferrin, is found in the best whey products. To create a “designer” protein, certain businesses can now incorporate a specific subfraction. One firm is also working on an isolate that contains more healthful beta-lactalbumin subfractions and fewer allergic alpha-lactalbumin subfractions. If mass-produced, “high alpha-lac” whey isolates might be an improvement above the currently available products.
The reappearance of hydrolyzed proteins
As most people would recall, hydrolyzed proteins were all the rage a few years ago before seeing a steep decline in popularity. The term “hydrolyzed” refers to a protein that has been partly hydrolyzed into peptides of varying lengths. Some persons, such as those with compromised metabolisms (such as burn patients, gastrointestinal illnesses, or premature newborns), may benefit from the increased rate at which the partially digested protein is taken into the body. Hydrolyzed proteins may help athletes, but it hasn’t been demonstrated.
One rat study indicated that hydrolyzed protein improved nitrogen retention in fasted rats compared to whole protein, and this result was the primary source for the widespread interest in hydrolyzed proteins. Whey peptide-based diets have improved nitrogen retention and utilization in humans with cancer and Crohn’s disease. However, no one has yet to confirm these findings in a human investigation using healthy athletes.
Hydrolyzed protein supplements never caught on because they stunk, were too pricey, and there wasn’t enough evidence to back up their use. The protein was severely denatured in the production process used at the time. Hydrolyzing whey protein with an enzymatic technique, as practiced by one manufacturer, results in a product that tastes fine and does not denature the protein. It also seems to have a reasonable price tag. It’s possible that bodybuilders and other athletes could benefit from using Hydrolyzed whey, though the evidence on this is scant.
Minerals in your milk?
A method of collecting milk minerals could also be of help to bodybuilders and other sports. This produces a highly bioavailable form of calcium without the fat and lactose of dairy products, and it also includes other minerals and nutrients like magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc, all of which are essential for proper bone building and metabolism. Recent studies have shown a correlation between calcium and health benefits, including decreased blood pressure.
However, a growing body of research has indicated that increasing calcium intake leads to decreased body fat levels and may assist in shifting the metabolism to enhanced lipolysis (fat breakdown) and decreased lipogenesis (fat production), particularly relevant to bodybuilders and other sports. Even though bodybuilders rarely experience bone density problems, many may not be obtaining enough calcium to notice improvements in their body composition. When combined with different protein formulae, this novel milk mineral product may be the anabolic panacea that athletes have prayed for to reduce body fat and increase muscle mass.
All right, there it is. If you’ve been confused by whey like most others, I hope this article helps you make an informed decision the next time you buy a can. Don’t believe all the hoopla. You won’t “add mounds of muscle in an ultra short time” by eating more whey, even though whey is an excellent food supplement. Some of the more recent advances I described above will likely make their way into the next generation of whey-based formulas, so I recommend that consumers keep a watch out for these.
Biography of the Author
Will Brink has been widely published as an authority in dietary supplements, physical fitness, and weight loss. Will received his degree from Harvard University with a focus on the scientific disciplines.
Let’s Live, Muscle Media, MuscleMag International, The Life Extension Magazine, Muscle n’ Fitness, Exercise For Men Only, and many others have published his often-groundbreaking pieces.
Several of his articles on sports nutrition and health have been published in scholarly publications, and he has also had commentary on this topic appear in JAMA. Will has a background in coaching elite athletes at the Olympic level and now leads seminars for the Special Weapons and Tactics Unit.
His books, Bodybuilding Revealed and Fat Loss Revealed, explain how to build muscle without using steroids and lose fat without harming your health.
To learn more, visit.