What’s in Your Whey? What to Look For in a Quality Whey Protein.
Fact: whey protein intake is an essential part of the muscle-building process. Fact: unlike other macronutrients – which can be manipulated according to one’s training goals – whey protein intake must be kept consistent on a 24/7 basis.
A trainee would have as much success building muscle on a protein-poor diet as a novice fighter would have out-striking a seasoned MMA professional. It could only ever end in frustration or disaster (gradual muscle losses for the former and a cage-eye view of the rafters for the latter). It is also an established fact that not all proteins are created equal; that when building quality muscle, quality proteins are also needed.
Protein intake must be kept consistent
Protein builds more muscle than all other nutrients combined. And the current undisputed heavyweight champion of the proteins is whey. Whey has the highest Biological Value (BV: the extent to which a protein source is absorbed by the muscles), Net Protein Utilization (NPU: the ratio of amino acids converted to protein once ingested), and Protein Efficiency Ratio (PER: a protein’s effectiveness in increasing bodyweight) of all protein sources. What was once merely a discarded by-product of the cheese manufacturing process has been fuelling muscle growth ever since it began replacing traditional supplemental proteins such as egg and milk.
Whey protein’s benefits are numerous (link to rising cost of protein article here). Discovered by accident roughly 6000 years ago in Kujawy, Poland, it took a further several millennia before the health benefits of whey began being actively promoted. Calling it serum, Greek physician and founder of medicine Hippocrates prescribed whey to his patients in 330BC. Galen – a prominent Greek physician, surgeon and Roman Empire philosopher – was reported to have also used whey to good effect. Fast forward to the mid-1700s where in a remote Swiss mountain village called Gais, documented cases of people healed by whey – when traditional medicines would not work – began to emerge.
Indeed, even in its crudest form – with 18th Century technologies, whey had to be consumed within 10 hours before it began to degrade – whey delivered great things. With today’s sophisticated processing methods, whey has continued to evolve; its potency and healing properties have – not to overstate the case – made it a modern-day health elixir par-excellence.
… whey is rapidly absorbed and digested, with little wastage…
For starters, whey is rapidly absorbed and digested, with little wastage and a full array of anabolic benefits. Whey is also anti-catabolic (where other proteins may take time to ‘kick-in’, whey is taken straight to the muscles to replenish them during times of great demand – for example, during cardio – while activating muscle protein synthesis); is a complete protein with particularly high levels of L-Leucine (essential for regulating the mTOR pathway which, when activated, engages muscle protein synthesis when muscles are placed under stress and energy levels are low);3 is ultra-rich in the three Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs), leucine, isoleucine, and valine, preferentially used by the muscles to boost size and strength; increases immune function; 7 enhances insulin sensitivity. Simply put, without the regular consumption of whey, all of the above are likely to be compromised in those who routinely experience training-related stress.
What’s in Whey?
The whey derived from the processing of coagulated dairy products such as milk and cheese is not the whey to which flashy labels are attached and for which marketing strategies are formulated. The trusted packaged whey which nourishes depleted muscles is comprised of globular (globe-shaped) proteins, various protein subfractions, and tissue repair factors (IGF-1, TGF-B1, and TGF-B2) – all of which are filtered, isolated and extracted from liquid whey in its original state. These whey components are then dried and processed. The result: your mandatory post-workout protein powder.
Complex processing methods means today’s whey is tailor-made to ensure health and muscle-building benefits. Reputable supplement companies seek only the best quality whey. The quality of a given batch of whey differs from company to company. Even with increasingly more advanced filtration technologies, the quality of an end-stage whey product can fluctuate greatly, with higher quality products preserving more of the bioactive compounds found in whey.1 A quality product is one that provides whey dense in key protein subfractions, each of these providing distinct biologically-active properties.
A quality product is one that provides whey dense in key protein subfractions, each of these providing distinct biologically-active properties.
These subfractions include key health components such as lactoferrin and the immunoglobulins, glycomacropeptides, and beta-lactoglobulins, among others (see below). While the immunoglobulins are essential for immune system integrity, the glycomacropeptides enhance both immune system function, and digestion. Lactoferrin enhances iron status and has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties while the beta-lactoglobulins are high in the BCAAs and are crucial post-workout for muscle repair.
While the various types of whey protein contain most of the valuable components discussed above (to a greater or lesser degree), newer technologies enable superior products to have an optimal ratio of each. For example, while methods such as ion exchange – which purifies and concentrates whey to increase its potency, but, due to the chemical reagents used, also denatures certain subfractions and some aminos – may deplete vital whey components such as the immunoglobulins and glycomacropeptides, cross-flow microfiltration technologies aim to preserve them. More on this will follow, so keep reading!
As explained, whey is comprised of several specific peptide (or protein) fractions, each with a biologically distinct function. A superior whey product will have a desirable ratio of each subfraction. 6, 7
Protein Component and % Contained in Whey
Binds with fat soluble vitamins to increase their bioavailability; a superior source of branched-chain and essential aminos for muscle repair.
Has an ultra-high NPU, making it perfect for anabolic metabolism; also particularly high in the amino acid tryptophan, a direct precursor serotonin, a neurotransmitter critical to mental wellbeing and cognitive functioning.
Boost immune system functioning and enhance digestion. Increases the feeling of satiety (feeling full), boosts the immune system and enhances digestion.
Serum Albumin: 2%
Transports hormones and fatty acids around the body; helps to control blood pressure.
Lactoferrin/Lactoperoxidase: 0.2 – 0.5%
Is iron-binding and has antiviral, antifungal, antibacterial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immune system benefits. 6
Securing a quality whey product is one thing; knowing which specific product will match your individual goals is another. While some types of whey are cheaper and of a lesser quality, others are more expensive but may provide a superior return on investment. Bottom line: provided it is of a sufficiently high quality, all whey has merit. The four main types of whey are the concentrates; the isolates; ion exchange; and microfiltered isolates. Let’s take a closer look at each.
Whey Concentrates and Isolates
Whey protein, in its raw state, contains a substantial amount of fat and lactose (milk sugar). The first step to determining a particular type of whey is the degree to which raw whey is filtered and processed. Filtering and processing must be done with great care so as to ensure all of the beneficial aminos and subfractions are retained. Whether a whey product is isolate or concentrate, the manufacturing methods used may render it an inferior source of valuable whey components.
In essence, whey protein concentrate has less of the fat and lactose removed compared to isolate, giving it less protein on a per-serving, per-gram basis (typically, 60% to 80% protein ratio compared to 80% to 90% for whey protein isolate). However, this is not to say whey concentrate is an ineffective protein source. Far from it. Compared to the isolates a good concentrate is likely to contain more growth factors (IGF-1, TGF-B1, and TGF-B2) and additional health-enhancers, in particular the phospholipids, and bioactive lipids such as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).1
Concentrate may also offer more of the immunoglobulins, and lactoferrin.1 Whey concentrate is also cheaper to buy and can be used as a base when multiple protein shakes per day are consumed. In fact, most of the whey products on today’s market contain concentrate and there is no evidence to suggest that its anabolic benefits are inferior to those of isolate.
Whey protein concentrate has less of the fat and lactose removed compared to isolate
Whey isolate has more of the fat and lactose removed compared to whey concentrate. As a consequence, isolates include more protein per gram and are considered a purer protein source. Isolates are also perfect for people who must closely monitor fat calories and who may be intolerant to lactose. However, the more sophisticated refinement processes to which isolates are subjected are – when contrasted to concentrates – more likely to strip them of valuable components. Taking care not to denature the isolates becomes an even greater concern than when formulating whey concentrates. A reputable company will ensure all whey products have undergone a low temperature refinement process so as not to denature the final product.
To produce ion exchange whey the overall electrical charge on whey protein is manipulated by adjusting the pH balance of liquid whey concentrates. The charged whey is then passed through ion exchange columns of the opposite charge.4 The proteins are thus bound, fats and lactose are washed away, and the final product is rendered ultra pure.5 However, while its protein content is increased, many of the subfractions that make whey a uniquely beneficial protein are washed away, or greatly reduced. The trade off for those who choose ion exchange whey is highest protein content versus a reduction of many of the subfractions unique to whey.1, 2 While ion exchange whey has more protein than other isolates, this does not necessarily make it a superior whey protein option.
Microfiltered Whey Protein Isolate
Considered the gold standard of whey processing, microfiltration – in particular cross-flow microfiltration, a non-chemical process which uses ultra-low temperatures – is used to make the highest-grade, most biologically-active whey on the market today.1 The filtration methods used to process whey are many and varied: from cross flow microfiltration (CFM) to ultra filtration (UF), micro filtration (MF), dynamic membrane filtration (DMF), nano filtration (NF), reverse osmosis (RO), ion exchange chromatography, (IEC), electro-ultrafiltration (EU), and radial flow chromatography (RFC), the end goal is to produce an undenatured protein of the highest biological value, which retains its important subfractions and is extremely low in fat and lactose.1 Though other whey proteins may have merit, the microfiltered whey isolates reign supreme.
CROSS FLOW MICRO FILTRATION
The Healthy Protein with Maximum Anabolic Kick
Besides being a superior muscle-building protein, whey, as noted above, is extremely effective in boosting health. Whichever whey protein is chosen, ensure that each serving (scoop) contains at least 25g of protein with a high ratio of branched-chain aminos for maximum anabolic kick.
Pure whey protein isolates excel at this “anabolic kick” because they are so low in fat and carbs and so high in BCAAs and Essential Amino Acids. To get your anabolic muscle-building machinery firing on all cylinders, you need to get a high level of amino acids in your blood stream specifically BCAAs and key EAAs – essential amino acids. Whey protein isolate does this extremely well. Its purity means that excess fat and carbs do not slow down its absorption.
Two things dictate the degree of muscle building (or protein synthesis):
1. The amount of the increased amino acids (supplied by whey protein isolate)
2. The duration of that increase.
Also, look for undenatured whey. High temperatures used during the manufacturing of whey can destroy (or denature) important protein subfractions; by processing whey at lower temperatures, more of these components are preserved. Undenatured whey also contains more naturally-occurring proteins. In fact, only proteins in their undenatured state can be considered biologically active.
How can you tell if a protein is denatured? Look for a chart of the bioactive whey protein fractions (as described above). If a protein has been excessively heat treated or exposed to acid or enzymes (such as the case with protein hydrolysates) they lose their native protein structure.
Only proteins in their undenatured state can be considered biologically active.
All forms of whey have merit. Many whey products provide a blend of various types of whey. But how does one settle on a product that supports their training goals? Determining a reputable, trusted supplement company is the first and most important step to purchasing a quality whey product. While a product with a good balance (or exclusively comprised) of microfiltered whey isolates may seem the logical bet, there is also much to be said for whey concentrates and the high protein content of ion exchange whey.
Taking quality whey has become as much a part of the bodybuilding training process as reps and sets. Staying healthy while adding mass is a huge part of the bodybuilding puzzle. With whey you can do both.
Brink, W. The Whey it is: The Truth about Whey Protein. [Online] http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/willbrink3.htm – retrieved on 24.1.16
Jacob, S. What is the Ion Exchange in Whey Protein Powder? [Online] http://www.livestrong.com/article/232633-what-is-the-ion-exchange-in-whey-protein-powder/ – retrieved on 23.1.16
Jockers, D. mTOR – Discover the key protein behind muscle building and rejuvenation [Online] http://www.naturalnews.com/033957_muscle_growth_proteins.html – retrieved on 24.1.16 (mTOR)
Lefkowitz DL, Hsieh TC, Mills K, Castro A (1990). Induction of tumor necrosis factor and cytotoxicity by macrophages exposed to lactoperoxidase and microperoxidase. Life Sci. 47 (8): 703–9. (anti cancer)
Sutherland, J. Membrane vs. Ion Exchange – Which Process is best for Whey Protein Powder? [Online] http://www.milkspecialties.com/news/membrane-vs-ion-exchange-which-process-is-best-for-whey-protein-powder/ retrieved on 24.1.16 (ion exchange)
The Science: Lactoferrin. [Online] http://www.wheyforward.co.uk/the-science/#section-our-whey – retrieved on 22.1.16 (ratio of subfractions)
The Magic Protein. [Online] http://www.betternutrition.com/whey-protein-weight-loss-immunity/ – retrieved on 22.11.6