Whey protein is a staple in most athletes’ diets for a good reason: it’s digested quickly, absorbed efficiently, and easy on the taste buds.
Prices are all over the place, however, ranging from less than $10 per pound, to over $20 per pound, and marketing claims used to justify various price points range from sensible to ludicrous.
So what gives? Well, let’s lift the veil of mystery on whey so you can make an informed choice, and get the right product for the right price.
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Whey is a byproduct of cheese production. It’s a relatively clear liquid left over after milk has been curdled and strained and it used to be disposed of as waste.
It was later discovered that it contains an impressive array of complete proteins necessary for protein synthesis and hypertrophy, and thus, the whey protein supplement was born.
But why is whey so big in the health and fitness world? Does it warrant all the attention and use?
Well, whey is especially popular with athletes and bodybuilders because of its amino profile, which is high in leucine. Leucine is an essential amino acid that plays a key role in initiating protein synthesis.
Whey is particularly effective when eaten after training, due to its rapid digestion and abundance of leucine. Simply put, the faster protein is digested and the more leucine it has, the more muscle growth it stimulates. This is why research has proven that whey is a highly effective form of post-workout protein.
So yes, there’s a good reason why most protein supplements sold are whey. But not all whey powders are equal.
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The three forms of whey protein sold are whey concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate.
Whey concentrate is the least processed form and cheapest to manufacture, and it contains some fat and lactose. Whey concentrates range from 35 – 80% protein by weight, depending on quality.
Whey isolate is a form of whey protein processed to remove the fat and lactose. Isolates are 90%+ protein by weight, and as they’re more expensive to manufacture than whey concentrate, they’re more expensive for consumers too.
Whey hydrolysate is a predigested form of whey protein that’s very easily absorbed by the body and free of allergenic substances found in milk products. Research also indicates that the hydrolysis process improves solubility and digestibility. Whey hydrolysate is the most expensive of the three options.
So which should you buy? Well, when choosing a whey, you have a few things to consider.
While isolates and hydrolysates are pushed as superior to concentrates due to purity and higher protein concentrations per scoop, there’s insufficient evidence to support claims that they are superior to concentrates when used as a part of a mixed diet.
That said, choosing the cheapest whey you can find, which will always be a concentrate, isn’t always a good idea, either. A quality whey concentrate is somewhere around 80% protein by weight, but inferior concentrates can have as little as 30% protein by weight.
If a low-quality whey concentrate is only 30% protein by weight, what else is in there? Well, unfortunately we can only wonder, as adulteration (the addition of fillers like maltodextrin and flour) is startlingly rampant in this industry.
Another significant benefit of a pure whey isolate is the removal of the lactose, which means better digestibility and less upset stomachs. (I hear this quite often from customers of mine that like my 100% whey protein isolate product.)
The general rule with whey protein is you’ll get what you pay for–if the product costs a lot less than the going rate for whey, it’s probably because it’s made with inferior ingredients. (And I can tell you firsthand that producing a high-quality whey protein isn’t cheap!)
High prices aren’t always indicative of high-quality, either. Disreputable supplement companies pull other tricks, such as starting with a low-quality concentrate, adding small amounts of isolate and hydrolysate to create a “blend,” and then calling attention to the isolate and hydrolysate in their marketing and packaging.
To protect yourself as a consumer, always check ingredient lists and serving sizes and amounts of protein per serving before buying protein powder.
Specifically, you’re going to want to look at the order in which the ingredients are listed (ingredients are listed in descending order according to predominance by weight), and the amount of protein per scoop relative to the scoop size.
If a product has maltodextrin (a filler), or any other ingredient, listed before the protein powder, don’t buy it. That means there’s more maltodextrin, creatine, or other fillers in it than protein powder.
If a scoop is 40 grams but there is only 22 grams of protein per serving, don’t buy it unless you know that the other 18 grams are made up of stuff you want. Weight gainers have quite a few carbs per scoop, for instance.
A high-quality whey protein is easy to spot:
- Whey concentrate, isolate, or hydrolysate listed as the first ingredients
- A scoop size relatively close to the amount of actual protein per scoop (it’ll never match because there is at least sweetener and flavoring along with the protein powder in every serving)
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A very common method of processing whey protein is using a machine called an “ion exchange.” Whey concentrate is run through this device to create an “ion exchange whey isolate,” and this is often marketed like it’s something good or special.
While this sounds fancy, it actually has significant drawbacks.
Whey protein is a complex molecule made up of many smaller molecules called subfractions, such as beta-lactoglobulin,immuno-globulins, lactoferrin, lactoperoxidases, lysozyme, and others. Each of these subfractions has its own unique properties and functions in the body.
The ion exchange process selectively depletes many of these subfractions, thereby reducing the overall health value of the protein. This is known as “denaturing” the protein.
Superior (more expensive) processing methods utilize technologies known as “cold-filtration” and “micro-filtration” to produce the protein powder while still maintaining the original undenatured state of the protein.
The ideal ratio between whole food and supplement protein is still an area of scientific ambiguity, but anecdotal evidence has led to the general advice of getting at least 50% of your daily protein from whole food sources.
Remember, protein supplements are meant to be just that–supplements–and not primary sources of daily protein.
Now, as you know, whey protein is a particularly good source of post-workout protein. How much should we have after a workout, though?
Well, according to one study, 20 grams of whey protein eaten as a post-workout meal stimulates maximum muscle protein synthesis. That is, eating more than 20 grams of whey protein after a workout will not increase muscle growth.
While that sounds neat and simple, it doesn’t apply to everyone equally. Protein metabolism and needs are affected by several things:
- How much muscle you have.
The more muscular you are, the more protein your body needs to maintain its lean mass, and the larger the “reservoir” it has for storing surplus amino acids.
- How physically active you are.
The more you exercise, the more protein your body needs.
- Your age.
As our bodies age, they need more protein to maintain lean mass. For example, research has shown that, in the elderly, 35 – 40 grams of post-workout protein stimulates more protein synthesis than 20 grams.
- Your hormonal profile.
Anabolic hormones like testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) stimulate muscle protein synthesis. If your body has high levels of these anabolic hormones, it will be able to make good use of higher amounts of protein than someone with lower levels.
On the other hand, elevated levels of cortisol reduces protein synthesis and accelerates the process whereby the body breaks down amino acids into glucose (gluconeogenesis), thereby reducing the amount available for tissue generation and repair. Some people have chronically elevated cortisol levels, and this impairs protein metabolism.
So, while 20 grams of protein might be enough to stimulate maximum protein synthesis under certain conditions, this won’t hold true for everyone.
Whey protein can also be used as an effective pre-workout supplement, as research has shown protein ingested 30 minutes prior to training can reduce muscle damage and soreness.
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I’ve always used 100% pure whey protein isolate products because concentrates can bother my stomach (research has shown that approximately 70% of the world’s population can’t properly digest lactose, and I guess I’m one of them).
If dairy bothers your stomach at all or gives you any symptoms of indigestion, I recommend you stick with 100% whey protein isolate products too.
I’m also picky when it comes to artificial sweeteners and food dyes, MSG, and other chemicals commonly found in whey protein powders.
I like my workout supplements naturally sweetened and as free of artificial additives as possible, and recommend the same for my readers.
These requirements have really limited me in the past, and the whey protein powders I used were particularly expensive (upwards of $25 – 30 per pound).
Fortunately, I’ve been able to leverage my success as an author to launch my own line of naturally sweetened, filler-free workout supplements, and it includes a 100% whey protein isolate product.
It’s called WHEY+, and it’s essentially the whey protein powder I’ve always wanted.
- It’s 100% whey isolate, which means every serving is almost pure protein, with little to no carbohydrates and fat.
- It’s made from exceptionally high-quality milk from small dairy farms in Ireland.
- It’s created using cold microfiltration and ultrafiltration technologies to produce 100% intact, undenatured protein.
- It tastes delicious and mixes great.
- It’s naturally sweetened and flavored.
- It contains no artificial food dyes or other junk additives or fillers.
The bottom line is if you want a clean, all-natural, delicious tasting whey protein isolate that’s naturally sweetened and flavored and free of chemicals, GMOs, and hormones, then you want WHEY+.
What did you think of this definitive guide to whey protein powder? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
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- Rooyackers, O. E., & Nair, K. S. (1997). Hormonal regulation of human muscle protein metabolism. In Annual Review of Nutrition (Vol. 17, pp. 457–485). Annu Rev Nutr. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.nutr.17.1.457
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