Have you heard that whey protein is harmful? That it contributes to weight gain? That it contains harmful hormones and heavy metals? That it promotes insulin release?
These messages leave many of us wondering, “Is whey protein really healthy?”
Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer to that question. The problem lies in the fact that whey protein powders are not all created the same way. There are varying levels of ingredient quality and purity, several different processing methods and a range of additives that can be used. So, consumers must choose between a mix of high-quality whey products and also cheap, useless imitators.
As with most industries, a few “bad apples” can spoil the others. Some manufacturers of whey protein powders make false claims, use low-grade ingredients, skip third-party quality and purification testing, and incorporate unnecessary additives (especially those labeled “for performance enhancement”). These are the companies that put their profit ahead of your health. However, there are reputable manufacturers out there!
Another factor that influences the answer to the question above is the consumers who don’t take the time to learn how to use whey protein powders properly. They mistakenly think more is better, so they consume excess amounts, or that they can use them whenever they want, when there are specific times to take them.
Experts ‘Whey’ In
As Dr. Deborah Gordon explains on her website, “the clear answer to avoiding the dangers is to limit protein powders to the post-workout period (in most cases), to include some fat in your recipe and to use only the highest-quality protein powders …” where the production methods take into account the concerns about preserving protein structure and eliminating toxic ingredients, such as non-caloric sweeteners like aspartame and carcinogens like arsenic. (Source)
The U.S. Armed Forces Consensus Panel and the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommend, “You should use caution and look on the label to see if the supplement product has been evaluated by an independent third-party organization. Keep in mind that whey protein supplements may contain other ingredients, so it’s possible to get too much of something you don’t need or want. Read all labels carefully.” (Source)
The Human Performance Research Center concurs, “Whey protein products can be an acceptable, convenient, and efficient way to deliver protein when your needs are greater or when normal dietary sources are not available. If you are using protein supplements, be sure to choose a product that has been third-party evaluated for its quality.” (Source)
Keep in mind that, as with all supplements, your first option for protein should come from whole foods. But when high-quality protein foods are not a sufficient part of your diet, due to lack of access or practicality, whey protein products can be acceptable and beneficial.
So, maybe the answer to our question is: Yes, whey can be a high-quality food source for protein ― if chosen correctly and used properly.
What Is Whey Anyway?
Whey is most often defined as a protein byproduct from the cheese-making process. It is the liquid that is separated from the curds.
Interestingly, Hippocrates saw the value in fresh liquid whey (“serum”) over 2,500 years ago. He recommended it to his patients for its immune-stimulating properties.
Liquid whey contains vitamins, minerals and important proteins. It is one of the purest forms of complete protein, which means it has all of the essential amino acids the body needs for muscle growth, repair and proper function. Whey protein’s vital peptides (alpha lactalbumin, beta lactoglobin, immunoglobin, lactoferrin) have great health properties as well.
Today, it is valued for its effects on the immune system, muscles, intestines, liver and kidneys, and its promotion of assimilation and elimination. Since it cannot be used fresh, it is generally dried and used in solid form, or concentrated. This process must entail minimal filtering and heat in order to maintain the protein’s natural form.
Whey protein has been a staple for those using nutritional supplementation for bodybuilding or intense exercise for years. It is valued by these individuals because its amino acid profile is perfect for providing exercised muscle with the protein it needs for repair and rebuilding. Whey protein is also known for being fast acting and antioxidant in nature.
Some Truth to the Controversial Commentary
By now, it is pretty clear that there is some wiggle room when it comes to the criticisms of whey protein. In many cases, the issues can be resolved simply by choosing a high-quality whey protein powder and using it correctly. Let’s take a look at some of the main concerns:
It Promotes Insulin Release: While whey protein can increase insulin production, this hormone also works to help amino acids get to muscle tissue that has been damaged or stressed during exercise. Insulin-sensitive individuals should obtain protein in other ways.
It Contributes to Weight Gain: This comes down to knowledge of proper use. Obviously, a person seeking weight loss shouldn’t use whey protein in the same way as a bodybuilder. It can play a beneficial role in one’s diet if used when and how it should be.
It Contains Harmful Hormones: This concern may be erased by choosing high-quality, organic, grass-fed varieties from reputable manufacturers and reading labels.
Different Types of Whey Protein
Whey Protein Concentrate
Concentrates undergo minimal processing, so they don’t have as much pure protein content. Its protein ratio can be anywhere from 34 to 89%, so read the labels! This also means that concentrates still contain milk byproducts and fats. Thanks to less refining, peptides/subfractions are left in undenatured form, so you can fully benefit from their biologic activity and health-related properties.
Average purity: 80%
Average protein: 80%
Average fat: 4%
Average carbs: 3%
Average moisture: 5%
PROS: the least processed whey protein; reasonably priced; a good source of BCAAs; most of the vital subfractions are still intact; good nutritional value
CONS: contains a higher amount of impurities, which can cause gas and bloating; not for lactose-intolerant individuals
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Whey Protein Isolate
Isolates are made from whey protein concentrate. They are completely “isolated” from milk, so most of the milk byproducts (e.g., lactose) have been removed. The filtration process also sifts out the fats, carbs, ash and moisture. Compared with concentrates, isolates have a higher protein content — with the highest biological value — and are a better source of branch-chained amino acids. They typically yield around 95% protein.
However, they go through different filtration processes. This is where it gets confusing!
ION EXCHANGE WHEY ISOLATE
This process uses the electrical charge of the proteins to react with its reagents in order to filter out only the protein. Due to the use of chemical reagents, the protein becomes denatured, or degraded.
PROS: higher concentration of protein than concentrate; contains fewer impurities; mixes well; still reasonable cost; less fat and lactose
CONS: chemical reagents used (e.g., hydrochloric acid, sodium hydroxide); may not contain any of the subfractions (denatured)
MICROFILTRATION WHEY ISOLATE
This filtration process involves the use of microfiltration membranes. It is a low-heat process, so there is no decline in protein potency. This type of isolate has a higher percentage of important BCAAs. It produces an ultra-filtered, fat-free, lactose-free and cholesterol-free protein with peptides and vital sub-fractions intact.
PROS: slightly higher purity than above (90%-94%); higher calcium levels; fat, lactose and cholesterol filtered out; vital subfractions intact (undenatured)
CONS: more expensive
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CROSS-FLOW-MICROFILTRATION WHEY ISOLATE
This process uses low-temperature ceramic filters to allow for the preservation of subfractions and higher protein and calcium levels. In fact, this product contains some fractions that none of the above have, including those that help with gaining solid muscle quickly and speeding up recovery. No chemicals are used here.
PROS: is left in its original state/minimal denaturing; high protein and calcium content; lower sodium content; has all unwanted materials (e.g., fat, lactose) removed without being subject to chemical or high heat; better amino acid profile
CONS: expensive (about twice as much as concentrate)
Whey Factors from Natural Factors
HYDROLYZED WHEY PROTEIN
Known as the upscale whey isolate, hydrolyzed whey protein uses the micro/nano filtration process and a hydrolysis process that breaks down the protein into smaller groups of peptides.
PROS: enters muscles quicker; faster release of BCAAs; better muscle protein synthesis; most digestible protein available; pre-digested for better absorption
CONS: is denatured, so it has no biological activity; cost prohibitive; bitter taste
Premium Whey Protein by NOW Sports
And, to add to the confusion, products can be a blend of several different types of filtered whey.
Overall, however, whey protein is a rich source of high-biologic-value protein. It is quickly digested, convenient and appealing to some athletes because it contains all of the essential amino acids.
On the other hand, care must be taken because: taking too much can cause bloating, cramps and nausea; it is not an option for those with lactose or casein sensitivities; testing for safety, effectiveness, and contaminants is not required; it may have additives people don’t want; it can contain cadmium, lead, arsenic and mercury; overuse can be counterproductive; and there are too many imposters.
Read labels carefully and avoid ultra-processed, low-grade whey protein powders!
Do you use whey protein for any reason? What are some of the benefits you’ve noticed? Share your story in the comments below.