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Being closely involved in the sports nutrition industry (as a manager at the Vitamin Shoppe store) I often get asked one question: “What is a good whey protein?”
Unfortunately, although the question can be really simple, the answer isn’t.
When I’m at the store I usually don’t go into the deepest detail, but here in this article I am going to do so. My hope after all will be that you, who reads this, will have a much better understanding of what you are exposed to, as far as advertisements and product choices on the market.
That said, I am going to start with what whey actually is. After that I will go into greater detail on the different types of commercially available whey proteins.
It all starts here…
Whey is a byproduct of cheese making. It is the liquid part that is separated from the curd. In its raw form, other than protein, whey contains fat, cholesterol, lactose. Before it reaches our shaker bottles, the fat and lactose (milk sugar) in whey have to be filtered out. More about this in a little while.
Raw whey is rich in protein substances, called native micro fractions. These include alpha lactalbumin, beta-lactoglobulin, glycomacropeptide, immunoglobulins, serum albumin, lactoferrin, lactoperoxidase.
When due to the type of processing used, some of these native micro fractions are destroyed or lost, we say that the whey protein is denatured.
Why are these native micro peptides important?
Some of these proteins are sources of essential amino acids, as well as large amounts of branched-chain amino acids – BCAA’s (BCAA’s are the only amino acids that don’t undergo conversion in the liver, and are immediately available to your muscle cells).
Others have different functions in the body, such as immune system support and modulation, anti-oxidative and cell protecting properties, antibacterial, anti microbial functions, and more.
Let’s look more closely at a few of them.
Alpha lactalbumin, also known as alpha-protein for example is the most abundant protein in mother’s milk.
Serum albumin is a precursor to glutathione – a major antioxidant and detoxifying agent.
Immunoglobulins, also called antibodies, have the function of finding and destroying viruses and bacteria, which makes them primary immune system supporting factors.
Now you can clearly see why it’s important for whey protein to retain its protein micro fractions during the manufacturing process.
What are the different types of whey proteins, available on the market?
Whey proteins can be divided in three major categories:
* concentrates (WPC)
* isolates (WPI)
Further, isolates can be sub-divided into ion-exchange isolates and low temperature micro filtered (ultra filtered) isolates.
Whey concentrate (WPC)
Whey concentrate is the lowest grade whey protein. Its actual protein content can range between 35 and 85%. The most common whey concentrate, used in sports nutrition formulations is WPC 80%.
Whey concentrate contains high lactose and fat levels. It also has high cholesterol content. Most commonly WPC is derived using high temperatures, which denature it (destroy its native micro fractions).
The high temperatures, used in the process, also oxidize large part of the present cholesterol. Oxidized cholesterol is the type of cholesterol that can cause hardening of arteries and cardio-vascular problems.
Many of the sports nutrition protein blends are mainly comprised of cheap, denatured whey protein concentrate of low biological value.
Hydrolyzed whey is a protein, which has been partially pre-digested. The longer protein structures in it are broken down to shorter ones. The main property of this type of whey is its low allergenicity.
There are two things you should know about hydrolyzed whey.
First, when whey protein is treated enzymatically, its native proteins are partially or fully lost. In other words hydrolyzed whey can be denatured to a large degree, depending on the extend of pre-digestion.
Second, during pre-digestion, its long chain protein structures are broken down and are brought to forms that are very close to the actual amino acids the body can use for repair and tissue building.
There are a couple of amino acids that are naturally present in very large quantities in whey. These are glutamic acid and aspartic acid.
Glutamic acid, or glutamate is a neurotransmitter. It is know as excitotoxin and it serves to enhance one of the five main tastes – umami (savory). Glutamate in large quantities overstimulates certain parts of the brain, which can lead to brain damage.
By the way, I’m sure you’ve heard of MSG – a common taste enhancer and food additive. Well MSG stands for mono-sodium glutamate, a salt of the amino acid glutamate. Now you know when you see MSG or glutamate what the possible consequences could be.
You may think now “Since glutamic acid is the amino acid, which is present in high quantities in whey, what makes hydrolyzed whey worse than concentrate or isolate?”
Well, it’s one thing when the body itself has to break down the protein into amino acids – it metabolizes as much of the protein it needs. But, it’s a different thing when you ingest pre-digested protein and this way you force the body to uptake all of the proteins in a form already available for use.
Whey isolate (WPI) – ion-exchange, microfiltration
Ion-exchange whey isolate
This protein has a high protein content – 90% and more. It has very low (or none at all) amounts of lactose, fat and cholesterol. It sounds good on first reading, but it actually isn’t. Let’s see why.
The process of deriving ion-exchange whey includes separating the protein from the rest of the substances in raw whey using electrical charge. This is done using hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide.
The process involves great changes in the pH levels, which destroy most of the important native to whey protein fractions like alpha lactalbumin, glycomacropeptides, immunoglobulins, and lactoferrin.
Beta-lactoglobulin globulin, which is know to cause allergies, can sustain the pH changes, and can become the most predominant native protein structure in ion-exchange whey.
Microfiltered whey isolate
Microfiltered whey isolate is the most undenatured form of whey. Its native protein structures are kept intact to a large degree. It has 90% and higher protein content. It is virtually lactose, fat and cholesterol free.
During the process of microfiltration the undesired particles in whey (fat, lactose) are separated from the protein using ceramic microfilters in a low temperature environment.
After filtration the whey protein is spray-dried again using low temperatures.
Micro- (and ultra-) filtered whey isolate is the protein with the highest biological value of all proteins. Its characteristics are:
Currently the only patented method for low temperature microfiltration is the Cross-Flow Microfiltration process, developed by Glanbia.
Whey protein concentrate (WPC):
Hydrolyzed whey protein:
Ion-exchange whey protein isolate:
Microfiltered whey protein isolate:
So, the big question is what you should look for when buying whey protein. Here is what I suggest:
1. Check the cholesterol content on the nutrition facts label. If it’s more than 15mg per scoop that’s a major sign that the main protein in the blend is WPC. If the budget isn’t very limited don’t buy.
2. Check the fat content on the label. Anything other than zero should tell you – WPC is the main ingredient. Don’t buy.
3. Look at the ingredients list. If the first thing you see is anything else but cross-flow micro- (ultra-) filtered whey isolate – don’t buy.
4. If you find the price relatively cheap for the quantity in the bottle – don’t buy. It’s most likely WPC.
5. If the fat content is zero, the carbohydrate content is zero, the cholesterol is less than 5mg, and the first ingredient on the “Nutrition facts” list is CFM whey – you should consider buying!
6. If anywhere on the bottle you see CFM® or Provon® – again you should consider buying.
Here are a few sources of high-grade, denatured WPI:
Note: I am not affiliated with the companies and supplement lines, mentioned above. These are purely the companies I’ve found to offer the most genuine CFM whey. You may want to do your search.