Whey vs. Soy: Battle of the Protein Shakes

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“I want to supplement my protein intake – which is better, whey or soy?”

Some of the most frequently asked questions in my practice concern whey protein versus soy protein.  Because I’ve had some personal experiences with both soy and whey, I have researched both proteins.  I have my personal preference, and I’ll tell you why.  As you’ll see by the length of this article, there is no simple answer.

Moderation, Always

First, let me say that a well-balanced, mixed diet that incorporates healthy proteins, healthy fats and healthy carbohydrates is the best way to maintain your physical health.  Healthy means unadulterated, not processed, organic foods – no hormones, no pesticides, no genetically modified organisms (GMO).

Some people identify a food that is good for them, and then they overdo it – eat the same food day after day in the belief that if some is good, more is better!  They couldn’t be further from the truth.  I know, because I was one of those people.

Back when I was in professional school, I practiced the bad kind of vegetarianism.  I didn’t do anything right.  I thought that I should have soy everything – soy meats, soy hot dogs, soy milk, soy chips, soy cheese – you name it, I was eating it.  And I wondered why I didn’t feel healthy and energetic.  I was excessively consuming soy and neglecting some of the other foods from which I could get more and better nutrients.

Similarly, it’s tempting to take the easy road and use supplements to replace real food.  We need to eat food, not shakes.  However, I understand we get busy.  Today’s modern family is constantly on the move, going in different directions.  People are physically training for athletic events – they’re looking for good fuel to replenish the muscles they’ve torn down – in these instances, a shake can be a good idea.

It’s easy to drink your breakfast or lunch, and many producers of diet programs encourage just that – have a shake for breakfast and lunch and eat a normal dinner.   In what field can I find a dry, powdered protein?  In what stream do I find a drink of balanced nutrients? Nowhere.  Blenders are made in factories.  Nature gave us vegetables and plants and animals and campfires.  The best food for your body is the one that’s closest to what we find growing naturally.  Second best is a processed substitute that makes consuming nutrients convenient.  Don’t use them exclusively – use them to complement your natural diet.  Get the most natural source of the healthiest food possible.  Anything you buy in a tub, can, or jar should be as natural as you can find – no additives, nothing you can’t pronounce.  When I can go a day without a smoothie, I do!

So I caution anyone interested in using proteins, soy or whey, as a replacement for the healthy foods that God has provided for us naturally.  Now, in the winter especially, it can be challenging to find the naturally rich sources of antioxidants and nutrients we need – the fresh vegetables we can find in the winter have often spent far too much time in transit and have lost many of their nutrients before they hit the produce stands in the stores.  And, unless we’re buying organic meat and produce from farmers we know and trust, we’re getting artificially fertilized or nutrient depleted produce.  In these cases, some supplementation can be a good idea.

Choosing Your Protein

Which protein supplement is better – whey or soy?  I can’t really give a black and white answer to this question – there’s so much involved in the choice. The internet gives us so much conflicting information on they whey vs. soy issue – soy is healthy, soy is not healthy, whey is healthy, whey is not healthy, and how does dairy fit in?  (Check out my related article on the dairy debate.)

Whey Protein

Whey is one of two major proteins found in cow’s milk. Whey protein is produced during the process of making cheese, which begins when special enzymes are added to milk causing it to separate. The curds are used to make cheese, leaving behind whey protein in the liquid portion. Fresh liquid whey protein is made up of about 1% protein.  The rest is lactose and water. This liquid whey is then separated from the lactose and water and processed into a dried powder for various uses. To create a kilogram of high quality protein isolate it takes approximately 230 litres of milk.  As you can tell, it is absolutely a processed food.(1)

However, protein is critical for the growth and repair of muscle tissue.  The body needs essential amino acids for recovery after a hard workout.  And since protein requires more calories to digest than either carbohydrates or fat, it can also be an important factor in achieving fat loss goals (for this and other reasons).(2) The biological value (BV) of whey protein is very high, and for this reason, athletes and body builders use whey protein to accelerate muscle development and aid in recovery.  The biological value is the amount of protein that your body can replace with 100 grams of consumed food.  The only other food with comparable high BV values is whole egg and egg white.

Whey protein is reported to accomplish the following:(3)

  • Assist in maintaining proper weight
  • Act as a natural antibacterial or anti-viral
  • Improve the function of the immune system
  • Improve blood pressure
  • Improve the function of the digestive system
  • Improve athletic performance
  • Reduce gastric mucosal injury
  • Reduce liver damage
  • Reduce the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome

There are three kinds of whey proteins – whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate and hydrolyzed whey protein.  Whey protein isolate contains a higher concentration of protein per gram (about 90% protein by weight) than whey protein concentrate (29% – 80% protein by weight) because other ingredients, including lactose, fat, and some vitamins and minerals, are removed.  Hydrolyzed whey protein is created when the protein chains are broken down (under higher heat processing) into smaller chains of amino acids called “peptides.”  This form of whey protein is most commonly used in infant formulas, medical protein supplements, and some sports drinks.(4)Most important in this discussion is the statement by nutrition expert Ori Hofmekler in “Unlock Your Muscle Gene” (2011):

“In its whole-food form, protein is always attached to its naturally-occurring cofactors such as minerals, vitamins and fuel components, fat or carbs, or both.”

Therefore, like with all foods, there are healthier and unhealthier options for your whey protein: least-processed and more-processed.

In summary, the most ideal whey protein has the following characteristics:

  • Comes from a grass-fed organic source – just as in meat, it is essential that the cows from which we get the way are pastured and grass-fed, with no consumption of grains or corn, at any point in life.  Grains promote inflammation.  Grass-fed cows are consuming their natural foods and not ingesting other foods that challenge their health. Organic grass-fed cows are pastured in fields that are pesticide free and chemical free. Conjugated Linoleic Acid may be one of the most potent antioxidant substances in your diet. It supports healthy weight, normal immune function, and helps promote normal insulin and cholesterol levels.  Pasture-grazed cows have 500% more CLA in their milk than cows fed silage.
  • Cold-processed – heating the whey causes a denaturing of the protein molecules – cold-processing maintains its integrity. Pasteurization destroys enzymes, weakens vitamins, denatures or damages fragile milk proteins, destroys vitamin B12 and B6, kills beneficial bacteria and promotes pathogens.
  • A1 Casein is not present – A1 casein is a string of amino acids that, when ingested, breaks down into oxidants and opioids that can cause health problems such as heart disease and some mental disorders.  If the source of the whey protein contains A1 casein, this is one element that should be extracted.  (See my related article on A1 vs. A2 Casein.)
  • All lactose is extracted – lactose intolerance is really lactase insufficiency – we use lactase to digest the lactose found in milk.  Lactose is found in both cow’s milk and breast milk.  Many people mistakenly believe that it is the milk that causes symptoms such as bloating, cramps, flatulence and diarrhea when, in fact, it is the presence of lactose which can be removed.  There is no lactose present in goat’s milk.
  • Sweetened with stevia or not at all – sugary sweeteners (including syrups, nectars, etc.) can burn out the insulin receptors, making us vulnerable to inflammation and its implications.  And artificial sweeteners are toxic poisons – enough said?

 

Unhealthy whey proteins:

  • Come from grain-fed cows, raised in a conventional way, ingesting unnatural foods, antibiotics and growth hormones
  • Are denatured due to higher temperature processing
  • Contain residual casein, particularly A1 casein
  • Contain lactose
  • Contain artificial sweeteners, and often artificial preservatives and colours

While most of the marketing of whey protein products relates to percentage of isolate vs. concentrate, and cost per gram of protein, I feel the aforementioned characteristics are the most vital ones to consider when choosing your product.

Soy Story

Dr. Kaayla Daniel spent several years searching for a way to get healthy.  She tried every diet and health recovery process she could find, and when she finally reached optimal health, she decided to study nutrition seriously.  What she found was a lot of dirty little secrets in the food industry.

Originally, soybeans were used to produce vegetable oil.  The soy protein left over after the oil was extracted was used as animal feed.   But there’s only so much soy protein an animal can eat, and there was a lot left over.  It makes a good fertilizer, but the chemical fertilizer companies had saturated that market.

Soy was not originally intended to be consumed as a food, apart from fermented soy products – foods like tamari, miso, and tempeh were seasonings and flavourings, not primary sources of food.  Soy products were developed to aid the hunger problem in China.  So, soy was traditionally the food of the poorer class of people – those who couldn’t afford to buy meat.  Enter the marketers, who spun the branding of soy and made it attractive to people who were able to choose – it became the healthy, natural alternative to the evil, heart attack inducing red meat.

Eventually, soy found its way into a massive number of processed foods, and even those who are not choosing soy as a source of protein in their diet are unaware that they are consuming it in their ice cream and their condiments.  You can find soy in almost everything you eat – salad dressing, tomato sauce, soup, bread, even canned tuna.(5)

Good Soy vs. Bad Soy

There is conflicting research around the issue of soy protein and its health benefits/concerns.  Soy has been promoted as a food that reduces the risk of breast cancer, heart attacks, and reduces bone loss (osteoporosis) and hot flashes in menopausal women.  Similarly, soy is reported to increase the risk of breast cancer, heart arrhythmia and cardiopathy.  What to believe?(6)

Here are some of the issues to consider when choosing whether or not to use soy protein:

  • Soybeans are high in natural toxins such as trypsin inhibitors, which block digestion of proteins.(7) Cooking does not entirely disable these substances, resulting in gastric distress and other problems that can result in pancreatic impairment and cancer.
  • Other substances found in soybeans that are not completely eliminated by cooking are hemaglutinin (which causes red blood cells to clump together) and growth depressant substances.  Soybeans also contain goitrogens, which can depress thyroid function.
  • Soybeans are high in phytates, preventing the absorption of important minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc.
  • Soybeans are processed with chemicals in aluminum tanks, leaching the aluminum into the final soy products.
  • Processed soy has increased levels of isoflavones, a compound similar to human estrogen.  This compound, while not identical to estrogen, is similar enough to be able to attach to the estrogen receptors in the body, interfering with hormone production and allowing for increased levels of estrogen resulting in risk of estrogen driven diseases.
  • Finally, 90% of soybeans in North America are genetically modified to resist the impact of chemicals, a process that then allows farmers to spray the fields with Roundup and other herbicides.  Not only is the soybean washed in chemicals that increase toxicity, it is not in its natural state, and therefore not recognized as a food by your body.  We are seeing an epidemic rise in asthma and allergies, and many experts would agree that this is related to the human dietary system having to encounter never-before-seen kinds of proteins we are expecting it to digest and use.
  • Because the phytonutrients in soy mimic estrogen in the body, there is a significant impact in babies and young children.(8) Some countries are limiting the availability of soy products (such as soy formula) for babies and children, particularly boys.(9) In Israel, parents require a doctor’s note to get soy formula for their babies.(10) It is suspected that increased consumption of soy is responsible for early puberty in girls.  Personally, I’ve had more male patients diagnosed with gynecomastia (male breasts) in a decade of clinical practice than my father did in his 30-year practice before me.  As a man, I’ll choose to stay away from feminizing hormones – or their mimickers – whenever I can.  Females need to be very concerned about excess estrogen dominance and “too much of a good thing.”

So soy, in its natural form, could be a good choice.  Studies show a reduction in the return of breast cancer in women who consume soy products.  As long as it is part of a whole foods plant based diet (choosing soy over chicken nuggets is a good thing!), soy can contribute to overall health.  My adage is:

Redeeming Soy Protein

Soy proteins contain less cholesterol than animal proteins and many important amino acids.  Some studies have shown reduction in the symptoms of menopause and prevention of breast, prostate and endometrial cancer.  Soy protein can also speed up the metabolism of the thyroid which can help when trying to release weight.  And soy proteins contain ingredients that improve kidney function and prevent bone loss.  But not every body can tolerate soy proteins, and the results can include both constipation and diarrhea.

So how do you know if the soy product you’re using is good quality, and good for you?  Here’s a checklist that may be helpful.(11)

  • Organically grown – decreased levels of nutrients and increased levels of nitrates are found in chemically fertilized crops – pesticides, fungicides and herbicides can increase the risk of cancer.
  • Non-GMO (not genetically engineered).
  • Contains all nine essential amino acids – not all soybeans are created equal – amino acid content varies based on soil conditions and variable growing and harvest conditions – the body uses 20 amino acids – our bodies naturally produce 11 of those acids and need to supplement the remainder.(12)
  • Washed in water – soybeans are washed to remove the outer layer of fibre, and some beans are washed in alcohol, destroying isoflavones that are beneficial in hormone balancing and increasing bone mass.(13)
  • Goitrogens removed.
  • Raw – heating soybeans destroys the essential amino acids.
  • Added calcium – soy powders with the oil removed can be acidic – adding calcium brings the pH balance back to neutral.

In summary, a healthy soy product is non-GMO, organic, fermented (as in miso, tempeh and tamari) and used as a side dish, rather than the main protein.

Even organic soybeans contain plant estrogens and the components that make digestion difficult.  Fermented soy is beneficial – the Asian diet that is touted as the example of the benefits of soy is made up of small amounts of fermented soy products – namely, tamari, tempeh, miso, and natto.   They’re eating a few morsels of soy, not a whole burger.  A little goes a long way.  A snack of edamame as an appetizer is ok, but don’t eat a whole bag in front of the TV at night.

Conclusions

If your do your research on the internet, you’ll find as many proponents for soy as you will for whey.  Supplementing with soy protein can work if you can find the healthy version I’ve described above.  That’s tough to find, and rarely will you find it on the shelves of your average supplement store.  Of course, the same can be said for healthy whey protein.  The bottom line is that you want a bioavailable product that comes from a natural source – we’ve been using cow’s milk and its byproducts for thousands of years.  Soy?  Less than a century.  Which one would you choose?

Of course, you wouldn’t be using any shakes if you were living a natural lifestyle.  We pay a price for being busy.  Therefore, if we’re going to have any kind of processed foods, let’s have them be as natural as possible to minimize the impact on our digestive system.  Our bodies are incredible healing machines.  When we spend our energy digesting unnatural foods, we have no energy to detoxify and repair cell damage caused by all the other influences we’re fighting.

Consideration of dietary and toxic stresses on the body, improved oxygenation of tissue cells, release of stress, and vital control of the nerve system are critical factors in the maintenance of good health.  Regardless of your choice of whey or soy, attention to these five essentials of Maximized Living will allow you to live the long, healthy and fulfilled life that you are meant to live.

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Dr. B.J. Hardick

About Dr. B.J. Hardick

Raised in a holistic family, Dr. B.J. Hardick is an organic food fanatic, green living aficionado, and has spent the majority of his life working in natural health care. In 2009, he wrote his first book, Maximized Living Nutrition Plans, which has now been used professionally in over 500 health clinics. Dr. Hardick regularly blogs healthy recipes and holistic health articles on his own website, DrHardick.com, and speaks to numerous professional and public audiences every year. In his spare time, he invests his keen interest in sustainable living into urban development in his hometown of London, Ontario. Learn More

  • Sherry Simoes

    This is a great article as it is something I have never really taken the time to find out! Love this part of the article: In what field can I find a dry, powdered protein? In what stream do I find a drink of balanced nutrients?

  • Thanks Dr. Hardick for revealing such impressive thoughts and comparison about whey and soy protein powders. I mostly impressed by knowing about good soy and bad soy.