Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet
Eating her curds and whey…
Depending on your childhood and the era in which you grew up, the start to this classic children’s rhyme could have been commonplace or nonsense. Curds and whey, to this generation of children, is hardly recognizable, let alone edible. Yet as they become young adults, the body building, athletic, and health markets will make sure they and their peers are well aware of whey – at least, the powdered form we have come to know.
Our grandparents and great-grandparents knew a very different whey, in the form that Miss Muffet so briefly enjoyed. After the cows were milked or the bottles delivered, pre-refrigeration called for creative uses. In the heat, the cream would rise to the top of the batch. With most of the cream skimmed away for butter, buttermilk was left. When further cultured into yogurts and cheese for storage, a first step was to create curds, then when the cheese or yogurt reached its peak, the excess liquid would be strained away through a cheesecloth to create a more solid – and less likely to spoil – food. The liquid that drains away in this process is whey, and it is a nutritional powerhouse.
As I discussed in my comparison of whey and soy proteins, the antioxidant and gastrointestinal benefits of whey protein are
Whey protein is reported to accomplish the following:
- 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
Now, few of us have access to milk that hasn’t been homogenized (the fat broken down and dispersed throughout the milk, so it will not separate), and fewer still have time to culture and strain away whey for our morning shakes. Thus, the advent of whey protein powder.
The History and Development of Whey Powders
Whey has been a recognizable product since the time of Hippocrates, but was primarily a byproduct of cheese-making. It would be discarded into rivers or fed to pigs – essentially unused by humans. Later, in the 17th-19th centuries, it became known as a remedy for ailments. (1)
Commercial production of milk became feasible after the Mehring milking machine was invented in the 1890s. By the 1920s, safety standards were employed and dairy plants began to spring up. Milk was now available delivered or purchased at a store. (2)
As time went on, the discarded whey in cheese production regained use, and whey came back into the spotlight. By drying the whey and reducing it via intense filtration methods, a powder form of whey could be stored, transported, and used at will. Powdering had been around since milk was powdered in the 1890s, so the concept was nothing new – merely the product. (3)
With the popularity of whey protein growing, the last couple of decades have seen an increase in the availability of protein powders. Whey concentrate, due to its natural reduction method, can vary from batch to batch in protein content and other retained molecules. For athletes and body builders – making up a large portion of the protein supplement demographic – the bottom line was obtaining a bioavailable protein source with few calories and predictable content. So an affordable product with reliably high levels of pure protein was (and remains to be touted as) ideal.
Whey protein isolate and hydrolyzed whey, then, became touted as a preferred product for this purpose, delivering pure protein in spite of the potential loss of other nutrients. Whether this is a narrow focus on the part of consumers and trainers or a way for suppliers to sell whey protein alongside amino acids and other supplements remains to be seen. What we are left with, however, is a few different kinds of whey protein for very different objectives.
The Problem with Processing
As with any other food or supplement, mass production leads to hurdles. Consumers expect predictable results with reliable, consistent products. With food, this expectation always leaves us in a questionable position, since so many factors can come into play with living substances. The whey protein craze has been no different.
As researchers learned more about whey, they began to identify its components, then concentrate them, and then isolate them. (4) With each step away from whole milk products, yet another need was created.
Whey carried (and still carries) many benefits, which whey concentrate largely retains, but in varying degrees with each batch. Whey isolate solved this problem, but the ability to isolate a consistently high, pure form of whey protein removed complementary nutrients and created a need for better digestion. A further step in processing created hydrolyzed whey, but the taste had to be overcome with sweeteners and flavors, often artificial in order to cut down the already high cost.
So the problem with whey protein processing begins with the premise – that pure protein, taken alone, is the ideal. The further removed we get from the original substance, the more we miss important nutrients that were meant to be part of a package deal, and we are altering the very molecular structure of our food to make it happen.
Choosing the Best Whey Protein
Like most developments of the modern era, there are benefits and concerns to protein powders compared with the whole foods version. Ideally, we could all get exactly the nutrition we need, when we need it, from locally and sustainably grown real foods. But reality is not so idyllic.
Time and money are major factors, severely limiting the foods we have access to. While I’m as much of a whole-foods advocate as the next healthcare professional, I personally use and have no problem recommending a high quality whey protein powder. It’s a quick, convenient, affordable, and more or less healthy way to get a nutritional boost. If I were to line up whey protein sources in order of least to most desirable, my list might look something like this:
- Hydrolyzed whey protein (never preferred)
- Whey protein isolate
- Whey protein concentrate
- Whole-foods sourcing (ideal)
Hydrolyzed whey protein.
At the pinnacle of the whey protein processing levels lies hydrolyzed whey protein. As a chain of amino acids, proteins are broken down by enzymes before the body can utilize them. Without the enzymes present in whey, the complementary fat and carbohydrates present in milk, and taken in higher volumes that you would normally consume, digestibility and bioavailability become a concern.
Hydrolyzed protein was the next-step answer to this concern. After being isolated, the whey protein is again filtered and processed with a water solution. This time, the goal is not to filter out the protein, but to break it down as a kind of pre-digestive process. With some amino acids already broken down, the resulting product is an incredibly (expensive) pure protein that is gentle on the digestive tract and very easy for the body to process. (5)
It is also denatured, devoid of anything but the protein – some of which are damaged and less effective – after heavy processing. (6)
Although whey protein as a hydrolysate has the high purity levels of isolate and better digestive availability than both concentrate and isolate forms, we want more than simple access to quick protein. Baby formula is a common use of hydrolysate, accompanied with other additives to provide the rest of the nutrients that breastmilk would.
On top of processing concerns, the whey at this point is excessively bitter, which has to be amended if it is going to be marketable. In order to compensate, hydrolyzed whey protein powders are often filled with sweeteners and flavorings, which are not only counterproductive at even the highest quality, but are often low quality or artificial in order to cut back on calories and price.
The bottom line on hydrolysates is that this level of processing lies well beyond what is necessary. The more we strip a food of what it is in nature, the more we have to adapt and adjust for shortcomings, the less beneficial it becomes. (7)
Whey protein isolate.
This is less processed than hydrolyzed protein, and even within the isolate umbrella there are degrees of tampering.
Whey protein can be isolated in one of two primary ways: either via another filtration step or – more commonly – through ion-exchange. With ion-exchange isolation, a solution is added to the whey, which is then processed through a machine that temporarily changes the electrical charge of the protein. Whatever is not protein and, therefore, did not change, is washed away. Then, the charge is reverted to normal and a highly purified form of whey protein remains. Unfortunately, the heat and solvent process is also likely to denature it, damaging the enzymes and health-promoting benefits that whey protein otherwise offers. (8)
The more expensive option for manufacturing whey protein isolate is to send it through a cross-flow microfiltration system, which is a much more natural production method. Solvents are not used, and the other nutrients are much more likely to be preserved, while still obtaining a high level of protein purity. (9)
If I absolutely had to choose a whey protein isolate, it would probably be this form. Without using solvents or damaging the structure of the proteins themselves, microfiltered whey isolate is certainly more appealing than that which has been rearranged at a molecular level.
Whey protein isolate is typically more expensive than concentrate, and in the body building world, it is the preferred form to take. Its “purity” is usually cited as the prevailing benefit for individuals taking whey protein in order to bulk up. Isolate is certainly pure, and if you are lactose intolerant you are very likely to be able to digest it, as nearly all of the lactose is removed.
Whey protein concentrate.
Once again, in the natural health realm, we know that our primary goal is a healthy body performing efficiently, even when we want to gain weight or bulk up. In this case, we understand that a denatured product is an incomplete product, and that fats, enzymes, and other nutrients add to the protein’s benefits for overall health rather than sullying them.
For this purpose, whey protein concentrate is my personal preference when a supplement is required. By filtering whey protein powder into concentrated form, very little is damaged beyond what pasteurization already inflicts. (Depending on where you are located geographically, it may be possible to source whey protein concentrate that is not first pasteurized, and this would be your most ideal option.) The benefits cited earlier remain, and the body can utilize the protein more naturally than the quick-fix digestion of other forms. (10)
As a typically cheaper form of whey protein, you can afford to be picky with your source, as well. Look for organic concentrates made from high quality milk, ideally pasture raised and grass fed, to obtain the highest quality possible.
Whole foods protein.
I personally utilize protein powder as a nutritional tool, and I recommend it at times, as well. But we must remember that these are all concentrated forms of milk protein, which translates into many pounds of milk eventually turning into jars of protein powder.
We are stewards of the earth and of our bodies, which requires attention to sustainability. Nature provides plenty of protein, complete with alkalizing, balancing, digestive-enabling compatible nutrients. (11) By enjoying a wide variety of nutrient sources, we can contribute to a sustainable future as well as our own optimal health.
Knowing your body and moderation are probably the uncontested keys to successful training or fitness regimens, including diet changes. Keep in mind that this list is of my preference after weighing all factors. For example, if I were lactose intolerant and needed a protein supplement, I may still choose isolate, as it is consistently lactose-free.
Furthermore, although I value whole foods as the ideal, I still wind up with a quality protein powder in my cup after a workout. We do the best we can with the knowledge and resources we have. Letting go of the stress that perfectionism brings is just as essential to health as any diet or habit.