Whey protein is a popular choice for strength athletes, bodybuilders and people wanting to add lean muscle mass, but we’re also now starting to see a lot of people who want to lose fat using whey protein powders.
This article tells you everything you need to know about whey protein, all the different types that are available and which one is best for you. Read on!
Whey protein is a popular meal replacement for some great reasons, which include:
- Convenient intake of protein. Far easier to ingest quickly than meats, fish and eggs
- Potential to be fat and cholesterol-free (or contain infinitesimal percentages compared with conventional high protein foods)
- Far better value when compared to high-protein foods like meats and fish
- Flavourings ensure you can find something that you won’t get bored of eating
What Is Protein?
Proteins are made from building blocks called amino acids, which are joined together in chains. There are 20 different amino acids, nine of which are known as ‘essential amino acids’, because our bodies can’t produce them, we need to ingest them.
The essential amino acids are:
Our bodies can manufacture the remaining 11 amino acids from other sources.
Some proteins are just a few amino acids long, while others are made up of chains of several thousand amino acids bound together to form a 3D shape. Examples of proteins include keratin, the hair protein, which takes the form of long fibres, and haemoglobin, which carries oxygen around the body and is roughly spherical.
Breaking Down Protein Powders
And when it comes to protein powder, it’s not just whey protein that’s available to buy in a tub. There is a huge array of protein powders available and this causes a lot of confusion.
So, what is the best protein powder to use?
Skip The Next Bit If You’re Not Interested In The Biological Compatibilty Of Proteins
Before we can decide what’s the best, we need to take a look at what’s available. Here are the protein quality comparison options for different sources of protein:
The main things to look at in the above table are the PDCAAS (Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score), the Amino Acid Score and the Biological Value (BV). Nothing else matters,
Here’s what it all means:
The PDCAAS is an amino acid score with an added digestibility component. This is the current accepted measure of protein quality as it closely compares to how it is assimilated by the human body.
Whey protein, whole egg protein, casein (milk proteins) and soy protein concentrate all score well on this scale.
The amino acid score is a quick chemical technique that is cheap to administer and measures the indispensable amino acids present in a protein.
Values greater than 1.0 for both the AAS and the PCDAAS are considered to indicate that the protein contains essential amino acids in excess of the human requirements.
Whey protein, whole egg and casein all provide essential amino acids equal to or in excess of human requirements.
Protein Efficiency Ratio is based on studies done in baby rats, so let’s ignore those figures, thety are not relevant to us humans and it is a concern that they are quoted at all.
Biological Value (BV) is another important indicator, as it shows the amount of nitrogen retained in comparison to the amount of nitrogen absorbed. BV reflect both nitrogen availability and digestibility, therefore giving an accurate appraisal of maintenance needs.
Ok Start Reading Again From Here If You Weren’t Bothered About The Science Part
So, going back to whey protein, this is known as a complete protein as it contains all 9 of the essential amino acids (remember them?) that we can’t produce ourselves. Other foods that are complete proteins are meats, dairy, eggs and some rare vegetable proteins such as quinoa.
Most vegetables, rice and starches are not complete proteins as they are missing one or more of the essential amino acids.
What Is Whey Protein Made Of?
Whey is one of the two major components of milk, it’s the liquid portion that separates from the curds during the process of making cheese and contains proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.
The whey is separated from the milk by straining it, which results in a liquid whey product. It is then heated to at least 71 degrees Celsius for 15 seconds to kill any pathogenic bacteria that may be present.
Next the proteins are collected from the whey liquid, which can be achieved by ion exchange or mechanical filtering, to produce whey concentrate. This concentrate contains varying amounts of fat and carbohydrates in the form of lactose, with the percentage of protein varying from around 30% to 80%.
So, now that we’ve established that if you’re looking for the best protein to use you should be going for whey protein and we know how whey protein is made, let’s take a look at what whey protein does.
What Does Whey Protein Do?
Athletic performances require a production of force from the muscles. Therefore, a greater ability to produce force can be associated with improved performance.
Now, if we get scientific about this, force is equal to mass multiplied by acceleration (F=MA). So if you increase muscle mass, not only are you increasing the mass element of the equation, you’re also increasing the muscle’s ability to accelerate, so muscle gain satisfies both requirements of increased force.
Due to its strong amino acid profile and ease of absorption, whey is arguably the most popular sports nutrition supplement. It’s been shown to augment muscle protein synthesis, support fat burning, boost the immune system, improve insulin sensitivity and can also decrease appetite.
They build and repair muscles and bones, provide a source of energy and regulate various processes in the body related to metabolism.
While no supplement can replace a diet of whole, natural, unprocessed foods, whey protein can be useful for people with a very busy lifestyle, as a supplement to their normal diet. Also, strength athletes that require an increased calorific intake can use whey powder as a clean way to get those extra calories to ensure their body is in an anabolic (growth) state.
So, if you’re trying to put on muscle, whey protein can be a key component to both help preserve muscle and helping to stimulate additional muscle growth. If you’re in a hypo-caloric state (if you’re trying to lose weight and are cutting calories), preserving muscle becomes even more important and ensuring that you have enough essential amino acids helps to keep your body from losing muscle, while simultaneously helping you to lose fat.
A fairly common concern people raise after looking at protein powders and reading labels are allergies to protein components such as lactose, soy, casein or eggs. Another common concern relates to artificial ingredients, which some wish to avoid. In both cases, there are plenty of alternatives from which to choose.
The Different Types of Whey Protein
There are two different methods of extracting and purifying whey protein and three different grades of whey protein.
Whey Protein Extraction Methods
Once the whey has been separated from the curds by straining it, the next is to isolate the proteins from the whey liquid. This can be achieved by ion exchange or mechanical filtering.
Ion exchange often requires the use of acids, such as hydrochloric acid, or bases like sodium hydroxide, which may cause some denaturation of the proteins.
While the chemical based nature of ion exchange is cheaper and often times more amino acids are captured, a drawback to the ion exchange method is that you may also lose some of the other important compounds in the whey product.
The mechanical filtering method, often known as cross-filtering, is a physical process that often results in a better product. However, it can be expensive and more laborious.
The kind and size of filter used and the number of filter passes are key to what type of whey is produced. The finer the filter and the more times the whey is filtered results in a purer product. Also, with each filtering step the amount of lactose, fat, ash and other small impurities are reduced.
Here’s a great infographic from Muscle & Strength, which illustrates how whey protein is made:
Whey Protein Purity
There are three different levels of whey protein purity, ranging from whey protein concentrate to hydrolysed whey protein.
Whey Protein Concentrate
The amount of protein in whey protein concentrate can vary between 25% and 89%. The whey protein powder supplements that are found in health and nutrition stores often list whey protein concentrate on the label. This type of whey protein is usually 80% protein, with the rest of the product consisting of lactose, fat, minerals, and moisture.
Whey Protein Isolate
WPI is the purest form of whey protein available and contains between 90% and 95% protein. This is a valuable protein source for individuals with lactose intolerance as it contains little or no lactose. Whey protein isolate is also very low in fat, though the cost of it will be slightly higher than whey protein concentrate, due to the purity and higher protein content of the product.
Hydrolysed Whey Protein
Hydrolysis acts on the long protein chains in whey protein and breaks them down into shorter chains called peptides. This makes the whey protein more easily absorbed by the body and may reduce the potential for allergic reactions. Hydrolysed whey protein is often used in infant formulas as well as sports and medical nutrition products. Crucially, hydrolysis does not reduce the nutritional quality of the whey protein.
When To Use Whey Protein
Since Whey Protein is quickly digested, the only time to take whey protein alone is just before or 30 to 60 minutes after a workout. At any other time, you would need to slow down the digestion of the protein by eating it with other foods. For example, if you want extra protein for breakfast, but don’t want eggs, add whey protein powder to some oats.
If you’re looking for a quick snack at work, you can have a shake with some nuts or fish oil to slow down the digestion of the protein. The combination of the fat will help slow down the digestion of the protein, preventing a spike in insulin levels.
The Best Whey Protein for You
When choosing a whey protein product, it is important to consider your goals, budget, and any allergies.
With so many factors to take into consideration, whey protein isolate could be your top pick if you don’t mind spending a bit more money and you will primarily use it as a post-workout drink. It has high amounts of protein while minimizing the amount of lactose (found in higher quantities in whey protein concentrate). For anyone with lactose intolerance, whey protein isolate is the answer. It is easily digested and, if cold-filtered, can contain most of the immunoglobulins, which the whey protein hydrolysate is typically lacking due to the extreme processing it goes through.
Also whey protein isolate contains a higher amount of protein per serving, which is important for people who are calorie restricting and want to consume as much real food as possible.
However, whey protein isolate is more rapidly absorbed than whey protein concentrate and creates a more profound insulin response. This makes whey isolates popular post-workout choices, but anyone wishing to limit rises in insulin or consuming whey protein powders throughout the day may want to avoid isolates and buy a tub of whey protein concentrate.
When it comes to whey protein, like so many things there is no one-size-fits-all. It all depends on your budget and how and when you intend to consume it.
Good luck on your fitness quest and let me know which protein supplements you prefer.