Oct 092008

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)
* hydrolizates
* 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

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:

  • It stimulates the production of glutathione
  • It strengthens the immune system
  • It has antioxidant and anti-cancer properties
  • It promotes muscle growth

Currently the only patented method for low temperature microfiltration is the Cross-Flow Microfiltration process, developed by Glanbia.

To recap

Whey protein concentrate (WPC):

  • Is the cheapest whey protein
  • Is denatured – the beneficial protein structures are destroyed
  • Contains higher amounts of cholesterol, oxidized to a large degree

Hydrolyzed whey protein:

  • Has hypoallergenic properties
  • Is partially predigested – the degrees of predigestion vary
  • Its amino acids are more readily available, one of them is known to have excitotoxic properties (glutamate)
  • May play a role in excitotoxin-induced brain damage

Ion-exchange whey protein isolate:

  • Has low if any amounts of lactose, fats and cholesterol
  • Many of the native whey protein structures are destroyed
  • It is denatured to a large degree
  • Beta-lactoglobulin globulin is present in higher quantities, which may lead to allergies

Microfiltered whey protein isolate:

  • Has low if any amounts of lactose, fats and cholesterol
  • Retains its native proteins intact
  • Is twice as expensive as WPC and ion-exchange protein
  • Promotes muscle repair and growth
  • Strengthens the immune function
  • Has detoxifying and antioxidant properties

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:

  • ProteinFactory (ProteinFactory.com) – CFM Whey
  • Musclemania SuperBody Nutrition – EZ Whey
  • Swanson Health Products (SwansonVitamins.com) – Premium Whey Protein Powder
  • Integrated Supplements (IntegratedSupplements.com) – 100% Natural CFM Whey Protein Isolate

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.

Don't be shellfish...Information about whey protein   the hard factsInformation about whey protein   the hard factsInformation about whey protein   the hard factsInformation about whey protein   the hard factsInformation about whey protein   the hard factsInformation about whey protein   the hard facts
Information about whey protein   the hard factsAbout author: Ivan Nikolov (111 Posts)

Ivan Nikolov is a former Top 5 Natural Bodybuilder, entrepreneur and health enthusiast. Ivan is an engineer by education, but his real passions are the human metabolism and how it is influenced by the environment. Most specifically, Ivan studies how nutritional stimuli affect our health in a positive and negative way. Ivan is also a fan of pushing the boundaries of the physical abilities of his body. He likes to perform exercises and training routines that have real application in day-to-day life. The emphasis is on core strength, coordination and the ability to handle his own body weight with ease. Lastly, Ivan is hungry for success and furthering of his personal development. He has had his own specialty healthy bakery for three years. He currently bolgs on health topics, attends Toastmasters Intl. public speaking meetings, reads a lot, develops functional foods recipes. Another area of development for Ivan is training his brain in critical thinking and reasoning.

Information about whey protein   the hard facts

  7 Responses to “Information about whey protein – the hard facts”

  1. Thank you for the detailed post. Can you recommend any brend? I’ve tried to use your suggestion – and can find nothing. Almost all of those on a market heavy on fats.

    • If you are asking about a good whey protein try the 100% when (unflavored and unsweetened) by NOW foods. If you buy their 10-lb bag it will actually be affordable (on a per pound basis).

  2. I am allergic to MSG and have been having a hard time finding a protein powder. Would the Now 100% natural whey be okay for me? Also I have some Jarrow Formulas unflavored ultrafiltered whey protein. Do you know much about it? Thanks

    • The Jarrow unflavored ultrafiltered whey and the Now 100 % natural whey should come from the same source – Provon from Glanbia. I’m not sure of the MSG in ultrafiltered whey. It’s very high (just like any milk product) on the amino acid – Glutamic acid. MSG is a salt of this amino acid. As far as I know hydrolized proteins (whey included) have MSG as the amino acid becomes glutamate. Are you allergic to foods that naturally contain MSG, like Romano cheese or tomatoes?

  3. Hi Ivan

    Thank you for the insightful post. It has really cleared a lot of doubts w.r.t. to the whey products being pushed in the market.

    Out of the brands that you have suggested above none seem to be available in my city (Mumbai, India) currently.

    I only have access to Dymatize, Muscletech, Optimum Nutrition, EAS, Scitec Nutrition, BioX, Labrada, Gaspari Nutrition, Ultimate Nutrition, BSN, Muscle Pharm.

    Could you share your experience/opinion about whey products by any of these ?


    • Hi PJ. I can’t speak about most of the brands you’ve listed, but what I can tell you is that Optimum Nutrition is now a part of Glanbia Nutritionals. They are the company that makes Provon – the micro-filtered whey protein. I think you should go with the 100% Gold Standard Whey from Optimum – it’s not the very best but it’s offers good value for the price.

      • Thanks for the response Ivan.

        I have already tried 100% Gold Standard Whey from ON. Didn’t work too well for me. Also, it is terribly expensive here in Mumbai. A 5lb jar sells for approx $100.

        Was thinking of buying a protein blend (Nitro Core 24 / Pro Complex) this time or maybe Performance Whey, all of which are relatively cheaper. Let’s see how they fare.

        Also, my personal experience with taking whey supplements has not been very encouraging. What has worked for me finally is taking a major chunk of my protein as egg whites (up to a dozen or more spread out during the day + 3-4 whole eggs). I have kept the whey to post workout and for times when a proper meal is not available.


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