Early in my career, I really didn't understand whey protein all that well. In fact, I probably had the same questions you do. People would ask me which protein was the best I was forced to tell them to pick whatever they could afford; which is, believe it or not, still decent advice. It's truely hard to tell whether or not a manufacturer is providing what they claim.
Since this is such a jammed topic, i'm going to start at the top with the most fundamental questions about whey protein, starting with the most FAQ of all FAQ's:
Question 1: Can’t I just get my protein from whole foods?
Whether your fundamentally opposed to protein powders or just simply uneducated on the idea, we all should try to get all of the protein we can from whole foods. The bio-availability of nutrients in whole food out-shoots supplements 10 times out of 10 trials but powders have some advantages. In fact, animal based proteins demonstrate a digestibility rate of >90% but whole plant based proteins from legumes and grains have digestibility rates of only 60-80%.
A good protein powder has a specific amount of protein and are generally very low in fat and carbs. In whole food, fats and carbs are a variable from food to food. Although you may pay upwards of $50-$60 for a higher grade protein powder the price per serving will be lower than whole foods in comparison to high quality meats and especially plants.
With no kitchen equipment or oils shakes are easy to prepare and clean up is as simple as a rinse and light scrub of a cup. Shakes are super easy to digest which is an advantage especially when your digestive system is not operating to full capacity, such as after a workout. Whey also includes unique biotactive peptides which help boost immune function.
Question 2: Can a whey protein powder replace whole foods entirely?
At least one study demonstrated that replacing half your daily whole-food protein with whey protein didn’t meaningfully affect physical fitness or body composition, but you still need whole foods for their vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids.
Question 3: What’s the difference between milk powder and whey protein powder?
Technically milk from a cow is 20% whey and the rest is casein. The problem is that skim milk powder is fat free but not sugar (carbohdyrate) free. In fact it has almost twice the amount of carbs than protein and the carbs come from lactose (a sugar many people are sensitive to some degree).
Most whey protein concentrates are 80% protein and very low carbohydrate content.
Question 4: Is whey the best protein source?
It is definitely one of the best. The bioavailibility of whey and the fact it has a complete amino acid profile makes it such. However, all powders, including plant-based ones and whey, have an absorb-ability rating of 90% or higher whereas only 60-80% of plant based proteins are absorbed through digestion.
SIDE NOTE FOR NERDS: In terms of essential amino acids, whey contains 52% of EAA's and 13.6% of leucine (which helps digestion and many other things). Other aminal proteins are closer to 40-45% essential amino acids and 7-8% leuncine. Plant based proteins are lower than both which is why vegetarians have to combine food sources to eat a complete protein diet. Question 5: Is isolate better than concentrate? What about hydrolysate?
There is almost no difference between whey concentrates and isolates in terms of amino acids, digestibility, their affects on muscle mass or strength. Isolates just contain less fat and carbs. The only real reason that would affect your decision making is if you're lactose intolerant. Since the carbs are lactose, you should choose the lower carb option - isolate.
Hydrolysates are considered pre-digested forms of protein but they haven't proven to be more bioaviailable or digest faster than concentrates or isolates.
SIDE NOTE FOR NERDS: Your digestive enzymes produce peptides as a byproduct of digesting protein. Hydrolysates are "denatured" and may mean that you get the strength building benefit of them but your body won't produce the benefit of producing health promoting peptides.
Question 6: What is cold-processed whey?
Cold-processed whey is whey that has been created without the application of heat. This term is doubly meaningless: all whey protein powders derive from pasteurized milk, and none of the filtration methods used to concentrate whey protein (i.e., to extract it from the whey) involve heat application. The only part of the whole process for which “cold processing” could possibly make sense is the transformation of the liquid whey protein into a powder: vacuum drying and freeze drying don’t involve heat, whereas spray drying does.
Question 7: Should my whey be from pasture-raised, grass-fed cows?
This is two sided question. Grass fed and grass finished beef has a better nutrient and fatty acid profile than conventional beef.
Compared to grain fed beef, grass fed beef has better:
Antioxidants - glutathione and superoxide dismutase
However, the protein seems to be relatively unnaffected. So if you do choose a grass fed option it won't be for the nutritional benefit.
If you can afford it, grass fed beef is an option for these two reasons:If we want better food, buying "the label" tells the market that it's in demand which drives competition and availability in the favor of the you, the consumer. Grass fed and pasture raised animals are proving to have a positive impact on atmospheric carbon levels - ie global warming. Industry will shift to whatever the consumer wants. Supporting an industry that has a positive impact on the environment ultimately supports change in in the entire industry.
Question 8: Any additives I should avoid?
I would warrant caution when you see food dyes or carrageenan (thickening agent). Most powders don't have additives in the concentrations that could cause a problem. If you do avoid additives it would be because of personal preference or simply err'ing on the side of caution.
That's is for the big burning questions about whey protein. Next I'll go in a little deeper on different protein supplement options like casein and branch chain amino acids!
In good health,
Coach Mike Ritter