The Truth About Whey

More money is spent on protein powder and whey than any other supplement and its important you understand exactly what you are buying or you will fall for the marketing hype and waste money. If you use protein powders you have to understand exactly what whey is and how it is made or you are doomed.

Lets start from the top. "Protein Powder" is dried protein in a jug, it can be from anything - soy, egg, hemp, milk, or even meat I suppose.  A protein powder may only be 20% protein by calories.  Powdered nonfat milk is a protein powder and a very economical option for people who don't need to worry about calories.  If you process the protein powder to remove fat and remove carbs, in other words, to concentrate it, then you end up with "concentrated protein powder" or "isolated protein".   "Weight Gain Powder" is protein powder plus lots of sugar. Lets leave the soy, egg, and hemp for another day and talk about milk and the whey that is derived from it.

Milk is a marvelous complete food that sustains infant cows and humans for the first months of their lives. If you look at the protein quality of milk, its sky high. So why don't bodybuilders and health minded people just drink milk from the cow? Well, calories. Milk directly from the cow is only 20% protein, the rest is fat and carbohydrates. For a bodybuilder to get enough protein from fresh milk they would gain bodyfat at an alarming rate. So what if we took the fat out? Well, lets look at nonfat milk, the quality of the protein is just as high and it's protein density is twice as high - 40% of the calories are from protein. Still not great, a mature bodybuilder would still get fat if that were their only source of protein but as I mentioned before, for a very active growing teen this could be a very economical alternative to expensive protein powders. Better yet, nonfat milk powder is more convenient and cheaper per serving but again, its only appropriate for people who have very high levels of energy expenditure.

OK, we still have not found a good product for bodybuilders and it does not appear that we can do anything with fresh milk so lets take a new processing approach, the ancient art of cheese making. You take the raw milk from the cow and use bacteria to ferment it, then you add some magic thing called "rennet" which takes the casein in the milk and curdles it into globs. You remove the globs to make cheese with and you are left with the whey. Are we there yet? Well, lets look at the protein quality of whey. The quality is just as high but its only 13% protein, doh!  Not even as good as nonfat milk which is 40% protein :( Lots of the protein from the milk got removed during the cheese making process and we were left with all the carbohydrates. The only good thing here is that a lot of the fat got removed too. You can buy whey in this form, in fact, many of the organic whey powders are only available in this form. Again, because of their low protein density they are not of much use in my view - you might as well eat my favorite food of all time which is black beans.  So what do we do now? The whey protein is awesome but how do we get rid of all those carbohydrates? In other words, how do we "concentrate' the whey which is only 13% protein to make a "whey protein concentrate"? Great question, glad you asked!

Turns out that the fat, protein, and carbs in whey are molecules of different sizes so you can concentrate the protein by squishing it thru a fine filter mesh. Using this old school method is simple and cheap and concentrates the whey protein from 13% protein up to about 25% protein. Not bad at all. This type of processing doesn't require high temperatures or acids so the resulting product is of high quality. This kind of filtration is something that we could have done a hundred years ago had we wanted to. We have come a lot way with filtering though. Modern filtering can do a much better job at filtering the protein away from the fat and carbohydrates, up above 90% protein by calories!  Pretty darn awesome.  The name of the filtering isn't really that important because as far as I know all these filtering processes are done without the use of high temperatures and acid, and thats the important thing.  They are all "cold processed" whether the marketing blurb says it or not.  You will hear terms like:

  • cross filtered
  • ultra-filtered
  • micro-filtered
  • nano-filtered
  • cold membrane Triple filtered
  • Cold-Filtered cross-flow micro-filtration
  • Cross-flow micro-filtration
  • cross-flow microfiltered
  • Ultra-Filtered/Micro-Filtered ( UF/MF)
  • reverse osmosis SpiroFuse Filtration

I have not seen anything that has caused me to believe that any of these methods are better than any other.  As long as the filtering is done below pasteurization temperature (which they all are) and without acid then the nutritional label tells all.  Just look and see what percent of the calories come from protein.  Here is an example how to do this, check out this label from a cheap protein powder found at a big box store:

All About Whey Protein Powder

To find the percentage of protein, take the number of grams protein found on the bottom line (27g) multiply that by four and divide by the number of calories shown at the top (here 140 calories).  This protein powder is (27g protein * 4 calories/g) / 140 calories = .77 or 77% protein.  77% protein is pretty good, its higher than the protein percentage in many meats.  Some expensive proteins might be up to 97% protein but you have to ask yourself, why is that so important to you?  How much are you willing to pay to get rid of those few carbs?

Now lets talk about ion-exchange.  A lot of the ion-exhange proteins have a higher percentage of protein than the filtered ones, but again I ask, how much are you willing to pay and I don't just mean financially.

Ion exchange - So far everything we have done to the milk is pretty natural. We fermented it to make cheese and then took the remaining product (whey) and filtered it. All pretty natural so far. The ion-exchange process moves production from the kitchen into the petrochemical factory. I don't pretend to understand the whole process but it looks a whole lot more like the chemical engineering done to get petrochemical products than something that we should be doing to food. Seriously, I don't want the ions exchanged in my dairy products - I would much rather have the ones they came with thank you. Companies really push this stuff and they do have high protein densities, around 95% protein by calories, but I don't like them.

Health, Pesticides, and Organic Options

Now lets talk about pesticides.  Its much better in Europe and Australia but here in America, dairy foods have some of the highest levels of pesticides of any foods around.  Read what webMD has to say about food safety and Prevention Magazines "Dirty Dozen".  If you have extra money in your food budget you should give consideration to buying organic when it comes to dairy.  Organic has become much lower priced lately because increased consumer demand has brought the economies of scale.  Organic milk isn't just produced by mom and pop who hand-milk their cows these days as large firms have seen the financial rewards of producing organically as well.  For example, Costco sells organic milk for just about the same price as the normal non-organic price in most grocery stores.  The problem is you are faced with a big dilemma here.  As far as I know, the only organic, concentrated wheys out there are VERY expensive.  So you have a choice:

  1. you spend a fortune on organic concentrated whey
  2. you can buy relatively inexpensive organic milk and do more cardio to make up for all the extra carbs you are consuming
  3. you can forget about organic whey all together and just use non-organic whey
  4. you can eat organic chicken instead!

Number 4 warrants a closer look.  Why are we so fixated on whey and protein powder? Protein powder does not have magical muscle building properties! Vegetarians like myself need to rely on dairy and eggs for our high quality protein but the rest of you have some excellent and inexpensive options.  Yes, whey is high quality protein but so is chicken and fish.  Its much cheaper to buy organic chicken than organic whey concentrate.  At Costco, boneless, skinless organic chicken breasts are only about 35% more than their non-organic counterparts.  The protein powders are certainly convenient but how much are you willing to pay?  Perhaps I should have started this article with this, but let me ask you now.  Why is it that you must have protein powder?  In case you didn't get my message clearly enough yet ...

Protein Powder Does Not Have Magical Muscle Building Properties!

Its just convenient.