You’ve probably heard of whey protein. Maybe you’ve seen it lining the shelves of your local health food store, featured in a recipe for a post-workout shake, or touted as an essential supplement by fitness enthusiasts. But do you know what whey protein is? More importantly, do you understand its benefits and why it should be a regular part of your diet?
Over the course of this article, we’ll be exploring the what, why, and how of whey protein. You’ll learn about its benefits, the difference between whey concentrate and isolate, and how to use it for weight loss. Whether you’re a gym-goer looking to optimize your recovery or simply aiming to maintain a healthy weight, there’s something here for you.
What is Whey Protein?
In simple terms, whey protein is a complete, high-quality protein extracted from milk. Milk is separated into solids, curds, and a liquid during the cheese-making process. This liquid is whey.
It might surprise you to learn that, historically, this whey was seen as a waste product in cheese-making.1Walstra P, Wouters JT, Geurts TJ. Dairy Science and Technology, Second Edition. CRC Press; 2005. It was often discarded without a second thought. That was until curious minds decided to investigate its potential.
As it turns out, that ‘waste product’ was a nutritional gold mine. Researchers found that whey protein is a ‘complete’ protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein that your body can’t produce on its own.2Hoffman JR, Falvo MJ. Protein – Which is Best?. J Sports Sci Med. 2004;3(3):118-30. PMID: 24482589; PMCID: PMC3905294. This revelation transformed how we view and use whey protein today.
But the story of whey protein doesn’t end there. There are different types of whey protein, namely whey concentrate and whey isolate. Each of these varieties has a unique production process and nutritional profile, which we’ll delve into later.
So, whey protein isn’t just a fancy supplement. It’s a natural, versatile source of essential nutrients that can be crucial to your health and fitness.
Whey Concentrate vs Whey Isolate
When it comes to whey protein, you’ll find it in two forms: whey concentrate and whey isolate. Both derive from the same source, but the difference lies in the processing method and their nutritional profiles.
Whey Concentrate is produced through ultrafiltration of whey, resulting in a product that retains a higher amount of bioactive compounds and nutrients.3Sakkas H, Mpesios A, Zaragotas D, et al. Nutrition in the Prevention and Treatment of Abdominal Obesity. Elsevier; 2014. These include:
- Immunoglobulins: These are proteins that play a key role in the immune function by fighting off bacteria and viruses.4Ng TB, Cheung RCF, Wong JH, Wang Y. Immunoactive proteins and peptides from foods. Food Sci Hum Wellness. 2015;4(3):103-110. doi:10.1016/j.fshw.2015.07.003.
- Lactoferrin: An iron-binding protein with potent antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, contributing to improved gut and immune health.5Legrand D, Elass E, Carpentier M, Mazurier J. Lactoferrin: a modulator of immune and inflammatory responses. Cell Mol Life Sci. 2005 Nov;62(22):2549-59. doi: 10.1007/s00018-005-5369-8. PMID: 16261269.
- Growth Factors: Such as IGF-1, these compounds support cell growth and recovery.6Barbieri M, Ferrucci L, Ragno E, Corsi A, Bandinelli S, Bonafè M, Olivieri F, Giovagnetti S, Franceschi C, Guralnik JM, Paolisso G. “Chronic inflammation and the effect of IGF-I on muscle strength and power in older persons.” Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2003 Mar;284(3):E481-7. doi: 10.1152/ajpendo.00319.2002.
Whey concentrate generally contains around 70-80% protein, with the remaining percentage comprising carbohydrates, fats, and moisture. It also contains lactose, making it unsuitable for those with lactose intolerance.
On the other hand, Whey Isolate goes through a more intensive process known as cross-flow microfiltration. This method eliminates most carbohydrates and fats, yielding a product typically over 90% protein.7Boirie Y, Dangin M, Gachon P, Vasson MP, Maubois JL, Beaufrère B. Slow and fast dietary proteins differently modulate postprandial protein accretion. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1997;94(26):14930-5. doi: 10.1073/pnas.94.26.14930. PMID: 9405716; PMCID: PMC25140. It’s also virtually lactose-free, making it a viable option for those with lactose intolerance. However, the extra processing steps may strip away some of the beneficial bioactive compounds found in whey concentrate.
Now, you might wonder, which one is better?
The answer depends on your unique dietary needs and goals.
- For general health: I recommend using a grass-fed whey concentrate, preferably with New Zealand-sourced dairy, and one which contains no artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, or unnecessary ingredients like carrageenan. This ensures you get the best quality whey protein with the additional growth factors and nutrients in whey concentrate.
- For muscle growth only, or for those with lactose intolerance: In this case, go with whey isolate. I still recommend you avoid artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, and carrageenan, but remember that pure whey isolate doesn’t taste as good. So, you should have the right expectations when you buy high-quality whey isolate. Also, it’s not necessary to use grass-fed whey unless you’re doing so for the benefit of the cows. Since whey isolate is filtered so much, it doesn’t contain the beneficial growth factors in the concentrate. From purely a nutritional standpoint, whey isolate from non-grass-fed dairy will do the same as grass-fed whey without it costing as much.
Whey Protein Health Benefits
The beauty of whey protein lies not only in its convenience and versatility but also in its potent health and fitness benefits. Initially, it became popular with athletes and bodybuilders, but based on experience and supporting research, whey protein can play a significant role in health and fitness across all age groups, even in children.
Increases Muscle Growth and Supports Muscle Maintenance
A workout, while beneficial, is essentially a stressor that creates micro-damage in your muscles. In the recovery phase after a workout, the real magic happens – your body repairs the damage, building the muscles back stronger. This is where whey protein, especially its rich supply of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), plays a pivotal role.8Hulmi JJ, Lockwood CM, Stout JR. Effect of protein/essential amino acids and resistance training on skeletal muscle hypertrophy: A case for whey protein. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2010;7:51. doi:10.1186/1743-7075-7-51
BCAAs, including leucine, isoleucine, and valine, are essential amino acids our bodies cannot produce. Hence, we must obtain them through our diet. Among the BCAAs, leucine stands out for its ability to stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS), the process that leads to muscle growth.9Norton LE, Layman DK. Leucine regulates translation initiation of protein synthesis in skeletal muscle after exercise. J Nutr. 2006;136(2):533S-537S. doi:10.1093/jn/136.2.533S
Whey protein, being a leucine-rich source, can trigger MPS effectively, especially when consumed post-exercise. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that consuming whey protein (containing 3.5 grams of leucine) immediately after resistance exercise significantly increased MPS compared to consuming it two hours later.10Tipton KD, Elliott TA, Cree MG, Wolf SE, Sanford AP, Wolfe RR. Ingestion of casein and whey proteins result in muscle anabolism after resistance exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2004;36(12):2073-2081. doi:10.1249/01.MSS.0000147582.99810.C5 This highlights the importance of nutrient timing in maximizing whey protein’s muscle-building effects.
Furthermore, consuming whey protein after workouts aids recovery by reducing muscle soreness and enhancing muscle strength and performance. A 2017 meta-analysis found that protein supplementation post-workout significantly reduced muscle soreness and improved muscle performance during recovery from resistance exercise.11Pasiakos SM, McLellan TM, Lieberman HR. The effects of protein supplements on muscle mass, strength, and aerobic and anaerobic power in healthy adults: a systematic review. Sports Med. 2015;45(1):111-131. doi:10.1007/s40279-014-0242-2
So, whey protein can be a valuable addition to your post-workout recovery regimen if you’re doing any form of resistance training.
While we’ve already discussed the benefits of whey protein for post-exercise muscle recovery and growth, it’s essential to acknowledge that whey’s muscle-supporting effects extend beyond the gym. Research shows that whey protein supplementation can benefit muscle health in various scenarios, with or without exercise, and across the lifespan.
Whey Protein With and Without Exercise
While it’s true that whey protein, in conjunction with resistance exercise, maximizes muscle protein synthesis, it doesn’t mean you won’t benefit if you’re not lifting weights.12Tang JE, Moore DR, Kujbida GW, Tarnopolsky MA, Phillips SM. Ingestion of whey hydrolysate, casein, or soy protein isolate: effects on mixed muscle protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in young men. J Appl Physiol. 2009;107(3):987-992. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00076.2009 Whey protein can stimulate muscle protein synthesis on its own, making it useful for those who may be less active or unable to engage in regular resistance exercise due to age or physical conditions.
A study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition showed that supplementation with whey protein, even without exercise, improved lean muscle mass in elderly women, highlighting its potential role in combating age-related muscle loss.13Frestedt JL, Zenk JL, Kuskowski MA, Ward LS, Bastian ED. A whey-protein supplement increases fat loss and spares lean muscle in obese subjects: a randomized human clinical study. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2008;5:8. doi:10.1186/1743-7075-5-8
Whey Protein For Different Age Groups
Whey protein’s muscle-building and maintenance benefits are not exclusive to any particular age group. From young adults to the elderly, everyone stands to gain. For younger adults, whey protein can serve as an effective tool for building and preserving lean muscle mass. In older adults, it can help counteract sarcopenia, or age-related muscle loss, which can severely impact quality of life.14Pennings B, Boirie Y, Senden JM, Gijsen AP, Kuipers H, van Loon LJ. Whey protein stimulates postprandial muscle protein accretion more effectively than do casein and casein hydrolysate in older men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011;93(5):997-1005. doi:10.3945/ajcn.110.008102
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition demonstrated that older men responded to whey protein intake, with or without resistance exercise, by significantly increasing muscle protein synthesis.15Devries MC, Phillips SM. Supplemental protein in support of muscle mass and health: advantage whey. J Food Sci. 2015;80 Suppl 1:A8-A15. doi:10.1111/1750-3841.12802
I should also add that whey protein can play a significant role in nutrition for children, especially if they’re picky eaters. You can make a great-tasting shake or find high-quality protein bars with 20+ grams of protein, making it a far superior snack, breakfast, or meal option than what many kids eat daily.
Supports Weight Management
Managing weight involves a delicate balance of energy intake and expenditure. A vital part of this equation is maintaining satiety, or a feeling of fullness, which can deter overeating. Several studies have demonstrated the potential of whey protein to assist in weight management through a variety of mechanisms, from boosting satiety to enhancing body composition.16Paddon-Jones D, Westman E, Mattes RD, Wolfe RR, Astrup A, Westerterp-Plantenga M. Protein, weight management, and satiety. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 May;87(5):1558S-1561S. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/87.5.1558S. PMID: 18469287.
Satiety and Caloric Intake
The satiating effect of whey is linked to its impact on gut hormones such as cholecystokinin and glucagon-like peptide-1, which signal fullness to the brain. Consuming a meal with whey protein leads to a greater release of these hormones, helping you feel full and satisfied.17Hall WL, Millward DJ, Long SJ, Morgan LM. Casein and whey exert different effects on plasma amino acid profiles, gastrointestinal hormone secretion and appetite. Br J Nutr. 2003 Feb;89(2):239-48. doi: 10.1079/BJN2002760. PMID: 12575908.
Research published in the British Journal of Nutrition demonstrated that participants who consumed a whey protein beverage experienced reduced subsequent food intake and increased feelings of fullness compared to a casein or carbohydrate-based beverage.18Diepvens K, Häberer D, Westerterp-Plantenga M. Different proteins and biopeptides differently affect satiety and anorexigenic/orexigenic hormones in healthy humans. Int J Obes (Lond). 2008 Mar;32(3):510-8. doi: 10.1038/sj.ijo.0803768. Epub 2007 Nov 6. PMID: 17984926. This research underscores the potential of whey protein to aid in reducing overall caloric intake.
Beyond weight loss, whey protein can also play a critical role in enhancing body composition. It promotes fat loss while preserving or even building lean muscle mass.19Frestedt JL, Zenk JL, Kuskowski MA, Ward LS, Bastian ED. A whey-protein supplement increases fat loss and spares lean muscle in obese subjects: a randomized human clinical study. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2008;5:8. doi:10.1186/1743-7075-5-8. This is particularly important because muscle is metabolically more active than fat, meaning it burns more calories at rest. By helping to shift the body composition in favor of muscle over fat, whey protein can indirectly contribute to increased energy expenditure, aiding in long-term weight management.
A clinical trial published in Nutrition & Metabolism showed that obese subjects who supplemented with whey protein lost significantly more body fat and showed a greater preservation of lean muscle compared to subjects on a control beverage.20Frestedt JL, Zenk JL, Kuskowski MA, Ward LS, Bastian ED. “A whey-protein supplement increases fat loss and spares lean muscle in obese subjects: a randomized human clinical study.” Nutrition & Metabolism. 2008;5:8. doi:10.1186/1743-7075-5-8.
Blood Sugar Control and Insulin Response
An often overlooked aspect of weight management is the control of blood sugar levels and insulin response. Both play a critical role in how your body stores and uses fat, directly impacting body composition. Regular consumption of whey protein can have positive effects on both, which can indirectly support weight management.21Pal S, Ellis V. The chronic effects of whey proteins on blood pressure, vascular function, and inflammatory markers in overweight individuals. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2010 Jul;18(7):1354-9. doi: 10.1038/oby.2009.397. Epub 2009 Oct 22.
Whey protein appears to have an insulinotropic effect, meaning it stimulates the production of insulin.22Salehi A, Gunnerud U, Muhammed SJ, Ostman E, Holst JJ, Björck I, Rorsman P. The insulinogenic effect of whey protein is partially mediated by a direct effect of amino acids and GIP on β-cells. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2012 May 30;9(1):48. doi: 10.1186/1743-7075-9-48. While insulin often gets a bad rap for its role in fat storage, it’s vital to understand that this hormone also plays an important part in muscle protein synthesis. So, the insulin response to whey protein can help drive amino acids into muscle cells, supporting muscle growth and recovery.23Glynn EL, Fry CS, Drummond MJ, Timmerman KL, Dhanani S, Volpi E, Rasmussen BB. Excess leucine intake enhances muscle anabolic signaling but not net protein anabolism in young men and women. J Nutr. 2010 Nov;140(11):1970-6. doi: 10.3945/jn.110.127647. Epub 2010 Sep 15.
A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that whey protein could improve post-meal blood sugar control and insulin response in people with type 2 diabetes, particularly when consumed a few minutes before a meal.24Frid AH, Nilsson M, Holst JJ, Björck IM. Effect of whey on blood glucose and insulin responses to composite breakfast and lunch meals in type 2 diabetic subjects. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Jul;82(1):69-75. doi: 10.1093/ajcn.82.1.69. Read more about why this works in my article Protein First.
Furthermore, whey protein may help modulate blood sugar levels by promoting feelings of fullness and reducing food intake, as we discussed earlier. With a slower, steadier release of sugar into the blood, your body is less likely to store excess calories as fat, assisting in weight management and healthier body composition.25Ma J, Stevens JE, Cukier K, Maddox AF, Wishart JM, Jones KL, Clifton PM, Horowitz M, Rayner CK. Effects of a protein preload on gastric emptying, glycemia, and gut hormones after a carbohydrate meal in diet-controlled type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2009 Sep;32(9):1600-2. doi: 10.2337/dc09-0723. Epub 2009 Jun 5.
Thus, whey protein’s impact on blood sugar control and insulin response represents another mechanism by which it can support weight management and body composition, further emphasizing its versatility as a dietary supplement.
Enhances Immune Function
Your immune system is your body’s first defense against harmful bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens. Diet and nutrition can significantly influence the functioning of this complex system, with certain nutrients known to have an immunomodulatory effect. One of these nutrients is whey protein.26Pérez-Cano FJ, Franch À, Castellote C, Castell M. The suckling rat as a model for immunonutrition studies in early life. Clin Dev Immunol. 2012;2012:537310. doi:10.1155/2012/537310.
Immunoglobulins and Other Bioactive Compounds
We already touched on the immunoglobulins in whey protein, which are essential to the body’s immune response. These proteins act as antibodies, binding to harmful foreign substances to neutralize them and stimulate their removal from the body.27Strydom A, Rankin NM, Lee AJ, Xiao J, Beale P, Solomon M, Dhillon HM. An update of the evidence relating to glutamine and protein supplementation for gastrointestinal cancer patients. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2021 Feb;75(2):294-305. doi: 10.1038/s41430-020-0667-2. Epub 2020 Jun 3. PMID: 32494059. Whey protein, particularly the concentrate form, is rich in immunoglobulins, helping to enhance your body’s natural defense mechanisms.
But it’s not just immunoglobulins. Whey protein also contains lactoferrin and lysozyme, compounds with potent antimicrobial properties. Lactoferrin, for instance, binds to iron—an element many bacteria need to multiply—thus inhibiting their growth.28Legrand D. Overview of Lactoferrin as a Natural Immune Modulator. J Pediatr. 2016 Jun;173 Suppl:S10-5. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2016.02.071.
Supporting Gut Health
The beneficial impact of whey protein on immune function extends to gut health. Your gut houses a large portion of your immune cells, and maintaining a healthy gut microbiota is critical to optimal immune function.29Belkaid Y, Hand TW. Role of the microbiota in immunity and inflammation. Cell. 2014 Mar 27;157(1):121-41. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2014.03.011.
Studies have shown that whey protein can support gut health by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria and inhibiting the proliferation of harmful ones.30Sugiyama M, Kunihiro S, Ando A, Hata T, Koshioka M, Imaizumi K, Miyazawa D, Ogawa M, Morotomi M. Whey Peptides Prevent Chronic Ultraviolet B Radiation-Induced Skin Aging in Melanin-Possessing Male Hairless Mice. J Nutr. 2014 Jan;144(1):27-32. doi: 10.3945/jn.113.179523. Epub 2013 Nov 20. PMID: 24259552. In doing so, it may also help to alleviate inflammatory bowel conditions, further contributing to immune function.31Benjamin J, Makharia G, Ahuja V, Anand Rajan KD, Kalaivani M, Gupta SD, Joshi YK. Glutamine and whey protein improve intestinal permeability and morphology in patients with Crohn’s disease: a randomized controlled trial. Dig Dis Sci. 2012 Apr;57(4):1000-12. doi: 10.1007/s10620-011-1991-5. Epub 2012 Jan 10. PMID: 22234933.
Disease and Infection
Whey protein, with its immune-boosting components, can also help to combat certain illnesses and infections. Research has shown it may be particularly beneficial in addressing respiratory infections and could even support immune function in individuals with HIV8.32Pilvi TK, Harala S, Korpela R, Mervaala EM. Effects of high-calcium diets with different whey proteins on weight loss and weight regain in high-fat-fed C57BL/6J mice. Br J Nutr. 2009 Oct;102(3):337-41. doi: 10.1017/S0007114508162956. Epub 2009 Feb 24.,33Mangili A, Murman DH, Zampini AM, Wanke CA. Nutrition and HIV infection: review of weight loss and wasting in the era of highly active antiretroviral therapy from the nutrition for healthy living cohort. Clin Infect Dis. 2006 Mar 15;42(6):836-42. Epub 2006 Feb 8. PMID: 16477562.
More recent evidence suggests whey protein supplementation may reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections or similar viral infections.34Gallo V, Giansanti F, Arienzo A, Antonini G. Antiviral properties of whey proteins and their activity against SARS-CoV-2 infection. J Funct Foods. 2022;89:104932. doi:10.1016/j.jff.2022.104932
Boosting Glutathione Production
Glutathione, often called the body’s “master antioxidant,” is critical to maintaining immune health. It helps neutralize harmful free radicals, reduces oxidative stress, and aids in the detoxification of harmful substances. Studies have shown that whey protein can enhance glutathione levels in the body, thus boosting overall immune function.35Vojdani A, Bazargan M, Vojdani E, Wright J. New evidence for antioxidant properties of vitamin C. Cancer Detect Prev. 2000;24(6):508-23.
Whey protein, particularly the bioactive compounds found in whey concentrate, provides the amino acid cysteine, which is a key building block for glutathione production. Regular consumption of whey protein can therefore help maintain optimal glutathione levels and, by extension, support immune function.36Zavorsky GS, Kubow S, Grey V, Riverin V, Lands LC. An open-label dose-response study of lymphocyte glutathione levels in healthy men and women receiving pressurized whey protein isolate supplements. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2007 Sep;58(6):429-36.
Inflammation is a vital part of the immune response. However, chronic, low-grade inflammation can undermine health and contributes to numerous diseases. Evidence suggests that whey protein can help modulate inflammation, lending further support to immune function.37Sugawara K, Takahashi H, Kashiwagura T, et al. Effect of anti-inflammatory supplementation with whey peptide and exercise therapy in patients with COPD. Respir Med. 2012;106(10):1526-1534.
Specifically, the bioactive peptides found in whey can inhibit the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which drive the inflammatory response. By modulating these cytokines, whey protein can help maintain a healthy inflammatory balance, supporting immune health.38Ibrahim HR, Ahmed AS, Miyata T. Novel angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitory peptides from caseins and whey proteins of goat milk. J Adv Res. 2017;8(1):63-71. doi:10.1016/j.jare.2016.02.005.
Additional Whey Protein Benefits
Though there isn’t a massive volume of supporting research like there is for the above benefits, the following are some additional health benefits of whey protein.
- Bone Health: Some studies suggest that whey protein might help improve bone health. Proteins are crucial for bone formation, and whey protein, being a complete protein, may support bone health.39Bonjour JP. Dietary protein: an essential nutrient for bone health. J Am Coll Nutr. 2005 Dec;24(6 Suppl):526S-36S. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2005.10719501. PMID: 16373952.
- Heart Health: There’s also evidence that whey protein can reduce high blood pressure, one of the major risk factors for heart disease.40Pal S, Ellis V. The chronic effects of whey proteins on blood pressure, vascular function, and inflammatory markers in overweight individuals. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2010 Jul;18(7):1354-9. doi: 10.1038/oby.2009.397. Epub 2009 Nov 5. PMID: 19893505.
- Anti-Cancer Properties: Some lab and animal studies indicate that whey protein may have anti-cancer properties, but human studies are needed to confirm these findings.41Bounous G, Batist G, Gold P. Immunoenhancing property of dietary whey protein in mice: role of glutathione. Clin Invest Med. 1989 Jun;12(3):154-61. PMID: 2788171.
- Antioxidant Support: Whey protein is a source of the amino acid cysteine, which is needed for the synthesis of glutathione, one of the body’s most important antioxidants.42Micke P, Beeh KM, Schlaak JF, Buhl R. Oral supplementation with whey proteins increases plasma glutathione levels of HIV-infected patients. Eur J Clin Invest. 2001 Feb;31(2):171-8. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2362.2001.00781.x. PMID: 11168457.
- Skin Health: Whey protein might also have benefits for skin health. It’s been used in the cosmetic industry as an ingredient in products aimed at improving skin health and appearance.43Lönnerdal B. Bioactive proteins in human milk: mechanisms of action. J Pediatr. 2010 Sep;157(2 Suppl):S26-30. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2010.04.028. PMID: 20739045.
Potential Side Effects of Whey Protein
Whey protein is generally well-tolerated and safe for most individuals, as evidenced by its widespread use and positive safety profile in numerous research studies.44Hoffman JR, Falvo MJ. Protein – Which is Best?. J Sports Sci Med. 2004;3(3):118-130. Published 2004 Sep 1. However, like with any dietary supplement, some people may experience side effects, and it’s important to be aware of them.
One of the most common side effects reported with whey protein supplementation is digestive discomfort. This can manifest as bloating, gas, cramps, or diarrhea, especially in those who are lactose intolerant or sensitive to dairy products.45Onwulata CI, Rao DR, Vankineni P. Relative efficiency of yogurt, sweet acidophilus milk, hydrolyzed-lactose milk, and a commercial lactase tablet in alleviating lactose maldigestion. Am J Clin Nutr. 1989 Jun;49(6):1233-7. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/49.6.1233. PMID: 2729159.
Some individuals may have an allergy to milk proteins, which includes whey. Symptoms of a milk protein allergy can range from mild to severe, including skin reactions, digestive problems, and, in rare cases, anaphylaxis.46Restani P, Beretta B, Fiocchi A, Ballabio C, Galli CL. Cross-reactivity between milk proteins from different animal species. Clin Exp Allergy. 2002 Jul;32(7):1043-6. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2222.2002.01405.x. PMID: 12100029.
In these cases, it might be appropriate to choose a different protein supplement source, such as beef or egg protein, or to get all of your protein from whole food.
How to Choose the Best Whey Protein
Choosing a quality whey protein supplement can be a game changer when reaping the full range of benefits. But with so many options on the market, how do you discern between the good, the bad, and the not-so-good? I’ll outline a few important distinctions between the good and not-so-good options.
Avoid Artificial Sweeteners, Flavors, and Colors
First, avoid products with artificial sweeteners, flavors, and colors. While they might make the product taste better or look more appealing, they often come with health concerns. Studies suggest artificial sweeteners may negatively affect gut health and blood sugar regulation.47Suez J, Korem T, Zeevi D, et al. Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. Nature. 2014 Oct 9;514(7521):181-6. doi: 10.1038/nature13793. Epub 2014 Sep 17. PMID: 25231862. Artificial colors have been linked to various health issues, including allergic reactions and behavioral problems in children.48Stevens LJ, Kuczek T, Burgess JR, Stochelski MA, Arnold LE, Galland L. Mechanisms of behavioral, atopic, and other reactions to artificial food colors in children. Nutr Rev. 2013 May;71(5):268-81. doi: 10.1111/nure.12023. Epub 2013 Apr 3. PMID: 23590704. Instead, opt for a product sweetened with natural ingredients like stevia, lo han, or monk fruit. Some sugar alcohols are also acceptable.
Also, Avoid Carrageenan
Carrageenan, a thickening agent derived from seaweed, is often found in cheaper protein powders. While it’s used to improve texture, it’s not something you want in your whey protein. Some research suggests that carrageenan can cause inflammation, gut irritation and possibly contribute to serious gastrointestinal diseases.49Bhattacharyya S, Dudeja PK, Tobacman JK. Carrageenan-induced NFκB activation depends on distinct pathways mediated by reactive oxygen species and Hsp27 or by Bcl10. Biochim Biophys Acta. 2008 Jun;1780(6):973-82. doi: 10.1016/j.bbagen.2008.02.005. Epub 2008 Feb 29. PMID: 18328264; PMCID: PMC2435252.
Unfortunately, you can also consume carrageenan in everyday groceries such as yogurt, pizza, ice cream, and infant formula. Yes, you read that right! Some manufacturers put that nasty ingredient in baby formula!
Minimize Sugar Content
You don’t have to buy a zero-sugar protein powder. If you do, it’ll either contain artificial flavors and sweeteners to make it palatable, or it will be “clean” but taste awful. A little sugar, like 3-5 grams per serving, will be okay. Of course, you also shouldn’t take your high-quality, low-sugar protein powder and then mix it with juice and various fruits, which will load it with sugar. Be sensible when you blend it with other ingredients.
Whey protein, a powerful nutrient once discarded in cheese-making, has emerged as a vital tool for achieving diverse health goals. Its ability to aid muscle growth and recovery, support weight management, and boost immune function are well-supported by scientific research.
When choosing between whey concentrate and isolate, remember that concentrate contains more bioactive compounds, offering a broader range of health benefits. These include immunoglobulins, lactoferrin, and growth factors that help with immune support, iron regulation, and cellular growth.
However, it’s crucial to be mindful of potential side effects. While generally safe, some individuals may experience digestive discomfort or allergic reactions. Always begin with small doses and consult with a healthcare provider if in doubt.
Quality matters when choosing a whey protein supplement. Avoid products with artificial sweeteners, flavors, colors, and the thickening agent carrageenan, which can lead to health issues. Instead, choose a product sourced from grass-fed, hormone-free cows. Not only does this provide a healthier balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids, it also ensures the product is free from unnecessary hormones and antibiotics.
I cannot say it often enough: A high-protein diet is crucial for long-term health and fitness. Using whey protein makes it easier to get your protein in, while offering some major health benefits while you consume it.