The Protein Challenge: Why Whey Is Growing More Expensive

Whey's cost is on the rise, but it's possible to build muscle without blowing your budget.

If you know anything about growing muscle, you understand that whey protein needs to be the first supplement on your list. It's one of the highest-quality proteins you can consume, and it's especially effective when taken around workouts.

But, as you may have already noticed, the price of whey protein is steadily climbing. To understand why this is and how to cut your cost without cutting your protein intake, we need to explain how whey gets from the dairy farm to your shaker cup.



Freakanomics

The problem with the price of whey starts with the milk supply, as whey is made from whole milk. The demand for milk is so high in burgeoning countries like China and Russia that independent farmers can make more money doing business with them than with American companies.

As a result, the national milk supply has dwindled while America's demand for moo juice continues to increase. The relatively small amount of milk that is sold domestically must go to cheese manufacturers to make whey, dividing the supply even further.

Milk that has been sold to cheese makers is then transported to the facility by milk tanker drivers. These guys are actually accredited milk graders who are qualified to evaluate the milk prior to collection. They grade and, if necessary, reject milk based on temperature, sight and smell.

If the milk is approved, it's pumped into the stainless steel tanker and driven to the cheese manufacturing plant. This is yet another step in the manufacturing process that increases the price of whey protein.

Today's higher gas prices mean it costs more to transport the milk. And, of course, you absorb that cost.

From Milk, To Cheese, To Protein

One of the newest state-of-the-art cheese manufacturing facilities in the United States is Glanbia's Southwest Cheese and Whey manufacturing plant in Clovis, NM.

When the raw milk arrives via tanker to Glanbia, it's inspected again. The approved milk is pumped into refrigerated holding tanks, and later pasteurized (heated just enough to kill off dangerous bacteria). The milk is then re-cooled and undergoes cheese processing.

Cheese is made mainly from the casein portion of milk, which makes up about 80% of milk protein. So the processing of cheese involves draining off the fluid whey portion of the milk.

Long before anyone realized the benefits of whey, this whey runoff was simply discarded (the horror!).

Since Glanbia recognizes that whey protein today is big business, it pumps the drained whey to the whey manufacturing portion of the facility, where it takes its first steps to becoming the protein powder you know and love.

Concentrates And Isolates

The whey permeate that is left from cheese processing is only about 15% whey, with the rest being lactose (milk sugar) and fat.

To remove a good portion of these carbs and fat, the whey undergoes a series of filtering steps, called ultrafiltration. What remains is whey protein concentrate, referred to as WPC-80: it is 80% protein.

This final product presents two options. The majority of WPC-80 will remain as whey concentrate, but a small percentage of WPC-80 goes through an even more rigorous filtration process to become whey protein isolate-the ultimate protein supplement for guys who lift weights.

More of the lactose and fat is removed to create a product that's 90% protein or higher, but this is a costly process.

Making whey isolate involves microfiltration, which requires membranes that are expensive and need to be replaced frequently. (Another option is ion-exchange chromatography, which is similarly complicated.)

All of this drives up the price of whey protein isolate over concentrate considerably. As you probably already gathered, whey protein concentrate isn't exactly cheap to make in the first place.


Whey is a staple in every bodybuilder's plan. Since its production costs continually increase, the price increases are passed on to consumers.
Whey is a staple in every bodybuilder's plan. Since its production costs continually increase, the price increases are passed on to consumers.

The Final Cost

Whether it's WPC-80 or whey protein isolate, the last part of the process is spray drying. The protein fluid is fed into an atomizer, where it's separated into tiny droplets. The droplets meet a blast of hot air, which removes the moisture and leaves the protein as powder.

Most quality whey proteins also undergo the process of instantizing, which allows them to mix better in fluid and not clump. From there, bags of protein powder are sold to supplement companies and also to food companies like Kraft or PepsiCo. And that's what takes the biggest bite out of your protein dollar.

More and more foods are being fortified with whey protein. Since these conglomerate food companies order far more whey protein than a supplement manufacturer like MuscleTech or Optimum Nutrition can, the supplement guys are left fighting for what remains. Because they have to pay more for the protein powder they buy, so do you.

The Whey Out

Enough of the doom and gloom. If you want to keep buying whey and get the most from your money, there are solutions.

Buy In Bulk

Purchase your favorite whey brand in the largest containers sold: 5-pound jugs or bigger. Yes, you'll pay more up front, but the supply will last longer.

Buy Concentrates

Powders that use more whey concentrates than isolates are less expensive. It's true that you get less protein per scoop, but the price increase for isolate does not necessarily add up to you getting more protein per dollar.

Plus, some whey protein isolate manufacturing steps can harm some of the beneficial whey protein fractions such as beta-lactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin, and bovine serum albumin peptides, which provide performanceand physique-enhancing benefits as well as antioxidant and immune-boosting properties.

The gentle filtration that WPC-80 undergoes leaves these all in place. However, remember that whey concentrate contains more lactose, so if you have an intolerance, it may not be your best choice.

Use Soy

Adding soy protein to your shakes can help keep costs down. Soy is about half the price of whey and digests only a little slower.

Furthermore, soy's amino acid profile complements that of whey to provide benefits that whey protein alone can't. These include increased growth hormone secretion, enhanced nitric oxide (NO) production, and antioxidants that have been shown to enhance muscle recovery.

To end the debate once and for all, soy does not raise estrogen or decrease testosterone levels in men, as a recent review study confirmed. Replace about half a scoop of whey with soy protein isolate.

It not only provides enhanced muscle-building benefits, but will also allow your jug of whey to last longer.