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From Milk To Muscles: The Whey Story!

Several weeks ago I was asked to explore the ins and outs of whey protein. Overlooking the media hype, this is what I found. The truth. No outrageous claims to gain 25 lbs in 6 weeks, just the best proteins!

Several weeks ago, Jeff Everson approached me on behalf of PLANET MUSCLE to explore the ins and outs of whey protein. Jeff expressed that whey had kind of been taking it on the chin in some bodybuilding print media lately and although he made no attempt to influence the direction of my research and article, he stated he was after an honest and independent article on the basics of whey protein.

Jeff asked me to express any opinions on any specific protein research and manufacturing processes and if I could, to ultimately recommend an economical, solid, good whey buy for his readers, a recommendation that wouldn't necessarily come from him. With those goals in mind, when I first looked inside the world of whey protein supplementation, I was amazed at the immense volume of material as well as the abundance of different opinions and marketing claims.

To ascertain the "true story," I not only dug deep but I recruited the help of two colleagues, a registered, licensed dietician with extensive supplement formulation experience and a protein industry veteran with nearly a decade of experience under his belt.

As an immediate side note, one thing I determined is that reputable supplement companies such as Optimum, SportPharma, Worldwide, Beverly, MET-Rx and EAS won't portray their products as magic elixirs promising to turn you into the next Mr. or Ms. Olympia. These companies know that most consumers are intelligent enough to realize that dietary supplements cannot take the place of hard work and quality nutrition. So rather than attempt to deceive customers, they seek to educate them in the hopes of helping them make wise buying decisions.

Biology Is Destiny?

While Sigmund Freud was not talking about protein when he said that, in order to fuel the processes of life, the human body needs a consistent influx of three major categories of macronutrients: carbohydrates, lipids (i.e., fats and oils) and proteins. Proteins are distinct from the other macronutrients in that they are comprised of chains of nitrogen containing subunits called amino acids. Amino acids are important to the body from a structural standpoint due to the fact that they are the primary source of dietary nitrogen - an essential element.

Of the 22 amino acids commonly found in nature, eight cannot be synthesized in the body and must be obtained from dietary sources. As a result, they are classified as essential amino acids (EAA's). Seven others, called conditionally essential amino acids (CEAA's) cannot be manufactured in adequate amounts during periods of illness, injury or extreme emotional stress. Overzealous athletes who find themselves in a severely overtrained state may also need to obtain more EAA's and CEAA's through dietary means. The remaining 7 are considered nonessential amino acids (NAA's) because they can be produced within the body as needed.

Amino Acids

Essential Amino Acids Essential Amino Acids
Histidine Alanine
Isoleucine Arginine
Leucine Aspartic Acid
Lysine Cysteine
Methionine Cystine
Phenylalanine Glutamic Acid
Tryptophan Glutamine
Valine Glycine

Amino acids form the building blocks of lean muscle tissue. This is where whey protein enters the picture. Whey protein is a complete protein, meaning that it provides high levels of all eight essential amino acids. Protein derived from whey also provides appreciable amounts of CEAA's and NAA's, but as I stated earlier, when the 8 EAA's are provided in ample quantities, the body can synthesize any of the other 14 amino acids commonly found in nature.

Let's All Go To The Dairy Queen! Chemistry 101

Whey is one of two major sources of protein found in milk (the other is casein.) When cheese is manufactured from milk the curd (casein) is used and the whey is separated out. At this point, whey is about 92% water, 6.5% lactose, 0.9% protein and 0.2% vitamins, minerals and fat-soluble nutrients - not exactly your perfect bodybuilding food.

As a comparison, most of the whey supplement powders available contain (including sweeteners and flavorings) between 65% and 80% protein by dry weight. Since all whey protein originates as the byproduct of cheese manufacturing, it must be subjected to sophisticated processing methods in order to achieve these desirable protein concentrations.

There are three primary forms of whey protein - concentrate, isolate and hydrolyzed peptides (hydrolysates). Since whey protein isolate can be derived through at least two distinct processes that affect the nutritional composition of the final products, I will treat them as separate types in order to clarify their differences.

Eating Your Curds And Whey!

Dairy processing plants use crude dairy whey (sweet dairy whey) as the starting point for whey protein concentrates (WPC), whey protein isolates (WPI), and hydrolyzed whey peptides (HWP). When used to produce WPC, crude whey goes through an ultrafiltration process, which decreases it to just 20% of its original volume. The concentrated whey liquid is then diafiltered at low temperatures to remove large quantities of fat, lactose, and cholesterol. The resulting solution is then carefully dried to create a powder yielding between 34% and 89% protein by dry weight.

This finished product, commonly known as whey protein concentrate, is the major protein contributor in almost all commercial whey protein supplements. In addition to being an excellent source of amino acids, WPC is easily digested, relatively inexpensive (at least when compared to WPI, casein, or instantized egg protein), and quite palatable.

More recently, scientists and athletes have been paying more attention to the fact that whey protein is actually a family of different smaller proteins or microfractions. Why? A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that some of these protein fractions may play a key role in appetite regulation, immune functioning, neutralizing free radicals, and other health promoting activities within the body.

Of the numerous fractions found in whey, beta-lactoglobulin is generally the most abundant, followed by alpha-lactalbumin, glycomacropeptides, bovine serum albumen, immunoglobulins, along with smaller fractions such as lactoferrin and lactoperoxidase.

Hydrolyzed whey peptides (HWP), another type of whey protein material, are commonly recognized as the most bioavailable (useable by the body) and thus a very desirable form of whey protein. HWP's are whey protein concentrates or isolates that have had their peptide bonds strategically predigested (broken) with enzymes or other catalysts. Current scientific evidence suggests that the body absorbs protein in short peptide form even more efficiently than in free form amino acids.

As you probably have guessed, hydrolyzed whey peptides are rich in EAA's, CEAA's, and NAA's like WPC and are typically added to better whey formulas to effectively boost protein content. As you might also expect, there must be some drawbacks to hydrolyzed whey proteins, otherwise everyone would be using them exclusively to make their products. The first major drawback is taste. HWP's are extremely bitter. Even the most diehard athlete would have a very difficult time downing a tall glass of short chain (low molecular weight) hydrolyzed whey peptides.

Another downside to peptides is depletion of certain microfractions. As the word "hydrolyzed" implies, protein chains have been broken down.

While this will not change the amino acid profile and may actually increase the digestibility/absorbability of the product, it decreases the prevalence of some of the larger microfractions naturally present in crude whey, WPC, and WPI. A final reason HWP's are not used exclusively (or at all) in certain whey protein formulas is cost. Since HWP's start off as WPC's or WPI's, an additional processing step is needed to selectively break the peptide bonds in these larger protein classes.

Ion-Exchanged Protein Isolates are separated through an electrical charge. Solvents, temperature, and variations in pH are used to temporarily alter the charge on the proteins to one that is attractive to the oppositely charged resin beads in a reaction vessel. Once all of the protein has bonded to the resin beads, purified water is added to wash away nearly all of the non-protein materials. The protein is then removed from the resin beads by reversing the charge. The beads are washed away and the protein is dried to deliver a highly purified whey protein isolate.

Though not as "native" (maintaining the same microfraction ratios found in milk) as cross-flow microfiltered whey protein isolates, ion-exchange WPI's are richer in total protein - containing upwards of 97-98% by dry weight - more than any other type of whey protein.

Cross-flow microfiltration (CMF) is a solvent-free process that uses natural ceramic filters to isolate whey proteins from a variety of undesirables (i.e. fat, cholesterol, lactose, etc.). CFM is better at preserving the protein microfractions, with minimal denaturation and is generally higher in calcium and lower in sodium content than ion-exchange isolates. CFM WPI's are more expensive and yield higher protein levels than concentrates.

All of the whey protein types described above have beneficial characteristics. A whey protein formula containing all four, such as Optimum Nutrition's 100% Whey Protein offers the advantages of a highly concentrated protein supplement while maintaining the unique aspects of concentrates, peptides and the two major types of isolates. Whey is considered an excellent tool for building and maintaining muscle for a myriad of reasons.

It contains a full profile of amino acids, including essential amino acids, and it is the richest source of branched chain amino acids (BCAA's) - essential amino acids metabolized directly in the muscle.

It also contains relatively significant amounts of glutamine (that's right, the amino acid that makes up more than 60% of the free amino acid pool in your skeletal muscle). Whey is absorbed readily so your body quickly uses the amino acids in whey. Thus, the best time to use this protein is just after exercising when your body yearns for an influx of amino acids to use for the repair and rebuilding process within your muscles. Or, if you are able, even some whey prior to working out, so it is in your system when the workout is over!

Like Joe Friday Said: "Just The Facts, Ma'am!"

When you compare whey formulas, a percentage of protein by mass calculation is more useful than looking at the number of grams listed on the label (which may not tell you the whole story).

Look at an example of whey protein supplements, one with 22 grams of protein per serving; in one formula (Figure II). We achieve our 22 grams of protein in only a 29.4-gram serving size. For those of you who are good at math, this supplement is almost 75% protein by weight (pretty impressive if it is flavored and sweetened).

If in our second example, our serving size is 32 grams, it takes more powder (32 grams versus 29.4 grams in our first example), to yield the same amount of protein. Thus, our percentage of protein will undoubtedly be lower - in this case about 69%. Those missing percentage points must go somewhere — more than likely into the fat and/or sugar categories.

This is why the protein percentage calculation is such a valuable tool for determining whether or not you're getting the best protein profile for your investment. And it's simple to figure out! Grab your calculator:

Step 1 — Punch in the grams of protein per serving.
Step 2 — Divide that by the grams of powder per serving.
Step 3 — Multiply by 100 and that's your percent of protein per serving.
Step 4 — Buy the right whey protein supplement, priced right!

Calculate Your Protein Powder's Protein Percentage

Enter the information for your protein

Grams Of Protein Per Serving:

Total Grams Per Serving:

Quality Is King

Quality is the MOST significant issue with respect to protein. It's based on biochemical/physiological characteristics of the protein's amino acid pattern, digestibility, assimilation, and utilization. Protein is not beneficial if you cannot digest, absorb, and use it.

Biological Value (BV), Protein Efficiency Ratio (PER) and Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAs) are some of the more commonly used indices to qualify protein strength. Although it is important to keep in mind that most, if not all, of the methods used for evaluating protein quality have certain limitations, these measures do offer a general indication of how "useable" a protein is in your body.

Frankly, with respect to supplements, most of the whey, egg, soy and casein commonly found in protein supplements from reputable manufacturers all rate very well in one or more of these protein-scoring methods. Manufacturing facilities must operate according to current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMPs). Products must be tested to ensure label claims.

My Opinion: Optimum Is A Whey Powerhouse

In doing independent research, I've spent a considerable amount of time looking at the differences among whey protein manufacturing arms. There are precious few complete whey protein manufacturing houses.

As for a true economic whey protein buy, as Mr. Everson had requested. My research leads me to strongly suggest Optimum Nutrition's 100% Whey Protein, as a perfect example of a very good economical bodybuilding protein. Here's why:

What Is The Best Economic Whey Protein Buy?
  • Marketing, as I alluded to in my very first paragraph. Optimum has no misleading advertorials trumpeting phony clinical data with their own staff dressed up as clinical doctors and researchers. Optimum does not claim their whey proteins have biological values in excess of 100. They do not claim to have percentages of whey isolates that can not even exist. They do not distort existing research where they quote that their whey is better than all others by some ridiculous and dishonest percentage, erroneously skewed from a sub-fraction of limited data.

  • Each serving of OPT N's 100% Whey Protein, has 22 grams of low-temperature-processed whey protein from a "QuadPlex blend" that includes concentrates, ion exchange and cross flow isolates with hydrolyzed peptides. This is up to 77.5% protein (chocolate is a little lower (75%) because of the volume of the cocoa powder used to make it taste good).

  • From what I could see, every container (1, 2 and 5 lb.) is manufactured in modern cGMP facilities under the supervision of a strict quality control team. Raw materials are certified for purity and potency test (i.e., certificate of analysis).

  • Optimum finished products are regularly subjected to third party and in-house testing, so each label is an accurate representative of the powder inside. For example, Planet Muscle has told me that they recently independently verified the label ingredients of this product as blue ribbon certified and it is one of only nine commercially sold proteins to reach this level at the moment.

  • Optimum is inexpensive relative to total nutrient amount and value.

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