Whey protein is a staple in most athletes’ diets for a good reason: it’s digested quickly, absorbed efficiently, and easy on the taste buds.
Prices are all over the place, however, ranging from less than $10 per pound, to over $20 per pound, and marketing claims used to justify various price points range from sensible to ludicrous.
So what gives? Let’s lift the veil of mystery on whey so you can make an informed choice, and get the right product for the right price.
WHAT IS WHEY PROTEIN, ANYWAY, AND WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL?
Whey is a byproduct of cheese production. It’s a relatively clear liquid left over after milk has been curdled and strained, and it used to be disposed of as waste.
It was later discovered that it contains an impressive array of complete proteins necessary for protein synthesis and hypertrophy, and thus, the whey protein supplement was born.
But why is whey so big in the health and fitness world? Does it warrant all the attention and use?
Well, whey is especially popular with athletes and bodybuilders because of its amino profile, which is high in leucine. Leucine is an essential amino acid that plays a key role in initiating protein synthesis.
Whey is particularly effective when eaten after training, due to its rapid digestion and abundance of leucine. Simply put, the faster protein is digested and the more leucine it has, the more muscle growth it stimulates, and research has proven that whey is a highly effective form of post-workout protein.
So yes, there’s a good reason why most protein supplements sold are whey. But not all whey products are equal.
CONCENTRATES, ISOLATES, HYDROLYSATES, OH MY! WHICH SHOULD YOU BUY?
The three forms of whey protein sold are whey concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate.
Whey concentrate is the least processed form and cheapest to manufacture, and it contains some fat and lactose. Whey concentrates range from 35 – 80% protein by weight, depending on quality.
Whey isolate is a form of whey protein processed to remove the fat and lactose. Isolates are 90%+ protein by weight. As they’re more expensive to manufacture than whey concentrate, they’re more expensive for consumers too.
Whey hydrolysate is a predigested form of whey protein that’s very easily absorbed by the body and free of allergenic substances found in milk products. Research also indicates that the hydrolysis process improves solubility and digestibility. Whey hydrolysate is the most expensive of the three options.
So which should you buy? Well, when choosing a whey, you have a few things to consider.
While isolates and hydrolysates are pushed as superior to concentrates due to purity and higher protein concentrations per scoop, there’s insufficient evidence to support claims that they are superior to concentrates when used as a part of a mixed diet.
That said, choosing the cheapest whey you can find, which will always be a concentrate, isn’t always a good idea, either. A quality whey concentrate is somewhere around 80% protein by weight, but inferior concentrates can have as little as 30% protein by weight. What else is in there, then? Unfortunately we can only wonder, as adulteration (the addition of fillers like maltodextrin and flour) is startlingly rampant in this industry.
In many cases, you’ll get what you pay for–if the product costs a lot less than the going rate for whey, it’s probably because it’s made with inferior ingredients.
High prices aren’t always indicative of high-quality, though. Disreputable supplement companies also pull other tricks, such as starting with a low-quality concentrate, adding small amounts of isolate and hydrolysate to create a “blend,” and then calling attention to the isolate and hydrolysate in their marketing and packaging.
To protect yourself as a consumer, always check ingredient lists and serving sizes and amounts of protein per serving before buying protein powder.
Specifically, you’re going to want to look at the order in which the ingredients are listed (ingredients are listed in descending order according to predominance by weight), and the amount of protein per scoop relative to the scoop size.
A high-quality whey protein is easy to spot: whey concentrate, isolate, or hydrolysate listed as the first ingredients, and a scoop size relatively close to the amount of actual protein per scoop (it’ll never match because there is at least sweetener and flavoring along with the protein powder in every serving).
HOW TO USE WHEY PROTEIN
The ideal ratio between whole food and supplement protein is still an area of scientific ambiguity, but anecdotal evidence has led to the general advice of getting at least 50% of your daily protein from whole food sources. Protein supplements are meant to be just that–supplements–and not primary sources of daily protein.
As you know, whey is a particularly effective form of post-workout protein. When using it for this, research has shown that 20 grams of protein is enough to stimulate maximal protein synthesis in young, healthy males. In the elderly, higher amounts are needed, with research showing that 35 – 40 grams stimulates more protein synthesis than 20 grams.
Whey protein can also be used as an effective pre-workout supplement, as research has shown protein ingested 30 minutes prior to training can reduce muscle damage and soreness.