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"The Whey It Is"
By Will Brink, author of:
Muscle Building Nutrition
Muscle Gaining Diet, Training Routines by Charles Poliquin & Bodybuilding
Diet Supplements Revealed
Real World Fat Loss Diet & Weight Loss Supplement Review
Whey It Is"
If there is one thing that continues to perplex me, it is the disparity between
how popular whey protein is (thanks in large part to yours truly) and how much
confusion there is regarding this immensely popular supplement. Why are people
so confused about whey? I have to conclude that it's part deceptive advertising
by some unscrupulous supplement companies, poorly researched articles put out by
self proclaimed "guru" types, and the fact that whey is indeed a complicated
protein. In this article I will endeavor to clear it all up once and for
all?lift the vale of secrecy, strip away the myths, and shatter the hyperbole
surrounding this ultra popular supplement.
By the time you are
through reading this article, you will know all you need to know
regarding the differences in whey, such as concentrates vs. isolates,
micro filtered vs. ion exchange, and many other answers to questions
that seem to persist no matter how hard wise-guy writers like me have
tried to dispense with all the myths and misinformation/disinformation
surrounding whey. Read this article carefully, put it to memory, and you
will be the resident whey expert in the gym and amaze your friends at
the next cookout if whey becomes a topic of discussion (in which case
you go to some boring cookouts!).
What is whey?
When we talk about whey we are actually referring to a complex
ingredient made up of protein, lactose, fat and minerals. Protein is the
best known component of whey and is made up of many smaller protein
subfractions such as: Beta-lactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin,
immunoglobulins (IgGs), glycomacropeptides, bovine serum albumin (BSA)
and minor peptides such as lactoperoxidases, lysozyme and lactoferrin.
Each of the subfractions found in whey has its own unique biological
Up until quite recently,
separating these subfractions on a large scale was either impossible or
prohibitively expensive for anything but research purposes. Modern
filtering technology has improved dramatically in the past decade,
allowing companies to separate some of the highly bioactive peptides
-such as lactoferrin and lactoperoxidase-from whey.
Some of these subfractions are only found in very minute amounts in
cow's milk, normally at less than one percent. For example, although it
is one of the most promising subfractions for preventing various
diseases, improving immunity and overall health, lactoferrin makes up
approximately 0.5% or less of whey protein derived from cow's milk
(whereas human milk protein will contain up to 15% lactoferrin). Over
the past few decades, whey protein powders have evolved several
generations from low protein concentrates to very high protein isolates.
What's so great about whey?
Whey protein has become a staple supplement for most bodybuilders and
other athletes, and for good reason: it's a great protein with a wide
variety of benefits. Whey has more recently caught on with the
anti-aging/longevity-minded groups also.
A growing number of studies has found whey may potentially reduce cancer
rates, combat HIV, improve immunity, reduce stress and lower cortisol,
increase brain serotonin levels, improve liver function in those
suffering from certain forms of hepatitis, reduce blood pressure, and
improve performance, to name a few of its potential medical- and
sports-related applications. Whey also has an exceptionally high
biological value rating and an exceptionally high Branch Chain Amino
Acid (BCAA) content.
One of whey's major effects is its apparent ability to raise glutathione
(GSH). The importance of GSH for the proper function of the immune
system cannot be overstated. GSH is arguably the most important
water-soluble antioxidant found in the body.
The concentration of intracellular GSH is directly related to
lymphocyte's (an important arm of the immune system) reactivity to a
challenge, which suggests intracellular GSH levels are one way to
modulate immune function. GSH is a tri-peptide made up of the amino
acids L-cysteine, L-glutamine and glycine. Of the three, cysteine is the
main source of the free sulfhydryl group of GSH and is a limiting factor
in the synthesis of GSH (though the effects of whey on GSH is more
complicated than simply its cysteine content).
Because GSH is known to be essential to immunity, oxidative stress, and
general well being, and because reduced levels of GSH are associated
with a long list of diseases, whey has a place in anyone's nutrition
program. Reduced GSH is also associated with over training syndrome
(OTS) in athletes, so whey may very well have an application in
preventing, or at least mitigating, OTS. Pertaining directly to
athletes, some recent studies suggest whey may have direct effects on
performance and muscle mass, but this research is preliminary at best.
Some studies have found oxidative stress contributes to muscular
fatigue, so having higher GSH levels may allow you to train longer and
harder, as some recent data suggests.
Different types of whey
Most of the confusion surrounding whey appears to be in understanding
the different types of whey: concentrates, isolates, ion exchange, and
others. In the following sections, I will attempt to clear it all up for
Whey Protein Concentrates:
First generation whey protein powders contain as low as 30-40% protein
and high amounts of lactose, fat, and undenatured proteins. They are
categorized as a whey concentrate and are used mostly by the food
industry for baking and other uses. Modern concentrates now contain as
high as 70-80% protein with reduced amounts of lactose. This is achieved
through ultra-filtration processing, which removes lactose, thus
elevating the concentration of protein and fat in the final product.
Although much maligned by companies who have invested heavily in
marketing isolates, a well made concentrate is still a high quality
source of whey protein, though it will contain higher levels of lactose,
ash, and fat then an isolate.
The pros and cons of isolates, and the micro filtered vs. ion
Whey Protein Isolates (WPIs) generally contain as much as 90-96%
protein. Research has found that only whey proteins in their natural
undenatured state (i.e. native conformational state) have biological
activity. Processing whey protein to remove the lactose, fats, etc.
without losing its biological activity takes special care by the
manufacturer. Maintaining the natural undenatured state of the protein
is essential to its anti-cancer and immune-modulating activity. The
protein must be processed under low temperature and/or low acid
conditions as not to "denature" the protein. WPIs contain >90% protein
content with minimal lactose and virtually no fat.
The advantage of a good
WPI is that it contains more protein and less fat, lactose, and ash than
concentrates on a gram-for-gram basis. However, it should be clear to
the reader by now that whey is far more complicated than simple protein
content, and protein content per se is far from the most important
factor when deciding which whey to use. For example, ion exchange has
the apparent highest protein levels of any isolate.
Does that make it the best
choice for an isolate? No, but many companies still push it as the holy
grail of whey. Ion exchange is made by taking a concentrate and running
it through what is called an ion exchange column to get an "ion exchange
whey isolate." Sounds pretty fancy, but there are serious drawbacks to
this method. As mentioned above, whey protein is a complex protein made
up of many sub fraction peptides that have their own unique effects on
health and immunity. Some of these subfractions are only found in very
small amounts. In truth, the subfractions are really what ultimately
makes whey the unique protein it is.
Due to the nature of the
ion exchange process, the most valuable and health-promoting components
are selectively depleted. Though the protein content is increased, many
of the most important subfractions are lost or greatly reduced. This
makes ion exchange isolates a poor choice for a true third-generation
whey protein supplement, though many companies still use it as their
isolate source due to the higher protein content. Ion exchange isolates
can be as high as 70% or greater of the subfraction Beta-lactoglobulin,
(the least interesting and most allergenic subfraction found in whey)
with a loss of the more biologically active and interesting
subfractions. So, the pros of an ion exchange whey is for those who
simply want the very highest protein contents per gram, but the cons are
that the higher protein content comes at cost; a loss of many of the
subfractions unique to whey. Not an acceptable trade in my view,
considering the fact that the actual protein differences between a micro
filtered type isolate is minimal from that of an ion exchange.
This segues us nicely into looking at the micro filtered whey isolates.
With the array of more recent processing techniques used to make WPIs-or
pull out various subfractions -such as Cross Flow Micro filtration
(CFM?), ultra filtration (UF), micro filtration (MF), reverse osmosis
(RO), dynamic membrane filtration (DMF), ion exchange chromatography,
(IEC), electro-ultrafiltration (EU), radial flow chromatography (RFC)
and nano filtration (NF), manufacturers can now make some very high
grade and unique whey proteins.
Perhaps the most familiar
micro filtered isolate to readers would be CFM?*. Although the term
"cross flow micro filtered" is something of a generic term for several
similar ways of processing whey, The CFM? processing method uses a low
temperature micro filtration technique that allows for the production of
very high protein contents (>90%), the retention of important
subfractions, extremely low fat and lactose contents, with virtually no
undenatured proteins. CFM? is a natural, non-chemical process which
employs high tech ceramic filters, unlike ion exchange, which involves
the use of chemical reagents such as hydrochloric acid and sodium
hydroxide. CFM? whey isolate also contains high amounts of calcium and
low amounts of sodium.
To sum this section up:
- The pros of ion exchange isolates are extremely low fat and lactose
levels, with the highest protein levels (on a gram-for-gram basis). The
con-which outweighs the pros in my view-is the loss of important
subfractions in favor of higher amounts of Beta-Lac.
- The pros of well-made micro filtered isolates are a high protein
content (90% or above), low lactose and fat levels, very low levels of
undenatured proteins, and the retention of important subfractions in
their natural ratios. There really are no cons per se, unless the person
wants the additional compounds discussed in the next section.
* = CFM? is a trademark (hence the annoying trade mark symbol next to
whenever I write CFM) of Glanbia Nutritionals, a large dairy company
based in Ireland with production in the US.
New directions/the future for whey
There are several interesting directions in the development and
processing of the next generation of whey proteins.
Bioactive whey fraction protein
A new generation of whey products known as Bioactive Whey Fraction
(BAWF) protein is soon to hit the market place, and has the potential to
be a worthwhile addition to an athlete's diet. These new BAWF proteins
provide the benefits of high protein levels (>70%) accompanied by
greatly increased levels of bioactive health-promoting compounds. This
innovative product contains all sorts of interesting compounds not found
in significant concentrations in either whey isolates or concentrates.
BAWF protein contains far higher total growth factor levels comprised
from IGF-1, TGF-?1, and TGF-?2. It contains much higher levels of
various phospholipids and various bioactive lipids, such as conjugated
linoleic acid (CLA), phosphotidyl-serine, phosphtidyl-choline,
sphingomyelin, and higher levels of immunoglobulins and lactoferrin.
Although data is lacking,
studies will likely be completed to demonstrate BAWF protein's effects
related to athletes' muscle mass or performance. Current studies do
suggest these compounds can improve immunity and intestinal health, and
have many other effects that both athletes and less active people alike
may find beneficial. The differences in the levels of these compounds
between this BAWF protein compared to standard concentrates and isolates
is not minor. For example when comparing a BAWF protein to a typical
concentrate (e.g. WPC 80), the BAWF protein has 350% more lactoferrin,
400% more CLA, 200% more PS more and PC and 150% more IGF as found in
the concentrate. The differences are even larger between BAWF protein
and an isolate as isolates have only trace amounts of PS, PC, and CLA.
Optimizing subfraction ratios
Another fairly new development in whey processing is the ability to
isolate certain bioactive subfraction proteins on a large scale from
whey proteins, such as lactoferrin or Glycomacro peptide, using some of
the processing methods mentioned above. This was not possible to do on a
large scale just a few years ago, but can be done today with modern
filtering techniques employed by a small number of companies. This
allows for a truly tailored protein supplement; the ability to add back
in certain subfractions in amounts that can't be found in nature. Take
for example the subfraction lactoferrin. In many whey products, it is
nonexistent due to the type of processing employed. The best whey
products will contain less than 1% lactoferrin-and more like 0.5%-of
this rare but important micro-fraction. Some companies are now able to
add in a specific subfraction to get a truly "designer" protein. One
company is also working on making an isolate that will have higher
levels of the beneficial subfraction alpha-lactalbumin, and lower levels
of the more allergenic and less nutritive subfraction
Beta-lactoglobulin. "High alpha-lac" whey isolates would be potentially
superior to what is currently on the market in large scale production.
Hydrolyzed proteins make a comeback
Most people remember
hydrolyzed proteins were all the rage a few years ago, then dropped off
sharply. "Hydrolyzed" basically means the protein has been broken down
partially into peptides of different lengths. Because the protein is
already partially broken down, it is absorbed faster, which may have
positive effects under certain circumstances, and certain metabolic
conditions (i.e., burn victims or people with certain digestive
disorders and pre-term infants). Whether or not hydrolyzed proteins are
truly an advantage to athletes has yet to be proven.
The hype over hydrolyzed
proteins was largely based on one rat study that found fasted rats given
Hydrolyzed protein had higher nitrogen retention then rats fed whole
protein. Human studies have shown that whey peptide-based diets in
patients with cancer and crohn's disease result in enhanced nitrogen
retention and utilization. To date, no one has followed up with a human
study with healthy athletes showing the same thing.
Regardless, the reason
Hydrolyzed protein supplements never became more popular was due to the
fact they tasted awful, were expensive, and lacked enough data to really
support their use. The way they were produced at the time also denatured
the protein heavily. One company has a method for Hydrolyzing whey
protein that uses an enzymatic process that tastes OK and does not
denature the protein. It also appears to be fairly cost effective. This
type of Hydrolyzed whey may have some interesting, albeit poorly
researched, applications for bodybuilders and other athletes.
Got milk minerals?
Another potentially useful
product to bodybuilders and other athletes is a process for extracting
milk minerals from the milk. This yields a highly bio available form of
calcium without the fat and lactose of dairy products, and also contains
other minerals and nutrients, such as magnesium, phosphorus, potassium,
and zinc, needed for optimal bone formation and metabolism. Recent
research suggests that higher calcium intakes are associated with lower
blood pressure and other positive effects on health.
Most interesting to
bodybuilders and other athletes, however, is a growing body of research
that has found that higher calcium intake leads to reduced body fat
levels and may help shift the metabolism to increased lipolysis (fat
breakdown) and decrease lipogenesis (formation of fat). Though
bodybuilder types don't tend to suffer from bone density issues, many
may not be getting an optimal intake of calcium to see changes in body
fat levels. This new milk mineral product added to various protein
formulas might be just what the anabolic doctor ordered for athletes
looking to minimize body fat and maximize muscle mass.
Well there you have it. I hope this article finally clears up the major
confusion people have surrounding whey, so you can now be an educated
consumer when you go to buy that next can of whey. Don't be fooled by
the hype. Whey is great stuff for many reasons, but you won't "add
mounds of muscle in ultra short time" from the simple addition of whey
to your diet. I also suggest people keep an eye out for some of the
newer developments I outlined above that will probably be finding their
way into the next generation of whey-based formulas.
About the Author - William D. Brink
Will Brink is a columnist, contributing consultant, and writer for various
health/fitness, medical, and bodybuilding publications. His articles relating to
nutrition, supplements, weight loss, exercise and medicine can be found in such
publications as Lets Live, Muscle Media 2000, MuscleMag International, The Life
Extension Magazine, Muscle n Fitness, Inside Karate, Exercise For Men Only, Body
International, Power, Oxygen, Penthouse, Women?s World and The Townsend Letter
He is the author of Priming The Anabolic Environment and Weight
Loss Nutrients Revealed. He is the Consulting Sports Nutrition Editor and a
monthly columnist for Physical magazine and an Editor at Large for Power
magazine. Will graduated from Harvard University with a concentration in the
natural sciences, and is a consultant to major supplement, dairy, and
He has been co author of several studies relating to sports nutrition and health
found in peer reviewed academic journals, as well as having commentary published
in JAMA. He runs the highly popular web site BrinkZone.com which is
strategically positioned to fulfill the needs and interests of people with
diverse backgrounds and knowledge. The BrinkZone site has a following with many
sports nutrition enthusiasts, athletes, fitness professionals, scientists,
medical doctors, nutritionists, and interested lay people. William has been
invited to lecture on the benefits of weight training and nutrition at
conventions and symposiums around the U.S. and Canada, and has appeared on
numerous radio and television programs.
William has worked with athletes ranging from professional bodybuilders,
golfers, fitness contestants, to police and military personnel.
See Will's ebooks online here:
Muscle Building Nutrition
A complete guide bodybuilding supplements and eating to gain lean muscle
Diet Supplements Revealed
A review of diet
supplements and guide to eating for maximum fat loss
He can be contacted at: PO Box 812430
Wellesley MA. 02482.
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