For a lot of people, whey protein was the gateway supp—the first one they shelled out dough for in an effort to build a bigger, stronger physique. But that love affair never fades and there’s a reason for that: it remains one of the safest, most effective supplements on the market. Here, we give you the Cliffs Notes on what whey really is and why it continues to be a mainstay in supplement stacks everywhere.
All proteins are comprised of amino acids, and amino acids serve as the building blocks of proteins. Each protein, regardless of its source, is made up of approximately 20 amino acids. Since all proteins are comprised of the same 20 amino acids, how is one protein source different from another? The answer to this question is that the sequence of the amino acids differs from one type of protein to another. In addition, the composition of the amino acids that comprise a given protein is what makes one type of protein different from another. For example, soy does not have as much of the amino acid methionine as some other high-quality proteins, and egg protein has more branched chain amino acids than vegetable proteins.
Each protein source—soy, casein, vegetable, whey, beef, egg—is different from the other primarily because of the amino acids that comprise each unique protein source. So, now that we know why protein sources are different from each other. The next logical question to ask is ‘What is the best type of supplemental protein?’
High-quality proteins all contain eight specific amino acids, which are known as essential amino acids. The BCAAs (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) are three of these essential amino acids, and are very important for physically active individuals as they supply energy to working muscles and reduce muscle damage and soreness following intense workouts.
Of all the amino acids, leucine is the only one that has known anabolic signaling actions. Scientific research has consistently reported that leucine alone stimulates muscle protein synthesis. For this reason, individuals in training and desiring increases in lean muscle mass and improved recovery should base their protein supplementation choice based on the leucine content. Which type of protein has the greatest amount of leucine, you ask? Whey protein.
There are several objective scoring systems that rank protein quality. And in nearly every one of these, whey protein is ranked the highest. The reason that whey protein is the highest quality protein source is because it has the highest amount of leucine as compared to other protein sources.
Where does whey protein come from? Milk. One cup of cow’s milk provides about 8g of total protein. The protein component of cow’s milk is composed of numerous specific proteins. The primary group of milk proteins is referred to as caseins, and all other proteins found in milk are grouped together under the name of whey proteins. Of these two milk proteins, approximately 80% of milk protein is casein and the remainder is whey protein.
Whey protein supplements are commercially available as whey protein concentrates, isolates, and hydrolysates. The primary differences among these forms are the method of processing, differences in fat and lactose content, and amino acid profiles.
Whey protein concentrate has anywhere between 25% and 89% protein depending upon the quality of the protein product. Whey protein concentrate is further extracted to become whey protein isolate. Whey protein isolate is the most pure and concentrated form of whey protein available. It contains 90% or more protein, and very little fat and lactose. As the protein level in whey protein concentrate increases the amounts of fat and/or lactose decreases.
Whey protein hydrolysates are made from either whey protein concentrate or whey protein isolate. Specifically, whey protein hydrolysates are enzymatically predigested, which allows the amino acids to be absorbed by the body more rapidly than intact proteins. The amount of protein that is present in whey protein hydrolysate is variable.
The three most common commercially available protein supplements are whey, casein, and soy. When these proteins are compared for their ability to stimulate muscle protein synthesis in the few hours following exercise, whey protein is significantly better than the other protein sources. Also, whey protein often outperforms (or in some cases is equal to) other protein sources in outcomes such as maximal strength, increasing lean body mass, or in maximizing fat loss.
Among the various protein supplement options, whey protein is the runaway best choice. This does not mean that other protein sources do not have a place in your training and dietary program, but whey protein should serve as the foundation for your protein supplementation intake. Ingesting whey protein on a consistent basis has been found to increase rates of protein synthesis, increase lean muscle mass buildup, improve strength, and improve recovery from exercise.
Active individuals should ingest between 0.5-1g of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. More dedicated lifters can shoot for 1-1.5g per pound of bodyweight per day. Ingesting some of this protein intake in the form of supplemental whey protein is a wise investment for those seeking tomaximize muscle gains from their training programs.
BY BILL CAMPBELL, CSCS, PHD, FISSN