What is Whey?

Whey is one of the most popular sources of supplemental protein in the world due to its effectiveness in promoting health and unique nutritional qualities. As a testament to its popularity, there are literally thousands of whey and whey protein supplements being sold all over the world.

Despite its popularity most people are unaware of the factors that make a good whey protein product because they do not know the answer to a very simple question: “what is whey”?   Unfortunately, it is difficult to find objective, practical information about whey and whey protein because the majority of the articles online are either:

  1. Generic, overly-technical scientific articles concerning the “chemical composition of whey”; or
  2. Long, biased sales pitches about why the product featured on the page is the absolute best whey protein ever.  

This kind of information is largely useless for making an educated choice about which whey supplement is best for you and your family.

To make matters worse, dishonest manufacturers take advantage of the lack of knowledge regarding what whey protein is and, more importantly, what makes a high quality whey product. As a result, in order to defend yourself as an informed consumer, it is imperative to understand exactly what whey is, the types of whey products, and which to avoid.


 The Short Answer

Whey is a component of milk (i.e. cow’s milk) that contains numerous proteins, minerals, vitamins, and immune factors that are beneficial for health and maintaining an active lifestyle.  On its own, whey is yellowish liquid serum that tastes like sweet corn with the consistency of egg whites. Not very appetizing. However, raw whey is frequently processed into protein powder supplements that are delicious and retain many of the nutritional properties of the raw whey.

Nutritious Whey Protein Powder

Most whey is derived as a by-product of cheese production — essentially whey is what is leftover when the cream and curds are removed from whole milk. Whey can also be purpose-produced from whole milk. The first method typically results in a lower quality product since the whey is an after-thought, while the second method generally results in a higher quality whey product. Unfortunately, most manufacturers do not disclose which whey production method they utilize.

Whey is considered an outstanding nutritional supplement because it is a “complete protein”, meaning that it contains the nine amino acids essential for protein synthesis in human beings. Protein synthesis is integral to building lean muscle, recovering from injuries, and tissue regeneration which is the key to anti-aging.

The sections below are a more detailed explanation of the production and composition of whey, the primary types of whey products, the heath effects and potential side effects of whey supplementation, and more. If you prefer to skip the details and get the best whey supplementation products skip ahead to our analysis of what constitutes a quality whey protein. Otherwise, continue below.


 Whey Production

Whey production begins with raw milk, usually from cows, which is primarily comprised of casein, whey, and cream (milk fat).

raw-milk-cow

 

Raw Milk

In cheese production, whey is separated from raw milk with the addition of a complex of enzymes (most commonly Rennet) or a weak, edible acid. Both methods cause the raw milk to curdle and separate into curds (solid, tangled milk proteins that can be further processed into cheeses) and whey. The former results in “sweet whey” while the latter results in “acid whey” which has a sour taste.

Alternative methods for separating whey from raw milk include fermentation and centrifugal skimming.

Fermentation involves simply maintaining raw milk at a consistent, non-refrigerated temperature (i.e. 72 degrees Fahrenheit) until the whey separates from the curds in the raw milk (usually on the order of 4 days). Due to the length of the process and the non-refrigerated temperature employed, whey derived from fermentation has an exceptionally high density of the microbes naturally found in raw milk. This results in whey that is very high in probiotics, although unlikely to be suitable for consumption unless vigorously pasteurized at the correct instances during production. The taste of whey produced with this method is quite bitter and not appetizing.

Producing whey by centrifugal skimming involves the application of a persistent force to raw milk until the milk separates into its constituent parts (primarily casein, cream, and whey). This method is effective primarily because casein, cream, and whey each have different densities. Since centrifugal skimming does not require non-refrigerated temperatures, it yields a whey that is not extraordinarily high in microbes (at least compared to raw milk); the whey also maintains its natural nutritional profile as there are no additional enzymes or acids as in whey derived through the cheese production process.

Once raw whey is produced, it must be dried in order to be viable as a nutritional supplement. There are many ways to accomplish this, which vary in terms of the amount of heat and additives used — these different methods vary greatly in terms of their ability to maintain the nutrient quality of whey. Whey produced without the addition of acid and dried below pasteurization temperature typically results in the highest quality whey products because protein can be easily “denatured” by heat. Since whey primarily contains globular proteins (proteins that are spherical in shape formed from the complex folding of amino acid chains), whey can lose much of its quality when exposed to too much heat.  Heat can break bonds within amino acid chains which can cause the breakdown of the structure of globular proteins.  This results in misshapen proteins that are largely useless to the body and cannot contribute to healthy muscle tissues, much in the same way that misshapen or bent bricks cannot not be used to build a stable walls. The drying of whey is a critical step in its production and largely determines the quality of the end-product.


 Composition

Raw whey contains a complete macronutrient profile (e.g. water, carbohydrates, protein, and fats).  By weight, it is primarily water (93%), carbohydrates (5%), protein (0.9%), and fat (0.4%). Whey also contains trace minerals, primarily Calcium. (It is also notable that whey does not contain significant amounts of lactose, meaning it does not pose a risk to lactose-intolerant individuals.)

Whey-Macronutrients

Once dried, the macronutrient profile of whey becomes about 79% carbohydrates, 14% proteins, and 6% fats.

Obviously, with such a high concentration of carbohydrates (mostly sugars in this case), dry whey on its own is not an excellent health supplement. However, numerous filtration and “ion exchange” methods exist to remove a substantial majority of the carbohydrates and fats from raw whey before the drying process.  Many of these methods can increase the protein concentration in the whey to upwards of 90%. The dried whey supplements derived from these methods are known as whey protein concentrates and whey protein isolates.

Whey protein is particularly beneficial for health because of the unique quality of the proteins and amino acids in whey.  Whey protein is not a single type of protein, rather, it is a mixture of various globular proteins.  Whey proteins have a particularly high concentration of branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) which are exceptionally beneficial for the biological processes related to protein synthesis. One of the most profoundly beneficial amino acids commonly found in whey protein is Glutathione, the benefits of which are discussed in detail on Glutathione benefits page.

Bottom-line: whey protein is the distillation of the protein content found in raw milk.  Bare in mind a baby cow grows approximately 70 pounds per month in the early phases of its life in which it is ingesting only the raw milk of its mother — whey and whey protein are perfectly engineered by nature to promote muscle growth and tissue regeneration.


 Health Benefits

Whey (and whey protein, in particular) has substantial benefits for numerous areas of health and wellness due to its unique nutritional profile. These benefits are driven primarily by the proteins and amino acids contained within whey protein and, to a lesser extent, the many immune factors and minerals found in whey. Many of the benefits of whey protein have even been confirmed in clinical whey protein research studies.

Whey protein is primarily taken as protein supplementation with the goal of muscle gain or meal replacement — this is an  especially effective use of whey protein since the protein content in whey protein concentrates cannot be duplicated by any normal food (eggs come close with regard to protein content, but fall well short with regard to protein-to-fat ratio as well as the diversity of amino acids). Protein supplementation adds many of the building blocks of lean muscle as well as many of the ingredients for protein synthesis in living cells. Enhanced cellular protein synthesis can result in a more youthful appearance and healthier skin.

whey-healthy-skin

Healthy, smooth skin

Whey protein also has many benefits including the regulation of blood sugar, increased vitality and metabolism, and anti-aging effects. Many of these benefits have been attributed to not only the protein content of whey but the mineral, enzymes, and co-factors present in whey. The importance of co-factors for complete nutrition is often neglected, however, protein synthesis is nearly impossible without a synergistic mix of accompanying co-factors. Specifically, co-factors are helper molecules that assist in enzyme transformation, a critical step in protein absorption. The addition of these co-factors to the human body not only assists with the absorption of the protein in the whey, but also any other protein contained in food consumed.

Individuals also report a more positive mental outlook and enhanced bone health (although these claims are very common, they are difficult to measure objectively).


 Why Whey?

For the majority of health purposes, whey is generally superior to other protein supplementation options. Among the various protein supplementation options, whey is the easiest to digest, because, much like human breast milk, raw milk includes various enzymes that ease digestion. Whey protein is easily absorbed into the body and, therefore, the amino acids it contains are more readily available to the body’s cells (a concept called bioavailability, a measure of the ratio between the amount of a substance that reaches systemic circulation and the total substance ingested).  Other protein supplementation options, such as egg, pea, and soy are less able to be absorbed by the human body because they are not derived from the raw milk of mammals and, therefore, not specifically designed by nature to deliver protein and other growth factors to cells of mammals (i.e. humans).

Whey is the first and foremost supplementation option for not only boosting protein intake, but also for promoting the many other tremendous benefits of protein synthesis of living cells. By feeding your body’s cells and tissues at the molecular level, whey protein has a tremendously positive effect on vitality and metabolism. Furthermore, by adding a protein concentrate (like One World Whey) to your diet, you get the benefits of the world’s best protein supplementation without unnecessary calories from carbohydrates and fat.


 Side Effects

As with anything in life, the benefits of protein supplementation with whey protein also come with potential drawbacks in the form of side effects.

Whey protein also has a few interactions with prescription drugs, most notably a major interaction with Levodopa, a drug used in Parkinson’s Disease therapy. Whey protein can reduce the rate at which Levodopa is absorbed and, therefore, reduce its effectiveness.

Overall, whey protein is likely safe when taken in the amounts recommended by the manufacturer, but a few considerations, as outlined above, should be considered before beginning whey protein supplementation.  When in doubt consult your physician.


 Bottom Line

Whey protein supplementation is one of the best things you can do for your health. The nutritional content of whey protein is perfect for promoting human health and vitality because it is derived from the raw milk of a mammal. By removing the fat and carbohydrate content from raw milk and whey, what’s left is an extremely efficient means of boosting protein consumption and absorption. There are many ways to increase protein consumption, however, whey protein is one of the only options that comes complete with the enzymes and co-factors that are critical for putting that protein to use in the body. Whey protein is truly a complete protein product with a world of benefits.