There is a lot of confusion about protein in general and about whey protein in particular. You can read about different protein types (soy, whey, casein) in an earlier blog and watch a short video overview.
What is Whey Protein?
Whey protein is the highest quality dietary protein source and is used in most protein supplement shakes. Whey is a dairy protein that is a by-product of cheese production. Whey has a high biological value (BV) – meaning that the amino acid ratio is perfectly proportioned to be used by the body and in building/maintaining muscle. In particular, whey protein is very high in the amino acid Leucine, which serves as an important signal for both protein synthesis in the muscles (building and maintaining lean muscle tissue) and appetite control in the brain. There are many different versions of whey protein that are used in products today, each with its own purpose and its own price tag. In its raw state, whey contains substantial amounts of fat and lactose, which can be reduced or removed using a variety of filtration techniques.
Concentrates and Isolates and Hydrolysates – Oh My!
Whey can be filtered and concentrated to varying degrees to remove more or less fat/sugar. Higher degrees of filtration and purification can yield a “concentrate” (typically 70-80% protein) or an “isolate” (typically 90-95% protein). Whey Protein Isolates (WPI) are more pure (and more expensive) sources of protein. WPI is often considered to be a “cleaner” source of protein because it is almost pure protein – allowing formulators to add as much or as little additional fat and carbohydrates as they wish to achieve specific nutrient targets. Whey Protein Concentrates (WPC) are still excellent sources of protein, but because they are less purified compared to the isolates, often contain appreciable amounts of lactose and fat. Whey Protein Hydrolysate (WPH) is an isolate (WPI) that has been “hydrolyzed” – a process that uses enzymes to split the proteins into smaller chains of amino acids (peptides). This hydrolysis process mimics our own digestive actions, so it can be said that hydrolyzed protein is “pre-digested” for more rapid absorption than native non-hydrolyzed proteins.
Sometimes Speed Makes a Difference
In essence, hydrolyzed whey protein isolate (WPH) is the “fastest” source of high-quality protein available today – but do you always need the “speed” of WPH? Sometime yes – and sometimes no. For example, numerous studies have shown that whey protein (whether provided as WPC, WPI or WPH) exerts satiating effects (control appetite), maintains muscle mass, and reduces body fat more effectively than other sources of protein. Part of the appetite-controlling benefits of whey protein is due to an enhanced secretion of gut neuropeptides including cholecystokinin (CCK) and glucagon-like peptide (GLP-1). Research has shown that an “extensively-hydrolyzed” whey protein (providing 30-40% as di- and tri-peptides) can reach the bloodstream within 15-30 minutes. Because WPH is digested and absorbed faster from the gastrointestinal system, and reaches the bloodstream, muscles, and brain faster than any other protein source, it makes sense to focus on WPH as your source of whey protein when you need fast delivery – such as during workouts (for muscle benefits) and between meals (for appetite control).
What to Look for in a Whey Protein Supplement
The “sweet-spot” for optimal whey protein supplementation is to consume 10-20 grams of whey-derived protein per meal/snack. At the lower end of the range (10g) you get enough whey peptides and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs including leucine) to stimulate muscle maintenance (during weight loss) and to curb appetite – so immediately pre-workout and between meals is the best time to use a 10g serving and it’s best to get those 10g primarily from the fastest type – Whey Protein Hydrolysate (WPH). At the higher end of the range (20g) you deliver the optimal amount of leucine (3g) to fully stimulate protein synthesis for muscle building/repair and you reach the maximal secretion of gut-peptides for controlling appetite and enhancing weight loss – and either concentrate (WPC) or isolate (WPI) will adequately meet those needs.
About the Author: Dr. Shawn Talbott holds a MS in exercise science (UMass Amherst) and a PhD in nutritional biochemistry (Rutgers). He is also a graduate of MIT’s Entrepreneurship Master’s Program (EMP) and has formulated a wide range of protein supplements for numerous nutrition companies. As an avid ultramarathoner and Ironman triathlete, he drinks protein shakes as a regular part of his workouts and nutrition regimen.