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January 30, 2012

Whey Protein Q&A - Whey Protein's Unique Benefits

BlogProQAC In recent years, protein powders and protein-fortified drinks and food bars have become increasingly common staples of many people’s diets.  While a select few of these products may have nutritional benefits, many may actually do more harm than good.  In this series of Q & A articles, we’ll see how to choose protein supplements that are actually health-promoting (such as undenatured whey protein isolate).  We’ll also see exactly how to use such protein supplements to achieve maximal benefit for growth, repair, recovery, and optimal health.

Q. What is Whey?

A. Whey is the watery part of milk separated from curds during the making of cheese.  Sweet dairy whey, which is the raw precipitate from cheddar-type cheeses, contains quite a bit of lactose and fat – and relatively small amounts of protein.  Where whey was originally thought of as a mere waste product, the dairy industry often sold powdered whey for use as a cheap animal feed, but researchers eventually found that the protein portion of whey (if protected from denaturation/damage by careful extraction methods) had potentially remarkable health benefits for humans.

Q. What is Whey Protein?

A. The small amount of protein in whey is greatly concentrated when water, lipids, and lactose are removed – the resultant product is known as whey protein.  Different whey proteins may contain anywhere from 34% to over 90% protein by weight depending upon how they’re processed.

The term whey protein doesn’t just refer to one type of protein, but actually encompasses many different subtypes of protein collectively called microfrations.  Research has found that each of whey’s microfractions imparts unique and often powerfully health-promoting benefits.  Whey protein microfractions include:




Bovine Serum Albumin



Not all whey protein products, however, contain the full array of whey’s microfractions.  Many of the most health-promoting microfractions are often damaged in the production of whey protein powders, and some whey protein production methods (e.g., the ion-exchange method) are unable to extract the full gamut of whey’s microfractions. Ultimately, only products which are produced using low temperatures and selective filters are capable of delivering the full array of undenatured and active whey proteins.

Q. How is whey protein different than the protein in foods such as eggs, chicken, or beef?

A. The protein found in eggs, chicken, and beef is generally high quality, but because of whey’s unique composition, properly-prepared whey protein is capable of offering benefits above and beyond other such protein-containing foods.  For starters, whey protein is the richest source of key muscle-building amino acids such as leucine – likely a major reason why whey protein is unsurpassed in supporting muscle growth and repair. 

But, whey protein’s benefits aren’t solely due to its amino acid composition.  Whey’s unique microfractions have functional benefits above and beyond being a source of the amino acids which make up the body’s tissues and enzymes.  These microfractions, for example, may support immune function and cellular detoxification.  Several whey microfractions have been shown to support the growth of healthy bacteria in the intestines (meaning that whey protein may support digestive health, appetite suppression and weight loss).  Certain whey peptides may support healthy blood pressure, and whey protein has also been shown to support the proper metabolism and storage of carbohydrates, thus supporting healthy blood sugar levels.

In all, whey protein is far more than just a “building block” for the body’s tissues – it may support both the structure and function of our body’s cells like no other protein available.

Q. Research shows that, for all its shortcomings, the standard American diet contains sufficient protein.  Even athletes can easily meet their elevated protein requirements with readily-available foods.  Why should people consider taking a whey protein supplement?

A. Properly-prepared, undenatured whey protein is likely to offer unique benefits above and beyond those of other protein sources.  While most sources of protein such as beef, chicken, and eggs simply supply amino acids for growth and repair of the body’s tissues, the unique peptides in undenatured whey protein impart numerous biological benefits involving immunity, antioxidant status, healthy blood sugar, bone health, blood pressure, and digestive health to name just a few.  Because of its far-reaching effects, whey protein is far more than just a means to add additional protein to the diet, and even those whose diet already contains sufficient protein can still benefit from adding undenatured whey protein.

For example, unique sulfur-containing peptides in whey may be able to enhance the production of the cellular antioxidant and detoxifier known as glutathione.  Glutathione plays an important role in the immune system and in the proper growth and repair of the body’s cells.  Numerous studies show that whey protein may be able to enhance glutathione levels in those with compromised immune systems (including athletes):

Study Link - Whole blood and mononuclear cell glutathione response to dietary whey protein supplementation in sedentary and trained male human subjects.

Quote from the above study:

The aerobic training period resulted in significantly lower glutathione concentrations in whole blood, an effect that was mitigated by WPI [Whey Protein Isolate] supplementation. A significant increase in mononuclear cell glutathione was also observed in subjects receiving the WPI supplement following the 40 km simulated cycling trial.

Study Link - Oral supplementation with whey proteins increases plasma glutathione levels of HIV-infected patients.

Quote from the above study:

In glutathione-deficient patients with advanced HIV-infection, short-term oral supplementation with whey proteins increases plasma glutathione levels.

Study Link - Improved glutathione status in young adult patients with cystic fibrosis supplemented with whey protein.

Studies have also found that, unlike casein protein (another protein in milk), whey protein may support healthy blood lipids, insulin, and blood pressure levels in overweight and obese individuals:

Study Link - Effects of whey protein isolate on body composition, lipids, insulin and glucose in overweight and obese individuals.

Quote from the above study:

The present study demonstrated that supplementation with whey proteins improves fasting lipids and insulin levels in overweight and obese individuals.

Study Link - The chronic effects of whey proteins on blood pressure, vascular function, and inflammatory markers in overweight individuals.

Quote from the above study:

This study demonstrated that supplementation with whey protein improves blood pressure and vascular function in overweight and obese individuals.

The whey microfraction, gycomacropeptide, may exert its wide-ranging biological effects via its ability to support healthy bacterial populations in the intestines.  Such an effect could lead not only to appetite reduction, but to benefits for digestive, and overall health.

In research published in the Journal of Nutrition, for example, researchers from the University of Granada School of Pharmacy found that Glycomacropeptide was able to reduce intestinal inflammation on par with anti-inflammatory drugs in a rat model of chemically-induced colitis:

Study Link - Bovine Glycomacropeptide Is Anti-Inflammatory in Rats with Hapten-Induced Colitis

Quote from the above study:

The magnitude of the anti-inflammatory effect was generally comparable to that of sulfasalazine, an established drug used in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease.

Recently, researchers have found that whey protein may possess the unique ability to stimulate bone–building cells, called osteoblasts, while at the same time reducing bone resorption, or, the breaking down of bone:

Study Link – Effect of whey protein on the proliferation and differentiation of osteoblasts.

Quote from the above study:

This study establishes whey protein as a potent novel anabolic factor in osteoblasts, and which also reduces bone resorption.

And though the above study was conducted in vitro, animal and human studies have also shown various whey proteins to offer bone–building benefits above and beyond other types of protein. The following study, for example, found that rats fed small amounts of whey protein had higher levels of bone–specific proteins and stronger bones than those fed exclusively casein:

Study Link – Effects of whey protein on calcium and bone metabolism in ovariectomized rats.

Quote from the above study:

These data indicate that the milk whey protein influence in OVX rats is an increase in bone proteins such as collagen and enhanced bone–breaking energy.

Whey protein may also offer unique benefits for regulating blood sugar.  Because of the unique proteins it contains, whey protein in insulinogenic – meaning, that it facilitates the release of insulin and thus aids in the storage and utilization of carbohydrates.

Human studies have shown that mixtures of whey and casein protein combined with carbohydrates led to significantly greater rates of glycogen storage relative to either carbohydrate or protein alone:

Study Link - Carbohydrate-protein complex increases the rate of muscle glycogen storage after exercise.

Quote from the above study:

The rate of muscle glycogen storage during the CHO-PRO treatment [35.5 +/- 3.3 (SE) mumol.g protein-1.h-1] was significantly faster than during the CHO treatment (25.6 +/- 2.3 mumol.g protein-1.h-1), which was significantly faster than during the PRO treatment (7.6 +/- 1.4 mumol.g protein-1.h-1). The results suggest that postexercise muscle glycogen storage can be enhanced with a carbohydrate-protein supplement as a result of the interaction of carbohydrate and protein on insulin secretion.

Subsequent animal studies have found that whey protein (more so than casein) is uniquely responsible for increasing glycogen levels after exercise.  Such research gives us important clues as to how to use whey protein to maximize exercise recovery – a topic we’ll cover later in this Q&A.

Study Link - Dietary whey protein increases liver and skeletal muscle glycogen levels in exercise-trained rats.

Quote from the above study:

Total glycogen synthase activity in the skeletal muscle in the whey protein group was significantly higher than that in the casein group. The present study is the first to demonstrate that a diet based on whey protein may increase glycogen content in liver and skeletal muscle of exercise-trained rats.

An excess of iron is a common cause of the oxidative stress and free radical production found in aging and disease.  The iron-binding whey microfraction, called lactoferrin, has been associated with numerous health benefits, and It’s likely that lactoferrin may help our bodies use iron safely and efficiently:

Study Link - Milk whey protein decreases oxygen free radical production in a murine model of chronic iron-overload cardiomyopathy.

To be continued...



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