David is an army-trained biomedical scientific officer, writer, and lifelong health and fitness enthusiast.
Whey protein is the most widely used sports nutrition supplement in the world today. And there’s good reason for that, as not only does it provide you with a convenient source of the highest quality protein available, to help you build muscle and burn fat, but it also has a number of important health benefits as well.
But not all whey protein is the same of course. There are three main types and dozens of different brands of whey protein powder. And, as you might expect, they vary considerably, both in the amount of protein and other ingredients they contain, as well as in taste, digestibility, and of course, price.
So what are the benefits of whey protein? What is the best type of whey protein powder for you personally? And are there any specific brands that are particularly recommended? In this article, I’ll answer those questions.
What Is Whey Protein?
Whey protein is one of the two main types of protein found in milk (the other one being casein), and it is usually produced as a by-product of the cheese-making process. When a coagulant (usually renin) is added to milk, it causes it to separate out into curds (which are used to make cheese) and whey – the liquid portion that contains the whey protein.
The protein is extracted from the whey by filtration, and it is then dried to form a powder.
Whey protein is actually a mixture of several different globular proteins, and it has the highest biological value of any protein source - even higher than eggs. It contains all 8 essential (and one semi-essential) amino acids in good amounts and is particularly rich in the branched-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine). It is also easy to digest and is absorbed and utilized very quickly compared to other types of protein.
Whey Protein Benefits
Whey protein provides an easy and convenient way to boost your daily protein intake, helping you to build muscle, increase strength, and burn fat too. But on top of that, it contains various biologically active compounds that provide a number of health benefits. These include lowering blood pressure, improving blood sugar regulation, and reducing symptoms of stress and depression.
It has also been shown to decrease intestinal permeability, reduce inflammation, improve immune system function and help protect against cancer.
Whey protein is very high in the amino acid cysteine, which raises levels of glutathione – the body’s master antioxidant. And this is the likely explanation for many of these benefits.
Types of Whey Protein
As I said earlier, there are three main types of whey protein powder. These are:
Whey Protein Concentrate
This is the least processed type of whey protein and is produced by simple filtration and drying. Earlier forms of whey protein concentrate could contain as little as 30% protein, but these days a good one will contain 70 – 85% protein; the rest of the product is made up of carbohydrates (lactose), fat, and various vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients.
Whey protein concentrate tends to provide the greatest health benefits, as the bioactive proteins it contains should remain in their native, undenatured form.
Whey Protein Isolate
Whey protein concentrate undergoes further processing to make whey protein isolate. This is usually 90 - 95% protein, with only very small amounts of lactose and fat. However, the additional processing does tend to cause degradation (denaturing) of the biologically active proteins to some extent (depending on the actual methods employed), so whey protein isolate does not have quite the same health benefits as whey protein concentrate.
This degradation of protein structures, however, does not affect the muscle-building properties of the product.
Whey Protein Hydrolysate (Hydrolyzed Whey Protein)
This has been enzymatically broken down (pre-digested) into shorter protein chains, called peptides, so it is absorbed more rapidly. But again, it loses some of the health-promoting properties of whey protein concentrate.
So which one is best for you? Well, that will depend on your goals, your tolerances, and your pocket. But, on balance, whey protein concentrate is probably the best option for most people, as it is the cheapest and has the greatest health benefits. But if you are lactose intolerant, or just want to maximize protein content whilst minimizing calories, or if you are just looking for a fast-absorbing post-workout formula, then isolate or even hydrolysate may suit you better.
Best Brands of Whey Protein Powder
There are a large number of different brands of whey protein powder. Some are good, some not so good, and some are way over-hyped. But my two favorite brands are NOW Sports and Optimum Nutrition.
NOW Sports whey protein is top-quality protein and does not contain any artificial ingredients of any kind. They do both a whey protein concentrate and a whey protein isolate, and both are great value for money.
NOW Sports Whey Protein Concentrate (Unflavored) is produced by ultrafiltration and it provides 24g of protein per scoop, with 3g of carbohydrate and 2g of fat. It has a clean, fairly neutral taste (a little like powdered milk) and mixes well, and this is the one I tend to prefer.
NOW Sports Whey Protein Isolate (Unflavored) is produced by microfiltration and ultrafiltration. It contains 25g of protein per scoop with less than 1g of carbohydrate and fat. Again, the taste is clean and bland and it mixes very well - better than the concentrate.
Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey (Naturally Flavored) on the other hand, consists of a mixture of whey protein isolate, concentrate, and hydrolysate. Again this is a top-quality protein powder with no artificial flavors, sweeteners, or colors. It contains 24g of protein per scoop, it mixes very well, and it also tastes great.
Whey protein powder is usually used as a post-workout shake, mixed with either milk or water. But you can also take it pre-workout, or at any other time of day if you wish.
So that’s my summary of the benefits, types, and best brands of whey protein powder. I hope you found it useful and thanks for reading.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2018 David
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on July 28, 2018:
Sorry to hear about your illness Lorelei; but glad you have found whey protein to be so beneficial.
Lorelei Cohen from Canada on July 27, 2018:
I have an illness that affects my muscles and whey powder was a lifesaver for me during a bad flare up a few years ago. I whipped it in with yogurt and juice and it was delicious. It is ideal as a supplement for many illnesses as well as for seniors. I highly recommend it.