How do you choose a whey protein powder? Do you go on the recommendation of your buddy at the gym and take what he takes? Do you pick the bottle with the shiniest, most cutting-edge label? Do you go by what tastes good or what’s on sale at your local GNC?
The truth is, these are serious questions. You know that taking whey protein at the right times of day can make all the difference in between building an extra half-inch on your arms or adding 20 pounds to your personal best on the bench press.
But not just any whey will do. There are great whey protein products and there are not-so-good whey protein products. And being able to tell the difference between them can be critical to your gains.
The first step in determining whether your protein is worthy is to give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve recognized whey’s benefits and have included it in your daily regimen. Just to review, whey is enormously beneficial for several reasons, including amino acid and microfraction content (more on that in a minute) and digestion rate.
Whey is one of the richest sources of BCAAs, which include the three amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine. These bad boys have been shown to be absolutely critical for muscle growth, and even for energy during workouts. Whey protein also contains biologically active protein microfractions such as alpha-lactalbumin, beta-lactoglobulin, glycomacropeptides, immunoglobulins, lactoferrin, lactoperoxidase and various growth factors. These provide antioxidant benefits, boost immune function and enhance muscle recovery and growth.
But probably the most critical factor that puts whey protein miles ahead of other forms of protein is digestion rate. Whey digests very rapidly. In fewer than 30 minutes it can fast-track a good portion of its aminos to your muscles, and that rapid delivery of amino acids to muscle cells has been shown to be important for pushing muscle growth.
If you know that whey is one of the proteins found in milk, then it should be obvious that whey protein production starts with dairy cows. Cows are milked on the farm, and this milk is the starting source for most protein powders. But if you think that supplement companies like Optimum, Cytosport or Nature’s Best are out in the back milking cows to make their protein powders, you’ve got another think coming.
Way back when, whey was actually considered a waste byproduct of cheese production and was routinely dumped. These days, dairy companies recognize the value of whey and have set up factories to concentrate and purify it. Every supplement company that sells products that contain whey buys raw protein from a dairy manufacturer, and there are only so many of those.
That means that multiple supplement companies acquire raw whey protein powder from the same handful of manufacturers. Two of the major protein manufacturers are Glanbia, with main headquarters in Ireland, and Hilmar Ingredients, in California. These are the places where milk actually undergoes rigorous processing that involves various forms of filtering and purification to produce specific protein powders.
Supplement companies like Optimum or Dymatize order raw protein powders, such as whey protein isolate, whey protein concentrate, whey protein hydrolysate and, yes, calcium caseinate or micellar casein, from companies such as Glanbia or Hilmar. These raw, unflavored protein powders are shipped to the supplement companies in massive containers. Each company then adds its own often proprietary blend of ingredients, including flavorings, colorings and other ingredients (extra aminos, say, or enzymes to help digest the protein) to produce their final blend, which ends up in the jug on your kitchen counter.
Whey to Go
Whey protein powder is far more effective than any other protein form out there, but its effectiveness can vary widely. Often the limiting factor of a whey protein product is the other ingredients companies add to it. But the type of whey—and the amount of each type present in a product—can also affect effectiveness.
When you buy a protein powder your intention is to buy protein, not carbs and not fat. Carbs and fat are easy to get in your diet, so when you’re laying down your hard-earned cash for a jug of protein, you want it to have as much protein in it as possible. A quick glance at the Supplement Facts panel will let you know how many carbs and how much fat are in the product.
But you’re not done yet. Keep scanning down the label until you get to the ingredients list. The information contained here is the key to knowing whether a protein powder is really amazing or just simply passable. First you might notice that most whey protein products contain more than one type of whey. You might see whey protein isolate, whey protein hydrolysate (or hydrolyzed whey protein) or whey protein concentrate.
To be considered a great whey protein the product MUST list whey protein isolate or hydrolyzed whey protein isolate as the very first ingredient. That’s because whey protein isolates are the purest form of protein you can get, with some being more than 90% protein. And “hydrolyzed whey protein isolate” means that that high-quality whey has been pre-digested into smaller protein fragments for even faster digestion than regular whey isolate. Whey protein concentrate, on the other hand, goes through less filtering, which means fewer of the natural carbohydrates found in milk are removed. The result is a whey product that is much lower in protein content. Although most whey protein concentrates are somewhere between 70-80% protein, some can be less than 35% protein. This is why most companies make a big deal about their whey protein isolate powders. (This is also why isolates and hydrolysates generally cost more.)
But to really know if a whey protein powder is top notch, you’ll need to do some math. Take the grams of protein per serving listed on the supplement facts panel and divide it by the serving size (in grams). This will give you the percentage of protein in each serving. To be considered a great whey protein powder, the percent protein per serving (or scoop) should be 80% or greater. For example, if a whey protein powder provides 25 grams of protein per 28-gram scoop, that protein powder is about 90% protein and is a great whey protein for the money.
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