The origin of today’s high quality whey protein is kind of an interesting story. You see, whey is one of the two major types of protein found in milk (casein, the other). its was originally isolated as a by-product of cheese production. when cheese is made, the milk is “curdled”, separating the curd from the whey. the curd initially looks like (and is) cottage cheese and contains mostly casein, while the whey is a syrupy, sweet liquid that contains a variety of other proteins and large amounts of milk and sugar lactose.

Up until not too long ago, it was thought that whey was worthless and it was simply thrown out as a waste product. Eventually, someone got the bright idea to check out this whey “waste product”. What they found out was a substance loaded with a variety of proteins. upon investigation, it was discovered these proteins were of high quality. Not only that they dissolve well in water, they were also highly digestible and contain a better amino acid profile that even the highly regarded egg white.

From that point over a decade ago, the trick has been to separate the high quality proteins from the undesirable lactose, fat and cholesterol components of whey. Over the years, scientist developed many processes, including high-heat drying and acid treatment extractions. unfortunately, both processes were destructive to the proteins, changing their characteristics and ruining their quality. A few years ago two processes were perfected that have the ability to extract the protein from whey while preserving their integrity.

This processes are micro-filtration(where the proteins were physically separated by microscopic filter) and ion exchange( where proteins were extracted by taking advantage of their specific electronic charges. Both these processes yield a high-quality, low-fat,low-lactose whey protein. which brings us to today’s whey protein products. It`s important to check the label of any whey-containing product to make sure one or both of these processes was used to create the whey protein.

Enough of the history–let`s talk about, pros and cons. Where does whey protein shine, and where does it fall short?

research shows that whey-protein isolates increase the amount of glutathione in the body tissues. glutathione is a peptide (amino acid derivative) that helps support the body`s immune system, placing whey protein at the top of the list for immuno-enhancing potential. This is one of whey’s functional properties. whey protein contains the highest concentration (23% to 25%) of branched chain amino acid (BCAA) of any single amino-acid source. this BCAA content is important because BCAAs’ are an integral part of a muscle development and are the first aminos sacrificed.


Another functional property of whey is the ability to enhance natural glutathione production within the body. Glutathione is the body`s most powerful naturally occurring antioxidant and plays a role in immune system support. Whey protein contains quadra-peptides (short protein chains which contain four amino acids), which shown to have pain-killing effects. this is another powerful functional property that may help decrease muscle soreness following intense weight training. Due to its excellent amino acid profile,solubility and digestibility, whey has a high biological value (BV). Basically, BV is a measure of how well a protein is used by the body.

One of the more interesting functional properties of whey protein is its reported ability to stimulate IGF-1(insulin-like growth factor 1) production. IGF-1 is structurally and functionally similar to insulin and enhances protein synthesis (i.e. muscle growth). Researchers have discovered that whey protein provide unique health benefits, such as fighting infections and perhaps fighting cancer.recent studies shown regression of certain tumors when patients ate 30 grams of whey protein powder a day. Whey appears to play a direct role in bone growth. studies show it may increase bone strength and bone protein, such as collagen.

If you choose to save money and go with the lower quality acid or heat-treated whey, you will more likely end up with a high-lactose (this is the milk sugar many people have a hard time digesting, which can cause some serious bloating, high-sodium, higher fat and cholesterol product than you would like. on top of that, the positive functional properties of whey protein mentioned may well be lost in the processing relatively speaking, whey protein is a bit low in the essential amino acid phenylalanine and therefore might functionally limit the biological value of the protein in some regards. Whey protein is also lower in both arginine and natural glutamine (both are conditionally essential amino acids) than some of the other protein powders.

by Brett Hall, R.D.
Reprinted March 2000 Muscle Media