What is Whey Protein and it’s Benefits?

My Background

As part of the New Product Development team at Myprotein I am involved in the development of new formulas and product innovation using the current trends in the research. I currently hold a Bachelor of Science in Sport and Exercise Science, and a Master of Science in Sports Physiology having achieved this from the world-renowned research institute, Liverpool John Moores University. As the weeks go on, these short articles will hopefully provide an insight into some of the hot areas of interest in sports nutrition and how these can be applied to a practical setting to support training and performance.


Whey Protein

Whilst currently training for the 2015 ASICS Greater Manchester Marathon and understanding the exact importance of recovery (see my last article on this topic), I knew that supplementing my diet with whey protein would undoubtedly help me along the way. Whether it is post workout for a quick and convenient source of protein or whether it is for assisting my overall daily protein intake. No matter what your goals are, dietary protein is essential for muscle protein turnover as well as being central to cell functioning and everyday life. However, I do appreciate that some people get very confused about the use of supplements and the uncertainty surrounding them, particularly whey protein. For this reason, I thought I would outline a) what precisely whey protein is, b) the different types of whey and c) why it can be beneficial to your training regime or performance goals.


Shake Owen


So where does this wonderful whey protein come from?



When explaining to someone for the first time what whey protein is, I usually begin with by saying that, essentially, whey protein it is filtered/concentrated cow’s milk which has been spray dried to produce a high protein powder. In the raw state, cow’s milk typically contains 3.5% protein, as well as 4% fat, about 4.6% lactose, 0.7% minerals, and 87% water. Of the protein fraction, whey makes up 20% and casein makes up the remaining 80% of the protein. The curds (casein) may be matured into various varieties of cheese and the liquid whey was commonly a waste product to be thrown away – drinking this would be almost unbearable for anyone. However, up until the past fifteen years or so, whey protein wasn’t anywhere near as accessible as it is today so many traditional body builders or strength athletes actually went down to the local cheese making factory to get their hands on the liquid whey. This raw liquid whey is far from the purified powders found on the market today though and this is the raw material for purified whey that many athletes and recreational gym-goers use to increase daily protein intake and help with the growth and recovery of lean muscle mass.

When raw whey comes out as a liquid it only consists of about 1% protein, 5% lactose, 0.6% minerals, 0.2% fat and the remaining 93% is water. To end up with highly purified whey the raw material must be processed (most commonly through a process called cross-flow microfiltration) to remove the fat, minerals, lactose and water in order to provide a finished powder which is highly concentrated in protein without having the bioavailability of this protein destroyed.

The process of separating the whey protein from the other constituents in the liquid whey results in the formation of a more concentrated product. Depending on the processes undertaken, the separated whey protein becomes either a whey protein concentrate (WPC), a whey protein isolate (WPI), or a whey protein hydrolysate (WPH). During the processing, fat and lactose are filtered out to make a lower fat, lower carbohydrate and higher protein powder. The final protein content in a whey product can range from 30% to 95% depending on the filtering process used. The higher the protein content, on a gram per gram basis, the more processing and filtering is needed.


What are the benefits of whey protein?


In terms of muscle recovery, whey protein is regarded as the most effective source of protein for the immediate repair of lean muscle mass. This is mainly due to the fact it has an amino acid profile which mirrors that of skeletal muscle, but also due to its ability to digest rapidly and get absorbed quickly from the intestines into the muscle (Tang et al., 2009). It is usually advised by many sports nutritionists to consume around 20-30g of high quality protein following an intense bout of exercise in order to optimise the muscle protein synthesis (MPS) response (the turnover of new proteins). This will provide a high level of the branch chain amino acids – specifically Leucine – which is the main amino acid which triggers the signalling pathways to switch on MPS (Philp et al., 2011).


Shake Whey


What are the different types of whey protein?


Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC)

Whey Protein Concentrate usually contains between 75-85% protein, around 1-2% fat and 5-10% lactose. This is usually filtered using a unique process of microfiltration which, as the name suggests, involves the filtering through a membrane with microscopic holes. This is the lowest price of whey protein available on the market but also the most popular.

Whey Protein Isolate (WPI)

Whey Protein Isolate often uses an ultrafiltration process which removes more of the lactose and fat components from the protein providing a higher protein content per serving (>90%) and less fat and sugar than WPC. For this reason the price of WPI is slightly greater than WPC products.

Whey Protein Hydrolysate (WPH)

Whey Protein Hydrolysate is usually a WPI that has had some of its protein constituents broken down by enzymes into smaller peptides and amino acids. This process is usually carried out in out intestines by a gut enzyme and for this reason the speed of absorption is increased. Again, the price is usually higher than both WPC due to the more meticulous manufacturing process.


Take home message

When looking for a whey protein supplement it is advised to carefully assess valuation against training goals and various other aspects such as intolerances, timing of intake etc. For example, if you are someone with lactose intolerance then WPI would probably be a better choice due to the low lactose content. On the other hand if you have no reactions to lactose but still want a high protein content then WPC would be an ideal choice. WPH is more of a premium source of whey and does hold a fairly bitter taste due to its effectiveness. This would probably be more suited for individuals who are looking for the greatest differences in their training where there are small margins for error, such as elite athletes. Finally, there are some products that provide a blend of different types of whey protein to help provide a varied amino acid profile.


Tang, J.E., D. R. Moore, G. W. Kujbida, M. A. Tarnopolsky, and S. M. Phillips (2009). Ingestion of whey hydrolysate, casein, or soy protein isolate: effects on mixed muscle protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in young men. J. Appl. Physiol. 107: 987-992.

Philp A., D. L. Hamilton, and K. Baar (2011). Signals mediating skeletal muscle remodelling by resistance exercise: PI3-kinase independent activation of mTORC1. J. Appl. Physiol. 110: 561-568.


Owen Whey




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Ashley Wilson

Ashley Wilson

Writer and expert