Whey Protein Powder: Benefits, Types and Best Brands
Whey protein is probably 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 not surprisingly 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 worth using? In this article I’ll give you the answer to 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. Enzymes are added to milk which 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 then dried to form a powder.
Whey protein (which is actually a mixture of several different globular proteins) has the highest biological value of any protein source. It contains all 9 essential amino acids in good amounts and is rich in the branched-chain amino acids. 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 have been shown to provide numerous health benefits. These include lowering blood pressure, improving blood sugar regulation and reducing symptoms of stress and depression.
It has also been shown to increase bone density, 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 may explain many of these benefits.
Types of Whey Protein
As I mentioned 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, together with some carbohydrate (lactose), fat and various vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients.
Whey protein concentrate will usually provide the greatest health benefits as the bioactive protein subfractions it contains should remain in their native undenatured form.
Whey Protein Isolate
Whey protein concentrate undergoes further processing and purification to make whey protein isolate. This is usually at least 90% protein with minimal amounts of lactose and fat. However the additional processing tends 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 in no way affects its muscle building properties.
Whey Protein Hydrolysate (Hydrolyzed Whey Protein)
This has been enzymatically broken down (pre-digested) into smaller peptides, so it is absorbed more rapidly. But again it loses some of the health promoting properties of whey protein concentrate.
So which one should you use? That depends on your goals, your tolerances and your pocket. On balance however 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 calorie intake, or if you are 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 great many 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 about as pure (i.e. no artificial ingredients of any kind) as you can get. They do both a whey protein concentrate and a whey protein isolate, and both represent great value for money.
NOW Sports Whey Protein Concentrate (Unflavored) is produced by ultrafiltration and 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.
The best time to take whey protein powder is either first thing in the morning, before or after exercise, with the later being the most important. But you can take it at any other time of day if you wish.