If you’ve decided to try out some whey protein, you may be a bit confused by the many types on the market. How do you choose a good one?
Before we look at that, just in case you’ve come straight to this page, a quick recap on whey protein in general.
Protein powders of any kind are NOT whole foods. We don’t recommend you rely on them as a main protein source. Better to get your protein from a range of fresh animal products, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy, if you can tolerate it.
But sometimes it’s the only convenient way of having some protein after a workout. And if it’s a choice between having a protein shake for breakfast, or going without breakfast, have the shake. Throw in couple of raw egg yolks (yes, I do mean the yolks, not the whites) for all those excellent fat soluble nutrients, and some blueberries for flavour and antioxidants.
If you ARE going to have a shake, unless you are severely dairy intolerant, good quality whey protein is the only kind we recommend. Soy protein powder in particular should always be strictly avoided.
Note on Whey protein vs Casein
There is concern in some circles that whey protein is available too quickly, and used by the body within a couple of hours. For this reason, some whey protein powders have added casein.
The main concern about this is that many people are casein intolerant. Some people who are dairy intolerant can’t even tolerate whey, but many can. But they can’t tolerate the added casein.
If you’re using your whey protein as an after workout supplement, I’d expect you would then be having a full meal within a couple of hours, complete with protein. So the whey is available straight after your workout, and there’s no problem with it “running out”.
If you’re using it as a meal replacement, add in those egg yolks and you’re still getting slower release protein.
But if you can tolerate dairy, some added caseinate in a good whey protein will slow down your utilisation of your protein (although those products haven’t been reviewed here).
Now, let’s look at how good quality whey proteins are produced. The first stage of processing, which uses ultrafiltration, produces whey protein concentrate. This will still have some lactose and fat, and can range from 25-85% protein. A good one will be around 70-80%.
The second stage isolates the protein, and eliminates the lactose and fat. There are two ways of doing this – microfiltration and ion exchange.
Ion exchange gives you a higher proportion of protein in your finished product, so many people will recommend ion exchange. But we need to look more closely at the different types of protein fractions that make up the whey. Most of them are believed to be good for the immune system, including alpha-lactalbumin, glycomacropeptide and Bovine serum albumin. But the fraction that makes up most of the protein is beta-lactoglobulin. This fraction is the one that is most likely to be allergenic. So you want a process that reduces that as much as possible, preferably keeping the % to around 50% or lower. With Ion Exchange, the % can be up to 75%. This also means there are less of the beneficial elements. So this would not be my first choice.
But crossflow microfiltration keep the fractions in more or less the same ratio as they started. So this is a safer option. The drawback here is that you have a much higher priced product.
If you are sensitive to lactose, you will need to go for a Ultrafiltered, then Microfiltered Whey Protein Isolate. But otherwise, it seems to me that an Ultrafiltered Whey Protein Concentrate (or a blend of the two) will be suitable for most people, and kinder on the pocket. It’s also a less processed product, which is often better. Of course, if you have digestive trouble, move up to the Microfiltered. Remember that they must be non-denatured and produced without heat, which will be somewhere on the label of a good product.
There are a couple of other things you might see printed on the label that you need to know about.
Most powders are instantized.
Whey protein concentrate or the whey isolate is instantized before it is put into containers and sold to you. Instantizing is not really a complex process but it involves a product called “soy lecithin” that is bonded to the powder to decrease the surface area and therefore increasing dispersion. Whey protein manufactures use soy lecithin to make their powders “instantized”. Therefore every time you buy a whey protein concentrate or whey protein isolate that is instantized (which pretty much means all of them) you are technically buying whey protein and soy lecithin
Soy lecithin comes from soy oil. After the soybeans are pressed and the oil is extracted the sludge left over is made into soy lecithin. It’s a disgusting looking product that requires a harsh chemical process to make. Other chemicals are added to kill off the putrid smell. Soy companies decided this product could be used as an emulsifier (soy lecithin) and marketed it that way. Thus it found its way into protein powders in the late 80’s. Avoid all soy lecathin and instanized powders like the plague.
The other process is hydrolyzation. The purpose of this is to break down the peptides into smaller pieces, to make them easier to digest and assimilate. The drawback seems to be that this is done using acid, alkali or enzyme treatments and it can affect the function of the protein. I’d go for minimal processing and avoid hydrolyzation if possible.
Hydrolyzed whey protein supplements are taken in by the body more quickly. The process of hydrolyzation is the breaking down of the proteins into di-peptides and tri-peptides.
If building large muscles is your primary goal, hydrolyzed whey protein supplements may achieve this more rapidly. But it’s very unlikely that in the long term these supplements will turn out to be completely safe. So if good health is your aim, use whey protein with extreme moderation and rely more on real food!
You also need to check what other ingredients are in there. Watch out for fillers like calcium caseinate, and especially for sweeteners. Some of the usual sweeteners used (roughly from best to worst):
- Stevia – about the only sweetener that is universally agreed to be totally safe. It can have a bitter aftertaste if used incorrectly though, so is often teamed with other sweeteners to get round that.
- Maltodextrin, honey, glucose polymers, etc – No good for people following a completely whole food diet (ie no sugars or refined carbs) and people on a low carb diet would probably want to avoid as well. But for people not worrying about sugars, probably OK in these quantities.
- Sucralose – this has taken over from aspartame as a popular sweetener. Most experts seem to agree that if you must go artificial this is the least harmful one to use. But it is still too recent to be totally sure, and at least one doctor is publicising examples of people who have had intense reactions to it.
- Acesulfame k – same chemical family as saccharin. No research has conclusively linked it to diseases, but it pays to very wary of all artificial sweeteners.
- Fructose – Many adverse effects on health. (The fructose part of the sucrose molecule is much more damaging than the glucose part)
- Aspartame – too many health dangers to list here – it is literally toxic.
“Natural flavour” can also be a problem for some people, so if you’re sensitive to MSG, look for a product that’s unflavoured. These are hard to find though, so if you don’t have a specific MSG problem, you’ll probably be OK with a naturally flavoured product.
Some products have xantham gum in them. This is not a problem for most people, but some people do have difficulty digesting gums.
Any other ingredient that you don’t know what it is, ask before buying.
Products that I would use :
My pick in New Zealand is two of the Red 8 products, or the two by Leppinsport. The two Red 8 products seem to be the less popular of the range, so you may need to ask for them to be ordered for you.
Red 8 Protein Plus is an instantised, low temperature, ultrafiltered whey protein concentrate. The sweetener is stevia, and it has a “nature identical” vanilla or chocolate flavour. As long as you’re not senstive to lactose or flavourings, this looks like a good all round product. Reasonably priced at around $28 for 500g. Also available in unflavoured for around $25.
Red 8 Microfiltered Whey Protein Isolate is unflavoured and unsweetened. This would be the choice for anyone with sensitivities. Contains lecithin. Around $42 for 500g.
Note that Red 8 Premium Whey Fuel Powder hasn’t been reviewed as it includes caseinates, but the whey is as good a quality as the rest of the range, plus it includes l-glutamine and probiotics.
Leppinsport Ultimate Whey contains Ultra filtered ion-exchange Whey Protein Concentrate, Natural Flavours, Natural Sweeteners (Stevia). Four flavours available. Price is around $40 for 700g, $70 for 1.5g, or $110 for 2.5kg. Like the Red 8 Protein Plus, this would be a good, reasonably priced product as long as you’re not senstive to lactose or flavourings.
Leppinsport Active Woman is like the Ultimate Whey but also contains Sodium, Potaasium, Calcium, Super Citrimax, L-Carnitine, Iron, Zinc, Chromium. Five flavours available. Price is around $20 for 300g, or $40 for 700g.
Metagenics Bio Pure – “BioPure Protein is prepared by utilizing a patented ultrafiltration/diafiltration process that concentrates the whey protein and bioactive immunoglobulins. It is processed at controlled temperatures and pH to prevent the protein from denaturing (becoming inactive). The whey in BioPure Protein is obtained from the milk of a dairy herd in New Zealand, one of only two “pristine herds” worldwide.” It does have a small amount of maltodextrin in it, so no good for whole food diets, but carbs are fairly low at 1g to each 16g protein, so pretty OK for most people. Price and availability unknown.
In other countries, there will probably be a lot more choice, and I can’t go through them all!! But if you send me a link about your favourite powder, I’ll check it out and tell you what I think. To start you off:
Australia – These products look OK.
Aussie Bodies Perfect Protein. Made from Ultrafiltered Whey Protein Concentrate. Chocolate and Vanilla only have flavour added, so they’re good. But the Strawberry is sweetened with sucralose, and has a colour added that some people have reacted badly to, so avoid that flavour.
Designer Physique – Whey protein concentrate. Ultra filtered. No additives. So looks good for those who can tolerate a little lactose.
Designer Physique – Whey protein isolate. Ultra filtered and micro filtered. No additives. So looks good for those who need lactose free.
Designer Physique – Slim Whey. Appears to be exactly the same as the isolate, so not sure why they need a separate product.
United States – These products look OK.
Jay Robb’s Whey Protein Isolate. Microfiltered. From grass fed cows not treated with rBGH (Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone). Also with natural flavor, xanthan gum, lecithin, stevia. http://www.jayrobb.com/
Pro Optimal Whey. Concentrate. From grass fed cows, free of growth hormone. Also contains xylitol, natural flavours, lecithin, flaxseed. Some people react to xylitol with diarrhoea, so this may not be suitable for everybody. http://www.mercola.com/
Paul Chek recommends only these two powders:
“1. Imuplus is a whey protein isolate produced by Swiss Pharmaceutical. Imuplus is not a whey protein concentrate, which means that instead of using the kind of standard technology described in Appendix 1, very expensive and advanced technology is used to isolate key protein fractions such as lactoferrin and glutathione. Imuplus also has the common allergenic fractions removed (I am allergic to milk and personally can’t tolerate Imuplus, yet most of my patients with milk allergies and intolerance can). In my conversations with the distributor (www.biogene.net), she stated that Imuplus is organic and produced from raw stock. When I asked if they could send me a copy of their organic certification, she said that information was “proprietary.” The reason for this was beyond me until I found this statement: “Fat and lactose free, the whey used for IMUPlus™ is from the milk of USDA Grade A dairy cows.” That being said, I have had good results with the product. Imuplus is not like the kind of protein powders most of you are used to using. It does not work well at all when mixed with fruit juices or most other typical ingredients used to make “protein shakes.” My patients that have tried using it that way all describe feeling like they had “bricks in their stomachs.” It is a medical grade protein supplement and must be used exactly as described. I have also had athletes who are used to consuming large amounts of protein powder ignore my instructions to stick to only two to four packets a day (depending on needs), only to end up smelling like an unhealthy gym rat with a taxed liver! This product is highly bioavailable and should be seen as a medical supplement and not a food.
2. Eclater de Sante (Essence of Life) – Nick Abrishamian, Ph.D. is a clinical biochemist and is the only person I know to acquire FDA approval to formulate and sell a raw, organic whey protein. Not surprisingly, he informed me that it took several years of battling the FDA to get this rare approval. An expert in blood analysis, Dr. Abrishamian typically customizes each batch of whey protein to the individual’s needs. For those without blood analysis, it is possible to order Eclater de Sante in its standard formulation. Like Imuplus, I learned of this product through one of my associates, Dr. Dan Kalish, an instructor of the C.H.E.K Nutrition and Lifestyle Coaching program. Dr. Kalish uses Eclater de Sante to help patients in need of biologically available protein, immune modulation and support. I have personally tested Eclater de Sante and had minimal problems. Like Imuplus, it did give me the typical headaches I get from consuming any dairy products (aside from butter), yet it did improve my recovery from hard training sessions while lecturing on the road. This product is a medical grade supplement, and again, it should not be used in place of a whole food organic eating plan. ”
Products I would use as a compromise:
These are compromises as they use Ion Exchange isolate, where microfiltered is probably better.
NFS Nutraceuticals Super Whey protein – mainly lonic Exchange Whey Protein Isolate and a small amount of Bio-Engineered Ultra Filtered Whey Protein. 5g of l-glutamine with each serving & 2g taurine to complete the amino acids. Sweetened with stevia and malt. Malt is no good for whole food diets, or the gluten sensitive. Choc & strawberry flavours. $NZ80 for 750g. It can be ordered online at www.creativeenergy.co.nz
Solgar Whey to Go (vanilla) – Ion-exchanged, Micro-filtered and Hydrolyzed protein blend. Leslie Kenton recommends this brand, though I have my doubts about the hydrolyzed portion. I’d only use the natural vanilla flavour. The other flavours all have fructose in them. Around $NZ60 for about 340g protein, so pretty expensive.
Products I wouldn’t use :
Solgar Whey to Go (Non vanilla flavours) – Ion-exchanged, Micro-filtered and Hydrolyzed protein blend – only the natural vanilla flavour is recommended. The other flavours all have fructose in them.
Biochem Ultimate Protein System – 100% microfiltered whey protein isolate, which is good. But the sweeteners are fructose, which is bad, and acesulfame k.
Biochem Ultimate Lo Carb Smoothie – Instantised whey protein concentrate. Sweeteners are maltodextrin & sucralose, which are suspect.
Twin Lab Triple Whey Fuel – Combo of micro-filtered and ion exchange; hydrolysed and whey protein concentrate. The dodgy bit, though, is that the sweetener is aspartame, which I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.
Horleys Whey Factors – Instantised Ion Exchange Whey Protein Isolate, Ultrafiltered Whey Protein Concentrate, Whey Protein Hydrolysate. It does have L-Glutamine, which is good. But the sweeteners are acesulfame k and aspartame, so that rules it out.
Horleys Awesome Whey – Instantised Whey Protein Concentrate, Hydrolysed Whey Protein Concentrate. Also the sweeteners are Maltodextrin, acesulfame k and aspartame.
I haven’t looked at products that are whey combined with other protein powders. And this isn’t all of the pure whey products. There may be other good ones out there, but as you can see there are more bad ones than good ones. This range gives you an idea of how to judge other products.