What is Whey?
Of all the numerous supplements on the market, by far the most effective at helping with losing fat, gaining muscle mass or both, is protein. Since the perfection of the production of whey, protein from this source has become the de facto standard in sports supplements across the world. For anyone new to the weird and colourfully named world of sports supplements, knowing which protein supplement to choose can become a real headache. Fortunately, if you can spare a few minutes familiarising yourself with the details and concepts in this article and you’ll be much wiser and better prepared for your next purchase.
An Overview of Whey Protein Types
Whey Protein Concentrate
The most common type of protein found in supplements. Whey protein concentrate (WPC) is produced after the original whey by-product has gone through an ultra filtration process. The concentration of protein in WPC can vary from 40% to high 80%, though typical concentrations are in the 70-80% range, with many premium whey supplements being over 90% protein. WPC is perfectly adequate for most casual trainers and athletes for whom a few additional grams of carbohydrates and fats are unimportant.
> Example: Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Whey
Whey Protein Isolate
Whey that has undergone another stage of filtration is known as whey protein isolate (WPI). WPI is typically concentrated at 85-95% protein and is usually aimed at trainers and athletes who have to watch their calorie intake very closely. WPI has contains minimal carbohydrates and fats. The additional filtration removes more of the lactose present in the original whey, which makes WPI particularly suited to lactose intolerant individuals. The additional process to produce WPI is more expensive compared to WPC which is why WPI is mostly found in premium protein supplements.
> Example: Dymatize Elite Whey
Whey Protein Hydrolysate
If WPC or WPI is put through a hydrolysis process, it becomes whey protein hydrolysate (WPH). In short, the hydrolysis process breaks down the peptide chains in the whey, making them shorter, becoming ‘pre-digested’. The benefits of this process is that WPH is easier to digest than other proteins, and the protein becomes absorbed into the blood stream faster, meaning the protein can get to the muscles in shorter time where it is needed. The downside of the hydrolysis process is the bitter taste produced when the peptides are broken down, which is off-putting for many. Also, the process is expensive, making WPH the most costly whey protein.
WPH is the best protein to consume post workout, due to it’s incredibly short digestion time (between 10 and 30 minutes). WPH is found in very few products due to it’s premium price, bitter taste, and because so few people would benefit from it’s enhanced digestion time.
> Example: Optimum Nutrition Platinum Hydro Whey
Other Protein Types
Micellar Casein (MC) protein is derived from milk proteins. It’s chemical structure is much more complex than that of whey protein, which makes it more difficult to break down than a whey protein. The benefits of this is the slow but consistent rate at which protein is released into the body, making MC protein ideal for consumption before bed as the idea is that protein will slowly but consistently be released into the body overnight. MC protein can be bought standalone in many supplements or as if often the case, as part of a blend with WPC or WPI. The advantage of consuming whey protein with MC protein is to use the different digestion times of each – whey will be digested within an 1.5 hours whereas MC will still be being digested up to 4 hrs after consumption. In theory, this leads to a more constant supply of protein.
> Example: Optimum Nutrition 100% Casein Protein
Albumin protein (sourced from egg whites) is an alternative to whey protein. Like whey, egg protein has a high bioavailability, but crucially is free of lactose which makes it suitable for those that are lactose intolerant. Egg protein is very high quality, being on a par with whey protein as it contains the whole range of amino acids and is very low in fat and carbohydrates. Before the process of filtering whey to produce whey protein became commonplace, egg protein was the most common source of protein in supplements, and remain a quality choice of protein.
When it comes to digestion times, egg lies between whey and micellar casein, at between 1.5 to 2.5 hrs.
> Example: Optimum Nutrition 100% Egg Protein
Whey based proteins are not suitable for vegans which spurred a demand for quality protein supplements derived from non-animal sources. In many cases these vegan-friendly proteins are high quality and with high bioavailability. Sources of protein outside of those derived from animal products tend not to contain the same high quality protein, mostly due to the lack of a full profile of amino acids. There are however some high quality vegan protein supplements that are high in protein, low in fat (particularly saturate fat) and contain a good amino acid profile. Such proteins including pea and soy protein. As they use much less common ingredients than whey based protein, vegan protein supplements are usually price at a premium but for most vegans are easily worth the price as finding quality protein amongst vegan foods is more difficult than in a diary containing meat and dairy.
> Example: Nutrisport 90+ Pea Protein
Features to Look Out For
Pricing of supplements can vary enormously and to anyone unfamiliar with protein products it can be confusing as to why some products are more expensive than others. The old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ probably applies less often to the supplement market than to other products with wider appeal (cars, for example). Many supplement companies take advantage of this lack of knowledge by using combining the right packaging, marketing and confusing jargon so that they can charge 2-3x times the price of a similar product from another brand.
How do you avoid being ripped off? Like with making any purchase, knowledge is your best weapon. Read around and find out which ingredients are actually beneficial, and which might only be included to inflate the price. For a pure protein supplement, the type of protein used (discussed above) will make a big difference to the price. Added ingredients may increase the value and price, but be careful as outside of the the few useful extras written about in this guide, most are not worth paying extra for.
Any product from an established, well known brand will usually be charged at premium prices. Sometimes the price may be justified in better quality ingredients and formulation. Many people are happy to pay extra for supplements from well known brands, believing that they are higher quality which may or may not be the case (many manufacturers buy their raw ingredients from the same factories). Also, a supplement consumer is likely to have started using a popular brand and may have got in to the habit of buying from the same brand.
Of course, helpful sales staff should also be able to recommend a useful product at a price that suits your budget.
Most protein supplements on the market are flavoured (some retailers sell own label unflavoured protein), and for many the flavour is just as important as the ingredients and nutritional profile. Probably the most common flavours you’ll find are chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla. Some supplement brands offer more exotic flavours, sometimes a dozen of more for a single product! If you’re trying out a new brand for the first time, it’s probably a good idea to try a ‘safe’ flavour first, usually chocolate, vanilla or similar, as most manufacturers seem to be able to get the taste of these right.
Also, look at how the supplement is sweetened. Most will use either Aspartame or Sucralose. Some people prefer Sucralose over Aspartame.
Branched Chain Amino Acids
Branched chain amino acids (BCAA) are a group of amino acids that are found in protein. It is though BCAAs in particular can increase protein synthesis and therefore help build muscle and speed up recovery after weight training. Research is still being conducted to find out just how useful BCAAs are to athletes and weight trainers. Some swear by their effectiveness, while others believe they do nothing. It’s worth noting that any protein supplement already contains BCAA so adding more probably won’t benefit most people.
Some protein products include added pre and probiotics, which may decrease the digestive discomfort that some experience when taking protein supplements. Additionally, they may lead to more nutrients being digested in food which can result in a better immune system, performance and all round well-being. Bear in mind that pre and probiotics are often hyped and so may push up the price significantly. Consuming pre and probiotic yoghurt’s or drinks might be a better value approach to getting more of these bacteria into your diet.
For anyone new to using protein supplements (who is not vegan), the following recommendations offer good value for money, quality and are available in a variety of flavours: