When you ask the question “which Whey Protein is best”, do you simultaneously wonder if most of what’s said about the “best” whey protein is pure hype? If so, you’ve got the logical side of your brain working. Ever since whey protein became the ‘got-to-have’ protein source for bodybuilding and fitness, we’ve witnessed an ongoing “which whey protein is best” battle. Those caught in the emotional hype of this debate seem to have forgotten or be unaware that there was a time when people built great muscle mass without whey protein. That’s right… when I routinely perused bodybuilding magazines back in the late 1980s, there was one lonely little company marketing whey protein, and the ‘egg albumen protein’ marketers probably thought they were crazy. Funny… bodybuilders were building muscle just fine with every kind of protein other than whey.
But now whey’s hot and we find ourselves in a constant ‘which whey protein is best’ discussion. Never mind that the law of diminishing return might show the benefits of whey to be pivotal only at protein consumption levels so low that nobody would consider them; we’re convinced that this stuff really builds muscle better. It’s high in branch-chain amino acids (but so are meats and other dairy products). It’s high in l-Leucine (but so are eggs and poultry). It’s convenient… but so are… uh, well, I’ll give it that… it’s convenient.
Whey protein is so popular that even online health gurus have joined the “which whey protein is best” debate. That’s ironically funny when considering that many of these same people are constantly preaching that we should eat “whole foods.” Is there anything ‘whole food’ about whey protein? The stuff is about as ‘partial food’ as you can get; a “waste product” extracted and completely separated from whole milk.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not here to bash whey protein; I actually like and use the stuff myself. I’m just bashing much of the hype surrounding it. And I’d like to get to the bottom of the ‘which whey protein is best’ question, assuming it’s still an unsettled question.
‘Which Whey Protein is best’ – Isolate or Concentrate?
A few months ago, I posted an article on the topic of cold processed micro-filtered whey protein. Upon posting that entry, I decided to undergo a personal experiment. The experiment consisted of really putting Whey Isolate to the test. For about 120 days now, I’ve forked over the additional cost of using whey protein isolate over whey concentrate. I’ve used whey isolate exclusively and consistently – at least two servings per day (sometimes more), every day. This was done while keeping meticulous written records of my muscle building progress.
What did I notice from using Whey Isolate instead of Whey Concentrate?
Absolutely nothing! Zilch... Not a bit of difference. For all the extra money spent on that precious whey isolate, I got results that were the same as with the less expensive whey concentrate. I was able to maintain the steady progress that I always enjoy from using my unique system of bodybuilding. But those powerful and predictable results didn’t get nudged higher by shifting from whey concentrate to whey isolate.
Having said that, let’s look at a list of the typically touted benefits of whey isolate by those who swear it’s the best bodybuilding protein:
- Higher protein content per serving (up to 95% pure protein by weight)
- Free of lactose, carbohydrates, and fats
- Highest levels of BCAA (branch chain amino acids)
- Highest levels of l-Leucine
- Lowest calories per serving
Admittedly, this might be an ideal protein source when dieting down for a bodybuilding contest or physique photo shoot. It also might be preferred for those who are lactose intolerant.
To make things even more confusing amidst the “which whey protein is best” debate, there are proponents of whey protein concentrate who have as compelling an argument as any for using the concentrated form of whey protein. Here’s a list of some benefits they’re plugging for whey concentrate:
- Can be ‘cold processed’; less likely to be “heat damaged.”
- Retains IgG immunoglobulins (which I’m sure you’ll notice… Haha)
- Might provide more Glutamine (good for the immune system)
- Might provide more Cysteine, which produces Glutathione in the body (also good for immune system).
- Still retains 70% to 80% of protein by weight (at a substantially lower price).
Let me ask a really good question right now:
Can any protein actually be “heat damaged?”
Think about it: If protein is so easily damaged by heat, then every serving of meat loaf, roast beef, hamburger, chicken, halibut, and those delicious steak and eggs… all of the cooked proteins you and I have eaten in our lives… would have been rendered useless and we’d have never transformed into the big, strong, strapping grown-up guys and gals we are now. For this reason, I’ve never quite bought into the ‘cold processed’ spiel. Evidence to back my opinion (anecdotal indeed) can be found in the fact that my bodybuilding results with the whey isolate (likely heat processed) were not downgraded from those obtained using the whey concentrate.
Some would argue my last point by saying that pasteurization heats the whey protein enough to “denature” it. Denaturing the protein changes its native structure. Apparently, this is considered just short of a mortal sin among people supporting un-denatured whey protein for its immunological and antioxidant benefits. You’d think our poor immune systems never had a fighting chance until someone thought to put this “waste product” into a can and sell it.
The story goes basically like this: Glutathione is a master antioxidant produced by the body. It is present in every cell, including the cells of the immune system. It protects the cells from the oxidative damage caused by free radicals.
The non-essential amino acid Cysteine is a key component and building block of Glutathione. The body can produce Glutathione from Cysteine’s two forms – its single form (called Cysteine) and its disulfide-bonded conjunction of two Cysteine molecules (called Cystine). Each has its own benefits in the body and both are present in whey protein.
However, according to proponents of 100% cold processed, unpasteurized, un-denatured whey protein, this amino acid is not in its ideal cysteine-to-cystine ratio in heat produced whey protein. “The heat of pasteurization…” they say, “… unfolds the 3-D structure of the naturally occurring native protein.” Although they admit that the amino acids and their peptide chains remain intact, they claim this ‘denaturing’ process strips the whey of much of its immunological and antioxidant benefits.
Unfortunately, the validity of this claim is difficult to test anecdotally. You and I could chug down daily servings of cold-processed, unpasteurized, un-denatured, cross-filtered, whey protein from ‘grass-fed cows’ for the next thirty years and our immune systems will probably still eventually crap out. At that point, our friends who sold us the ‘un-denatured’ protein could approach (as elderly folks themselves, no doubt) and say:
“Well… just think how much earlier your immune system would have hit the skids if you hadn’t drunk this stuff.”
‘Hmmm’… I’d be thinking: “Okay… gim’me some more of that… and some N-Acetel Cysteine too.”
By-the-way, the following is a list of some foods (other than whey protein) that contain cysteine:
Milk, eggs, beef, pork, turkey, cottage cheese, yogurt, sausage, duck, ricotta, garlic, onions, oats, broccoli, granola, brussels sprouts.
‘Which Whey Protein is best?’ Concentrate/Isolate at a decent price
In terms of getting a good quality whey protein at a decent price, your best bet would be to go with a blend. This is one of the many whey products on the market that combine concentrate and isolate. These will typically provide a good protein serving with minimal fat and lactose at a fair price.
Additionally, if you’re paying more than eighteen to twenty dollars for a two-pound can or bag of this stuff, then (in my opinion) you’re paying for hyperbole that someone’s attached to their version of the product. I can personally attest that your bodybuilding gains will likely not be better for the additional cost.
And… if you’re buying the expensive stuff for improved immunity and antioxidant benefits?
Then I’d say you’re acting on faith… even if the marketer has a ‘Dr’ in front of his or her name.