Whey protein is becoming increasingly popular – and not just among athletes or others looking to boost their sporting performance. This natural supplement is now making inroads into the supermarket trolleys of families and older people looking to add extra protein to their diets. If you want to try whey protein but feel overwhelmed by the many different products available on the shelves, this guide is for you. It gives you the lowdown on the various supplements you might come across so you can make the right decision about which protein option best matches your daily needs.
Whey protein supplements
Whey protein powders are among the most commonly used protein supplements. Whey is one of the main proteins found in cow’s milk. Whey protein powders such as whey protein concentrate, isolate and hydrolysate contain all nine essential amino acids, including leucine in a form that is easily digestible and quickly absorbed by the body. Whey protein is therefore considered a “fast” protein.
Whey protein powders come in a variety of flavours and can be added to all kinds of recipes – from pancakes to savoury muffins or shakes. When used for cooking, most people use the neutral tasting variant but the sweetened varieties, such as vanilla, can also be used to add extra flavour to desserts and cakes.
Whey protein concentrate
Whey protein concentrate is a high quality protein (80% protein) with the remainder consisting of carbohydrates (lactose) and fat. As this type of protein contains small amounts of lactose, it may not suit individuals who are lactose intolerant or concerned about limiting lactose intakes.
What is whey?
Whey is a naturally occurring protein formed during the cheese-making process that is low in fat and carbohydrate and high in nutritional value. It contains all nine essential amino acids and can be dried to create a powder that can easily be added to meals as a nutritional supplement.
Whey protein isolate
In this form of whey protein, the protein has been further isolated to around 90% resulting in higher levels of protein than whey protein concentrate and very little lactose and fat. Whey protein isolate is often good for people who are lactose-intolerant.
Whey protein hydrolysate
Like isolate, this form of protein is highly concentrated. Hydrolysation is a process that partially breaks down proteins through heat and exposure to enzymes. This is believed to encourage faster absorption of protein.
Like whey, casein is also a protein derived from milk. It contains all of the essential amino acids but takes longer to digest by the body. For this reason, it’s considered to be a “slow” protein. Some people take a casein supplement before sleep to give the body a slow release of protein during the night. This is thought to result in less protein breakdown during the period when you go without food while sleeping.
BCAA, or branched-chain amino acids, consist of three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. This supplement is targeted towards athletes and does not contain all of the essential acids that a whey supplement would offer. However, many believe that this combination helps the body recover from fatigue and muscle-soreness. In particular, leucine is thought to play an important role in post-exercise muscle recovery and repair. Leucine is also found in regular whey protein supplements.
Non-whey-based protein supplements
As veganism grows in popularity around the world, more people are turning to non-dairy based protein supplements. Some consumers might not be aware that many plant proteins are incomplete, meaning they do not contain all essential amino acids. However, plant proteins consumed in the right combinations have a complementary effect, increasing their biological value.
This kind of supplement is easy to eat on the go and can contain up to 50% protein. However, many of these bars contain little protein and high levels of sugar and fat, making them more similar to candy bars than nutritional supplements. Often it can be difficult to see where the protein actually comes from. Always check the list of ingredients to make sure the bar contains at least 10% high-quality protein like whey – and that the levels of sugar and fat are as low as possible.
Creatine is not actually a protein but is often found in the sports nutrition aisle alongside other protein supplements. Creatine is a naturally occurring compound in the body, predominately found in muscle. This substance may help the muscles produce energy during heavy lifting or high-intensity exercise. Some whey protein powders have added creatine. As creatine is not a protein, it cannot on its own substitute whey protein.
Like creatine, caffeine is not a protein supplement but is often taken to boost energy before exercising. Although it may help with exercise capacity, it will not provide your body with essential amino acids found in protein.
Why does the body need protein?
Protein is required for growth, repair and maintenance of a healthy body. All proteins contain amino acids, which are important for many different metabolic processes and for organ functioning. Eating high-protein food can also make you feel fuller for longer. There are nine essential amino acids that are not produced by the body and which can only be found in food. Whey protein contains all of them.