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What is Whey Protein Powder and Do I Need It?

Find Out How Whey Protein Powder Went from Dairy Underdog to Nutritional Superstar

whey-protein-powder-smoothieWhey protein seems to be everywhere.

One of the top selling (and most heavily-marketed) nutritional and sports supplements on the market today, whey protein turns up as an ingredient in everything from smoothies to nutrition bars to high-protein cereals.  Personal trainers often include whey as part of their clients diet plan, smoothie bars offer it mixed with ice and fruit, and aspiring bodybuilders and soccer moms alike seem to have found a permanent place for a tub of whey protein powder in their pantries.

But what exactly is whey protein powder? Where does this stuff come from? And do you really need it?

A Brief History of Whey Protein

Whey is a natural by-product of the cheese-making process. Milk contains two primary proteins: casein and whey.  Whey composes about 20% of milk proteins, and casein comprises the remaining 80%. So when you drink a glass of milk, you are consuming both casein proteins and whey proteins.

During the cheese-making process, an enzyme called rennet is added to milk to curdle it. The curds are used to make cheese, and the remaining liquid is whey.

Historically, this liquid was considered more-or-less useless. Indeed, the dairy industry had so much excess whey that they struggled with disposing of the surplus. Some of it found its way into swine or cattle feed, where it appeared to produce larger, meatier cows or pigs, but a great deal of it also ended up in the landfill.

Which was really a shame, because the cattle farmers were on to something. It turns out that whey is extremely rich is three milk proteins  specifically beta-lactoglobulin (~65%), alpha-lactalbumin (~25%), andserum albumin (~8%) which are more easily digested by the body than any other protein, including the holy grail of protein, eggs.

There was just one problem: Whey in its naturally occurring form is a sloppy, liquid mess.  It also has very little flavor. Trying to sell the world on a great protein source that has to be refrigerated and doesnt have much taste would challenge even the best marketer.

Enter modern technology.  Scientists figured out a way (no pun intended) to dry and powder-ize whey, while still maintaining its basic nutritional profile.  The result was whey powder, which could be reconstituted in liquids while still preserving its protein values.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Understanding the Different Forms of Whey

Depending on the processing method, there are three different forms of whey protein: whey concentrates, whey isolate, and whey peptides. Lets take each one individually:

Whey Protein Concentrates

Whey concentrates are less refined than isolates. This means that gram-for-gram they contain more fat, carbohydrates and lactose than isolates, and less protein. But before you write them off, you need to ask yourself a few questions.

First, am I lactose intolerant? If you are, concentrates may not be the fit for you. Because they arent as refined, they have more naturally occurring lactose present.

Second, do the marginally higher carbs and fat really matter to me?

Frankly, the difference in fat and carbs between concentrates and isolate is fairly minimal. For example (I usedProlab Pure Whey Powder for benchmarking,) a 32 gram serving of whey concentrate typically contains 130 calories, 2 grams of fat, 6 grams of carbs and 22 grams of protein.

Compare that against 32 grams of whey isolate (I used Iso-bolic Whey Isolate for the comparison). The whey isolate has 127 calories, 1.7 grams of fat, 2.2 grams of carbohydrates and 26.5 grams of protein.

Not a huge difference between the two, especially considering that isolate can cost $10-$15 dollars more than concentrate.

Provided you dont have any lactose-intolerance issues, the concentrate should do just fine and its cheaper to boot. Also, there is some evidence that the lighter processing involved in creating whey concentrate spares some of the immune-boosting protein subfractions like alpha lactoglobulins and lactoferrins, which are removed in the isolate filtering process.

Whey Protein Isolate

Whey isolate is produced by passing whey proteins through ceramic filters that strip out certain compounds, like fat (lipids) and lactose sugars. The result is whey which has a higher concentration of protein.

Practically-speaking, this means you need fewer scoops of whey isolate than whey concentrate to consume the same level of protein. And because much of the lactose is filtered out, there are fewer digestive problems.  The down-side is that isolate appears to contain fewer compounds like alpha lactoglobulins and lactoferrins, which may be immuno-boosters.

Whey isolate also typically mixes slightly better than concentrates, although the flavor of concentrates is richer and milkier.

Hydrolyzed Whey Peptides

Hydrolyzed wheys are whey proteins that have been pre-digested for easier, quicker absorption. Hydrolyzing typically involves breaking some of the amino acid chains that hold proteins together so that they are absorbed even more quickly by the body than normal whey amino acids. The downside is that hydrolyzed whey peptides generally taste nasty. For this reason, you wont find them as a primary whey source in whey powders, although they may be a secondary ingredient in certain whey protein powder blends.

Whats So Great About Whey Protein Powder?

The main benefits of whey protein powder over other sources of protein like eggs, milk and soy are cost, convenience and absorption by the body.


While $40 dollars for a 5 lb tub of whey protein may seem expensive, when you consider that whey powder is around 90% pure protein, gram-for-gram it is actually a very economical source of high-quality, easily-digested protein compared to other sources of protein.

Lets do the math to illustrate:

A 5 lb tub of 100% whey protein powder contains around 77 servings (30.4 grams per serving) of protein.  That comes out to 24 grams of protein per serving, or 1848 grams of protein in a 5 lb container. While costs vary depending on brand, well use $45 dollars as a benchmark here.

So a 24 gram serving of whey protein costs around 58 cents.

Now lets compare that to eggs. The average cost of a dozen eggs in 2007 was $3.47.  To get the same amount of protein from eggs as you got from the whey powder, you would need to eat four whole eggs. That means a comparable 24 gram serving of protein from eggs would cost you $1.15 (3.47 divided by 4.)

What about chicken breast? You would need to eat around 4 oz of chicken breast to get the same amount of protein as you got from a single serving of the whey. Depending on the brand, boneless, skinless chicken breast will cost approximately $5 dollars a pound (less if its on sale.)  That comes out to around $1.25 per 24 gram serving of protein.

Soy protein powder doesnt fare much better.  It would take about a serving and a half of Genisoy Soy Protein Isolate to get 24 grams of protein. At $12.99 for a 22 oz container of soy powder, that would be around $1.14 per 24 gram serving of protein.

So clearly of all of the major sources of protein, whey protein is still the most economical ounce-for-ounce.


Whey protein powder is also extremely convenient.

Its highly portable, since all it requires is the addition of water to reconstitute it. And because its made from milk, even with water alone, it takes on a milky flavor and consistency (especially with the concentrates) that you just cant typically duplicate in a soy protein powder.

Whey protein is also light (so it travels wells), doesnt require refrigeration and can be added to all kinds of foods, including skim milk, instant oatmeal and even healthy cookies and pancakes. This makes it an ideal in-between meal snack that you can literally whip up at your desk at work, take in a shaker to the gym with you, or pack in your laptop bag when you are flying.


Whey protein has the highest absorption-rate of any protein food source. This is known as the Biological Valueor BV, which is an indication of how much protein in a given food is actually available to the body to utilize.

Whole eggs have a BV of 93.7, and whey protein has a BV of 100 (the higher the BV, the better.)  Its important to remember that BV only measures the potential absorption of protein against other foods, not how much of the protein you will actually absorb, which is can be impacted by other foods that you consume with the protein, as well as how much protein is already pooled in your body from earlier meals (the body can only utilize a certain amount of protein at a time.)

Not only does the body potentially absorb more protein from whey, it digests whey more quickly than eggs, meat, or dairy. This makes it an ideal post-workout food, when its important to provide extra protein to the body to aid in recovery, especially after weight or resistance training.  For these same reasons, whey makes a good addition to breakfast, since protein levels will typically be low after eight hours of sleep.

DID YOU KNOW? Recent studies by Dr. Donald Layman, a professor at the University of Illinois, have highlighted the role of the essential amino acid leucine in improving body composition. High quality whey protein is rich in leucine to help preserve lean muscle tissue while promoting fat loss. Whey protein contains more leucine than milk protein, egg protein and soy protein. (Source: The Whey Protein Institute)

Do I Have To Include Whey Powder in My Diet to Be Successful at The Gym?

While there is an extensive body of research supporting the benefits of whey protein, especially for weight trainers and athletes (whose protein requirements may be higher than the average person), you do not need to supplement with whey to lose fat and build muscle. Most Western diets easily meet the minimum daily recommended allowance of protein, so protein deficiency is not typically an issue for most people especially if they are eating whole, well-balanced meals.

While there are certain times of the day when adding whey protein into your diet can help ensure that you have enough protein available to assist in workout recovery, there are plenty of people who have built lean, muscular physiques without ever touching whey protein. Vegetarian or vegan body builders rely heavily on soy products for their protein, but this is primarily because obtaining all of the necessary amino acids from vegetable-sources of protein can be difficult without the addition of products like soy.

For omnivores (people who eat dairy, eggs, meat, poultry and fish), there are plenty of other foods that can help supply high-quality protein, including eggs, dairy and chicken breast. A single eight-ounce serving of skinless, boneless chicken breast supplies over 40 grams of protein, so if you are including these foods in your diet, its not difficult to meet your minimum protein requirements.

If you are an athlete, weight trainer, or even a person who is working hard at the gym, your protein requirements can be higher than the minimum RDA. There is considerable debate over how much higher, but the current thinking is anywhere from 0.8 grams per kg of bodyweight to 1-1.5 grams per kg of bodyweight. Some diets for bodybuilders or competitive athletes can go as high as 1.5 2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.

So a 175 lb person would be looking at between 63.2 grams and 118 grams of protein a day.

Again, there is no agreement on a standard for people who are engaged in intense weight training or sports activities. Its also important to view your absolute protein consumption as a percentage of your total calories consumed. That range can be anywhere from 10% -35% of your daily calories from protein, so if you are on a 3000 calorie diet, that would be approximately 100 grams of protein at 35 percent of your calories from protein.

Other Benefits of Whey Protein Powder

There may be other benefits of consuming whey protein.

Gram-for-gram, protein is lower in calories than fat (4 grams versus 9 grams respectively) so in terms of volume, you get more food with less calories. By substituting protein for some fats in your diet, you can reduce your overall calorie intake for the day. Over time, this can add up to additional fat loss.

Protein also has minimal impact on blood sugar levels, so it tends to stabilize blood glucose and can help prevent you from feeling hungry, especially if you are on a calorie-restricted diet. When consumed with complex or simple carbs, protein can lower the glycemic index of carbohydrates, slowing their digestion and further stabilizing blood glucose.

Finally, whey protein powders primarily because of their convenience and portability can help you eat smaller, more frequent meals, which can increase metabolism, stave off hunger and discourage overeating. Whey powders provide an excellent 200-300 calorie snack in-between meals, and can be mixed up nearly anywhere. Trying to fit in 5-6 smaller meals each day can be challenging, so whey protein can fill the gaps.

When Is Whey Powder Not A Good Idea?

If you have a history of kidney disease, youll typically want to restrict your consumption of protein. So whey supplementation will probably not be right for you.

In healthy adults, with no kidney disease, consumption of whey protein in excess of the recommended daily allowance appears to be safe, and there is no conclusive research to demonstrate that large amounts of protein in these populations have adverse health risks or leads to kidney damage.

Also, avoid substituting whey protein for all of your meals or as a regular substitute for other protein sources or whole meals. If you are consuming more than 1-3 servings of whey a day, you are probably short-changing yourself nutritionally. You need to eat whole meals and other sources of protein which naturally contain critical vitamins and minerals that may not be present in whey alone.  Remember, whey protein is a way to supplement your regular whole food meals, not a replacement for them.

Finally, be aware that whey manufacturers may add other supplements such as creatine or arginine, or high amounts of sugar (in weight gain powders) to their products. You need to look carefully to make sure the product is labeled 100% Whey Protein and check the ingredient list for things like creatine, lipids or sugar (it will often say dextrose or maltodextrin, which are simple sugars.) Also, most 100% whey protein powders that dont contain these types of additives will have less than 5 grams of carbohydrates and sugar. If they exceed that, the manufacturer may be adding sugar into the product. So it pays to read nutritional labels.

Comments (24)

  1. Dane (1 comments) says:

    I like the article. With all the info out there on ergogenic capacity of whey protein products it took me a long time to learn what whey protein actually was. I really like the comparison with other high protein foods including the amount per serving vs price.

  2. Jim (6 comments) says:

    Great article! I have always wondered about the cost of whey protein versus meat, eggs etc. Very informative. Thanks

  3. Allan Terplawy (1 comments) says:

    A question: Is there a limit on the time you can wait to consume a pre-mixed batch of whey protein? I had heard that with pre-mixing whey powder with juice or milk or water or however you do it, it loses effectiveness very quickly and should be consumed within minutes. Is that the case? Can I pre-mix, take it to my workout, and consume it immediately thereafter, say within 1.5 hours?

  4. Matt (194 comments) says:

    Allen, there is no issue with pre-mixing 100% whey protein ahead of time. There are some issues with mixing creatine or whey protein blends that contain creatine ahead of time with fruit juices because it can break down the creatine. However, mixing whey ahead of time has no impact on its effectiveness. That said, I wouldnt let it sit in a warm car for two hours bring it into the gym with you in a controlled temperature and you should be fine.

  5. nick scott (1 comments) says:

    I have purchased whey powder from a gym. I have no amounts. How much powder do you use to how much water or skim milk?
    Thank you


  6. Matt (194 comments) says:

    Nick, did the whey powder come with a scoop? If not, generally 1/3 cup is a serving which will typically provide between 20-23 grams of protein, depending on the brand (and whether it is whey isolate or whey concentrate.) In terms of how much fluid to mix with the whey powder, this is really a matter of personal preference. I like 1-1/2 scoops in 1-2 cups for skim milk for a post-workout recovery drink. If you are trying to keep calories down, you can mix it with water although it wont taste as rich.

    Best of luck!

  7. Stephanie (3 comments) says:

    Great article! I just started using whey and I had a lot of questions. You answered them in this article. Thanks.

  8. Dana (2 comments) says:

    This is by far, the best description of Whey Protein ever! Great Job!

  9. sal (1 comments) says:

    do whey powder on biscuits & cakes from pigs or just from the cow???
    is whey powder from cow only or is it from other animals???


  10. afshan (1 comments) says:

    is whey also derived from other sources besides milk?

    • Matt (194 comments) says:

      Afshan, no, whey protein is only present in milk or dairy products cows milk, goats milk, buffalo milk, etc.

  11. lauren (1 comments) says:

    Hey Matt,

    Great article, this was really informative. Im was a little apprehensive about adding whey protein into my post-workout diet, but I think Ill give it a shot. Thanks for the info!

  12. Terrence (1 comments) says:

    Great Blog and very informative! Regarding supplements, after years of trial and error, and lots of $s spent, I now go with only three (1) MuscleTech Anator, (2) any decent protein supplement (I change it up) and (3) Acai Fire for Men. Protein Supps of course everybody knows about. Anator I found to be VERY beneficial after training for mass/muscle recovery; this can be found at all the ususal sources. Acai Fire is less known and my latest addition, and has been KEY in my view for enabling concurrent mass retention and fat loss. You cant find Acai Fire in stores but you can get a free trial by going to my URL. Highly recommend this combo and best of luck!

  13. Charles Lloyd (6 comments) says:

    Good article as always pretty much hit the trifecta of quality protein

  14. bob (6 comments) says:

    Are you nuts. I have never ever paid 3.77 fora dozen eggs. They are usually about 99 cents a dozen and that is expensive in most parts. So i dont know where you got that number from, unless you are talking about that gay free range  shit.

  15. Dan Coll (1 comments) says:

    I am 78 y.o. male, weigh appr. 180 lbs.  Just started working with weight machines and do about 45 min. workout 3x wk.  Im looking for protein source as I do not eat red meats, chicken rarely.  I like salmon and tuna. Some other fish from time to time.  Appreciate suggestions.

  16. Teresa (2 comments) says:

    Quick question to a gym guru (greatly appreciate your reply in advance).  I go to the gym at least 3-4 days a week (sometimes more) and am pretty fit.  Ive noticed that Ive been loosing weight and my butt isnt as big as it was.  Is there any way, I can stay in shape, continue going to the gym to stay fit and NOT continue to lose my butt

    • gorgeousbronze (1 comments) says:

      Teresa go to youtube and lookup bootynomics. Buffie tells you how to get it and keep it.

  17. Wendy (1 comments) says:

    Hi Matt,
    I just want to thank you for your informative article about whey powder.  You have a wonderful way of making things easy to understand.  I also just finished your article on the Zig zag dieting.
    It was very helpful.
    I have bookmarked your pages for some more reading tomorrow.  Thanks again.

  18. Markie (1 comments) says:

    Good explainer, thanks.
    A gym-rat friend told that taking whey protein can lead to fluid retention. Is that correct?

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