50 Shades of Whey

A deep dive into protein powder

By Max Zhu, ’23

You’ve probably heard of protein powder. It’s notorious for being the “staple of body building.” Aside from that, many people don’t realize what protein powder actually is, besides the fact that it “gives you protein.”

What even is protein? It’s often thought of as something that helps build muscle, and although that is true, protein does more than just “build muscle.” Without going into too much biology, proteins can act as antibodies, enzymes, or messengers (just to name a few of their responsibilities). Their role in the human body is crucial and they’re responsible for a lot more than just “building muscle.” This article will be focused on protein powder and protein geared towards muscle synthesis. 

Protein powder, and protein in general, aren’t all created equally. Since protein can be derived from various sources, (the most common being milk, eggs, beef, and legumes) it’s important to select one that fits your specific needs. Protein powder is often just some sort of food that has its fats and carbs stripped away, leaving just the protein. It’s a long branch of amino acids that helps aid in recovery. Since intense workouts cause micro-tears in your muscles. It’s important for you to recover and build them back. This is where protein powder comes into play. It’s a large dose of protein, which can be taken in a short amount of time. Once you take in the protein, the enzymes in your stomach break it down into small groups of amino acids called peptides. These peptides are used to rebuild your recently torn muscles. Since your muscles contain micro tears, they receive stem cells and growth hormones to rebuild these broken muscle fibres with amino acids. If more muscle is being created than broken or used, then you begin to build bigger and stronger muscles. 

The most common form of protein powder will be derived from milk. It’s split into whey and casein. Whey is a faster-acting digestive protein which is absorbed by your body much quicker. This makes it ideal for a quick protein boost after a workout or anytime you need a fast-digesting protein. Whey on the other hand is beneficial for those who aren’t in a hurry to use the protein. It’s most commonly taken at night and often used in baking for its thicker texture. 

Protein powder starts with milk, a lot of milk. Companies that are labelled “New Zealand Whey” are often considered on the better end, due to New Zealand’s high regulations for their milk. Once the milk is taken from the cows, it’s roughly 3.5% protein, 4% fat, and 4.6% lactose. So it obviously takes a lot of milk to create that pure protein blend. The milk is taken to a factory to be pasteurized and separated using enzymes. This is very similar to the cheese-making process. The curds that separate from the rest of the milk make up roughly 80% of the milk and can be turned into casein. The remaining 20% is actually liquid whey and it goes through heavy filtration to remove fats, lactose, minerals, and water. This filtration process is often run multiple times before the liquid way is turned into whey protein. If this process is repeated further, the protein is then considered an isolate. Then the whey, whether it’s isolated or not, is separated from the water and spray-dried into a powder. The final product is mainly pure protein, and although many of the minerals are removed, a majority of the amino acids are still kept intact. Since this whey is often unflavoured (due to the lack of lactose and other flavourings) and runny (when combined with water) casein is often added back into the powder along with certain flavours. Many companies, like PVL, add in other supplements of their own, which include EAAs, BCAAs, glutamine, MCT oil, and probiotics. Companies who sell whey protein powder can differentiate themselves in various ways, like using different quality milk, filtering the milk more (or less), having different flavours, or adjusting the whey to a casein blend. This is why it’s important to understand what you’re putting in your body and how it reacts to these powders.

If you’re ever interested, you could try this process on a smaller scale at home. The process is similar to that of making cheese. First, take 1 gallon of milk and begin boiling it to 83C. Then, stir in 5 tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar and let it sit for 30 min. As the curds begin separating from the liquid whey, strain out the curds from the whey entirely. Now you can boil off all the water from the liquid whey and toss it in a blender for the powder or go about using any other method to separate the water from the powder. With the resulting casein, you can follow a similar process or use it to make cheese. The protein you will get will be a lot less flavourful than the powders you buy and that’s because you don’t have any other sort of additives. 

Eggs are often hailed as the holy grail of food. Being on a very limited list of foods with amino acids, and egg whites having an impressive protein-to-calorie ratio, eggs are a great source of protein in general. To make an egg protein powder, it’s mostly taken from egg whites. The egg whites are separated from the yolks, then the whites are mixed and sprayed onto a large pan to have the water rapidly evaporate before being left with a powder. This again is subject to adding flavouring and healthy fats to change the consistency and taste. 

Beef, or any type of meat, is a great source of protein. Some obvious exceptions are made to those with lower protein content and more fat. Since there is such a high concentration of protein in many meats, it’s often turned into a powder, beef being the most common. Beef also has a high-quality amino acid profile which helps your protein synthesis in muscle. To make the powder, beef is boiled down into a liquid. As fat floats up, it’s skimmed off and many high-carb contents are also separated. When it’s reached a specific level of protein to fats and carb ratio. It’s also spray-dried to remove water and turned into a powder. Again, healthy fats and flavourings are added in at the final step. 

Another very famous source of protein powder is vegan protein powder. It can be derived from soy, brown rice, hemp, or peas. Plant-based protein can be derived in a number of ways, some with chemicals to separate out the protein, but also many through a filtration process. The plants are mostly blended together to get all the micronutrients they contain but there are many specific ones too. When the legumes are harvested, they are ground into flour and dissolved. In a basic solution. The chunks that are undissolved are removed. The resulting liquid is spun around very fast in a process called centrifugation and you can separate the water and other ingredients from the protein. It then is dried out and has various products added to it. Many vegan protein powders like to add in other vegetables and natural flavourings which, in my opinion, don’t taste too good. However, for the select audience that enjoys it, they get a very natural protein that doesn’t digest the same as the others. Vegan protein powders often are less filled with amino acids which leads them to be less effective in some cases. They miss some important aspects of protein but make up for it with their micronutrients. Our body absorbs plant-based proteins different from those of other sources, which may cause them to be less effective to some.

Everyone reacts to different sources of protein differently. This is why I encourage many to see what they like, and it can even differ from brand to brand. With this knowledge, I hope you can make more educated decisions on choosing protein powder and you have some sort of insight or what protein powder is and how it’s made. 

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