Does Your Whey Protein Powder Suck?
M&F’s Senior Science Editor Jim Stoppani gives a crash course on what whey protein powders really pack a punch.
How do you choose a whey protein powder? Do you go on the recommendation of your buddy at the gym and take what he takes? Do you pick the bottle with the shiniest, most cutting-edge label? Do you go by what tastes good or what’s on sale at your local GNC?
The truth is, these are serious questions. You know that taking whey protein at the right times of day can make all the difference in between building an extra half-inch on your arms or adding 20 pounds to your personal best on the bench press. But not just any whey will do. There are great whey protein products and there are not-so-good whey protein products. And being able to tell the difference between them can be critical to your gains.
The first step in determining whether your protein is worthy is to give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve recognized whey’s benefits and have included it in your daily regimen. Just to review, whey is enormously beneficial for several reasons, including amino acid and microfraction content (more on that in a minute) and digestion rate.
Whey is one of the richest sources of BCAAs, which include the three amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine. These bad boys have been shown to be absolutely critical for muscle growth, and even for energy during workouts. Whey protein also contains biologically active protein microfractions such as alpha-lactalbumin, beta-lactoglobulin, glycomacropeptides, immunoglobulins, lactoferrin, lactoperoxidase and various growth factors. These provide antioxidant benefits, boost immune function and enhance muscle recovery and growth.
But probably the most critical factor that puts whey protein miles ahead of other forms of protein is digestion rate. Whey digests very rapidly. In fewer than 30 minutes it can fast-track a good portion of its aminos to your muscles, and that rapid delivery of amino acids to muscle cells has been shown to be important for pushing muscle growth.
If you know that whey is one of the proteins found in milk, then it should be obvious that whey protein production starts with dairy cows. Cows are milked on the farm, and this milk is the starting source for most protein powders. But if you think that supplement companies like Optimum, Cytosport or Nature’s Best are out in the back milking cows to make their protein powders, you’ve got another think coming.
Way back when, whey was actually considered a waste byproduct of cheese production and was routinely dumped. These days, dairy companies recognize the value of whey and have set up factories to concentrate and purify it. Every supplement company that sells products that contain whey buys raw protein from a dairy manufacturer, and there are only so many of those.
That means that multiple supplement companies acquire raw whey protein powder from the same handful of manufacturers. Two of the major protein manufacturers are Glanbia, with main headquarters in Ireland, and Hilmar Ingredients, in California. These are the places where milk actually undergoes rigorous processing that involves various forms of filtering and purification to produce specific protein powders.
Supplement companies like Optimum or Dymatize order raw protein powders, such as whey protein isolate, whey protein concentrate, whey protein hydrolysate and, yes, calcium caseinate or micellar casein, from companies such as Glanbia or Hilmar. These raw, unflavored protein powders are shipped to the supplement companies in massive containers. Each company then adds its own often proprietary blend of ingredients, including flavorings, colorings and other ingredients (extra aminos, say, or enzymes to help digest the protein) to produce their final blend, which ends up in the jug on your kitchen counter.
Whey to Go
Whey protein powder is far more effective than any other protein form out there, but its effectiveness can vary widely. Often the limiting factor of a whey protein product is the other ingredients companies add to it. But the type of whey — and the amount of each type present in a product — can also affect effectiveness.
Great Whey Protein Powders
When you buy a protein powder your intention is to buy protein, not carbs and not fat. Carbs and fat are easy to get in your diet, so when you’re laying down your hard-earned cash for a jug of protein, you want it to have as much protein in it as possible. A quick glance at the Supplement Facts panel will let you know how many carbs and how much fat are in the product.
But you’re not done yet. Keep scanning down the label until you get to the ingredients list. The information contained here is the key to knowing whether a protein powder is really amazing or just simply passable. First you might notice that most whey protein products contain more than one type of whey. You might see whey protein isolate, whey protein hydrolysate (or hydrolyzed whey protein) or whey protein concentrate.
To be considered a great whey protein the product MUST list whey protein isolate or hydrolyzed whey protein isolate as the very first ingredient. That’s because whey protein isolates are the purest form of protein you can get, with some being more than 90% protein. And “hydrolyzed whey protein isolate” means that that high-quality whey has been pre-digested into smaller protein fragments for even faster digestion than regular whey isolate. Whey protein concentrate, on the other hand, goes through less filtering, which means fewer of the natural carbohydrates found in milk are removed. The result is a whey product that is much lower in protein content. Although most whey protein concentrates are somewhere between 70-80% protein, some can be less than 35% protein. This is why most companies make a big deal about their whey protein isolate powders. (This is also why isolates and hydrolysates generally cost more.)
But to really know if a whey protein powder is top notch, you’ll need to do some math. Take the grams of protein per serving listed on the supplement facts panel and divide it by the serving size (in grams). This will give you the percentage of protein in each serving. To be considered a great whey protein powder, the percent protein per serving (or scoop) should be 80% or greater. For example, if a whey protein powder provides 25 grams of protein per 28-gram scoop, that protein powder is about 90% protein and is a great whey protein for the money.
These whey protein powders made our “Great” list:
Ultimate Nutrition Iso-Sensation
Ultimate Nutrition Iso-Sensation 93 is 93% protein with only 1 gram of carbs per serving. The one type of protein it includes is cross-flow microfiltered whey protein isolate.
Dymatize Iso-100 is 90% protein with zero carbs. The only form of protein in this product is hydrolyzed whey protein isolate.
AST VP2 Whey Isolate
AST VP2 Whey Isolate is another product that is 86% protein with fewer than 2 grams of carbs per serving. The only protein it uses is hydrolyzed whey isolate.
Nature’s Best Isopure Zero Carb
Nature’s Best Isopure Zero Carb is 81% protein with 0 grams of carbs. This protein provides a pure whey islolate. You may wonder if it has zero carbs, what makes up the 19% that is not whey protein. The other 19% in the scoop is from added glutamine, other aminos, vitamins and minerals to provide some other beneficial nutrients.
MuscleTech Pro Series Nitro-Isolate 65
MuscleTech Nitro Isolate 65 Pro is 80% protein with just under 5 grams of carbs per serving. It uses both a whey protein isolate and hydrolyzed whey protein isolate for its two protein sources.
Optimum Platinum HydroWhey
Optimum Platinum HydroWhey comes in at just under 80% protein. Even though it’s under the 80% mark, we included it in the “Great” whey protein list because it only has 2 grams of carbs per serving, which is less than some other products that made this list. We also placed it here because its sole protein source is hydrolyzed whey protein isolates. Plus, the other 20% in the scoop comes from micronized BCAAs and an enzyme blend to help you better digest and absorb the 30 grams of protein it delivers per scoop.
Good Whey Protein Powders
Although our list of “Good” whey protein powders is on a lower tier than those on the “Great” list, the following whey protein powders are still very high-quality whey protein powders. These deliver about 70-80% protein per serving with the protein sources typically being both whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate. It’s the addition of the whey protein concentrate that drops the protein concentration down a bit, but they remain in the range to be considered good whey protein powders. These are a good choice for most guys. However, if you are lactose intolerant or have any sensitivity to lactose (the sugar found in milk), remember that whey concentrates contain more lactose (due to the lighter degree of filtering they undergo), and you should consider sticking with the products on our “Great” whey protein list. The following made our “Good” whey protein list:
Optimum Gold Standard 100% Whey
Optimum Gold Standard 100% Whey is 77% protein with 4 grams of carbs per serving.
EAS 100% Whey Protein
EAS 100% Whey Protein is 75% protein with 3 grams of carbs per scoop.
Dymatize Elite Whey Protein
Dymatize Elite Whey Protein Isolate is 74% protein with just 2 grams of carbs per serving. If any of the “Good” whey protein powders could be considered almost a “Great” whey protein, it would be this one. With only 2 grams of carbs per serving, Elite Whey won’t bother most lactose-intolerant guys. It uses mainly whey protein isolate. But the reason that it is only 74% protein per scoop is because it has added whey peptides to provide additional glutamine.
Universal Ultra Whey Pro
Universal Ultra Whey Pro is 73% protein with about 4 grams of carbs per serving.
Champion Pure Whey Protein
Champion Pure Whey Protein is 72% protein and 4 grams of carbs per serving.
MRM 100% All Natural Whey
MRM 100% All Natural Whey is 71% protein, but with only 2 grams of carbs.
Twinlab 100% Whey Protein Fuel
Twinlab 100% Whey Protein Fuel is 71% protein with 5 grams of carbs per serving.
Cytosport Complete Whey
Cytosport Complete Whey is yet another whey protein that is 71% protein and 3 grams of carbs per serving.
Whey Protein Powders That Suck
Companies like Glanbia and Hilmar start with high-quality milk. And what they charge for the protein powders that come from that high-quality milk is based on what the milk costs. In today’s market, that means that the prices for raw milk-based protein powders are high. Protein manufacturers will pass that cost on to consumers, meaning you’ll pay more for protein powders that use high-quality raw protein from reputable protein manufacturers.
Unfortunately, not every supplement manufacturer goes to the reputable protein manufacturers. To cut costs and make their protein powders more affordable, some supplement manufacturers use questionable protein suppliers. Sure, they pay much less for the raw protein, which saves you a ton of cash when you buy their jug of protein powder, but the problem is that that protein powder likely contains far less protein and far more carbs and fat than claimed on the label. More frighteningly, these lesser-quality protein powders may also contain impurities and contaminants.
Remember the melamine-contaminated milk scandal in China? Because melamine is high in nitrogen content, as is protein, it can be added to milk that has been diluted to bump up the nitrogen (“protein”) content of the milk.
The easiest way to spot a protein powder that is using cheap raw protein is its price. If it’s much cheaper than the major brand protein powders, you better suspect that something is up. If you think that you’re getting a great deal on a cheap protein powder, that’s all that you’re getting. You are NOT getting a good-quality protein powder. There is only one way for a company to undersell all other reputable companies, and that is by buying inferior protein. So be careful of protein powders that are not major brands, that you can’t find on bodybuilding.com, GNC or The Vitamin Shoppe, and are incredibly cheap. As they say, you get what you pay for.
In addition to price, you can also distinguish a low-quality protein powder by its percent of protein. While most quality whey protein concentrates are somewhere around 70-80%, there are also whey protein concentrates that are as low as 35% protein. That means the majority of the protein powder is carbs (lactose) and fat. If a protein powder lists whey protein concentrate first on the ingredients list, followed by whey protein isolate and/or whey protein hydrolysate, but has less than 70% protein per serving, then it only has a very small amount of whey protein isolate and/or hydrolysate in it. Some companies add minuscule amounts of whey protein isolate and hydrolysate just to claim their products contain them, but the amounts are so small that they’re not going to do much for your body.