Whey protein has exploded in popularity recently, making itself a staple in many diets. From supermarket shelves to counter tops, whey has successfully infiltrated the mainstream drink and breakfast bar market, becoming a standardized supplement for the masses. The appeal is obvious: Why get your protein from multiple sources when you can take it all at once? Its convenience makes whey great for warding off hunger pains and matching calorie goals.
But we should be asking ourselves: Is a frequent intake of whey protein right for everyone?
In truth it seems most of us never give it a thought – we assume that adding whey protein to our diet is beneficial without further investigation.
So if you're a regular whey protein junkie, here are four important questions to ask yourself:
Whey is made from milk, meaning it could cause gut sensitivities for those with lactose intolerance.
To digest milk, we require an enzyme called lactase. All of us carry around varying amounts – some of us have enough lactase to process small amounts of milk, others have very little and are highly intolerant to any dairy consumption.
But with whey it gets a little more complicated. Whey is the part of milk left over after the curds are separated – the stuff used to make cheese. By removing the large, fatty portion of the milk, the remaining product is the dry whey powder – containing lactose, now in a highly concentrated serving.
Because of whey’s concentrated lactose content, even people who don’t seem to have lactose intolerance issues in daily life may find their stomach overwhelmed.
This is why we often feel a little rumble in our stomachs after consuming whey protein: Even those of us with high levels of lactase enzymes can still feel a digestive burden from all that concentrated lactose taken at once. We often ignore this physical symtoms - after all they're common, right?
But what if whey protein is causing unintended damage to our stomachs?
Leaky Gut is a theory on how our gut's digestive struggles induce inflammation in our body. Dr. Axe summarizes:
It’s possible that in certain people, whey protein can act just as a gluten does – making proper digestion difficult, leading to inflammation and other negative symptoms.
This sounds awfully similar to leaky gut, which stresses the importance of avoiding gluten in products like wheat.
What Types of Proteins are There, Exactly?
Soy. While soy is a common option for those following vegetarian and vegan diets, as a nutrient it’s not a great choice. The phytic acids found in soy bind and pull major minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and zinc from the body. Additionally, thyroid hormonal problems have been linked to soy consumption. Don’t be fooled by its low-cal appeal!
Wheat. Some whey protein powder products intended for muscle "bulking" add wheat gluten to maximize calorie intake. Again, gluten can be highly allergenic and can promote inflammatory reactions within the body. The next time you’re looking to pack some extra calories into your protein shake, opt for a natural, nutrient-rich addition, like bananas.
Collagen peptides. Here at Amandean we’re big on collagen peptide powder. Like its cousin bone broth, collagen is an excellent way of obtaining the best amino acid protein chain, sourced from grass-fed cows. Collagen is the natural protein that our bodies generate to make up our skin, joints, hair and nails – and an excellent choice for gut health.
What is Your Whey Protein Processed From and Where Was it Sourced?
When searching for a whey protein, choosing a grass-fed, pasture-raised brand will be your best bet for product purity. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that grass-fed cow’s milk had 5x the amount of conjugated linoleic acid (CLAs) – an unsaturated fat – than their grain-fed counterparts. CLAs have been linked with lower cholesterol and lower risk of heart attack. CLAs are present in whey protein, albeit with a lower concentration than milk.
Another concern is rBGH (a synthetic bovine hormone), which we discuss in depth later on. Grass-fed, pasture-raised dairy cows are far less likely to have had rBGH in their feed, adding another reason to check on the source of your whey protein.
Another consideration is whether the whey is a “hydrolyzed whey protein isolate”.
Hydrolyzed isolate is a form of whey with smaller protein fragments, making digestion even faster than standard whey. 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 (and why isolates and hydrolysates generally cost more.)
What Extra Processed Junk was Added?
As with many supplements, your whey protein brand may be juiced up with artificial preservatives and additives. This is usually done for flavor or texture, but also to preserve the powder while it’s being transported in bulk containers.
First, let’s talk artificial sweeteners:
In 2012 the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (HPFS) and the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) looked at epidemiological data from a 22 year period. The findings are stark: Artificial sweetener aspartame was a “multi-potential carcinogenic agent,” increasing the risk of cancers like myeloma, non-Hodgkin lymphomas and leukemia. Suddenly those artificial flavors and taste don’t seem to be worth the risk.
Transition into this:
Milk is an incredible amalgamation of nutrients, proteins and hormones that have only recently been discovered and appreciated. It certainly is not the pure white liquid, high in calcium, vitamin D and other vitamins and minerals portrayed by milk manufacturers and their lobbyists…. it contains almost all of the hormones, immunological factors, and body altering proteins that are found in pure cow blood.
Another troubling contaminant that could be in your whey powder: Heavy metals.
In 2010, Consumer Reports tested 15 whey protein powders and drinks for their content of arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury. The study showed that of the whey protein supplements tested, three contained very worrisome levels of heavy metals. Three daily servings of any of these three supplements could result in daily exposure to arsenic, cadmium, or lead exceeding the limits proposed by the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention.
Finally, whey protein does not avoid issues from big farming practices. rBGH – recombinant bovine growth hormone – is a synthetic hormone developed by Monsanto to stimulate milk production in cows. Samuel S. Epstein has this to say about rBGH in his book “What’s in your milk?”:
Research into the effects of elevated IGF-1 blood levels shows mixed results, but for those suffering from autoimmune conditions or an allergy to Beta Lacto Globulin, it would be best to stay away from whey. This is the advice of Dr. Pedro Bastas:
Whey contains not only Beta Lacto Globulin, but also Bovine Serum Albumin. Some peptides from this protein have structural homology with peptides from our own tissues, and BSA has been implicated in Multiple Sclerosis, Rheumatoid Arthritis and Type 1 Diabetes.
There is no simple way to find out whether your brand of choice contains whey derived from hormone-diluted cow’s milk. The only way to be sure is to choose an organic “hydrolyzed” brand of whey protein – dairy from those farms are far less likely to engage in synthetic hormone injections.
So, is Whey Bad for You?
Whey protein is popular. It’s consumed by millions around the world, and luckily we have yet to see an accompanying large-scale health issues.
Nonetheless, we’re learning more each year about how many different food sensitivities - many of which are still passed off as "normal" bodily discomforts. Allergies can lay dormant for years, brought out by sudden changes in environment or our diets.
Food sensitivities can come and go, then reappear in new forms, making it difficult to diagnose true physical issues like leaky gut. Whey protein's concentrated dairy could easily cause a negative chain reaction.
It’s a little extreme to outright reject whey protein, but if you’re experiencing symptoms of inflammation or other gastric problems, it may be wise to consider other options for protein intake, if not to only experiment.
Our health is too important to not ask these questions.