If you’ve even stuck as much as a baby toe into a gym, you’ve probably either seen people drinking whey protein or talking about it. Over the past 20 years, whey has become so popular among gym-goers that it’s expected to become a 13.5 billion dollar industry by 2020¹.
Whey has become particularly popular with athletes and bodybuilders who take it post workout to repair muscle after hard training sessions.
Why has whey become the go-to protein source for so many people?
Whey is relatively cheap to manufacture because it’s a byproduct of the cheesemaking process. The cheap manufacturing cost and some savvy marketing helped turn it into the successful industry it is today.
When sports and exercise science became more developed through the late 1900s, the general population began to learn what bodybuilders already knew — that taking protein directly after working out can encourage the growth of muscle mass. However, your body is a complex machine and building muscle isn’t as easy as protein in, muscle out.
Although whey is commonly accepted as one of the best muscle building supplements, there’s evidence to support that it may not be as effective as it’s touted to be. Even if you’re more concerned about your general health than building muscle, whey powder isn’t the magic pill you may believe it to be.
If you want to find out why consuming whey powder might be counter-productive to your fitness goals, keep reading. We’ll also discuss the best alternatives that you can take if you want to find another supplement to replace the convenience of whey.
When Did People Start Consuming Whey?
Early research on the importance of protein for building muscle started to come out around the year 1900. Research in the 1940s began to show that taking protein supplements could increase muscle mass and strength².
Whey protein makes up 20 percent of the total protein in milk. The origin of whey protein goes back to at least the nursery rhyme Little Miss Muffet (who sat on a tuffet eating her curds and whey). Next time you open a container of cottage cheese, examine the liquid and lumps. The clumps are curd protein used to make cheese while the liquid left over is whey protein.
So who invented whey protein? Well, it’s hard to say. Likely somebody thousands of years ago left their milk in the sun until it curdled and somebody else was brave (or hungry) enough to eat it.
There’s evidence of humans producing cheese over 7000 years ago³. The earliest record of humans eating whey protein is in Ancient Greece when the famous philosopher Hippocrates realized that whey had immune-boosting effects. Throughout the middle ages, it became a popular remedy prescribed to patients with various health problems.
Somewhere along the way, somebody discovered that the whey could be turned into a powder and sold relatively cheaply. Until the 1960s, athletes usually focused on eating a diet high in dairy and meats to increase their protein intake. The shift toward taking protein powders took place sometime in the 1970s.
At this point, trying to decipher who was responsible for first commercializing whey powder is mostly hearsay. One of the first people to mass produce whey powder was Dan Duchaine. Dan is nicknamed the “Steroid Guru” for being one of the first bodybuilders involved with the steroid movement.
Another person who played a critical role in bringing protein powder to the mainstream is Bob Hoffman, who also owned York Barbell before his death in 1985. In 1952, he began selling a protein supplement known as Hi-Proteen, which was essentially a mixture of Hersey’s chocolate and soy flour.
Different Types of Whey Protein
Whey protein makes up about one percent of the total mass of milk, so in a liter of milk, there’s about 10g of whey. For a normal-sized scoop of whey powder around 30 grams, it takes about three liters of milk to produce it (actually less depending on how many sweeteners or filler are in it).
There are three main ways that whey powder is processed.
Whey protein concentrate is your basic whey powder. It contains less than 90 percent protein and usually around 80 percent. If you walk into a supplement shop and pull the cheapest container of whey protein off the shelf, it’s probably going to be this type of whey.
The second type of whey is called whey protein isolate. This type of whey powder contains a highly concentrated amount of protein with less filler. Usually, whey protein isolate contains at least 90 percent protein.
Whey protein hydrolysate is usually the most expensive type. Essentially, it’s created by breaking down long chains of whey powder into short chains that are absorbed quicker.
Does Whey Powder Live Up to Its reputation?
Whey protein is known as one of the best supplements on the market for helping you build muscle. But is it actually as powerful as we think it is?
Not all of us are athletes or professional bodybuilders. For most of us, we don’t care about building insane amounts of muscle as much as we care about optimizing our health and maybe looking good naked.
Along with its muscle-building effects, whey is also often touted to be able to dull your appetite and help you eat less. It’s also thought that this appetite-suppressing ability might be able to help obese individuals lose weight. However, research shows that the claims about whey powder may be inflated.
Whey May Not Suppress Appetite in Overweight and Obese Individuals
In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism4, researchers examined the appetite suppressing effects of various types of protein supplements compared to glucose.
Researchers gave 19 overweight participants either whey, casein, lactose or glucose. Since hunger can be subjective, the researchers used a hormonal measure of ghrelin to quantify hunger. You might expect that the protein supplements would cause a greater hunger suppressing effect. However, there was no difference in appetite suppression between the groups.
In another study5, researchers performed a similar methodology to see if boys of a normal bodyweight versus overweight boys responded differently to whey supplementation. The researchers gave the boys either whey powder or glucose on three mornings. They found that the consumption of whey powder suppressed the appetite of the normal weight boys but not the appetite of overweight boys.
In a third study published in Nutrition Research6, researchers set out to examine how varying types of protein effect weight loss in adults. Eighteen subjects followed one of three diets: a control diet, a mixed protein diet or a whey protein diet. They found that there wasn’t a significant increase in total weight loss or fat loss in the group that ate a whey-rich diet.
Whey May Not be as Effective as Other Proteins for Suppressing Appetite
If you think that whey powder is more effective than other proteins for dulling appetite or inducing fat loss, you may be disappointed.
An article in Nutrition Journal7 examined the appetite suppressing effects and blood sugar stabilizing effects of several types of protein. The researchers found whey powder didn’t have a strong effect on suppressing appetite when taken pre-meal.
Taking Whey May Not Increase Muscle More Than Exercise Alone
If you’ve ever taken whey powder while also undergoing a hard period of exercise, you might have attributed your gains to the whey. However, research suggests that exercise alone may be equally as effective as taking whey and exercising for building muscle.
People who suffer from HIV often have trouble building and maintaining muscle mass. In a study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences8, researchers looked at the effect of whey powder supplementation on 30 women who suffered from HIV. They found that taking a whey powder supplement didn’t increase the amount of muscle the women gained compared to resistance training alone.
In a similar study9, researchers came to the same conclusion. Fifty-nine subjects with HIV were given either 40 grams of whey protein or another supplement with the same number of calories (without protein) for 12 weeks. At the end of the study, there was no difference in the body composition of participants in the two groups.
Here’s How Whey Powder Hurts You
People typically use whey protein powder to improve your body composition. But what if whey was actually causing more problems than it was fixing?
We’ve already talked about how whey doesn’t live up to the hype for fat loss and muscle building, but let’s look at some of the ways it may actually harm you.
Whey Powder May Increase Insulin Secretion
Insulin is an anabolic hormone, which means it builds new tissue — both muscle and fat. A post-workout spike in insulin signals for your body to start the muscle building process. However, when you spike your insulin when you’re sitting around the house, your body shuttles blood glucose into fat cells for storage.
Both protein and carbohydrates can spike your insulin levels.
When overweight adolescents were given whey powder for 12 weeks, researchers found that it caused increases in insulin levels10. In the 12-week study, the teenagers consumed 35 grams worth of protein from skim milk, whey or casein. Whey and casein consumption increased insulin levels more than skim milk and a water control.
Another study11 found that children who ate 53 grams of meat daily did not have increased insulin secretion compared to a group that drank milk.
Most Whey Proteins Contain Artificial Sweeteners
Unless you buy plain whey powder (and let’s be honest, who buys plain whey powder?), you’re likely going to be consuming a ton of artificial sweeteners and other filler ingredients. Sucralose and aspartame are among the most common artificial sweeteners.
Even though artificial sweeteners don’t contain any calories, they may have other health consequences such as increasing your risk of developing some cancers. Most scientists agree that artificial sweeteners are safe in limited quantities, but the point at which they cause negative health effects isn’t clear.
It may not be a great idea to consume them on a daily basis.
Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer
One of the first studies12 looking at the potentially harmful effects of artificial sweeteners was published in 1977.
The researchers observed 480 men and 152 women they found that there was a positive association between the consumption of saccharin and developing bladder cancer. People who consume saccharin are 33 percent more likely to develop bladder cancer than people who haven’t consumed this sweetener.
Artificial Sweeteners and Weight Gain
Other evidence suggests that the consumption of artificial sweeteners may also increase your risk of weight gain, metabolic syndrome, Type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease13.
In a research project titled the San Antonio Heart Study14, participants followed the bodyweight of men and women over a 7-8 year period. The researchers concluded that participants who regularly consumed artificial sweeteners were more likely to gain weight than people who didn’t consume these sweeteners.
Artificial Sweeteners and Type II Diabetes
Even though there’s no sugar in artificial sweeteners, consuming them regularly may still increase your risk of developing diabetes.
In a study15 examining the effect of artificial sweeteners on diabetes risk, over 6800 people were observed. The researchers found that people who regularly drink diet drinks had a 67 percent higher risk of developing Type II diabetes.
It’s not clear if the sweeteners themselves had an effect on the body’s insulin response or if the sweeteners led to more sugar cravings. People who consume artificial sweeteners may also be more likely to consume more sugar later because they feel they like they “saved” calories earlier.
Whey Powder Alternatives
If you’re looking for an alternative for your post-workout whey shake, there’s no reason you can’t look in your fridge instead of your supplement cupboard. Before the commercialization of protein powders, people would consume dairy, meat and fish to keep their body in a positive nitrogen balance.
When buying meat or dairy, it’s critical to stick to food from animals that were not raised with artificial hormones. Many animals are injected with a hormone called recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). When you eat meat from these animals or drink milk, the hormones may cause metabolic disturbances and increase your risk of developing cancer16.
Gelatin and Collagen Proteins
If you like the convenience of being able to bring a whey protein shake to the gym, you may want to try gelatin or collagen protein.
Gelatin is almost completely made of protein from the skin, bones, and cartridge of animals. It’s the key ingredient in bone broth.
In a study published in the Journal of Nutrition, researchers examined the absorbability of the protein in gelatin and found that it’s over 95%17.
Gelatin may also have benefits for reducing inflammation in your body18. Inflammation is created by chemicals released from your white blood cells to attack foreign invaders. Inflammation plays a critical role in wound healing, but when inflammation remains elevated chronically it can lead to several health problems such as increasing your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Collagen protein may offer several benefits besides providing your muscle with a high-quality protein source. In one study, 80 patients with symptoms of osteoarthritis were administered 2 grams of BioCell Collagen from hydrolyzed chicken sternal cartilage for seven days19.
By the end of the study, the participants had significant improvements in their ability to perform daily activities.
These results have been backed by other researchers. In a study published in Seminars in Arthritis and Rheumatism, researchers concluded that taking an oral collagen supplement may reduce your risk of developing both osteoarthritis and osteoporosis20.
Collagen may also play a role in reduces visible symptoms of aging by combating dryness and wrinkles. Collagen is the most common protein in your skin.
In a 2014 study, participants were given 50ml of Pure Gold Collagen daily for 60 days. After drinking the supplement for two months, the participants had noticeably reduced skin dryness and wrinkles21.
What about Soy Protein?
You may see soy protein supplements on the shelf next to whey protein. Is it worth trying?
Soy is a popular plant-based protein source, but it’s also high in phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens are substances that replicate estrogen in your body and can cause endocrine dysfunction22. If your goal to build muscle or to increase your overall health, it’s best to skip soy.
Pack on Protein and Experience Peak Fitness With Total Bone Broth and Total Collagen
You may think that you need to eat whey powder because it’s heavily marketed as a top exercise supplement. However, if you’re eating a clean diet filled with lean protein sources, you’re better off saving your money.
Not only does the research on whey powder fall short of the hype, but it’s also usually loaded with artificial sweeteners that can negatively affect your health.
If you’re looking for an alternative protein powder, collagen protein and bone broth are both healthy alternatives.
Are you looking to support your skin and joint health?
Then try Total Bone Broth as a whey powder substitute. You’ll skip all the negative health effects that whey provides you with and instead get highly bioavailable hydrolyzed bovine collagen from the skin, bones and muscles of cows. You’ll also get a rich-mixture of gelatin to provide your body with the building blocks it needs to synthesize protein itself.
Citations and Sources
- 1 BBC Research, “Whey Protein Products Global Markets“
- 2 The Journal of Nutrition, “Search for the Competitive Edge: A History of Dietary Fads and Supplements“
- 3 PloS ONE, “Fatty acid specific δ13C values reveal earliest Mediterranean cheese production 7,200 years ago“
- 4 Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, “Energy intake, ghrelin, and cholecystokinin after different carbohydrate and protein preloads in overweight men“
- 5 International Journal of Obesity, “A comparison of short-term appetite and energy intakes in normal weight and obese boys following glucose and whey-protein drinks“
- 6 Nutrition Research, “Varying protein source and quantity do not significantly improve weight loss, fat loss, or satiety in reduced energy diets among midlife adults“
- 7 Nutrition Journal, “Effect of different protein sources on satiation and short-term satiety when consumed as a starter“
- 8 Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, “Effects of whey protein and resistance exercise on body composition and muscle strength in women with HIV infection“
- 9 The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “Evaluation of high-protein supplementation in weight-stable HIV-positive subjects with a history of weight loss: a randomized, double-blind, multicenter trial“
- 10 The Journal of Nutrition, “Skim milk, whey, and casein increase body weight and whey and casein increase the plasma C-peptide concentration in overweight adolescents“
- 11 European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “High intakes of milk, but not meat, increase s-insulin and insulin resistance in 8-year-old boys“
- 12 The Lancet, “Artificial Sweeteners and Human Bladder Cancer“
- 13 Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism, “Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements“
- 14 Obesity, “Fueling the obesity epidemic? Artificially sweetened beverage use and long-term weight gain“
- 15 American Diabetes Association, “Sucralose Affects Glycemic and Hormonal Responses to an Oral Glucose Load“
- 16 Cancer.org, “Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone“
- 17 Journal of Nutrition, “Oral administration of (14)C labeled gelatin hydrolysate leads to an accumulation of radioactivity in cartilage of mice (C57/BL)“
- 18 Clinical and Experimental Gastroenterology, “Gelatin tannate reduces the proinflammatory effects of lipopolysaccharide in human intestinal epithelial cells“
- 19 Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, “Effect of the novel low molecular weight hydrolyzed chicken sternal cartilage extract, BioCell Collagen, on improving osteoarthritis-related symptoms: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial“
- 20 Seminars in Arthritis and Rheumatisms, “Role of collagen hydrolysate in bone and joint disease“
- 21 Clinical Interventions in Aging, “Daily consumption of the collagen supplement Pure Gold Collagen® reduces visible signs of aging“
- 22 Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, “The pros and cons of phytoestrogens”