Califonia Bountiful

Should you try whey protein? The skinny on this supplement

January/February 2020 California Bountiful magazine

Whey left over from cheesemaking finds new life building strong bodies

Kyle Eslick, a Sacramento County medic and personal trainer, consumes whey protein as part of his fitness regimen. Photo: © 2020 Fred Greaves

Before it became a popular sports supplement for bodybuilders, athletes and fitness buffs, whey protein was perhaps best known for its reference in the old English nursery rhyme in which Little Miss Muffet was "eating her curds and whey."

As a food, whey had long fallen out of fashion until its resurgence in the gym. For decades, the yellowish liquid left over after making cheese was largely fed to pigs, used to fertilize fields or discarded.

These days, whey has been returning to the table in myriad ways as a food ingredient—appearing in not just protein powders and energy drinks but in nutrition bars, infant formula, baked goods, snacks, salad dressing, sauces, soups and other food products.

Eslick makes a whey protein shake with milk. Photo: © 2020 Fred Greaves

Whey-fueled workouts

But there's no question renewed interest in this once-forgotten dairy byproduct was driven in large part by sports and fitness enthusiasts—early adopters who use whey protein to help improve their physique, boost performance and speed recovery after an intense workout, said Gwen Bargetzi, marketing director for Merced County-based Hilmar Cheese Co., which makes a variety of whey products.

"They were the ones that really understood the nutritional contribution that it made and the ability for whey to help you build muscle," she said.

As a personal trainer, Kyle Eslick has been using whey protein powder as a supplement for years. The Sacramento County medic started drinking whey protein shakes for added calories between his daily four to five meals when he was playing college rugby and trying to pack on an extra 15 to 20 pounds.

"It was a way to keep my protein levels up really high, so that I was gaining muscle, but also not eat totally bad food," he said.

Though he's no longer playing rugby or trying to gain weight, Eslick said he still uses whey protein as a meal substitute for when he doesn't have enough time to eat a full meal. Mixing the protein powder with just water or milk, he said he could drink a glass before hitting the gym because whey protein digests quickly.

"That's one of the bigger qualities of why people like it," he said. "Because it's light on my stomach, it's almost like a very small but complete meal that I can eat before I work out. It helps me feel full but not bloated."

Hilmar Cheese food scientist Ashley Nunes tests the shelf life of a nutrition bar containing whey protein, which can help preserve moistness in baked goods. Photo: Ching Lee

Harnessing the nutrition in whey

Humans had been eating whey long before the days of Miss Muffet. One of the earliest references to liquid whey that food historians often cite comes from Hippocrates, the father of Greek medicine, who praised the health-boosting properties of the "serum" in the fifth century B.C.

With people's growing appetite for cheese, the volume of whey produced by 20th-century commercial cheese makers overwhelmed what they could do with it. It takes about 6 gallons of milk to make 6 pounds of cheese, and out of that comes a whey stream that's 5 gallons of water, 2 1/2 pounds of lactose (a sugar in milk) and 1/2 pound of whey, according to Hilmar Cheese.

Recognizing the economic and environmental impact of simply discarding this liquid, which they knew had nutritional value, cheese manufacturers continued to look for viable uses for the byproduct, Bargetzi said.

"They thought, 'It just seems insane to keep giving it to the pigs. Let's make something out of this,'" she said. "That's how the whole whey industry started."

Development in the late 1960s of membrane filtration to remove lactose from whey was a game-changer, she said, as it resulted in higher-protein products. Further improvements in the filtration process led to more purified whey by the 1980s, with products reaching 80% to 90% protein concentrate.

As a food ingredient, whey protein appears in a variety of food products including energy drinks, above, and confections, below. Photos courtesy of Hilmar Cheese Co.

A complete protein

Proteins are essential nutrients made up of amino acids, the basic building blocks the body uses to grow and function properly. Humans need 20 different amino acids, 11 of which the body can make. The other nine must be obtained from food.

Whey protein is considered a complete protein because it contains all nine of those essential amino acids that a human body needs, said Liz Applegate, a nutrition and fitness expert who served as director of sports nutrition for the University of California, Davis. Whey protein also has higher amounts of leucine, an amino acid that appears to trigger protein synthesis in muscle after physical exercise.

"What research has shown is whey protein supplies these branched-chain amino acids and helps your muscles recover," she said.

Most people, whether male or female, need 50 to 80 grams of protein a day, depending on their size. Applegate said most people eat enough protein if they aim for about 15 to 25 grams per meal. One glass of milk, for example, provides 8 grams of protein. Those who exercise should try to get 50% more, she said.

"Now, does that mean all athletes and all active people should have whey? No," Applegate said, noting that other animal proteins such as fish, beef and poultry also provide essential amino acids. "But when an athlete is fine-tuning their program and they are working out a lot, it would benefit them to have whey protein in a shake or in an easily consumable form to give them a dose of protein that's very efficiently used."

For people who may not be getting enough protein, adding a whey protein supplement to their diet may be helpful, Applegate said, though she warned against consuming isolated proteins at the expense of other foods that provide important nutrients. Eating more protein may also help those who are trying to cut calories to lose weight, as protein can make them feel less hungry, she said.

Putting whey to work

For a company that produces more than a million pounds of cheese a day, Hilmar Cheese pumps out a lot of whey. The processor's Hilmar Ingredients division markets its whey products to other manufacturers looking to add whey protein to their foods. Hilmar's whey already shows up in foods such as U.S. sports drinks and protein bars, fortified noodles in China, bottled coffee in Japan and yogurt in Mexico.

Food scientist Ashley Nunes works at the division's Innovation Center, a test kitchen/lab that develops new products and applications for the company's whey. By itself, whey protein tastes "pretty bland," she said, which is why it works well in vanilla-flavored products or juices.

Food manufacturers add whey protein not only to boost their products' nutritional content, but because it can improve the appearance, flavor, texture and aroma of other foods, Nunes said. For example, whey can help preserve moistness in baked goods.

"This is stuff that we nerd-out about," she said as she tests the shelf life of a lemon meringue protein bar that's four years old. "See, it's not rock-hard. We like to show the customer how soft this is after four years."

One of the lab's newest creations is a gelatin with 10 grams of protein per serving and half the sugar of similar products on the market. Hilmar Cheese spokeswoman Denise Skidmore said the new gelatin would be great to serve to hospital patients, such as after surgery when they need a protein bump.

Nunes said her most challenging project was developing a protein gel, often used by endurance athletes. For ideas on what other foods could be enhanced by whey protein, she said she cruises grocery aisles and talks with friends and family about what they like to eat.

"We try to think outside the box or stay ahead of the trend of what we're seeing," she said.

Ching Lee

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