The Complete History of Protein Powder

The Complete History of Protein Powder

Protein powder is one of the most common sports nutrition supplements in existence. Culturally accepted and used by all types of individuals, it has come a long way from being dairy byproduct.

MTS Nutrition Machine Whey - High-Quality Protein Blend. Click here to order.

Whey - Cheesemaking Consequence

The cheesemaking process is highly inefficient. In fact, it can take upwards of 10 liters of milk to make a single kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cheese. Along with that kilogram of cheese, comes nine kilograms of “waste,” in the form of liquid whey.

For a long time, whey was dumped down the drain (or in the river), fed to pigs, or spread onto crop fields. However, with changes to waste disposal laws, dairy manufacturers had to find something else to do with their waste.

What Makes Whey Protein in Particular So Special?

Aside from its high bioavailability, leucine content, and robust amino acid profile, whey protein also has several “functional” components, including ones known to support immune system function. [1]

Table 1
Table 1: Main components and actions of whey protein [2]

Additionally, a recent review of the literature on whey protein noted that it can be beneficial for obese individuals as well as those with type 2 diabetes. In particular, researchers highlighted the following benefits of whey protein supplementation: [2]

  • Reduces blood pressure
  • Decreases oxidative stress noted 
  • Supports lean muscle mass
  • Promotes satiety through upregulation of anorectic hormones including leptin, cholecystokinin, and glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1)
  • Decreases hunger through downregulation of ghrelin, an “orexigenic hormone” (a.k.a. The hormone that increases hunger)
  • Reduces inflammation

Early Beginnings

While you might think whey protein is a rather recent invention, the first time whey was discovered dates back some 8000 years when the art of cheesemaking was first developed. The earliest account of cheesemaking occurred in 5,500 BC, Kujawy, Poland.

People of the time noticed that when milk was treated with an acid, a coagulated milk gel was left, and the solids from this could be turned into cheese. The liquidy by-product leftover from the process was discarded, used as starter culture for the next day’s cheese, or used as pig feed.

The next record of whey would not come until around 3000 years ago when men used the stomachs of calves to store and transport their milk. Upon checking later, they noticed that the stored milk had coagulated, leaving them with curds and whey.

While the farmers probably did not know why the milk had changed, researchers would eventually discover that this coagulation was the result of an enzyme known as chymosin (a.k.a rennet), which was naturally present in the calves’ stomachs.

Whey as Medicine

In 460 BC, Hippocrates, one of the greatest men in the history of mankind, realized whey had health benefits and prescribed it to people to boost their immune system. In fact, Hippocrates was the first “doctor” to recommend lifestyle modifications to his patients, including changing their diet and increasing physical activity, as a means to treat diseases.

Fast forward 2500 years and these “lifestyle modifications” are still being preached by modern physicians. 

As word spread among the people of ancient Greece, more medical practitioners began prescribing this “lactoserum” to their own patients. This practice would continue for centuries until the Roman conquest of Greece in 160BC.

Romans “adopted” ample elements of Greek culture (mythology, architecture, art, etc.), they also embraced many of their medical practices as well. Included among these, were the use of whey as medicine. Records have noted that a Greek physician, living in the Roman Empire, named Galen carried on the work of Hippocrates and continued the tradition of preaching lifestyle modifications along with the use of whey as a healing tonic.


The next record of whey comes from 17th century England. There, whey gained popularity as a “fashionable drink”, which led to the opening of whey houses, similar to modern-day coffee shops and tea houses. An English Naval Administrator named Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary of visiting whey houses in London, and noted several other whey-based products as well including:

  • Whey butter
  • Whey porridge
  • Whey whig (whey-based drink with herbs)
  • Whey borse (broth made with whey)

Whey continued to grow in popularity over the course of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, so much so that people began taking whey baths![7] In fact, Baricelli, a physician and philosopher in the 17th century, composed a treatise on all things whey, milk, and butter.

Here is the cover of the ancient tome: [3]

17th Century Cover

In the opus, Baricelli details what milk is, how it is produced in the mammary glands, and the different types of milk. For his work, Baricelli examined both human and animal milk, along with their uses, as well as butter and lactoserum (whey).

Interestingly enough, this practice of using whey as a healing treatment continued up through World War II. Records indicate these whey houses and spas thrived across central Europe, including Austria, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. So popular were these spas with aristocrats that records from the era indicate a single spa could serve over 3 pounds of whey daily. [8]

Whey Research Beginnings

Until the late 1800's, milk protein was classified as either whey or casein. Researchers had also classified one of the solids obtained from the heating of whey, which they called lactalbumin.

Around 1890, researchers identified a precipitate in whey, called lactoglobulin, that formed when magnesium sulfate or ammonium sulfate was added to the whey. Researchers later found a way to crystallize the lactalbumin fraction in the late 1930. Subsequently, the first two major whey proteins were isolated and dubbed β-lactoglobulin and α-lactalbumin.

Following on these initial discoveries, whey researchers would then uncover the rest of the fractions in whey including:

  • Bovine serum albumin
  • Lactoferrin
  • Lactoperoxidase
  • A host of immunoglobulins (IgG, IgA, IgM, and IgE)
  • Several minor proteins

Here’s a table showing the composition of milk, broken down by percentages: [4]

Table 2

Early Refining Practices

Until now, whey was considered either a homeopathic tonic or the useless byproduct of cheesemaking. However, with the increased awareness of the compounds naturally occurring in whey also came the introduction of various manufacturing processes to isolate these same compounds responsible for whey’s immune boosting properties.

Early attempts at concentrating and drying whey took place in the 1920's. These early attempts involved one of four methods: [9]

  • Hot roller milk driers
  • Heating whey until a concentrated liquid was obtained, cooling to solidification, and then extruding in a tunnel
  • Two-stage steam heating
  • Tag-team attack of spray drying and rotary drum drying 

However, these initial attempts at drying and concentrating were not very successful due to the hygroscopic nature of lactose and the high cost of the process. Interestingly enough, roller dying is still used today by some manufacturers to produce whey powder. In roller drying, whey is dried on the surface of a heated drum, and then removed by a scraper.

Manufacturing Advancement

The next major milestone in the refinement of whey came in 1933 with the introduction of a long-tube multiple-effect evaporator. [9] This piece of equipment boils water in a higher pressure tank and a lower pressure one.

As you might recall from science class, as pressure decreases, so too does the boiling point of water. The vapor generated from the first tank is subsequently used to heat the next tank, meaning that only one external heating source is needed for the first tank.

In the first tank, evaporation occurs at 77◦C and around 45◦C in the second tank. Once the water has evaporated from the whey, you are left with a concentrated whey powder containing 45% solids. [10]

Following the evaporator was the introduction of the spray drier. Originally developed in the 1860's, the spray dryer was not used in the manufacturing of whey protein until 1937. You might be interested to learn that spray drying is still used presently with the production of various foods and pharmaceuticals, as it the the preferred method for drying heat-sensitive materials.

Spray drying is a method of producing dry powder from a liquid via the application of a hot gas.

When applied to whey, spray drying produced a powder with 10–14% moisture. This powder was then further dried on a vibrating fluid bed, yielding a powder with 3–5% moisture. [11]

While both evaporation and spray drying were significant upgrades from the initial manufacturing methods of the 20's, they still involved heat, and with that came the denaturing of many of the valuable compounds in whey.

So, while things were continuing to improve, they were still a long way from the whey protein we know and love today. 

Hoffman & Hi-Proteen

Many of you reading this may or may not be familiar with Bob Hoffman. He was the owner of York Barbell as well as the coach of the United States Weightlifting team from the late 1940's through the early 1960's. Hoffman was a prominent figure in the birth of physical culture, rivaled only by that of the Weider brothers, who came to prominence in the 1970's.

During his heyday, Hoffman and York Barbell were linked to some of the most popular and successful bodybuilders, powerlifters, and Olympic lifters while also running successful fitness magazine titled Health & Strength.

In the 1940's, Hoffman was approached by noted nutritionist Paul Bragg who wanted to team up with the reputed weightlifting coach to create a line of supplements for weightlifters. Hoffman balked at the idea, as he was a strong believer in the idea that all a weightlifter needed was good nutritious food.

Hoffman finally came around to the idea of developing a line of supplements as he saw the changing landscape of the weightlifting and bodybuilding market.

Interestingly enough, Hoffman was not the first well-known weightlifter to sell supplements. Eugene Sandow, the godfather of bodybuilding, reportedly sold supplements back in the early 1900's!

According to folklore, Sandow used a product called “Plasmon”, which may have been some form of whey or egg-based protein, but there is not a substantial research documenting its existence or success.

In 1951, a man named Irvin Johnson, who would later call himself Rheo H. Blair, was advertising “Johnson’s Hi Protein Food” in Hoffman’s Health and Strength magazine. Observing the volume of sales Johnson made along with the before & after photos included in the magazine, Hoffman finally came around to the idea that protein supplements had a place in one’s diet.

By 1952, Hoffman had cut ties with Johnson and debuted his own protein supplement, titled “Hi-Proteen”. While Hi-Protein was incredibly similar to Johnson’s “Hi Protein Food,” Hoffman insisted it was a separate product promising fast results and superior nutrition.

Hi-Proteen was available in five different flavors (vanilla, chocolate, coconut, black walnut, and plain)and sold for just $4 for 4 pounds, which is about $40 today. As expected, aspiring bodybuilders and weightlifters flocked to the supplement.

In marketing Hi-Proteen, Hoffman claimed: [12]

“The production of a ‘miracle food,’ such as high-protein, is not a hit-or-miss affair. A world famous food research laboratory is put to work. Their chemists and the doctors, who are a part of their organization, work out the product. They profit by their years of study, experience and research.

After a lengthy period of research and testing, the proper blend is obtained. It must be nutritious, containing—as far as possible—all the necessary amino acids, and it must be pleasant to the taste, so that using it is a pleasure. The blend has been prepared and then the aid of a big, nationally known packing company, is enlisted. It is their work to fill the prescription or formula, to prepare the food as outlined by the research laboratories. The ingredients must be handled in a sanitary manner, properly packaged and prepared for shipment. All of this was done with the Hoffman products. We never leave anything to chance.”

Weider Hi-Proteen
Magazine ad for Hoffman’s Hi-Proteen Drink. [17]

However, Hoffman’s claims of “research” were false. Hoffman’s managing editor for Health & Strength, Jim Murray, later informed the public just how Hoffman “developed” Hi-Proteen.

Essentially, Hoffman would mix together a bag of soybean flour and Hershey’s chocolate and stir the mixture with a paddle until he got something that tasted halfway decent. Unfortunately, Hi-Proteen was not all that well received by the public, due to its poor taste and bowel discomfort it gave consumers.

Hi-Proteen was a landmark introduction to the industry as was Hoffman’s marketing tactics, which involved athlete endorsements, articles, and ads - all things that are still used today to sell protein powders and other supplements.

Johnson Strikes Back

Entering the 1960's, protein powder research continued to increase and improve, and Irvin Johnson re-entered the scene. Only now, Johnson is now known as Rheo H. Blair and selling Blair’s Protein Powder, consisting of calcium and sodium caseinate derived from nonfat dry milk, egg white protein, and dried whole eggs. While the egg + milk protein blend might seem common these days, it was revolutionary in the 50's and 60's, as most manufacturers were using soy or meat and fish derivatives for protein powders!

Also, unlike today’s protein powders, Blair’s protein included lactose due to the fact that he was a firm believer in keeping the milk component of his supplement as similar to nature as possible. As a result, he routinely had his clients consume digestive aid capsules containing hydrochloric acid and peptain to help them digest his protein.

Additionally, unlike Hoffman, Blair was meticulous about his protein mixture, so much so that he mandated his powders contain a strict ratio of two parts calcium to one part phosphorus. The reason for this is, in that era, bodybuilders were concerned that too much phosphorus in the diet led to irritability and nervousness.

Blair also added to his protein mix iron phosphate and natural vanilla flavoring. To improve flavoring, Blair used cyclamate, an artificial sweetener that was removed in 1969 following a US government ban on the ingredient due to its potential as a carcinogen.

Subsequently, Blair produced an unsweetened version, and then, in the 1970's, infused his Protein Powder with fructose.

Blair was a widely respected “nutritional wizard” in bodybuilding, and worked with many of the top bodybuilders of the 60's and 70's, including Frank Zane, Vince Gironda, and Larry Scott. So successful was Blair that Hollywood actors, including Charlton Heston and Robert Cummings, sought out his coaching.

Bolstered by ringing endorsements from his A-list clientele, Blair’s Protein Powder skyrocketed and remained popular until his death in the early 1980s.

Other notable protein powders of the time were SuperCal, Zero Carb Protein, Unipro, and Heavyweight Gainer 900; however, none had the popularity or long list of endorsements like Blair’s Protein Powder.

Keep in mind, while protein powder is beginning to “trend up” in the 60's (at least in the bodybuilding culture), flavor profiles and viscosity are a far cry from today's standards. 

Heading into the 1980's, bodybuilding is growing in popularity creating a boom of supplements in the supplement industry and physical culture. 

Filtering Out the Bad

Prior to 1970, the only form whey came in was a gritty, insoluble, yellowish-brown powder with poor taste and viscosity. This probably also factored into why Blair’s protein powder did not include whey.

But, in 1970, membrane filtration was developed for food/supplement manufacturers.

Membrane filtration is a sieving process where whey is forced through progressively narrower semi-permeable membranes. As the whey passes through each of these screens, more of the unwanted compounds (a.k.a. retenate) are blocked due to their molecular size, with the whey passing on through. The filters used in this process are made from ceramic, cellulose acetate, polysulfone, or zirconium oxide.

The idea of membrane filtration was originally developed for water desalination in the 1950's, and it was first introduced to the food industry in 1965.

Whey processors typically use one of five different forms of membrane filtration, though sometimes they can combine two or more methods to create whey protein powders with different protein contents.

The different filtration methods are:

  • Ultrafiltration
  • Microfiltration
  • Electrodialysis 
  • Nanofiltration
  • Reverse osmosis

After each of the filtration methods, the resulting solution is spray dried to yield a powder with <5% moisture. The primary differences between the individual types of filtration boil down to membrane pore size which affects mineral and microbe remove and cost. The more heavily you filter something, and the smaller, cleaner particle you want to get (i.e. nanofiltration and reverse osmosis) the more money you have to shell out.

Table 1.2
The inner machinations of each type of filtration method are not so important as realizing filtration (micro and ultra) are the primary methods for manufacturing whey protein powder these days.

What makes filtration such an appealing option, especially when discussing whey protein, is it does not require heat, meaning those important immunoprotective components in whey are retained as is the shape of the protein molecules.

As a result, in 1971 whey separation via ultrafiltration commenced and with it came improved protein taste, texture, and quality.

More on Ultrafiltration and Whey

Ultrafiltration of whey leads to increased selectivity in the concentration of the protein. Whereas previous methods yielded a whey that was 45% solids, ultrafiltration allows for whey concentrates containing anywhere between 20 and 89% protein. [4]

The process is usually carried out at temperatures below 55◦C, thereby retaining the active fractions of whey. Additionally, the retenate resulting from ultrafiltration, which consists of protein, fat, lactose, soluble minerals, and insoluble salts can be filtered again using a process called diafiltration to create a whey concentrate containing >50% protein.

In diafiltration, water is added to the retentate and the new mixture undergoes a second round of ultrafiltration.

Around this same time (late 60's - early 70's), another whey refining process was gaining popularity -- ion exchange resin. This process uses chemical reagents (such as hydrochloric acid or sodium hydroxide) to adjust the pH of whey and separate out the protein. More specifically, raw whey is transported through a column. As the way travels, protein is gathered while the rest of the compounds in the whey pass through.

At the time of its debut, ion exchange offered the promise of higher selectivity of proteins, yielding dry powders containing 90-96% protein, with virtually no fat or carbs (lactose). This would be the equivalent of an isolate whey protein these days.

However, with the higher protein content also came the denaturing of protein and a reduction in the amount of minerals, immune-boosting fractions, antioxidants, and essential amino acids. Additionally, since the ion exchange resins do not act as filters, this process does not remove bacteria and other microorganisms achieved by filtration. [14]

While ion exchange is still used here and there in the industry, it has been surpassed by cold-pressed cross-flow microfiltration -- a cold-temperature process that allows for a high protein content (>90%) along with preserving health boosting nutrients.

Here is a graphic to illustrate how the cross-flow microfiltration process works: [16]

Figure 1

The benefit of cold-filtered whey protein is it retains a higher concentration of the beneficial whey fractions, minerals, and other nutrients compared to whey proteins processed via other means.

Protein of the 80's

Entering the 1980's, protein powder has entered the mainstream conscience. Still, the powder of the 80's do not taste and viscosity while also containing significant amounts of fat and lactose.

One notable standout protein from the 80's era was “Hot Stuff”. At the time, Hot Stuff was considered one of the best tasting protein powders available. Though due to various reports of it containing ephedra and/or steroids (such as anadrol), Hot Stuff was pulled from shelves, reformulated and re-emerged to consumers.

While protein powder was still finding its groove, another milestone happened in the 80's - the debut of the first true “pre-workout” by today’s standards. In 1982, Ultimate Orange launched as the “original protein energy powder” packing a potent combination of whey protein, caffeine, ephedrine and other ingredients. It was massively popular in bodybuilding culture until it was pulled from the shelves in the 1990s.

In 1986, Optimum Nutrition was founded, and in just a few short years, it would become the most recognizable name in protein powders. But, it was not Optimum that catapulted protein to the limelight. That honor goes to two of the first “legacy” brands that started in the 90's.

Protein Powder Hits the Big Time

The 1990's brought about a revolution to protein powder with increased academic research and product innovation.

Things really got rolling with the debut of two companies - Metabolic Prescription and Experimental & Applied Sciences, better known by their abbreviated names of Met RX and EAS.

Rise and Fall of Met-Rx

Founded in 1991 by A. Scott Connelly and Dan Duchaine, Met RX hit the ground running with an aggressive marketing campaign. Connelly advertised his meal replacement powder as containing certain special muscle-sparing proteins and the amino acid profile of mother’s milk. As you probably guess, these claims would later be shown was based on a lot of pseudoscience.

Connelly also claimed to be a Harvard-educated nutritionist and spent 20 years developing the Met RX formula. He even went as far as to say Met RX was used in more than 20 hospitals as part of their standard nutritional protocol, and that it helped bring people back from critical illness. None of these claims were substantiated, and his highly touted MetaMyosyn protein he claimed to have developed was actually purchased from another formulator. [18][19]

Still, Met-RX gained enormous popularity with athletes and it can still be found on store shelves today.

Bill Phillips & EAS Take Off

The other notable giant responsible for the surge in protein powder popularity was EAS. Founded by biochemist Anthony Almada and his business partner Ed Byrd in 1992, EAS first hit it big when they released Phosphagen - the first creatine supplement.

Debuting in 1993, Phosphagen was a bonafide winner for EAS, and it caught the eye of Bill Phillips (the Body for Life guy), who wrote about the wonders of creatine in his newsletter "Natural Supplement Review" and his magazine Muscle Media 2000.

Phillips was a veteran of the supplement game, and as it was later revealed, was at one time a business partner with A. Scott Connelly at Met RX.

In his “Natural Supplement Review”, Phillips gave his “unbiased” review of Met-RX, which helped increase its notoriety and popularity. In retrospect, it is highly probably that this “unbiased” review was really a clever marketing ploy engineered by Phillips and Connelly.

Sometime between 1994 and 1996 (accounts vary on the actual date), Phillips purchased EAS from Almada and Byrd, and in 1997 also changed the name of Muscle Media 2000 to just Muscle Media, in an attempt to make it more mainstream for the casual fitness enthusiast.

Phillips would use his Muscle Media reach to its fullest potential, as at its peak, it had a distribution of about 500,000 copies per issue. Bolstered by the large subscriber base and editorial-style endorsements of the Phosphagen and Myoplex (meal replacement powder), EAS really elevated.

By 1995, Phillips was a multi-millionaire gaining wealth and notoriety from a combination of the success of his hot commodity protein powder and his numerous celebrity associations including Jose Canseco, Sylvester Stallone, and Jerry Seinfeld.

Phillips sold the majority of his shares to North Castle Partners in 1999 for a cool $160 million. He would retain about one-third of EAS until 2004 when he sold off the rest of his stock in the company.

Right around this time, another small company, who would eventually become a giant in the protein market, was born. Two Irish cheese makers, named Avonmore and Waterford joined forces and purchased Ward’s Cheese in Richfield, Idaho. The cheese men named their new company Glanbia (Gaelic for “pure food”), and at the time it was the fourth largest cheese producer in the world.

One other small scrappy upstart from the late 1990s that would help boost the popularity of protein powder was the father and son team of Greg and Michael Pickett who founded CytoSport in 1998. The company launches its Complete Whey and CytoGainer protein products in 1999, ushering on the protein revolution.

Protein Powder of the 2000's

During the first few years of the 2000's, protein taste, texture and viscosity had substantially improved. GI distress of lactose-laden concentrates were gone, replaced by “cleaner” & higher quality protein powders.

In 2001, CytoSport releases Muscle Milk, a shelf-stable, lactose-free ready-to-drink protein using a combination of milk protein isolate, calcium caseinate, and sodium caseinate. The product is an instant success and it becomes the “standard” for taste by which other protein products are judged. By 2014, CytoSport was making around 50 million pounds of Muscle Milk each year.

That “standard” of taste is quickly challenged by another company who will become known as the “Gold Standard” of protein.

While Glanbia produced tremendous amounts of cheese, it generated even more whey. Because of this, Glanbia had become a staple in manufacturing whey protein. It had also grown by expanding its operations across United States and Mexico.

And, in 2008, Glanbia purchased Optimum Nutrition to vertically integrate the manufacturing, marketing and distribution of the product. 

By 2008, Optimum had cemented its stronghold on the whey protein industry with its Gold Standard Whey Protein. Touting a blend of whey isolate, concentrate, and peptides, ON’s protein can be found everywhere from Walmart to independent retailers and is the most recognizable brand name on the market.

Glanbia subsequently purchased another one of its biggest whey customers in BSN in 2011. With the acquisition of two of the biggest players in the sports nutrition arena, Glanbia became the top player in the domestic and international sports nutrition sector.

Present Day

Protein powder is more popular than ever, used by almost all segments of the population. On top of that, whey protein is not the only protein found on shelves today. These days, you can find casein protein, egg protein, hemp protein, brown rice protein, and even meat-based proteins!

Celebrity endorsements and slick ad campaigns are still the norm for the industry, but nowadays we also have a substantial body of research to verify the marketing hype.

The protein powder market is more competitive than ever, with just about every brand in the industry having their own offering. And, the most recent innovations involve the addition of mix-ins within powders, and single serving protein powder “shots”.

These edibles or “mix-ins” typically come in the form of cereal or cookie pieces, adding a new dimension of flavor, texture, and mouthfeel to the tried-and-true liquid protein shake.

Protein has come along way over the past 8000 years, who knows what the next great innovation in protein powder will be.


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