Whey Protein 101: Overview and Quick History

Whey Protein 101: Overview and Quick History

 If you are an avid protein powder consumer or just a health-conscious person looking for something to add to your smoothie before or after a workout, then it is likely that you heard of whey protein at some point. You may even already use it as a protein supplement in your shakes and smoothies, or consume it as a drink by dissolving it in water. Either way, have you ever wondered how it became so popular over the years, what it is made of, or how it is turned into a powder for consumption? We have the answers and some of the benefits of this "superfood." 

What Is Whey Protein Powder?

A popular nutrition supplement used by athletes, active adults, and the health-conscious population, whey protein powder is a popular meal replacement option, additive for shakes and smoothies, and can be a popular ingredient found in "health" and protein bars.

Whey protein is generally available in three types, which are categorized based on how they are processed:

  • Concentrate: The concentrate is composed of approximately 70–80% protein. It contains lactose and fat and typically tastes the best in terms of flavor.
  • Isolate: Isolate is composed of approximately 90% protein or higher. It has less lactose and fat and fewer nutrients than what is found in the concentrate.
  • Hydrolysate: Hydrolysate, or hydrolyzed whey, has a quicker absorption rate and causes a higher insulin level spike than isolate.

A Brief History of Whey Protein

To understand how whey protein is made and turned into powder, we must delve into whey protein's history. While you can dive deeper by reading our detailed rundown of the history of protein powder, here is a brief timeline that shows how whey protein began development.

It was very early on when nutritionists and trainers collaborated on food science to create protein for building and repairing muscle. However, protein consumption through supplements became more mainstream in the 60s when it was turned into a powder.

  • In approximately 1890, researchers identified a precipitate in whey called lactoglobulin. It was formed when magnesium sulfate or ammonium sulfate was added to the whey and soon after uncovered other elements within whey.
  • 1937 researchers began using spray drying to produce a dry powder from a liquid for whey protein.
  • In the 1940s, Bob Hoffman, owner of New York Barbell, was approached by a nutritionist, Paul Bragg, to create supplements specifically for weightlifters.
  • In 1952, Hoffman debuted his protein supplement, “Hi-Proteen" made of soybean flour and chocolate, that promised fast results and superior nutrition.
  • In the 1960s, Rheo H. Blair created and sold "Blair’s Protein Powder". The powder was made of calcium and sodium caseinate, derived from nonfat dry milk, egg white protein, and dried whole eggs.
  • In 1971, whey separation via ultrafiltration improved the taste, texture, and quality of the previous unrefined protein powder options that were gritty, brown, and had a less desirable taste.
  • In 1982, Ultimate Orange was launched as a protein energy powder. The powder included ingredients such as whey protein, caffeine, and ephedrine. However, it was ultimately discontinued due to concerns about the adverse effects associated with ephedra, a key ingredient.
  • In the 1990s, protein powder caught the attention of academic research and two companies—Metabolic Prescription (Met-Rx) and Experimental & Applied Sciences (EAS)—which created new and improved products and gained popularity with the public through their claims and athlete/celebrity endorsements.
  • The 2000s brought improvements to the taste, texture, and viscosity of protein powders and addressed the GI issues associated with the lactose found in concentrates. The result was clean and higher quality products. 
  • Today, protein powder is a popular supplement with a variety of ingredients, flavors, and applications. Used by athletes, fitness professionals, and weekend warriors seeking improved nutrition and workout results, protein powder is known and used across demographics.

So How Is Whey Protein Made?

To understand the benefits and how whey protein is created, let's back up and understand more about its composition. 

Let's start with milk. Milk is made of water, fat, proteins, lactose (milk sugar), and minerals (salts). There are two proteins in milk—casein and whey. Milk can be broken down into its two original components, and the proteins can be isolated and extracted (and this happens when using milk to make cheese). The resulting whey can be isolated and used to make other products such as whey protein isolate.

Therefore, whey protein is ultimately a mix of the proteins from whey that has undergone some processing to become a powdered substance added to shakes, snacks, and protein bars. 

What Are the Benefits of Whey Protein?

Athletes, fitness pros, and health enthusiasts often reach for whey protein as a pre and post-workout supplement. The goal is often to use the protein to fuel their body and help build and maintain lean muscle mass. The protein helps muscles rebuild as they break down during workouts and active use. Protein in your body will help during recovery and ensure lean muscle mass is preserved. 

Other benefits of whey protein can include:

  • Weight loss aid
  • Lower cholesterol
  • Improved blood pressure

The study, Why Whey Protein Supplementation During Resistance Training Augments Lean Body Mass, published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, concluded that high-quality whey protein consumption during resistance training resulted in higher gains in lean body mass than soy protein or isocaloric carbohydrate control treatment conditions. This, among other studies, shows the power of protein and the importance of choosing a natural or protein supplement that is made from high-quality products. 

"Wheying" in on Options

If you choose to give whey protein a try, make sure you choose the right supplement and the best option for your body and activity level. You can look into many different varieties, but whichever you choose, be sure it fits yours goals and any dietary needs—especially if you are concerned about lactose or have a sensitivity to protein. 

The bottom line is that whey is a great option for ensuring you are getting adequate protein intake. Your body can absorb and use the protein to help gain muscle mass and strength as you work to improve your body composition and strength.

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