The “Whey” of the World
Zaira Ahmad, MS, RD, LD
In ancient cultures, whey was considered a cure for ailments ranging from gastrointestinal discomfort to joint and muscle issues. In the food/dairy industry, it was once considered a waste product. Today, after realizing its protein content and health benefits, whey is now considered a co-product in cheese making while its protein has a unique niche in food supplementation.
Read on to learn about whey, its different types, its health benefits, and if you should make space for it in your diet.
Milk contains two types of protein: casein and whey. Approximately 80 percent of milk protein is comprised of casein, while the remaining 20 percent is whey protein. Whey is the liquid that remains in the cheese-making process. To produce it, rennet or an edible acid is added to heated milk. This causes the milk to coagulate or curdle, separating the milk solids (curds) from the liquid whey. Liquid whey typically contains 93 percent water and only less than one percent protein; lactose, minerals and a small amount of fat make up the rest.
Whey protein is considered a high quality protein because it contains all the essential amino acids. Amino acids are needed in the body to construct various proteins and enzymes. Essential amino acids cannot be produced by the human body and need to be ingested through the diet. Whey proteins also have higher concentrations of essential amino acids compared to various vegetable protein sources. Whey is also an excellent source of leucine. Leucine is a branched chain amino acid that triggers the initiation of muscle protein synthesis.
Whey protein is commonly sold in powder form. The conversion process begins when liquid whey is separated from the casein (curds) and sent through filters to remove all non-whey ingredients. An ion exchange process further purifies it. Finally, all the water is removed leaving behind a powder. This protein powder is then ready to be packaged and consumed.
According to Dr. Rafi Shaik, a food scientist with the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA®), whey is unique because it is produced in different concentrations. The following are the different types of whey protein products.
Milk protein concentrate (MPC), such as Organic Valley Milk Concentrate, is a complete dairy protein that contains casein and whey proteins. It is available in protein concentrations from 40 to 89 percent. MPC ingredients are suitable to add protein and calcium to nutritional beverages, frozen desserts, and cultured products.
Whey protein concentrate (WPC), such as Organic Valley Whey Protein Concentrate, contains low levels of fats and lactose. The percentage of protein in WPC can range from 30 to 90 percent. It is often used by bodybuilders to aid in the muscle-building process.
Whey protein isolate (WPI) is processed to remove fat and lactose. WPI is usually 90 percent protein and is considered a nutritional supplement. It is commonly included in infant formulas and sports drinks. Those who are lactose intolerant or lactose sensitive may still be able to consume WPI, as it contains less than one percent lactose, according to WheyOfLife.org.
Whey protein hydrolysate (WPH) is the predigested form of whey protein. It has already undergone partial hydrolysis (a process necessary for the body to absorb protein). It’s often used in medical protein supplements and infant formulas because of its digestibility.
The process of separating whey from casein (curd) may cause concern to halal consumers. Dr. Shaik explains, “Cheese is made by using enzymes and cultures. Sometimes these enzymes can be derived from nonhalal slaughtered animals.” (Similarly, cultures may also be produced using nonhalal channels.) Rennet is derived from the fourth stomach of newly born calves. Chymosin, the active enzyme ingredient of rennet, aids in the coagulation of milk by separating it into curds and whey. It should be noted, however, that most enzymes in cheese today are microbial. When choosing a whey product or product made with whey, if IFANCA’s Crescent-M is not on the packaging or the label doesn’t specifically state the ingredients are not animal-derived, it’s best to contact the company in order to find out its halal status.
Dr. Shaik states, “Whey products are mostly found in various cultured milk products, pancake mixes, waffles, condiments, muffins, ice creams, yogurts, pastas, and smoothies.” Whey is also an additive in many processed foods including bread, crackers, and commercial pastry. Additionally, manufacturers add milk and whey protein to energy bars, drink mixes, and yogurt beverages. MPC, WPC, and WPI are available in powder form and can be added to recipes for beverages, smoothies, oatmeal, yogurt, soups, sauces, and dips.
Whey is also the liquid that can pool at the top of a yogurt container and is also an excellent source of calcium. This whey can be stirred back into the yogurt, used in smoothies, or instead of water in hot cereal. Liquid whey from homemade cheese making can be used as a substitute for skim milk in most baking recipes that call for milk.
Protein is the major part of all cells in the body and is utilized in the form of enzymes, transport carriers, and hormones. The body needs a steady supply of the nine essential amino acids from dietary protein to make new proteins and balance protein breakdown. Milk, yogurt, and cheese are superb sources of high quality proteins.
Whey protein has the highest biological value (the proportion of absorbed protein retained in the body) of any protein, which means it’s highly usable by the body.
Evidence shows that whey protein can be used to help treat various diseases. For cancer treatment, whey has been found to have anti-tumor and anticarcinogenic potential. Increasing whey and low fat dairy in the diet has also shown to contribute to raising HDL levels, lowering triglycerides, and lowering systolic blood pressure. Liquid whey containing lactose, vitamins, protein, and minerals used in studies showed reduced spikes in blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes by increasing insulin secretion. The high concentration of bioavailable calcium in whey also aids in the prevention of osteoporosis.
Incorporating whey in the diet can also help with weight loss. The protein content increases satiety in meals and snacks. Satiety may lead to weight loss because of the reduced calorie consumption over time. The leucine content of whey may enhance satiety as well. However, whey supplements will not necessarily promote weight loss if total calorie intake is not taken into account.
Whey is widely available in powder form and marketed to fitness enthusiasts. Dr. Shaik shares, “Some whey supplements are specially designed for body and muscle building with different concentrations of protein. Whey naturally found in foods will have less protein content.” It is recommended the average consumer add WPC, WPI, or skim milk powder to foods such as fruit smoothies, but to avoid whey supplements that target bodybuilders because they contain other ingredients that are not necessary to the general population. In moderation, whey does not cause any adverse events. Whey protein consumed in high doses, however, can cause stomach pains, cramps, reduced appetite, nausea, headache, and fatigue.
Whey and whey protein products help add protein to the diet. Research shows that this cheese by-product is helpful in managing various diseases and weight. Consumers should be aware that not all whey products might be considered halal. Whey can be found in milk products naturally, while protein powders are available for more concentrated use.
Ultimate Nutrition Prostar®
Abbott Ensure® Plus Yoghurt
Select Similac® infant formulas
Select ZonePerfect® nutrition bars
Cabot Greek-Style Yogurt
KIND® Almond & Apricot in Yogurt
Mariani Vanilla Yogurt Raisins
Select Love & Quiches products
Select Savory Foods Popcorn and Cookie Dough products
Zaira Ahmad is a registered and licensed dietitian/nutritionist from Central Ohio. She has experience in clinical dietetics, nutrition education, and nutritional counseling.