Natural whey has made waves in the protein and supplement world over the past few years, being marketed as a cleaner, more effective option that can help improve strength, muscle mass, and overall health. But is natural whey better than traditional whey concentrate or whey isolate? We’ll take a look at what the science says and see if natural whey lives up to the hype.
Milk contains two protein fractions, an easily digested so-called “fast” whey fraction, and a slowly digested so-called “slow” casein fraction. While both components are considered high quality and contain all essential amino acids (EAAs), the difference lies in digestibility. Given its remarkable ability to rapidly raise blood leucine concentrations to high levels, whey is generally considered the most effective protein source for stimulating muscle protein synthesis (R).
Whey protein is a by-product of the cheese making process. Dairy or milk is heated and then treated with acid, known as acidification, to denature the proteins to some extent. This process separates the solid protein (aka curds) or casein from the liquid protein (aka whey). The whey is then further filtered to remove any lactose, carbohydrates, and fat, resulting in whey protein isolate.
Unlike whey, natural whey is not a by-product of the cheesemaking process, but comes directly from milk protein. Raw milk is filtered and then undergoes a process similar to how whey is produced. So, despite the claims, natural whey is not “natural” at all, but is very similar to whey protein or whey protein isolate, and denatured to some extent.
Most whey protein concentrates consist of 70-80% pure protein, contain over 50% lactose, and are higher in fat and carbohydrates than whey protein isolate. Whey Protein Isolate is a highly purified form of whey protein. Compared to whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate goes through a rigorous filtration process called cross-flow microfiltration. Through this filtration process, the protein content is separated from any extra fat, carbohydrates, cholesterol and lactose, resulting in a purer form of protein. Most whey protein isolates are about 90% pure protein, while whey protein concentrates are 70-80%.
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Natural whey is derived from raw milk protein, which has also been filtered and processed. Therefore, natural whey is denatured and not truly “natural”.
But what about efficacy? Is natural whey better than whey or isolate for muscle protein synthesis and optimizing workout recovery?
A study published in Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition Natural whey was compared to conventional whey protein to study the effect on muscle protein synthesis and anabolic response. A total of 24 young resistance-trained men and women participated in this double-blind, randomized, partially crossover, controlled study.
Participants received either whey protein concentrate, natural whey, or milk. Results showed that natural whey resulted in higher levels of leucine concentrations, but despite this, natural whey did not have a better effect on muscle protein synthesis than conventional whey protein(R).
Studies have shown that higher leucine concentrations alone do not promote greater changes in muscle protein synthesis. In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study conducted at Baylor University, 30 subjects took BCAAs, leucine, or a placebo. These supplements are taken in three equal servings pre-resistance training, pre-resistance training, and post-workout. Results showed that leucine and BCAA supplementation resulted in higher levels of phosphorylated 4E-BP1 and cellular signaling of the mTOR pathway, a serine/threonine kinase that stimulates protein synthesis through amino acid activation. These findings suggest that the other two BCAAs (isoleucine and valine) may contribute to greater activation than leucine alone (R). Furthermore, the study concluded that supplementing with BCAAs had a greater effect on mTOR than taking more leucine alone.
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If natural whey comes from raw milk, how is it different from milk protein concentrate or isolate? Milk protein concentrate contains all the protein found in raw milk, in the same proportions. Thus, concentrated milk protein will be 80% casein and 20% whey. Natural whey is produced by filtering raw milk, so it is still considered whey but has been found to contain more complete protein and amino acids than traditional whey protein. Unlike whey concentrate or isolate, it comes from raw milk, not the cheesemaking process.
Increasing muscle mass and strength is a common goal for athletes and those pursuing a healthy and active lifestyle. Resistance training combined with protein intake are the two most important stimuli for muscle protein synthesis.
Research shows that despite claims of superiority, natural whey is no better than conventional whey or whey isolate for building muscle, increasing strength, or promoting recovery.
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