Want to know more about whey protein?
Whey protein is a high-quality dairy based protein packed full of all the amino acids your body needs for muscle protein synthesis.
Combined with a healthy diet and regular exercise, whey protein supplements can help you achieve your bodybuilding goals.
But which whey protein should you take? How much should you take? And how and when should you take it?
This guide will answer all of these questions and more.
1. What is whey protein
Whey is one of the two major protein groups found in milk, with casein making up 80% of the protein source and whey contributing the other 20%.
Whey protein has a higher biological value than many protein rich foods like fish, beef and soya, which means it can be used more effectively by the body.
Whey protein contains all nine of the essential amino acids, and delivers these rapidly to the body, making it a crucial ingredient in the muscle building process (1).
In this section we’ll look at where whey comes from and how it’s transformed into the whey protein supplements so vital to the dietary regimes of today’s athletes and bodybuilders.
1.1 Where whey protein comes from
During the cheesemaking process, rennet is added to milk to make it curdle. The casein proteins coagulate to form solids, and whey is the translucent liquid that’s separated off and processed into whey protein.
Before the incredible benefits of whey were realised, it was viewed as a waste by-product to be disposed of.
Today, whey is recognised as an excellent source of protein, and a particularly rich source of the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) – leucine, isoleucine and valine.
BCAAs play an important part in maintaining tissue, building lean muscle mass and preventing catabolic actions – or muscle wastage – when you work out (1).
Whey occurs naturally in foods such as ricotta cheese, cottage cheese, some dairy butters and creams, and yoghurt. Food manufacturers include whey in many processed foods in order to enhance their protein content.
Whey has come a long way from the days when it was considered ‘waste’.
1.2 How whey protein is produced
In its unprocessed form, the translucent liquid whey contains:
• milk minerals
• milk fat
• whey protein
The next step is to isolate the whey protein from the whey solution. This is achieved by filtering the liquid through a series of membranes to remove the fat and carbohydrates.
The extent to which the whey is submitted to these processes dictates what kind of whey protein will eventually be produced.
The more layers of microfiltration and ultrafiltration the whey is put through, the purer the protein becomes. And, the more processing, the lower the resulting carbohydrate and fat content.
Once the requisite level of processing has taken place, the whey protein is spray dried to form a powder. This is modified and packaged by the manufacturer and sold as different types of whey protein.
The next section explains what the various types of whey protein are, and what each is used for (2).
2. Whey protein types
In this section we’ll take a closer look at the different types of whey protein and the pros and cons of each.
The three main forms of whey protein are:
• Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC) – least processed and the cheapest
• Whey Protein Isolate (WPI) – medium processed and moderately expensive
• Whey Protein Hydrolysates (WPH) – most processed and the most expensive
Many manufacturers mix two, or even all three types of whey protein in different combinations to produce the host of products now available to consumers.
This allows the consumer to strike a balance between quality and cost while benefiting from each form of protein powder.
2.1 Whey Protein Concentrate
Whey protein concentrates are separated from whey by ultrafiltration.
This removes the lactose and soluble ions from the solution, leaving the proteins and biologically active components, making it an attractive supplement for the athlete.
The percentage protein content of whey concentrate can vary from 25 – 89%, so always check the label before you buy (1).
• an excellent source of protein
• retains the most amino acids and whey peptides
• the most economical option
• retains the most fat and carbohydrate making it higher in calories (1)
• retains lactose, which can be a problem for lactose intolerant people (1)
2.2 Whey protein isolate
Whey protein isolate is usually at least 90% protein. Further processed to remove almost all the fat and lactose, it’s also a good choice if you’re in a cutting phase (i.e. losing body fat whilst maintaining muscle mass) (1).
• a purer source of protein than whey protein concentrate
• removes nearly all fat and carbs
• removes nearly all lactose, making it a good choice if you are lactose intolerant
• lower concentration of amino acids than whey protein concentrate
• more expensive than whey protein concentrate
2.3 Whey protein hydrolysate
This is the most highly processed of all the whey proteins. To produce whey protein hydrolysate, the whey protein isolate is put through a process called hydrolysis.
This effectively pre-digests the protein, breaking the whey protein chains into much smaller peptide fragments.
Because whey protein hydrolysate is easily digested, it can speed up tissue repair and accelerate recovery from injury (3).
• more rapid digestion and absorption of amino acids
• speeds up tissue repair
• may be better for people with allergies
3. Whey protein: who, why, what, when and how?
Whey protein has long been considered an essential nutritional tool for athletes and bodybuilders because it helps build muscle and kick-start the recovery process.
3.1 Who uses whey protein?
But it’s such a rich source of protein that it’s also used by a wide range of other people, including:
• vegetarians to boost protein intake
• older people for preventing age-related muscle loss
• people wanting to lose weight
• athletes interested in sports nutrition
• anybody concerned with basic health and bodily function
3.2 Why use whey protein?
Your average office worker can get enough protein from a healthy balanced diet.
But for bodybuilders and athletes, meeting their protein needs can be expensive, time consuming and inconvenient.
That’s where whey protein comes in. Great value for money and quick and easy to prepare, it’s an excellent protein solution.
And whey protein has other advantages too:
• one of the purest forms of proteins available to man
• quicker and easier to digest than casein (4)
• higher in protein and more digestible than standard protein food sources
• rich in vitamins and minerals
• provides high levels of essential and branched-chain amino acids, especially leucine, which stimulates muscle protein synthesis (4)
For people who workout, whey protein supplementation protects existing muscle mass and helps keep you lean as you pack on more weight 1.
And because whey protein – particularly whey protein isolate – helps keep you feeling fuller for longer, it’s also an important part of any fat loss programme (5).
3.3 What whey protein should I use?
Your individual needs dictate which of the three whey protein types – concentrate, isolate or hydrolysate – is right for you.
Here are some useful points to consider:
Whey Protein Concentrate
Great if you’re on a budget and not too worried about upping your calorie intake. For bodybuilding or endurance exercise choose a concentrate with a protein content at the upper end of the scale, say 80% or more.
If you’re more into improving your basic nutrition than building muscle there’s no need to pay for one of the more expensive supplements.
Packed full of whey peptides and amino acids, a standard whey protein concentrate is more than adequate for your needs.
Whey Protein Isolate
Lactose intolerant? The extra filtration that protein isolate goes through makes it virtually lactose free, so it’s a great option if your body struggles to tolerate milk (1).
Very low in fat and carbohydrates, whey protein isolate is an excellent choice for anyone who wants to stay lean as they bulk up.
Protein isolate is highly bioavailable. It hits your system fast so it’s perfect for use pre- and post-workout.
Whey Protein Hydrolysate
If you have difficulty digesting protein, pre-digested whey protein hydrolysate could be the best choice for you.
It’s easy for the body to digest so it’s rapidly absorbed and available to help you build muscle fast.
Whey protein hydrolysates can also speed tissue repair, boosting recovery even faster than whey protein isolate (6). A sound choice for serious gym junkies prone to muscle damage.
Whey Protein Blends
Blends can be a mixture of any or all of the whey protein types mentioned above. They vary in cost depending on the ratio of ingredients used.
Their main advantage is that they offer the benefits of all three whey protein types in one powder.
If you choose to use a whey protein blend, check the label to make sure you’re happy with the ratios of the different whey proteins it contains.
Understand what you’re paying for and what benefits you might expect to get from the product.
3.4 When to use whey protein
Take whey protein first thing in the morning to kick start your system. Take it last thing at night to fuel your muscles as you sleep. Take it between meals as a snack. Whey protein can be taken any time you need to add protein to your diet.
As part of an exercise programme, two really key times to take on some whey protein are:
15-30 minutes pre-workout
within 30 minutes post-workout
That’s because these are the times when your muscle tissue most needs an influx of amino acids.
Because whey protein has a speedy digestion rate and is packed full of branched-chain amino acids, it provides your body with exactly what it needs, just when it needs it.
3.5 How to use whey protein
The possibilities are endless!
Take it as a shake, blend it into your morning smoothie, mix it into your cookie dough; whey protein is a super-versatile ingredient – so experiment.
Some people choose to start the day with a whey protein shake in place of a meal. Others simply add the whey protein powder to their morning cereal – you could mix it up with honey and oats for a sweet and hearty breakfast.
A whey protein shake makes for a protein rich snack at any time of the day. With a host of great flavours to choose from, your pre- and post-workout shakes will be a highlight of your day!
Alternatively, design your own shake by adding whey protein powder to water, juice, milk or, to lend your shake a lovely creamy texture, yoghurt. Add fruit and blend to perfection.
With so many different whey protein formulas on the market, always read the directions on the container as each one is likely to be a little different from the others.
3.6 How much whey protein should I use?
For the average woman, the recommended daily allowance of protein is around 46g (equivalent to approximately 3 beef burgers). The recommended daily allowance for the average man is 56g (equivalent to almost 4 beef burgers) (7). But to calculate the amount you need depends on your age, weight, state of health and exercise regime.
Estimated protein requirements for athletes (8)
Population, Protein requirement g/kg/day
Sedentary males and females, 0.8-1.0
Elite male endurance athletes, 1.6
Moderate-intensity endurance athletes*, 1.2
Recreational endurance athletes+, 0.8-1.0
Football / team sports, 1.4-1.7
Strength / power athletes, 1.8-2.0
Resistance athletes (early training), 1.5-1.7
Resistance athletes (steady state), 1.0-1.2
Female athletes, ~ 15% lower than male athletes
*Exercising approximately 4-5 times per week for 45-60 minutes
+Exercising 4-5 times per week for 30 min at <55% VO2peak
Follow these three steps to find out how much whey protein you should be taking:
• Work out your individual daily protein requirement.
• Work out how much protein you’re getting from your usual diet.
• Take 2 away from 1 to give you the amount of extra protein you need to ingest.
4. Whey protein sources
Super convenient whey protein powder comes in a wide range of easy-to-use forms. In addition to the three main sources of whey protein – concentrate, isolate and hydrolysate – there are literally hundreds of whey protein blends to choose from.
As well as blending different ratios of the three protein types, manufacturers add a whole spectrum of other nutrients to their products: ingredients like creatine, vitamins, green tea and many, many more.
And whey protein doesn’t just come in powder form either…
4.1 Choosing a whey protein supplement
How about a tasty protein shake? Make your own by adding a scoop of your favourite whey protein blend to a standard milkshake mix.
Or choose from the dozens of flavoured protein shakes on the market. If you’re too busy to mix your own shakes, buy them pre-made.
From tempting chocolate and strawberry, to fancy flavours like culinary caramel cheesecake or lemon drizzle, a protein shake is a great option for people on the move.
Make a nutritious start to your day with pancakes made from a protein pancake mix. Slip a protein bar in with your packed lunch and take it to work.
Sweet tooth? You can take your whey protein in the form of a chocolate cookie bar, or perhaps a flapjack. If you’re cutting, a meal replacement powder works well.
Add whey protein to your baking mixes, sprinkle it on your meals, it’s even available as a coffee blend.
Whey protein is so easy to take. How will you take yours?
4.2 Protein source comparison
To see how whey protein measures up against other forms of protein, check out the guide below.
Biological Value (BV) shows how effectively the body can use the protein contained in a food source. It is expressed on an index, relative to egg protein (which has a BV of 100). The higher the BV number, the easier it is for the body to absorb essential amino acids from the protein source.
PDCAAS (Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score) is the most widely used measure for the digestibility of protein in food. Expressed as a figure between zero and one, the closer to one, the more easily digested the protein is (1).
As you can see in the table below, whey protein is a top performer.
Protein source comparison (1)
Protein type, Biological value, PDCAAS
Beef, 80, 0.92
Casein, 77, 1
Egg, 100, 1
Milk, 91, 1
Soy protein, 74, 1
Wheat gluten, 64, 0.25
Whey protein, 104, 1
5. Whey protein FAQs
Hopefully, you now have the answers to most of your questions, but just in case, here are a few additional FAQs about whey protein.
5.1 Are there any side effects from whey protein?
Unless you are lactose intolerant, and as long as you are healthy, you shouldn’t experience any negative side effects from consuming whey protein. But, as with any dietary change, if in doubt, always consult your doctor first.
Just as with any other nutrient, you can take too much whey protein. Although there’s no firm data on the side effects of excessive protein use, some of the reported consequences include: dehydration, gout, liver and kidney damage, calcium loss, bloating, and diarrhoea (9).
The simple message is one of moderation – use Table 1 to work out how much protein you need. Taking more won’t make you bigger, and it may even harm you.
5.2 What if I’m lactose intolerant?
If you are lactose intolerant your body may react adversely to whey protein concentrate. Whey protein isolate has most of the lactose removed, and highly refined protein hydrolysate is even less likely to cause an allergic reaction.
If you’re lactose intolerant, consult your doctor before taking any protein supplement.
5.3 Which whey protein is the best?
Depending on your needs, each type of whey protein has its own advantages. Here are some useful points to consider:
• Whey protein hydrolysate is the purest protein source and the easiest for the body to absorb.
• Whey protein isolate is a very pure protein with excellent bioavailability and a healthier price tag.
• Whey protein concentrate is a great all-rounder and very economical.
• Whey protein blends are best if you want to mix it all up and add in some extra ingredients.
5.4 What is the best way to consume whey protein?
Take whey protein any way that suits your lifestyle, pocket and tastebuds. Here are some suggestions:
Fancy a drink?
Make your own shake by mixing whey protein powder with juice, water or milk. Add a dash of yoghurt, fruit or other flavouring. Or buy a pre-made shake – there’s a delicious array of inviting flavours to choose from.
No problem. Whey protein comes in a variety of grab-and-go snacks. Try a whey crisp bar, a whey flapjack, or a whey chocolate cookie to name just a few.
Got a sweet tooth?
How about a whey protein hot chocolate or a whey protein muffin? You could even pick up some whey protein pancake mix and add your own flavourings.
You can use whey powder as an ingredient in baking. Add it to all sorts of goodies from cheesecake to dough balls; go ahead and cook your heart out!
It doesn’t really matter how you take your whey protein. The important thing is to use it responsibly in order to take full advantage of its incredible protein packed properties.
Whichever of the whey proteins you choose, you’ll be getting a powerful, protein-rich product that will help increase muscle growth as part of your workout regime.
Your choice of product, and how much you take depends on a range of factors including:
• how much muscle you want to pack on
• whether or not you’re lactose intolerant
• daily protein needs to match the intensity of your training program
• whether you’re in a bulking, cutting or maintaining phase
• injury status
Now you understand whey protein, all that’s left is to mix up your favourite flavour shake and enjoy a tasty addition to your healthy diet.
(1) J. R. Hoffman and M. J. Falvo, ‘Protein – which is best?’, Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2004) 3, 118-130. Online at: http://www.jssm.org/vol3/n3/2/v3n3-2pdf.pdf (accessed: 21/07/14)
(2) Innovate with Dairy (n.d.) How is Whey Made? Online at: Innovate With Dairy (accessed: 19/07/14)
(3) J. D. Buckley et al., ‘Supplementation with a whey protein hydrolysate…’, Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport (2010), 13:1, 178-81. Online at: NCBI (accessed: 17/07/14)
(4) B. Pennings et al., ‘Whey protein stimulates postprandial muscle…’, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2011), 93:5, 997-1005. Online at: AJCN (accessed: 18/07/14)
(5) J. L. Frestedt et al., ‘A whey-protein supplement increases fat loss…’, Nutrition and Metabolism (2008), 5:8. Online at: NCBI (accessed: 21/07/14)
(6) Buckley et al., ‘Whey protein’. Online at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18768358
(7) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2012), Protein. Online at: CDC (accessed: 16/07/14)
(8) Irish Sports Council (2009), Factsheet: Protein. Online at: Irish Sports Council (accessed: 17/07/14)
(9) R. J. Wolfe, ‘Protein supplements and medicine’, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2000), 72:2, 551s-557s. Online at: AJCN (accessed: 21/07/14)
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