Is Whey Protein Isolate Healthy?
This is understandable since I have always encouraged my readers to sign up for Mercola’s newsletter as he is an excellent source of information (about 95% of the time). In fact, the only real contentions I have with him are over his probiotic blend, where he continues to list Lactobacillus sporogenes on the label, even though no such species exists.
And now with this whole “whey protein isolate is nasty and will damage your health” push. Again, most of what Mercola is saying is correct. However, he is failing to make a VERY important distinction between whey protein isolate that has been heat and/or acid extracted and whey protein isolate that has been cold, cross-flow membrane extracted.
Unfortunately, this distinction is the crux of the whey isolate issue! And it applies to all processing and extraction of milk products. As we know from raw milk literature – and the advice given to every breastfeeding mum – heat denatures milk proteins. Clear and simple. If you heat breastmilk (whether from a human, cow, goat, yak, or camel) the proteins are denatured, the live enzymes are killed and the beneficial bacteria destroyed.
Now, of course, there is no commercial whey protein supplement that can be sold which is made from unpasteurized milk – it is not legal in the U.S. or Canada – Mercola’s products included (see Mercola’s FAQ’s: “The raw milk is heated to 70˚C for a brief 15 seconds and then cooled down to 5˚C for the remaining processing.” – this is HTST pasteurization). So when we say that the proteins in certain whey products are denatured by heat, we are referring to high, prolonged heat – such as occurs during a heat-based extraction method. Likewise, when certain acids are used in the extraction process, they too can damage the milk proteins.
What Is Cross-Flow Membrane Extraction?
Passing a liquid through a membrane (filter) to extract (or remove) ingredients typically involves the liquid being poured into the filter – like when you drain spaghetti in a colander. This is called dead-end filtration.
With cross-flow membrane extraction, the liquid is flowed horizontally across the surface of the membrane (parallel to the membrane), which reduces the pressure involved in the process and reduces the likelihood of the retained material plugging up the surface of the membrane. Here’s a diagram that explains the process clearly:
(Source: Membrane separations technology: principles and applications By Richard D. Noble, pg 6 )
Heat-Extracted Whey Isolate vs. Cold-Extracted Whey Isolate
This crucial distinction between heat-extracted whey and cold-extracted whey isolate becomes very apparent in a series of clinical studies conducted by researchers at McGill University in the 1980’s and then again in the 1990’s. They wanted to see which type of protein was best for stimulating immune function in mice. So they tested casein (a milk protein usually contained in whey concentrates), whey, soy, wheat, corn, egg white, fish, beef, spirulina and another algae called scenedesmus.
The first study in the 80’s revealed that whey protein provided the best immune-boosting activity by increasing the amount of glutathione available to the spleen, which in turn resulted in an increase of white blood cells. However, in the 90’s they could not replicate these results and in their search to determine why not, they realized that whey can only boost glutathione when it is intact and undenatured by heat:
“What turned out to be the difference? Most of the products had undergone much more extensive heat treatment, causing two very delicate proteins, beta-lactoglobulin and serum albumin, to head for the highway. These two proteins contain unique glutamyl-cysteine bonds that resist digestion and enter the blood stream intact. The glutamyl-cysteine bond is two-thirds of a glutathione molecule , and thus much more easily turned into glutathione itself.” (Source: The Biochemical Magic of Raw Milk: Glutathione)
Other components of high quality (undenatured) whey protein isolate provide the following beneficial actions in the body:
- Alpha-lactalbumin consumption enhances tryptophan and immune function and reduces the stress hormone cortisol
- Tryptophan is used by the brain to manufacture serotonin. This is important because serotonin deficiency plays a role in the development of depression, anxiety, moodiness and insomnia
- Glycomacropeptides stimulate the hormone cholecystokinin, which is responsible for the release of pancreatic enzymes and the healthy contraction of the gallbladder and bowels
- Lactoferrin is an antioxidant that is also a powerful antiviral and antibacterial agent shown to inhibit the growth of E.coli, salmonella and candida in the gut. It also helps ensure the optimal use of iron in the body by binding to iron and preventing oxidation.
Whey protein is also an alkaline food, so it’s ideal for counteracting the usually hyper-acidic body pH levels of people with gastrointestinal problems.
What About Dairy Allergies?
Another key factor that Mercola and others are not taking into account when they use whey concentrate in a shake product is that (unless stipulated on the label) it may contain casein and lactose. Most people who are allergic to milk are actually allergic to a milk protein called casein – it is the most highly allergenic of all the milk proteins. Lactose-intolerance is another big problem many people have with dairy. This is another reason I use cold-extracted whey protein isolate in my products – isolate means that the whey has been isolated from the other milk proteins, like casein. It is also 99.8% lactose-free.
This letter from one of my readers illustrates this problem perfectly. They are not using whey protein isolate, because of Mercola’s warnings, but then are unable to tolerate the whey protein concentrate:
I have heard that whey protein isolate is not as healthful as whey protein. What can you tell me? I’m trying to get protein into my husband’s greens/fruit smoothies. Currently, I’m buying organic whey protein from Mercola; I have not found a whey protein at Whole Foods that is not an “isolate.”
Also, he had asthma as a kid and currently has a number of skin issues. I wonder if he might not be allergic to dairy. What would you recommend as an alternate protein in these smoothies? We pretty much gagged on the pea/rice protein…
D. A., Houston
So my advice in this case would be to either try a cold-extracted whey protein isolate, or, use organic, free-range, raw eggs. If using the eggs, then use 1 whole raw egg and 1 raw yolk, add them after you’ve blended all the other ingredients, so you just whip them on low speed for a few seconds. Alternatively, you could use just a brown rice protein – it is the most benign-tasting of all the veggie proteins.
I also encourage you to take a look at these recipes for food-based, yet easily tolerated shakes: Use Common Foods To Heal IBD.
Vegan Elemental Shakes
Your other option, if you cannot tolerate whey protein isolate, is to use a vegan elemental shake. We have put together these Vegan Elemental Diet Kits specifically for that purpose.
Whey Isolate vs. Whey Concentrate
According to McKinley Health Center, isolates contain about 90 percent pure whey protein, which is higher than most concentrates. Whey protein isolates are lower in fat and lactose, so they may be a better choice for people who are lactose intolerant. Concentrates contain anywhere from 29 percent to 89 percent protein content. The lower the protein content, the higher the fat and lactose content will be in that particular whey.
So if you need to be sure you’re getting a certain amount of protein per serving, you may be better off using a cold-extracted whey isolate, which guarantees the amount of protein per gram of whey. In a whey concentrate, it may list 17 grams of whey concentrate on the label, but perhaps only 30% of that is actual protein – you wouldn’t know unless you got a copy of the Certificate of Analysis from the raw materials supplier.
Be sure and read the label carefully on any whey protein isolate product as many (if not most) are not cold, cross-flow membrane extracted. This is because the heat or acid-extracted whey isolate is much cheaper. The cross-flow membrane extracted whey protein isolate is very expensive and supply is often limited, so manufacturers often have to pay in advance for enough to be allocated from the raw materials supplier – which puts the price to the consumer up even more. However, it’s the only type of whey I will use in the products I formulate for people with digestive problems, as I think it is well worth the cost and I wouldn’t want to put anything that might be 50% toxic into my body – no matter how much cheaper it is!
In addition, whey protein concentrate is not an ideal elemental protein source and therefore is not as well tolerated (hypo-allergenic) for people on an elemental diet – another reason I only use whey isolate in Absorb Plus.
Also read the label carefully to be sure there are no added artificial colors, sweeteners or flavors. We need to stay in authority as the final health expert for our own body and not give this power away to anyone else – not to Dr. Mercola, your local MD, your homeopath, and not to me! Always do your own research, ask if someone has a vested interest in presenting information a certain way, or putting a certain slant on it? And remember that no matter how qualified, all experts are fallible. We can be given incorrect information by someone we trust, our researchers can present us with only 80% of the picture and sometimes we just plain make mistakes.
I believe Dr. Mercola is sincere and I am very grateful for the work he is doing in disseminating natural health information to people and yes, I still encourage you to sign up for his newsletter – I just wish they offered it in a once-per-week format, rather than every day!