Is Whey Protein Isolate Healthy?

Since Joe Mercola has gone on a whey isolate-bashing drive (part of his materials promoting his whey protein concentrate line of products) I have been inundated with emails from my readers.

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:

Dear Jini,

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…

Thanks,
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!

23 Comments

23 thoughts on “Is Whey Protein Isolate Healthy?

  1. I completely agree with you regarding Mercola’s apparent self-serving advice (though you are far more considerate and diplomatic than I). He definitely picks and chooses what evidence he considers worthy. He just recently dismissed the use of glucosamine/chondroitin for supporting joint care because of one study that just came out that found no significant difference over placebo. I’ve reviewed previous studies – and they have all been different in regards to type of joint issue, length of time, and parameter being evaluated (some have found a significant difference and some haven’t). Regardless, the reason he was dismissing it was because he has another joint formula that he purports is far better – though it has definitely not been tested in any placebo controlled randomized trial or with the same scientific vigor that glucosamine has. I don’t bregrudge a doctor making a name and brand – but he doesn’t pass the integrity test. Those who have received the time and objective assistance from Jini would easily be able to sense the difference.



  2. It’s funny Ashley, because everyone that I’ve talked to – who have been Mercola subscribers for many years – echoes what you’ve said here. BUT, back when his integrity was faultless (the original Joe Mercola we knew and loved), he was on the verge of bankruptcy.

    Now, with this new “commercial” approach, his subscriber list has tripled and he makes a LOT more money – i.e. he makes more in one day than I make in an entire month. No kidding.

    So… I can only conclude that we are in the minority and mass America loves his advertorials…



  3. Given the difference in quality in what is popular with the mass American market versus what is popular with a more discerning group of people – I think it is a testimony to character to not be the mind-numbing block-buster. Mercola is another example of one who couldn’t handle the addictive lure of success and its ability to ruin one’s self-perspective and purpose. Unfortunately, Mercola’s advice is taken to heart by many well-meaning people, and sooner or later, more people will recognize how shoddy his claims are. One of the upsides of the free flow information on the internet is how quickly a bad review of one’s character, service, and claims can make the rounds – it can make and break people in a heart beat.



  4. Yes, and given time, greed typically self-destructs. Thank goodness the Internet has given back to the people the Freedom of Speech!

    I totally appreciate that you have clarified the many issues re: whey powders in general by substantiating the many and varying claims and disclaims concerning both quality and health. I was happy to see the itemized list of components as well you provided, particularly regarding the alpha-lactalbumin in its ability to enhance tryptophan, as many of us w/ belly issues also suffer from ensuing insomnia, depression, and anxiety. Because my tum is too tender to handle direct amino acid supplementation, I usually look for this protein in my foods and admit I checked AbsorbPlus’s list of ingred for it. The other components of quality whey you listed also fit nicely into the puzzle for counteracting dysbiosis and sluggish organs.

    I’d still like to know what those cows are eating though…GM’d grains or grass fed!?

    I usually shop for a whey powder that is both unsweetened and unflavored as the frills of food additives no longer interest me. I’m all about getting well. I’m glad to see that you now offer the unsweetened AbsorbPlus and can’t wait for your generous free sample to arrive and really hope it makes my belly happy…though it you had one that was both unsweetened and unflavored, I’d be happier still.

    Thanx, Jini, for all your hard work in coming up w/ quality products and thorough information backed by real un-biased presentation of facts. I can’t speak for others, but I need this reassurance that I’m making the right choices.



  5. Hi crystalblue – to answer your questions:

    Unfortunately we do not have grass-fed or organic whey in Absorb Plus. Obviously, I would prefer to, but the significant cost increase would put it out of reach for most people. Don’t forget, this is not a whey supplement that people use just 2 scoops per day. People use this for a complete elemental diet and they are consuming 6 – 9 shakes per day. We do use hormone-free (as confirmed by Certificate of Analysis), cold-extracted whey isolate though (C of A confirms 90% protein content). The C of A also confirms no contaminants, heavy metals, pathogens, etc.

    Are you aware that Absorb Plus is not just a whey protein supplement? It also contains carbohydrates and my custom-blend of amino acids – specifically chosen for people with gut issues. So it will be interesting to see how you tolerate them vs. free form aminos you’ve tried in the past. You can get detailed info on the aminos in AP here:

    http://www.absorbplus.com/diet/ingredients/acids2.php

    Honestly, there is no such thing as an unflavored Absorb Plus – as it would just carry the flavors of the aminos, whey, vitamins and minerals. Hence we did Unsweetened Vanilla as it is the closest thing to a “neutral” flavor you could get. You can also then add your own elemental flavor extracts if you wish:

    http://www.naturesflavors.com/default.php?cPath=156

    I would like to do a stand-alone whey protein supplement in the future and then perhaps we could offer an organic or grass-fed version as well for people who can afford it…



  6. Hi Jini – this is great information, thank you for sharing it! I would definitely be interested in a grass-fed version of the whey protein isolate in your Absorb Plus. I’m sure there are others out there who feel the same way!!

    Joanna



  7. JOANNA – I would love to do a grass-fed whey isolate version, unfortunately, I have contacted countless manufacturers and NO ONE has a grass-fed whey isolate or an organic whey isolate! They have grass-fed or organic whey concentrate, but no isolate. It literally does not seem to exist. And as soon as you move to whey concentrate, it contains both casein and lactose – the top 2 allergens for people with a dairy allergy or intolerance.

    So… if anyone ever finds a supplier, please let me know!! In the meantime, things will have to stay as is.



  8. Jini, I have purchased the absorb plus for my daughter and I would like to take it too but I was wondering if the amino acids that are listed are the only ones in the product or if the Absorb plus also contains several other amino acids like the other protein drinks on the mark, and if absorb plus CONTAINS L-Arginine. I must keep my L-Arginine LOW and I would really like to know whether it is in your product or not. Thank you.



  9. DAWN there is indeed naturally-occurring L-Arginine in the whey isolate in Absorb Plus and we do not add any extra. The amount of naturally-occurring L-Arginine is 2.1 grams per 100 grams of whey, so that means in each serving of Absorb Plus there would be approximately 0.52 grams of L-Arginine. So very little.



  10. Pingback: Where do the ingredients in Absorb Plus come from? | Listen To Your Gut

  11. Hi there. Isagenix offers grass-fed (from cows in NewZealand not treated with hormones or antiboitics)undenatured whey protein concentrate. It’s all natural (no artificial flavors/colors), has digestive enzymes, including lactase to support those with lactose intolerance & NO casein. Seems like a perfect solution for almost everyone and under $3 for a meal replacement shake!



  12. Pingback: Using the Ocean Avenue Shakes to Boost Your Immune System daily —

  13. CHERYL – which Isagenix product have you found that does not contain casein? Please provide a weblink. thanks!



  14. Pingback: Why I Stay Away From Isolated Protein « Fabulously Domestic

  15. What about whey protein concentrate vs. whey protein isolate for hair?

    Recently, I’ve been experiencing an abnormal increase in hair shedding…huge amounts, and am tired of being told: well, you have so much, don’t worry!

    Research is bringing me to whey protein but I’ve been seeing that whey protein concentrate PROMOTES healthy hair while isolate can increase hair LOSS…

    any word here?



  16. Hi Pamela,

    We haven’t seen a single reputable study or trial that provides any scientific evidence which would suggest that whey protein isolate increases hair loss.

    Kind regards,
    Customer Care



  17. Better off going to your local GNC and purchasing Kaizen Naturals Natural Whey 100% New Zealand Whey protein isolate + concentrate. I’ve been using it for a long time now and it’s fantastic.



  18. Pingback: Grass-fed Whey Protein from Raw Milk | Listen To Your Gut

  19. Hi Jini,

    In your book, you provide instructions on how to make your own elemental shake, I have several cans of an all natural whey protein concentrate, in which the brand states that its protein is nondenatured using Ultrafiltration, and casein free. It is sweetened with stevia. Would this be acceptable to use?



  20. Hi H,

    Please see the final paragraph in the blog post above about Whey Isolate vs. Whey Concentrate as it contains the answer to your question. Jini recommends using isolates but if the concentrate you’re considering fulfills all of the criteria that Jini is talking about for a good whey protein then it may work just as well.

    Kind regards,
    Justin



  21. My son has been allergy tested and has a mild sensitivity to whey, he also has just been diagnosed with chron’s–would he have a problem with the absorb plus being he has a mild allergy to the whey?



  22. Hi Kim,

    Casein and lactose are the two most common dairy allergens. The cold extraction method we use to get our whey from its cow’s milk base removes all of the casein and over 99% of the lactose during the process so most people who have trouble with dairy can consume Absorb Plus without issue. If you would like to test his tolerance, I’d be happy to send a free sample to you if you are located within the continental US. If you’re outside the continental US, the sample would be free but we would have to charge a nominal shipping fee. If you’re interested, please e-mail me at service@listentoyourgut.com.

    Kind regards,
    Justin
    Customer Care



  23. There is a bit of milk casein in the Isagenix shakes, but it is not calcium caseinate, which is cheap and most people with casein problems have the issue with. Milk casein helps with satiety as it is a slower acting protein. The casein, like the whey, is undenatured. Here’s an article written by Dr. Michael Colgan, a world-renowned research scientist who has devoted his life to nutrition, training of athletes, including Olympic athletes, and brain health. http://www.isagenixhealth.net/whey-protein-concentrate-a-brief-summary/



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

css.php