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Quick Summary Points: Choosing the Best Protein Supplement

  • Several factors weigh into the mix when chosing the best protein supplement for a given individual
  • Reviewing a label carefully can provide a lot of information about the quality of a product. Look for transperancy, full ingredients disclosure, individual amino acid levels and whey protein fraction information is available
  • The type of filtration method used to extract protein can influence it's composition and quality. Cross-flow microfiltration and ion-exchange chromatography are two common examples
  • Check to see if the protein supplement is covered by third party testing through NSF or Informed-Sport
  • Choosing products from manufacturers with a long standing history generally ensures a good quality product

‘What is the best protein supplement for me?’ This would have to be one of the most common questions pondered by both the novice and experienced bodybuilder. It’s also one of the hardest questions to answer.

Type of Protein

There are many ways to answer this question. One can approach it simply in terms of the ‘type’ of protein, namely whey vs casein vs soy, in which case whey is the best choice. But going a bit deeper, there are variations in the types of whey protein. For example, hydrolysed vs intact and isolates vs concentrates. MrSupplement’s website features a number of great articles addressing these issues. Simply type in the terms ‘whey protein’ or ‘casein’ into the MrSupplement search field to see a sample of some of the articles.

Value for Money

Then there is the issue of value for money, which is a major consideration for most. It’s important to know what your dollar is going towards. For instance, some whey proteins include additional amino acids, which can artificially inflate the price. Conversely, some whey proteins may include additional casein, which is typically a cheaper protein and therefore such protein powders may be cheaper compared with a protein powder that is 100% whey.

Quality, Quality, Quality

Lastly there is the issue of quality, which is the area that this article will focus on. Quality is one of those things that is harder to determine and is affected by many factors. Among other things, it is largely determined by the raw materials used and the manufacturing process. Such details are not always disclosed by manufacturers and the information can be hard to access. This article will attempt to provide an overview of these key areas, with particular emphasis on the differences between the common types/grades of whey protein.

Raw Materials Suppliers

When it comes to dairy protein, there are only a relatively small number of specialist raw material manufacturers around the world. Major suppliers exist in New Zealand, USA, UK, Ireland and Australia. For some time there has been a general perception in the sports nutrition marketplace that New Zealand produces high quality dairy products, however, this is not to say other suppliers are inferior. More importantly, most manufacturers offer a range of different grades of dairy protein. So the quality of a protein powder can be affected both by where a company sources their raw material from as well as the grade of raw material.

Whey Protein Fractions

For example, higher grades of whey protein generally contain a higher percentage of protein with fewer impurities such as lactose and fat. Other qualities that differentiate higher grades of whey protein can be the concentration of particular whey protein ‘fractions’. For example, some grades of whey protein are engineered to have a higher content of whey protein fractions like beta-lactoglobulin (BLG). BLG is the major protein fraction in whey protein; typically accounting for ~50% or more of the proteins in whey. BLG contains a high level of branched-chain amino acids, particularly leucine. Artificially raising the levels of fractions like BLG in whey protein adds to the raw material processing costs and therefore the end cost of the product.

Other important whey protein fractions include alpha-lactalbumin, glycomacropeptide (GMP), bovine serum albumin, immunoglobulins, lactoferrin, lactoperoxidase and various growth factors. The respective concentration of each of these major fractions is a key indicator of the quality of a given whey protein; an issue discussed in more detail later in the article. Just like high BLG fractions, whey proteins that artificially raise the concentration of any of these fractions typically have to undergo further processing compared with the standard grades of whey protein isolate. So their costs are typically higher than normal grades of whey.

Become an Avid Label Reader

But how does one going about determining if a protein powder includes any such special grades of whey protein? First and foremost, one must become an avid label reader or in the case of MrSupplement, an avid ingredient list reader. It is important to read every word of the ingredient list. Labelling laws in Australia do not require that companies specify the exact grade of protein on their label. So it’s really up to the manufacturer what level of detail they choose to put on their labels. Having said this, subtle differences in descriptions of whey proteins can often provide a clue to the grade or quality of the protein powder. For example “low temperature whey protein concentrate” versus just “whey protein concentrate”. In this example, it’s important to note that older/inferior whey protein purification techniques used high temperatures or harsh acids during processing, which have the potential to denature the protein. This reduces the proteins’ bioactivity so to speak, versus more modern low-temperature/low acid whey protein concentration techniques.

Elaborate Whey Protein

Having said this, one needs to be careful not to be swayed by over-descriptive ingredient lists. Some companies choose to add multiple adjectives to describe their whey protein, many of which provide little in the way of meaningful information about the actual grade of whey protein. To give the reader an idea, below is a sample of some of the ingredient label descriptions for popular protein powders sold by MrSupplement.com.au

  • “High GMP whey protein isolate, high beta-whey fraction whey protein isolate”
  • “Whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate and hydrolyzed whey protein isolates with naturally occurring critical bioactive compounds including di, tri and oligo peptides, beta-lactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin, serum albumin, and immunoglobulins”
  • “Hydrolysed whey peptides, cross-flow microfiltered whey protein isolate, ultrafiltered high quality instantized whey protein concentrate”
  • “Ultrafiltered, low temperature processed instantized whey protein concentrate, cross flow microfiltrated whey protein isolate”
  • “Ion-exchange whey protein isolates, cross flow ultra-filtration whey protein concentrate (providing di-peptides, tri-peptides, oligo-peptides and poly-peptides), whey peptides”
  • “Cross-flow, cold infused whey protein concentrate, cross-flow, cold infused, microfiltered whey protein isolate, egg albumin, milk protein isolate, whey hydrolysate”

These descriptions provide an example of some of the qualities that separate whey proteins. First is the issue of whey protein concentrates versus whey protein isolates (WPIs). Second is the issue of the two different processing techniques used to manufacture WPIs, namely ion-exchange chromatography (IEC) and cross-flow microfiltration (CFM).

Whey Protein Concentrates vs Whey Protein Isolates

A lot of readers may be aware that the major difference between whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate is the amount of protein per gram of powder. Whereas whey protein isolates tend to contain 90% or more protein per gram of powder, concentrates have a much larger variation in protein concentration, from 35% to 80%1. Accordingly, the price of whey protein concentrates can vary widely. When reading the ingredient list of a protein powder, it is important to note the order of proteins. Often times, protein powders contain a mix of whey protein concentrates, whey protein isolates, whey protein hydrolysates and caseins. If one is after an anabolic protein, a protein powder with a high concentration of whey hydrolysates or whey isolates is needed. Such proteins need to feature as first or second over inferior concentrates. Another way to get a feel for the overall quality of the protein is through the nutritional information panel. If whey protein concentrates are the main source of protein, it is hard to attain a percentage protein content greater than 75-80%.

Whey Purification and Isolation Techniques

While isolates are the superior choice in terms of quality and percentage protein content, the particular technique used to derive the isolate also has an important impact on the quality of the protein. The purification methods used to manufacture whey protein isolates is an area that has seen major technological advances in the past few years. To make an educated decision on the best protein supplement, one really needs to understand the differences between the popular purification methods (i.e. ion-exchange and cross-flow microfiltration) used to manufacture WPIs and their relative merits. It is the writer’s aim that having read this article, one will be better able to discern the meaningful differences between protein powders with different grades of whey proteins.

Cross-Flow Microfiltered vs Ion-Exchange

As many readers may know, whey is a by-product of cheese and casein manufacture. Unprocessed whey is made up of about 63g/L solids, of which 50 g/L is lactose and 6 g/L is protein3. So naturally, cheese whey must be processed and purified extensively to produce WPIs. The two most popular types of purification techniques used to manufacture WPIs are generally referred to as ion-exchange chromatography (IEC) or cross-flow microfiltration (CFM). WPIs produced via these methods differ in their protein profile, as depicted in the table below.

Percentage of the Total Protein Comprised by the Whey Protein Fractions

Whey Protein Isolate

Microfiltration

Ion-Exchange

b-lactoglubulin %

60

80

a-lactalbumin %

22

14

Bovine serine albumin %

2

3

Immunoglobulins

5

3

Glycomacropeptides

21

0

*Huffman LM & Harper WJ. Maximizing the value of milk through separation technologies. Journal of Dairy Science. 1999;82(10):2238-2244.

 

As shown in the table above, IEC produces WPIs with a lower proportion of minor bioactive compounds such as GMP, compared with WPIs obtained by CFM3, 4.

Chemical and Physical Properties of Whey Protein Fractions

To better understand how IEC and CFM affect the protein fraction profile of WPIs, one needs firstly to understand some basic chemistry about the major and minor protein fractions in whey. Below is a table describing basic features such as weight, charge and concentration of the different whey protein fractions. The respective properties of each of these fractions are largely what determines the preferred method for extraction/purification.

 

Properties of the Major Whey Proteins

Protein

Molecular Weight (Daltons)

Isoelectric Point (i.e. charge)

Concentration (g/L)

Proportion of Total Whey (%)

Charge at pH of whey

Relevant Ion-Exchange Membrane

b-lactoglobulin

18300

5.35 to 5.49

3.0

40-55

-ve

Anion

a-Lactalbumin

14000

4.2 to 4.5

1.2

11 to 20

-ve

Anion

Immunoglobulins

15000 to 1000000

5.5 to 8.3

0.6

8 to 11

+ve

Cation

Bovine serum albumin

69000

5.13

0.3

4 to 12

-ve

Anion

Lactoferrin

77000

7.8 to 8.0

0.1

1

+ve

Cation

Lactoperoxidase

775000

9.2 to 9.9

0.002

1

+ve

Cation

Glycomacropeptide

8000

2.8

 

15-20

-ve

Anion

**Goodall S, et al. Selective separation of the major whey proteins using ion exchange membranes. Journal of Dairy Science. 2008;91:1-10.

Cross-Flow Microfiltration (CFM)

CFM falls under the general umbrella of what are termed ‘membrane’ separation techniques. As shown in the diagram below, membrane separation techniques are defined by pressure driven separations of whey components using semipermeable membranes and cross-flow filtration.

The term cross-flow originates from the fact that the whey is fed parallel to the filter (i.e. membranes). Different membranes have different ‘pore’ sizes, which are used to filter out different components of whey such as lactose, minerals and small proteins based on their weight and size.

Types of Membrane Separation

Microfiltration, ultrafiltration and nanofiltration are the names of the three key types of membrane processes used in membrane separation. Microfiltration is the one most commonly cited on whey protein powders, because this particular membrane separation technique removes the bulk of the whey contaminants. However, it is not uncommon for ultrafiltration and nanofiltration to be combined with microfiltration to produce more highly purified grades of whey. Ultrafiltration and nanofiltration simply allow for the removal of specific whey components with higher weights and larger sizes.  Normally, WPIs produced using membrane separation techniques are operated at temperatures and pH’s that do not compromise the biological activity of the whey protein. This in turn is the key selling point for WPIs produced via CFM4.

Whey Protein Fraction Enrichment with Membrane Separation

Membrane separation techniques can also be used to produce whey protein isolates with artificially high levels of protein fractions. However, good separation requires at least a 2-fold difference in molecular weight/size. Therefore membrane separation is limited to separating proteins such as b-lactoglobulin (18,300 Da) and glycomacropeptides (8000 Da)5, 6.

Ion-Exchange Chromatography (IEC)

IEC separation techniques fall under the umbrella of “selective absorption” separation techniques. IEC chiefly separates whey proteins on the basis of their charge. IEC involves either cation-exchange chromatography or anion-exchange chromatography. Often times, manufacturers don’t specify whether their whey protein has been extracted via cation or anion-exchange chromatography, but for the purpose of choosing the best quality protein powder, it’s important to understand the differences in these terms. In a nutshell, cation and anion are the scientific names for the charge on molecules, namely, positive or negative. Cation-exchange chromatography is used to isolate protein fractions that carry a positive charge, whereas anion-exchange is used to isolate negatively charged protein fractions.

As you can see from the above table, this gives 2 distinct groups: the major whey proteins: β-lactoglobulin, BSA, and α-lactalbumin, which are negatively charged; and minor whey proteins lactoferrin and lactoperoxidase that hold a positive net charge. These distinct properties offer the possibility of selectively separating the groups using what are called different ion exchange membranes. It is also important for readers to know that cation-exchange chromatography is the most popular technique for standard WPIs. It follows that when protein is simply listed as ‘whey protein isolate’ or ‘ion-exchange whey protein isolate’; it’s more than likely than not that cation-exchange chromatography was used to manufacture the WPI. The other important consideration with IEC is the heat and harsh chemicals/acids that are used during the process. This generally results in WPIs that have a lower biological activity than WPIs produced via CFM.

New Developments in IEC

Within IEC, there have been major technological advances in recent years. These improvements have allowed for much more selective purification of particular protein fractions and peptides, while at the same time preserving biological activity. As an example, some dairy protein manufacturers now employ a method called “cold continuous anion-exchange chromatography”. This particular purification technique is designed to isolate higher amounts of GMP, which is a highly negatively charged protein fraction, which has been shown to have an increasing number of important biological activities7, 8. The other key feature with this newer method is the lack of heat treatment and use of acids. This results in WPIs with much higher biological activity. Traditional IEC results in WPIs with very low or minimal GMP content. Protein powders which feature such grades of WPIs will often make a claim on their label to the effect of “high glycomacropeptide whey protein isolate”.

Cost of Microfiltration versus Ion-Exchange Chromatography

Membrane separation processes like microfiltration are volume-dependent, wherein the equipment capacity and cost of manufacture is proportional to the volume of solution processed and not the mass of product produced. Raw whey from cheese happens to be a very dilute solution so large volumes of liquid must be processed to recover a fixed mass of protein. IEC methods by contrast utilise selective adsorption processes which are less volume dependent because adsorbent capacity depends mostly on the mass of protein recovered, not the volume of liquid processed. So as a general rule, protein powders featuring a high content of WPIs derived from CFM will have a higher cost than protein powders with a high content of WPIs derived from IEC3

Technologies to Concentrate Growth Factors in WPI

The other key development in protein purification technology is the availability of methods that allow for the concentration of the minor components of whey protein like lactoferrin and various growth factors. Lactoferrin has diverse bioactivity, including broad spectrum antimicrobial activity, promotion of iron transfer and absorption, cancer prevention and antiviral activity9. Two of the most abundant growth factors in bovine milk are insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I) and a lesser known one called transforming growth factor-b2 (TGF-b2)10. These growth factors are small proteins that bind to different cell types and promote cell proliferation and differentiation10. For example, TGF-b2 stimulates the growth of connective tissue and wound healing10. Concentrating these growth factors in WPIs uses advanced cation-exchange chromatography methods6. Whey proteins with concentrated levels of growth factors, IGF-1 and TGF-b2 are just starting to appear in the market place and this is a trend that is likely to continue as the cation-exchange processing becomes more cost-effective and further researcher confirms suspected bioactivity in humans.

Choosing the Best Quality Protein Supplement

So to wrap up, there have been significant improvements in whey purification technology in recent years. This has resulted in the availability of WPIs that have improved biological activity and various bioactive fractions and peptides. Most of these new technologies are more costly than conventional purification methods and as such any manufacturers using these superior WPIs are likely to stipulate on their label. Therefore, it’s important to look for information in the product description and/or label/ingredient panel that talks about the quality of the protein, where it is sourced from and the type of purification technology used to manufacture the WPI.

Quality Whey Protein Brands

With our experience and extensive knowledge of the protein powder market, MrSupplement can provide you with some useful practical guidelines on which brands source their raw materials from reputable suppliers as well as the brands and companies that have invested in quality manufacturing processes and certifications. This list is by no means exhaustive but gives a rough guide.

Optimum Nutrition’s Gold Standard 100% Whey is one of the most popular protein powder supplements that’s worth highlighting. In 2008, Optimum Nutrition was acquired by Glanbia, a leading international nutritional ingredients and cheese group, who prides itself on its cross-flow microfiltered (CFM) whey protein. In fact, as stated on their website, Glanbia secured the rights to the CFM® acronym by being the first in the industry to use cross-flow microfiltration technology. So Gold Standard 100% Whey is considered to represent a good quality source of CFM whey protein isolate.

In 2011, Glanbia also acquired Bio-Engineered Supplements and Nutrition (BSN), another leading sports nutrition company proudly represented by MrSupplement.com.au. Naturally, BSN products featuring whey protein isolate are provided by Glanbia. It follows that these brand of products represent a good quality source of whey protein isolate.

Musashi is another well-established sports nutrition company that has been in operation since 1987. As stated on their website, “Musashi has a commitment to sourcing premium quality ingredients and maintaining strict quality standards. We endeavour to adhere to all TGA requirements and hold the following quality certifications: ISO 22000:2005 Certification - Food Safety Management System & Dairy Manufacturer License - from Dairy Food Safety Victoria”. The Musashi range of protein powders offer great quality and value for money.

Similar to Musashi, Max’s is a long-standing wholly Australian-owned company founded in 1989. Max’s are known for providing extensive technical information on each of their protein powder labels which supports their extensive knowledge of issues affecting raw material quality and manufacturing processes. While not overly expensive, Max’s products are by no means cheap. This is another indication that there protein powders are made from quality ingredients and manufacturing processes.

The only noted Australian whey protein manufacturer, Murray Goulburn Cooperative, took a strategic step a few years ago; ceased being a major manufacturer and supplier of whey protein and commenced development of their own branded range of whey proteins. MGC was a key supplier to some major sports nutrition brands, which have since had to source their whey protein from other manufacturers.

Two well-known New Zealand whey protein manufacturers are Fonterra and Tatua. These companies have a long history of supply to the Australian and international markets. Interested readers can look up these companies on the web for more detailed information on their different grades of whey protein.

Gaspari Nutrition is one of the popular US-based sports nutrition companies that boast superior quality, taste and innovation. Gaspari are one of the few US companies to claim Safe Quality Food (SQF) 2000 certification. The SQF 2000 is a HACCP-based supplier assurance code for the food manufacturing and distribution industries. It provides the food supplier with a food safety and quality management certification program that is tailored to their needs. It enables them to meet product trace, regulatory, food safety and commercial quality criteria in a structured and cost effective manner.

Third Party Testing

With the high profile ASADA case concerning drugs in sports, there has been increased awareness of the potential for some supplement manufacturers to include undisclosed banned substances in their products in an attempt to improve their potency. The only way to safeguard against this threat is to purchase supplements that have been subject to third party testing to ensure they are free of banned substances. Two major organisations exist that provide this service, namely, NSF for Sport and Informed-Sport. The services provided by these organisations are summarised below.

NSF For Sport

  • Confirm that products do not contain any of the 180+ banned substances by major athletic organisations
  • Verify that the contents of the supplement actually match what is printed on the label
  • Verify that there are no unsafe levels of contaminants in the tested products
  • Verify that the product is manufactured at a facility audited by NSF for quality and safety

Informed-Sport 

Informed-Sport is a quality assurance programme for sports nutrition products, suppliers to the sports nutrition industry, and supplement manufacturing facilities. The programme certifies that all nutritional supplements and/or ingredients that bear the Informed-Sport logo have been tested for banned substances by the world class sports anti-doping lab, LGC.

Both the above organisations above provide a service whereby interested parties can search their website for a supplement to see if the manufacturer subscribes to either testing service. 

Don't be Afraid to Ask

If you have a favourite protein supplement you have been taking for a while that does not provide specific details as to what type of whey protein isolate or concentrate is used, you can always contact the manufacturer to request the information. The age-old rule: ‘you get what you pay for’ still applies so use common sense when weighing up the pros and cons of different protein powders that may differ substantially in price.

Cycle Protein Powder

It is also advisable to cycle your protein supplements periodically. One option is to cycle between protein powders that differ in the concentration of whey protein fractions (i.e. BLG or GMP) or growth factors (IGF-I & TGF-b2) or minor proteins (i.e. lactoferrin). Each of these fractions have different effects and one may find that a given protein with a high amount of a particular fraction or growth factor may benefit one individual over another due to their individual needs.

1. Huffman LM & Harper WJ. Maximizing the value of milk through separation technologies. J Dairy Sci. 1999;82:2238-2244.
2. Outinen M, et al. Fractionation of proteins from whey with different pilot scale processes. Lebensmittel-Wissenschaft und-Technologie – Food Science and Technology.1996;29:411–417.
3. Doultani S, et al. Fractionation of proteins from whey using cation exchange chromatography. Process Biochemistry. 2004;39:1737–1743.
4. Neville  JR, et al. Ultra Whey 99: a whey protein isolate case study. International Journal of Dairy Technology. 2001;54:127–129.
5. Goodall S, et al. Selective separation of the major whey proteins using ion exchange membranes. Journal of Dairy Science. 2008;91:1-10.
6. Ounis WB, et al. Separation of minor protein components from whey protein iWhile isolates are the superior choice in terms of quality and percentage protein content, the particular technique used to derive the isolate also has an important impact on the quality of the protein. The purification methods used to manufacture whey protein isolates is an area that has seen major technological advances in the past few years. To make an educated decision on the best protein supplement, one really needs to understand the differences between the popular purification methods (i.e. ion-exchange and cross-flow microfiltration) used to manufacture WPIs and their relative merits. It is the writer’s aim that having read this article, one will be better able to discern the meaningful differences between protein powders with different grades of whey proteins. td valign= valign=br /solates by heparin affinity chromatography. International Dairy Journal. 2008;18:1043-1050.
7. Requena P, et al. The intestinal antiinflammatory agent glycomacropeptide has immunomodulatory actions on rat splenocytes. Biochem Pharmacol. 2010;79(12):1797-1804.
8. López-Posadas R, et al. Bovine glycomacropeptide has intestinal antiinflammatory effects in rats with dextran sulfate-induced colitis. J Nutr. 2010;140(11):2014-9.
9. Lu RR, et al. Isolation of lactoferrin from bovine colostrum by ultrafiltration coupled with strong cation exchange chromatography on a production scale. Journal of Membrane Science. 2007;297 valign=middle:152–161a href=.
10. Gauthier SF, Pouliot Y, Maubois JL. Growth factors from bovine milk and colostrum: composition, extraction and biological activities. Lait. 2006;86:99-125.

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