Whey is the undisputed king of protein supplements. It’s also the most competitive segment in the market, with manufacturers competing on protein content and quality, flavouring systems and price.
Now, a new front is emerging among purveyors of high-quality whey protein supplements, with native whey gaining momentum as the latest trend.
Touted as the cleanest, least processed whey available, brands looking to target discerning protein supplement consumers are rolling out native whey variants to their product lines.
But is this just another ploy to leverage the ‘health halo’ effect that now pervades the consumer health foods market, or is native whey a truly superior alternative to standard whey isolates and concentrates?
Processing the facts
To understand the main differences between standard and native whey we need to understand the how each product is manufactured.
Standard whey is a by-product of the cheese-making process. Once milk curdles, the resultant curds are skimmed off the top and are used to make cheese. The liquid that remains is whey and lactose. This liquid then typically undergoes additional processing and pasteurisation to remove the cheese cultures, bacteria and the acids and rennet (a protease enzyme) used to make the cheese. This is normally done at high temperatures.
The liquid is then filtered, using either ultra-filtration and/or cross-flow micro-filtration to remove excess lactose and fat. The resultant product is then spray dried to form regular whey protein concentrate. Additional processing can also be done to produce whey isolate or hydrolysate.
The gold standard in protein supplements
What you’re left with is what’s generally considered the gold standard in protein due to whey’s complete amino acid profile, which includes all nine essential amino acids and branched chain amino acids (BCAA).
It also delivers higher-than-normal levels of leucine, a potent BCAA that can be used for energy production in muscle cells and is an important anabolic trigger that drives muscle repair and growth by enhancing protein synthesis.
Whey also contains numerous beneficial compounds that include growth factors, and, importantly, it is also highly bioavailable, which means it is digested and absorbed rapidly.
In short, you can’t go wrong with a good quality tub of whey if your goal is enhanced muscle mass and improved recovery.
A better whey?
So what’s all the hype about with regard to native whey, you may be asking? Well, by all accounts, native whey is whey 2.0 – a product the delivers more: more leucine, more tryptophan, more cysteine, and greater bioavailability.
Why’s this important? Well, tryptophan increases serotonin, which helps support endurance during exercise and enhances mood, while cysteine is a precursor to the most abundant naturally-occurring antioxidant in the body, namely glutathione – native whey purportedly contains up to 240% more cysteine than regular variants, but the veracity of this claim couldn’t be confirmed. Leucine, as already mentioned, is a potent anabolic trigger, while greater bioavailability means the amino acids in native whey are more rapidly digested and absorbed.
These differences seem to stem from the manufacturing process, as native whey never goes through the cheese-making process.
Native whey is obtained through a process that extracts protein directly from milk, using micro- and/or ultra-filtration membrane technologies at very low temperatures. The low temperature process removes casein, fat and lactose, leaving only pure whey protein.
This, coupled with one less trip through the pasteurisation process (traditional whey is effectively pasteurised twice), delivers a protein that’s more intact, thereby boosting its amino acid content and bioavailability.
In addition, more beneficial milk fractions and peptides are supposedly preserved. These includes immunoglobulins, which stimulate our immune system, and glycomacropeptides, which stimulate the production of a satiety-promoting hormone called cholecystokinin.
This low-temperature manufacturing process also supposedly gives native whey a cleaner taste because it’s not derived from cheese production. However, with modern flavouring systems this is, by and large, a moot point, unless of course, you prefer to use plain, unflavoured whey.
These claims are supported by a study published in BMC Nutrition in January 2017. The randomised controlled trial conducted by Håvard Hamarsland, et al. found that “native whey induces higher and faster leucinemia than other whey protein supplements and milk.”
According to the researchers, “native whey induced the strongest leucinemia” effect – higher peak concentrations of leucine. Peak essential amino acids and BCAA concentrations were also higher within the first hour after consuming native whey, compared to the standard whey supplements and milk.
The researchers, therefore, concluded that native whey “appears to have a greater potential for stimulating muscle protein synthesis than other whey supplements and milk.”
The study was, however, conducted on a small sample size of just 10 “young healthy, recreationally active men.” It, therefore, warrants further research to determine exactly how much more effective native whey can be compared to traditional whey.
Do you believe the hype?
Outside of these proven benefits, there is also a lot of marketing hype around the fact that to truly be considered native whey, the milk used must come from non-GMO grass-fed cows.
However, while all native whey should be sourced from cows that aren’t fed artificial growth hormones or antibiotics, manufacturers of regular whey can also select whether to use base ingredients from commercially-farmed cows or from organic farms. In other words, the use of natural and organic base ingredients is not exclusive to native whey, so don’t get caught up in all the ‘health halo’ hype. Read the label on your product of choice to determine its source.
The question then is, are you willing to pay a premium to use a native whey product (which, due to the scarcity of producers can be substantially higher), which simply improves on what is already well-established as the ‘king of supplements’?
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.