Whey protein is a by product of cheese manufacturing. During the process casein coagulates and separates leaving raw whey on top of the casein.
The whey undergoes various processing steps and it is these processing steps which determine the quality of the whey protein in the end product.
Two main methods are used to separate the protein from the rest of the whey, namely, filtration or ion exchange.
Ion exchange, proteins are separated based on their electrical charge. Hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide are used during this process. Because of this, whey protein fractions that are sensitive to pH are denatured, e.g. glycomacropeptides, immunoglobulins, lactoferrin, and alpha lactalbumin. This means that the structure of the protein is changed, so that its biological activity is reduced or completely eliminated.
Maintaining the natural undenatured state of the protein is essential to its immune-modulating activity. The protein must be processed under low temperature and/or low acid conditions as not to “denature” the protein. Keep in mind that the functional aspect of the protein is unchanged. The Ion Exchange process does not change the number of grams of protein in the product. From a physique or athletic standpoint you will not notice a difference in a protein that is denatured from one that has its biological factors intact.
Whey Concentrate is the least processed form of whey, and is 35-80% protein by weight. The processing of whey concentrate removes the water, lactose, ash, and some minerals. In addition, compared to whey isolates whey concentrate typically contains more biologically active components. The higher the protein content on a gram per gram basis, the more processing (filtering) is needed.
Whey protein concentrate goes through the ultra-filtration process, where the membranes of the filters are about one micrometer, which is amazingly small. To make whey protein isolate, you take the ultra-filtrated whey protein concentrate and you filter it again through micro-filtration, where these filters are 4 times smaller than the ultra-filters. Whey Protein Isolates will yield a protein content from 80-95% protein by weight.
Perhaps the most familiar micro filtered isolate would be CFM®. Although the term “cross flow micro filtered” is something of a generic term for several similar ways of processing whey, the CFM® processing method uses a low temperature micro filtration technique that allows for the production of very high protein contents which can be slightly above 90%, the retention of important sub fractions, extremely low fat and lactose contents, with virtually no undenatured proteins. CFM® is a natural, non-chemical process which employs high tech ceramic filters.
Another less popular process you may have heard of is Hydrolyzation. Hydrolyzed proteins can be processed using an acid process that can denature the biologically active parts of the protein. Hydrolyzation is a “pre-digestion” process which breaks proteins down into smaller chains. Some companies have started using a method for Hydrolyzing whey protein that uses an enzymatic process that does not denature the protein.
Dominick Walsh is a blogger for Performance Nutrition and TMRzoo.com and covers all men’s health topics and exercise issues including protein powders, diets, weight loss, weight lifting supplements, fat burners and supplement reviews. Dominick’s columns cover everything you need to know about your pre, during and post workout nutrition.