The Truth About Whey
Whether you are a serious weight lifter or a casual runner aiming to supplement your daily nutrition, getting enough protein in your diet is essential for aiding muscle repair and growth, hormone regulation, and a slew of other key functions that keep your body in tip-top shape.
Protein is a foundational building block that provides key immune-boosting and anti-aging benefits for your body. Not to mention, it’s a necessary macronutrient for powering your workouts.
But not all protein is created equal.
While whey protein is one of the best varieties available, there are key differences in sourcing that affect nutritional value. Let’s get a better understanding of what exactly whey protein is and explore the differences between grass fed whey protein and organic whey protein.
What is whey?
Whey, simply put, is the liquid protein component of milk. Did you know that whey classifies as a complete protein? It contains all nine essential amino acids that are needed for cell production and provides extensive health benefits for those engaging in an active lifestyle.
Grass fed whey vs organic whey
Brands now promote whey protein as organic in an attempt to persuade consumers that they’re purchasing a superior product.
But here’s the truth: ' organic' refers to the “elimination of herbicides and pesticides with plant production,” which is great for plant-based proteins and produce, but has very little to do with the quality of dairy.
In dairy production, the phrase ‘ organic’ simply means the grains fed to the cow are not treated with pesticides. But here’s the thing: the cow is still grain-fed.
Put simply, if you see the " USDA Organic" or "Certified Organic" seal on your food, it means the item must have an ingredients list and the contents should be 95% or more certified organic, meaning free of synthetic additives like pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and dyes, and must not be processed using industrial solvents.
But it does not mean your dairy was grass fed.
The true determining factor in the quality of whey protein is the source: grass fed vs grain-fed, and the processing technique used: cold-processed vs heat or acid treated.
So, why is grain-fed a problem?
In the U.S., corn and soy crops have earned a reputation for being genetically modified and sprayed with what we commonly refer to as Roundup (the chemical compound, Glyphosate, that you use to kill the weeds in your yard). And while there are some small benefits to organic, such as the elimination of Roundup (Glyphosate), the fact remains that even if the cow is fed a mixed ration of organically certified forages and grains, the cow is still grain-fed, which greatly reduces the quality of the meat and dairy produced.
Has it always been this way? No. In fact, before the industrialization of meat and dairy, cows grazed and foraged grass in a natural state.
Anatomy lesson of the day: cows have four stomach chambers and those chambers are uniquely designed to thrive at an optimal pH balance. This pH balance allows their bodies to effectively break down and extract rich nutrients from grass. But as the demand to improve the efficiency of beef and dairy production increased to accommodate industrialized farming, their diets underwent a drastic change.
Industrial livestock producers wanted to mass produce meat and dairy but in order to do so, they needed to fatten cows quickly.
So, how do you expedite fat gain and cause rapid growth in cows?
Feed them a grain-based diet and treat them with growth hormones (which is what they did). But here’s the thing: practices such as the use of rBGH or rBST growth hormones to inflate dairy production, the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics (antibiotics added into their daily feed), and poor animal welfare standards lead to higher levels of mastitis and E. coli, specifically in grain-fed cattle.
And while this strategy may be profitable for factory farmers, it creates an unhealthy dynamic within the cow and yields a poor end product. A grain diet directly results in a highly-acidic environment within the cow’s stomach. This acidic pH weakens the cow’s gut and makes them more susceptible to stomach ulcers, diarrhea, immunity problems, and other diseases of the GI tract. The E. coli count in the guts of grain-fed cows have shown to be much higher than their grass fed counterparts.
So, how do the other half live?
Grass fed cattle are not fed a highly-acidic, genetically modified diet or pumped with antibiotics on a daily basis. According to the American Grassfed Association standards, to qualify as grass fed, cattle are only fed grass and forage from weaning until harvest. They are raised on pasture without confinement to feedlots and are never treated with antibiotics or growth hormones.
Cold-filtered vs acid-treated whey
Now that we’ve explored the impact of grain-fed vs grass fed diets on the quality of dairy, let’s dive into the processes used to treat whey. While this aspect isn’t as widely-discussed, it has a significant impact on the quality of product just the same. Commercial whey proteins go through a treatment process consisting of one of two methods: cold-processing or acid-washing. When whey is acid-washed or “heat-treated” to remove impurities, many of the nutrients are destroyed and you’re left with a low-quality, denatured product. Not to mention, your whey has now been exposed to synthetic chemicals and additives and has an acidic pH balance. Filtering the whey protein with acids can introduce heavy metals to the protein and denature the amino acids, rendering them useless in the body when consumed.
Now, when whey protein is cold-filtered, low temperatures are used to purify the product, meaning that the amino acids and the nutrient profile are left intact so your body can reap the full benefits whey has to offer.
Immunoglobulins and lactoferrin, important bioactive portions of whey proteins, are preserved in the cold-filtering process while they’re destroyed when acid-washing is used as the treatment. Because these proteins offer multiple health benefits, it’s important to make sure they’re being cold-filtered and not destroyed during a high-heat treatment process.
We could go on for days about the logistics and science behind grain-fed vs grass fed and cold-filtered vs acid-washed but, simply put, grass fed, cold-filtered whey yields a more nutrient-dense protein powder to fuel your body with. Think: cows grazing on feed they were designed to digest and using chemical-free processes to purify the whey.
Are you wondering what's really in your protein yet?
What should you look for a in a protein powder?
Now that we’ve explored the difference in grass fed whey and grain-fed whey and cold-filtered vs acid-washed, let’s walk through a checklist you can keep on hand to ensure you’re purchasing a quality whey protein powder. A high-quality grass fed whey protein should meet the following criteria:
- Low heavy metals verified
- Sourced from grass fed cows
- 3rd party tested for presence of glyphosate and soy
- rBGH or rBST free
- Certification that the cow was not given sub therapeutic antibiotics (antibiotics that are added into daily feed)
- Cold Processed
- Cruelty Free
How much protein do I need?
The amount of protein your body needs is contingent upon a few factors: activity level, bodyweight, and fitness goals. To calculate how much quality protein your body needs, multiply your bodyweight by the number of grams needed to reach your fitness goals, whether you’re aiming to maintain, lose, or gain weight.
- To maintain current weight: 0.65-0.7 gm/lb
- To decrease body fat and/or lose weight: 0.7-0.9 gm/lb
- To gain weight: 0.9 gm/lb
And there you have it: the truth about whey.
Still have questions about the grass fed whey difference? Check out ‘ Is Grass Fed Whey Protein Good?’ and our FAQ to start. Or, feel free to chat with us on social or send us an email. We’re happy to chat!
Joanne Tull, former Fitness America, Fitness Canada and Fitness Universe finalist. Joanne is a Co-Founder of Nutrology, the naturally based sports nutrition company that has innovated clean label nutritional products used by thousands of athletes, including elites in the NFL, MLB, NHL and Professional Boxing. Having appeared on ESPN, Fox Sports and TSN after finishing a storied athletic career as a state champion, collegiate and national level gymnast. Joanne’s common sense approach to nutrition will educate and motivate people on how to live a healthy lifestyle while balancing career, kids and fitness goals.