Spotlight on Whey
by Lori Dahm
New research shows substantial health benefits from a once waylaid ingredient.
One of the most exciting research discoveries in the world of nutritional ingredients today is the plethora of health benefits being documented related to whey protein.
The dairy industry has been enmeshed in the world of whey for the last five or 10 years, investing heavily in research to generate a body of data and documentation that indicates whey has significant health benefits that are extremely relevant for today’s consumer. In addition, some of the breakthrough research indicates the far-reaching effects of whey such as its ability to help with rare diseases or emergency room medical situations.
For now, as an ingredient in food and beverage applications for the consumer, the health benefits whey delivers are substantial and topical. Whey is on its way to hitting the radar screen in the industry due to its potential as an ingredient that can address the nutrition and wellness concerns that are top of mind for consumers.
Whey History
Of course, whey was once the ugly stepchild of cheese, a byproduct that was a concern to manufacturers only because of the need for its disposal. Whey has come a long way since then, first becoming an ingredient of value in the sports nutrition arena decades ago, where its benefit as a high-quality protein was well known.
“Whey protein first became popular in the area of sports nutrition, where it was understood in terms of its effects after strenuous, weight-bearing exercise to rebuild muscle,” says Pete Huth, director of regulatory and research transfer at Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), Rosemont, Ill. “The first push of whey research documented a consistent ability of whey protein to resynthesize muscle that was lost during these bouts of exercise. The data and scientific literature indicates that it is the particular composition of whey protein and its branched chain amino acids that appear to be responsible for this effect.”
Whey protein is one of the highest-grade proteins available in the food industry. Its proportion of essential amino acids, including branched-chain amino acids, is similar to the amino acid needs of the body. The amino acid profile of whey is almost identical to that of skeletal muscle, and whey protein supplements generally provide a higher dose of the essential amino acids than other protein sources.
“Whey protein isolate is an excellent quality protein, scoring high marks in all measures of protein quality,” says Kelly Czerwonka, marketing manager at Glanbia, Monroe, Wis. “Whey protein isolate has the highest level of branched chain amino acids, making it extremely nutritionally valuable — it is particularly popular among body builders.”
Whey protein is the richest known source of the branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine and valine, and it is these BCAAs which have been shown to be pivotal in sports nutrition and muscle metabolism. Leucine in particular has become the subject of study in sports science and muscle metabolism recovery. Studies demonstrate that leucine plays a key role in muscle protein synthesis, which promotes better, more efficient muscle recovery after exercise training.
In addition, whey protein concentrate and isolate are sources of bioavailable cysteine at high levels, which is known as a conditional amino acid. Cysteine is important to the preservation of lean body tissue, particularly during exercise.
This research documenting the ability of whey protein to maintain and build lean muscle mass led to new research projects with whey designed to understand whether whey ingredients could play a part in weight management. The results in this direction are promising.
“There is very intriguing research being completed at the University of Illinois wherein three studies have documented the possibility of whey to be utilized for weight control when part of a high-protein diet. There is compelling evidence showing the consistent effects of whey in this regard,” Huth says. “In these studies, whey as a high-quality protein that was part of a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet, indicated whey results in a reduction in body weight and body fat, as well as having a positive blood glucose and insulin effect.”
The suggestion that whey protein as an ingredient can play a part in weight management is significant in today’s climate where an estimated two-thirds of the nation struggles with obesity. More news in this respect is that whey protein ingredients are being shown to have an effect in reducing hunger and increasing satiety.
“The benefits of whey all seem to be in the quality of the protein and related to specific types of amino acids that are enriched in whey protein, the branched-chain amino acids and more specifically the leucine,” Huth says. “Researchers have determined that leucine serves as a regulatory amino acid for protein synthesis as part of the process for maintaining lean body mass.”
Hyptertension Health
Outside of regulating muscle mass and body weight, whey protein has also been shown to have blood pressure regulating properties. Hydrolized whey protein has been the subject of studies determining that certain components of whey made available through hydrolization have blood pressure lowering effects. A key study presented at the 4th International Whey Conference, hosted by the American Dairy Products Institute last September, showed hydrolyzed whey protein a systolic blood pressure lowering effect of 11 millimeters of mercury and a diastolic blood pressure lowering effect of 7 millimeters.
“There are already beverages on the market in Europe and Japan that are fluid milk products with hydrolyzed casein in whey which are marketed for their anti-hypertensive and blood pressure lowering effect,” Huth says. “These products are consistent with our research here in the United States documenting the ability of hydrolyzed whey protein to lower blood pressure, and this may be the new entry for whey in the United States as a nutraceutical product.”
Therein lies the rub: Although whey ingredients have been documented to have substantial health benefits in the realm of weight management, lean muscle mass maintenance, anti-hypertension and even some positive blood lipid effects, whey’s presence within actual retail products has not reached anywhere near its full potential at this point.
“Whey protein is an ideal ingredient for use in many drinks that could boast health benefits, because whey protein is easy to use, can be used in clear drinks at low pH, and is relatively free of taste,” says K.J. Burrington, dairy ingredients applications program director at the University of Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, Madison. “Right now the mainstream market products that include whey are primarily the yogurt drinks or the smoothie drinks that include whey protein for its enhanced protein boost. There are a number of drinks designed for body builders and weight lifters with up to 40 grams of whey protein per serving, but these are generally sold in health stores.”
Beverages are considered a ripe opportunity for using whey protein ingredients to create products that offer health benefits.
“Beverages are definitely a key delivery system for whey protein. Whey protein isolate and whey protein concentrate are used in a range of beverages, including dry blended — primarily sports and weight loss drinks — and ready-to-drink smoothies, milk-based beverages, clear sports beverages, juice-based drinks, clinical nutrition drinks and more,” Czerwonka says. “Driving whey protein’s use in beverages is the growth of the functional beverages category, which continues to grow as people become increasingly health conscious.”
Whey proteins are ideal for their nutritional punch in sports beverages because whey ingredients can be used in clear beverages with a pH from 3 to 4.5, offering high solubility. “Where the functionality and performance of whey proteins really stand out in the beverage arena is in drinks with a lower pH range, because the whey proteins are exceptionally clear so many beverage applications could include them,” Burrington says. “The only consideration for using whey in these applications would be if the product is to be heat treated, and ensuring that the whey ingredient is pre-hydrated sufficiently.”
Pre-hydration is important so that the protein can stabilize in water and thereby be protected if the product is then heat-processed. Twenty minutes of hydration is usually sufficient for adequate re-hydration.
And there are applications in which whey proteins need stabilizer systems in order to remain in solution. For example, if the pH of the beverage environment is higher than 4.5, than the isoelectric point of the whey changes and stabilizers such as pectin are often needed to keep the whey proteins from aggregating.
“Whey in beverages is a big area of interest because a lot of companies are trying to add nutrition to the types of beverages which have typically been only empty carbohydrates,” Burrington says. “Beverage manufacturers are taking a serious look at how to add valuable nutrition to their product, and whey is an ideal option.”
Of course, if whey ingredients are included in beverage products which then position and market whey’s health benefits such as weight management or lean muscle mass, consumers will need to be educated about these health effects that whey research has uncovered. The perspective in the industry is that this consumer education push is underway, and will likely start with the group of consumers who are already informed —  the sport nutrition arena.
“We have seen other areas in the industry where the health benefits of ingredients have been propelled from within, like with omega 3s, for example. Whey already has an informed consumer base in sports nutrition, and the food industry in conjunction with the medical community is beginning to educate the general consumer,” Huth says. “The next big step will revolve around the integration between nutritional science, food science, regulatory science and an overall truth in advertising and marketing of these products to the consumer. Consumers are smart and they certainly know when products are delivering what they claim. With the ongoing research, whey is one area that will live up to its proclaimed health benefits.”  m
Whey and HIV/AIDS
According to “Whey Proteins and HIV/AIDS,” a monograph published by the U.S. Dairy Export Council and Dr. Paul J. Cribb, whey proteins have been shown to have an effect on immune function.
Whey protein includes a range of fractions such as alpha-lactalbumin and beta-lactoglobulin and the minor fractions such as lactoferrin and serum proteins. These fractions are established immune-enhancing components.
Recent studies have demonstrated that the rich concentration of cysteine in whey protein boosts glutathione (GSH) production. The body’s antioxidant and immune defense systems are regulated by the concentration of GSH within various body cells. Other protein sources do not have whey protein’s ability to boost GSH production, and this GSH production boost optimizes many aspects of immune function.
Exciting new research related to whey proteins and HIV/AIDS suggests that the level of cysteine contained in whey protein and the resulting GSH production boost in the body might be beneficial to improve the health of people living with this virus.
Scientists believe that cysteine concentration in the blood plasma may be one of the factors that regulates whole body protein metabolism, particularly in conditions that promote wasting. A diet that concentrates upon providing an abundance of cysteine to the liver through whey protein ingestion to boost muscle glutamine production may help maintain immune competence and help prevent the body mass depletion caused by HIV/AIDS. The loss of muscle mass caused by HIV/AIDS is an underlining mortality cause in this virus.
Moreover, BCAAs are critical to a person living with HIV and their preservation of body mass and proper immune function. Not only is whey protein the richest source of BCAAs, but the particular constituents provided by most commercial whey proteins is particularly well-suited for glutamine synthesis in the muscle.
Scientists believe that the muscle wasting caused by HIV infection results from an unrelenting demand for glutamine by the immune system, an imbalance which occurs with the virus. Skeletal health and immune function are intertwined in the body’s functioning, and diets rich in whey proteins may be beneficial to those with HIV/AIDS.