Health Watch
by Peggy Biltz and Lori Hoolihan
Whey: Nutritional Powerhouse Of The Future

In the past 20 years, whey protein has gone from being a waste product of cheesemaking to a highly valued product rich in nutritional and functional properties. Finding its way into a variety of products including infant formulas, food supplements, sports bars and beverages, whey protein meets a number of health goals and consumers are catching on.
New research is revealing a multitude of health benefits of whey protein ranging from body composition and weight management to sports nutrition and immunity.
Sarcopenia — muscle loss associated with aging — affects an overwhelming 30 percent of seniors in the United States. Research in older adults suggests that whey protein may minimize sarcopenia by increasing protein synthesis and reducing muscle loss. Physical activity, specifically strength training, combined with consumption of whey protein has additional benefits on muscle protein synthesis. Studies indicate that ingesting 10 to 20 grams of whey protein after activity can improve protein synthesis — or muscle mass — in seniors. By preserving or increasing their muscle mass, older adults can protect themselves against undesirable changes in body composition.
Whey protein can play an important role in weight management. Specific factors in whey protein — calcium, lactose, protein and branched-chain amino acids — are being investigated for their ability to promote weight loss by increasing feelings of fullness, stabilizing glucose levels and maintaining or increasing muscle mass.
Many athletes consume whey protein for its rich branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) content. Because the body’s demand for BCAAs increases with exercise, whey protein is an ideal way to replace these BCAAs. Whey protein is particularly effective at stimulating muscle protein because the amino acid levels — considered the “building blocks” of protein — in whey are almost identical to that in muscle. Recent studies suggest that between 20 and 60 grams per day of whey proteins can help improve muscle mass and performance in athletes on a strength training program.
Whey proteins are unique in their ability to strengthen the immune system, primarily by boosting glutathione (GSH) levels in various tissues. GSH, the centerpiece of the body’s antioxidant defense system, protects cells against free radical damage, pollution, toxins, infection and ultraviolet exposure. GSH levels are usually low in individuals with immune-compromising conditions like cancer, and typically levels decrease with age. Incorporating whey proteins into the diet may protect health at all ages.
As research continues to substantiate the health benefits of whey protein, the savvy consumer will increasingly seek out products that contain whey. The food industry will continue to build on the variety and availability of products incorporating whey protein as a primary ingredient. The dairy industry stands to benefit as being the sole provider of this commodity.
Dairy manufacturers can take advantage of these benefits by developing and marketing new products to meet consumers’ specific health needs, and by educating the consumer through product information and point-of-purchase labeling.
Peggy Biltz is chief executive officer of the Dairy Council of California. Lori Hoolihan, Ph.D., R.D., is the council’s nutrition research specialist.