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The Scoop On Supplements: Whey Protein

Jun 19, 2014

The supplement industry is constantly under a microscope: from scientists researching the latest cutting edge ingredients to the FDA’s increasing demands for more safety studies. This series shines a spotlight on the supplement industry’s biggest sellers and highlights the importance of safe manufacturing practices while addressing solutions to key issues of the industry today.

Whey protein is a popular food and health supplement used by athletes in order to aid in muscle repair caused by strenuous activity. By helping with recovery, muscle is able to rapidly knit back together and allow an athlete to train harder. Protein is also frequently used by dieters since it allows the body to better maintain the muscle mass it already has. Even individuals on lower calorie regimens can ensure more of the weight they are losing is fat rather than muscle through increasing their protein intake. Whey is derived from dairy and makes up approximately 20% of the protein in milk.

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A product as important as whey goes through several important stages before it is packaged and brought to retail stores. Whey is primarily taken from the cheese making process, where the curd (which becomes cheese) floats to the bottom, while the lighter whey floats to the top and is strained off. This liquid is primarily made of water, but after pasteurization and dehydration becomes a powder called sweet dairy whey. But the process isn’t done here: sweet dairy whey(14% protein by volume) is only the base which most supplement companies use to make their more concentrated, highly bioavailable whey concentrates and isolates.

At this point, microfiltration is the primary method of producing a better protein. Temperature plays a critical role in the different extraction and purifying processes to prevent the protein from denaturing. When a protein is denatured, it means the amino acids within it are damaged and  the final product is  less able to be properly absorbed by the body. Specifically, Immunoglobulins and Glycomacropeptides (which may improve calcium absorption and boost immune function) are the ones hit hardest. When a protein is denatured, its basic function of reducing muscle soreness and helping muscle recover is compromised. What’s worse is that since whey is a heavily processed food product, the odds of ruining the product are much higher. Temperature spikes at any point during extraction, transport, or storage can cause the product to spoil.

There are two primary kinds of purifying processes: ion-exchange and crossflow  microfiltered extraction. The first is where large vats of a water-whey mixture is passed through colossal ion exchange towers. These towers run hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide through the mixture before being filtered out. These acids efficiently pull apart excess fats, milk sugars, and other nonessentials away from the protein molecule to produce a cost-efficient, time-saving whey product. The only downside to this is that ion-exchange processes partially denatures the protein due to the use of acids.

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Luckily, crossflow microfiltered extraction provides a cleaner, more effective product with as much as 90% protein by volume. The protein is passed through a membrane and the solids are trapped in the filter. This happens with increasingly fine filters until the filtrate is released at the other end. Cross-flow filtration gets its name because the majority of the feed flow travels tangentially across the surface of the filter, rather than directly into it. This extra essentially ‘shakes off’ many unwanted substances from the protein, leaving only the protein molecule. This creates an exceedingly pure product, giving customers more protein per scoop than other varieties. 

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Even low heat can denature protein during the extraction process. High outside temperatures, hardware malfunctions, and a variety of other problems can lead to a bad batch of protein. This can cost a manufacturer thousands of dollars in product costs and if unaddressed, could incite action from the FDA. Internal temperature probes, placed in fixed locations within towers and the production floor could be vital to ensuring cGMP practices and products and reducing easily avoidable problems. Cellular temperature monitors are strongly recommended in order to track temperatures on the facility floor, dehydration chambers, and other locations remotely from a centralized source.

The FDA has a history of being particularly strict with supplement providers due to a handful of cases where companies added ingredients that were not on the label, or used ineffective amounts of key ingredients in their products. The FDA passed the DSHEA (Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act) compliances as an extra layer of accountability on the part of supplement manufacturers and retailers. It places the supplement company in complete responsibility of the safety of a product before it comes to market. The FDA can only take action against a supplement after it has been deemed unsafe through testing. Because of this, the FDA is incredibly scrupulous of companies and any claim against a supplement’s safety is taken very seriously.

If whey seems like a delicate product, just wait until next week’s in-depth look at probiotics and all the trials involved with proper production, storage, and shipping!

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Written By:

Robert “Bobby” Rejek, Dreaming Dramatist

Boston local, Bobby is Temperature@lert's resident fitness and nutrition expert. Majoring in English and having earned Suffolk's Recognition Day Award for his contributions to Suffolk University, Bobby joins the Temperature@lert team as a content writer. He creates health-related blog posts, aids in marketing team initiatives, and helps maintain the technical content database. Outside of Temperature@lert, Bobby is a certified Personal Trainer through the NCSF and is working on his first fantasy novel. Because he's always on the go, Bobby's favorite temperature of 65°F reminds him to keep cool and stay breezy.

Robert Bobby Rejek

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