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The History of Whey
Which Whey Did It Come?
Whey protein is probably the most common sport supplement in existence. It’s also one of the oldest and perhaps the most taken for granted. While all kinds of new and cutting edge supplements arrive on the shelves almost every day, whey has always just kind of been there. Where did it come from? When was it first used? What lies in its future? What’s the history of one of the most widely used supplements?
Whey protein is a complete protein naturally found in milk. It contains all of the essential amino acids needed for stimulating skeletal muscle protein synthesis. Whey also has a higher proportion of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). These also trigger protein synthesis and help build lean body mass. Whey also digests quickly, making it the fastest acting protein compared to other protein sources. This is why whey protein is among the top selling sport supplements in the world.
You may be familiar with several types of whey protein contained in the various supplements you use: whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, and hydrolyzed whey protein. The differences between them are interesting. Whey protein isolate contains a higher concentration of protein per gram than whey protein concentrate because other ingredients, including lactose, fat, and some vitamins and minerals, are removed. Both offer health benefits and are used in various foods and powders. Hydrolyzed whey protein is created when the protein chains are broken down into smaller chains of amino acids called peptides. This form of whey protein is most commonly used in infant formulas, medical protein supplements, and some sports drinks. The top of the line, though, are hydrolyzed whey protein isolates. These are the purest and fastest digesting whey proteins available, and they’re a main component in many of the high end sport supplements in use today.
Regardless of what type of whey protein you use, there’s no denying that it’s the undisputed heavyweight champ of proteins. This is because whey proteins are quickly and easily digested, and they’re loaded with essential amino acids (EAAs). “Essential” means that the body cannot synthesize these amino acids on its own, so they must be obtained from the diet. These essential amino acids are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
Whey is also rich in the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)—leucine, isoleucine, and valine—the very proteins in high demand among hard-training athletes, especially after an intense workout when nutrient replenishment is at its highest.
Leucine plays an important role in muscle protein synthesis, while isoleucine induces glucose uptake into cells. Supplementing BCAAs prevents a serum decline in BCAAs, which occurs during exercise. A serum decline would normally cause a tryptophan influx into the brain, followed by serotonin production, which causes fatigue.
All of these EAAs and BCAAs are at the basis of all life processes, as they’re absolutely essential for every metabolic process (especially the growth and repair of muscle tissue). Among their most vital functions, these proteins affect optimal transport and optimal storage of all nutrients (water, fat, carbohydrates, proteins, minerals, and vitamins). Many health issues, such as obesity, high cholesterol levels, diabetes, muscle loss, insomnia, erectile dysfunction, arthritis, hair loss, and serious cases of wrinkle formation, can essentially be traced back to metabolic disturbances because of a deficiency in certain essential or branched-chain amino acids, or both.
Quick availability of these proteins, or the speed with which a protein is broken down in the intestines and absorbed into the bloodstream, is especially essential to rapid nutrient replenishment when demand is at its highest (after training). Of the various commonly consumed proteins, the amino acids contained in whey get into the blood stream faster than egg (albumin), which is faster than whole milk proteins, which is faster than casein.
Whey was discovered by accident when someone noticed that whey and curds (milk solids) naturally separated from goats’ milk when it got sour. Those milk solids (curds) would eventually be made into cheese and the whey discarded. The earliest secure evidence of cheese making dates back to 5,500 BC in Kujawy, Poland. As you can see, whey has been around for quite a while.
Thousands of years later, rather than letting it go sour, separating the curds from the whey in order to make cheese was accomplished by adding an enzyme to fresh whole milk, but the whey was still thrown out. About 2,500 years ago, someone decided to drink it and realized its health benefits. In fact, the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, prescribed it to his patients in 330 BC; he called it “serum.” His prescription was later picked up by Galen, another ancient doctor who lived in the Roman Empire. Since then, it has been used all over the world to treat illness and improve health.
A thousand years later, whey protein was finally developed into a usable liquid form in Italy. It continued to be consumed as a health tonic. Then, in the mid-1700s in Gais, a remote mountain village in Switzerland, came the first documented cases of sickly people who could not be cured by traditional means and were healed by drinking whey. Soon news of this got around and people began flocking to Gais to reap the health benefits from whey protein. Before long, a health spa was opened in Gais, followed by more than 160 spas all across Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. These thrived throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, catering to aristocrats and royalty from all over Europe.
These spas served whey in its liquid form, which is very perishable, especially with 18th century technology. It had to be consumed within 10 hours or it would go bad, so timing was very important. The whey that was produced from cheese making the night before had to be carried down the mountain to arrive at the spas before dawn. Today, thanks to the invention of whey protein powder, its benefits are available to everyone all over the world.
There’s a difference between “whey” and “whey protein powder.” The protein powder you purchase is made from the liquid whey left over from production. The protein components are filtered and isolated and then extracted from the liquid whey, then they’re dried and processed and become the main constituent in many of the protein powder we buy today.
But the evolution continues. Today, scientific research aimed at preserving and maximizing the health benefits of whey has brought us a much greater understanding of the various components of whey. What they didn’t know in the Swiss Alps in the 1700s is that whey contains protein subfractions with biologically active properties, including lactoferrin, lacto globulins, immunoglobulins, glycomacropeptides, and others. These fractions are known to have antioxidant-enhancing and immune-system enhancing properties. For example, lactoferrin makes up only about 0.5 percent of whey, but is crucial in preventing disease and boosting immune function.
However, more near and dear to our hearts, modern science has also determined that whey may have a thermogenesis-enhancing effect that aids in fat burning and weight loss. Because whey is nutrient-dense but relatively low in calories—about 4 kcal per gram—supplementing with it has been proposed to be an efficient method to promote anabolism in skeletal muscle while promoting catabolism in fat cells, meaning that enough nutrients can be present to promote muscle building while calories are low (dieting).
According to new research from the Nestlé Research Center in Switzerland, whey protein consumed at breakfast, lunch, and dinner proved most successful than either casein or soy proteins for boosting fat burning and simultaneously reducing muscle loss while caloric intake was low.
According to the scientists who conducted the study, which was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “the present findings confirm that protein-rich test meals have a greater thermic effect than that of carbohydrate and extend these results by showing that whey protein elicits a greater thermic response than does protein composed of either casein or soy.”
The authors further proposed that increased protein synthesis is “one possible mechanism responsible for the increased thermogenesis observed after high-protein than after high-carbohydrate diets, and the rate of protein synthesis has been observed to be more rapid, two-fold greater, after the consumption of whey than after that of casein.”
As you can see, the history of our beloved whey protein is as diverse as it is long. The next time you swig down that shaker cup full of your favorite whey protein supplement, remember that you’re partaking of a practice thousands of years in the making, with hundreds of years of research and billions of dollars in development. And, if the past is any indication of the future, this trend likely isn’t going to stop anytime soon.
It’s quite possible that whey may bring about a classic irony. Whey used to be a by-product of cheese manufacturing and was discarded in favor of the solids from which it was separated. As science continues to promote the benefits and uses of whey, demand for whey will continue to increase globally. As this exponential increase in demand continues, it’s quite possible that the amount of milk solids left over after the extraction of the whey will exceed the global demand, resulting in the whey being extracted and the cheese being discarded.
For more info on the how, when, why, and what of WHEY PROTEIN, click here!