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What's In Your Whey?

Will Brink

Muscle Insider asks the tough questions about what exactly goes into your supplement drink...

The supplement industry is full of label-reading consumers and most of all bodybuilding competitors shopping around for the purest, most potent, most bioavailable protein out there. But it’s the ‘extras’ that are triggering concern, particularly hormones, which are causing us all to ask – Are there hormones in whey protein? It’s not a simple “yes” or “no” answer, I’m sorry to say, but the short answer is, people have nothing to fear.

Being an animal-based product derived from milk, whey could potentially contain some naturally occurring hormone(s). The issue is, which hormone and in what amounts? Modern testing abilities being as sensitive as they are today, being able to search for things in parts per trillion (ppt) in some cases, some hormone of some kind can be found in virtually anything we humans ingest, especially if it’s derived from an animal. So what’s the scoop on whey?

The major concern seems to revolve around:

  • Steroid-based sex hormones (e.g., testosterone),
  • Growth hormones and/or growth factors (e.g., IGF-1, bovine growth hormone, or bovine somatotropin), and
  • Non-hormonal compounds such as antibiotic contamination.

Steroid hormones, being highly soluble in fat, will be found in the fat portion of whey or any milk-based product. Any high-grade whey isolate (WPI) is essentially fat-free. For example, CFM isolate contains less than one tenth of one gram of actual dairy fat per 20-gram (20,000-milligram) serving, which is approximately one standard scoop found in most products. The additional fat listed on the can of most whey isolate products generally comes from the addition of small amounts of lecithin, which is not an animal-based lipid, and/or the flavoring system being employed. An ion-exchange whey (though not an optimal whey protein, in my opinion) will contain even less fat. So, the reality is that sex hormone levels in the lipid portion of milk fat and or fat in whey are so low as to be almost non-testable. Add this to the fact that whey isolates are virtually fat-free, and it’s easy to see this is a non-issue.

Growth factor hormones (e.g., bovine somatotropin (BST), insulin growth-like factor 1 (IGF-1) are protein-based hormones  and , can be found in the protein fraction of animal-based products such as meat or milk. However, we will keep the discussion of these hormones specific to whey, as that’s what your question is about, right? Milk, and thus whey protein, does contain minute amounts of BST.

BST is simply the bovine (cow) form of growth hormone that cows produce naturally. In humans, it’s called human growth hormone (HGH), which is produced in the pituitary gland and is also used by many people to fight the effects of aging. However, and this is the essential point, BST isn’t found in higher levels than would be found if the animals weren’t treated with BST. That is, whether the animals are treated with BST or not, the BST levels in milk are found in minute amounts and in the normal “background” levels.

What are the levels of BST found in milk? They range from approximately zero to 10 parts per billion (ppb), and the typical level found in milk is 3 ppb. That translates into approximately 1 microgram (one millionth of a gram) per liter. That, ladies and gents, is what we call a truly minuscule amount.

Additionally, protein-based hormones such as BST—naturally occurring or otherwise—are quite delicate, and digestion of these proteins means they are destroyed when ingested. To sum up, I consider the risk from BST to be, again, a non-issue.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), looking at this issue, stated, “The composition and nutritional values of milk from BST-supplemented cows is essentially the same as milk from untreated cows… Meat and milk from rBST-treated cows are as safe as that from untreated cows.”

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) said on the issue, “The FDA has answered all questions and concerns about the safety of milk from BST-supplemented cows…” The journal Science stated, “The data evaluated by the FDA documented the safety of food products from animals treated with rBGH.”

Yes, folks, no matter what hysterical issues some people have tried to raise with BST, the data and the facts simply do not support the hysteria. It’s a non-issue to human health. However, it should be noted that this may not be the case for the cows themselves, just as large amounts of HGH can be problematic for humans, and that issue is currently being evaluated.

They may stop giving cows BST due to the health issues it presents to cows, but not due to any health issues to humans. So read my lips here, gang: It won’t matter if the milk is taken from “organic” non-BST treated cows or not, the BST levels appear to remain the same and are (a) found in minuscule amounts and (b) in all probability are destroyed during digestion. Yes, there can be differences in the amounts of some compounds (pesticide, for example) between some organic foods (e.g., fruits and vegetables) and non-organic foods, but BST simply is not one of them.

As for insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) that’s more interesting and relevant, though it still appears to be a non-issue to human health. Different whey products will have varying levels of IGF-1 depending on many variables such as whether it’s a concentrate (WPC) or an isolate (WPI), how it’s produced, and even what time of the year the milk is taken from the cows, and so on.

As an example, CFM isolates have approximately 35 micrograms (mcg) of IGF per 100 grams of powder (recall that a standard scoop is 20 grams). Remember, we are not talking gram amounts here but micrograms, which is one millionth of a gram! Thirty-five micrograms could not even be seen by the human eye. Could there be any negative physiological effects to consuming this amount of IGF-1? Especially given how unstable and sensitive to digestion protein-based hormones are, it’s highly unlikely. With IGF-1 being a well-known anabolic/anti-catabolic hormone, I bet most bodybuilders wished the levels of IGF-1 in whey were much higher!

Recall that IGF-1 was made a bit of a boogeyman hormone when a correlation was found between IGF-1 levels and prostate cancer. However, that association was not found in later studies, and any cause-and-effect relationship between the two is fuzzy at best and even contradictory according to some studies For example, some doctors find that PSA levels (used as a predictor of prostate cancer) often drop when older men are given growth hormone (which increases IGF-1 levels), which is not what one would expect to find if IGF-1 were a cause of prostate cancer nor is IGF-1 levels correlated to PSA levels.

Of course, because IGF-1 is a growth factor able to stimulate cell division and cell differentiation, it has been theorized that, like other growth factors (e.g., GH, epidermal, transforming, platelet-derived, fibroblast, nerve, and ciliary neurotrophic growth factors and others), IGF-1 could stimulate the growth of some cancers.

This is far from proven, however, and far more complicated than it appears on the surface. For example, IGF-1 levels, as well as GH, are intimately connected to the immune system, and have a wide range of essential effects on the body, such as keeping body fat levels low and muscle mass levels up, bone formation, and a thousand other effects. So, painting IGF-1 as a bad-guy hormone is both unscientific and simply incorrect. Would a person with a hormone-dependent liver cancer want to inject (as opposed to eating) large amounts of IGF-1 or GH? Probably not, but even that is unclear at this time. Let’s not forget the incidence of prostate cancer increases with age in men, while blood levels of IGF-1 and GH decline significantly. The etiology of prostate cancer is a highly complex, and not-fully-understood interaction between diet, genetics, an inflammatory process, and hormones such as testosterone, DHT, estradiol, and other physiological variables and hormones both known and yet unknown.

The bottom line here is microgram amounts of IGF-1 found in whey pose minimal risk (because nothing on earth we eat poses zero risk!) and may even help us in some ways. For example, IGF-1 has been shown to improve some gastrointestinal diseases and pathology, reduces muscle loss during certain disease states, and has other beneficial effects.

It’s also essential to remember from the many articles that have been published on whey that it has been studied extensively for its effects on cancer specifically, and across the board it has been found to prevent various forms of cancer in animals (with human data strongly suggesting the same effects in people), improve immunity, and other positive effects, such as possibly improving performance and treating overtraining syndrome (OTS) in athletes.

Thus, it’s clear any increased risks from ingesting minuscule amounts of IGF-1 found in whey–if there are any at all–are offset by the many positive health effects of this well-studied protein.

Several studies have found that, in a small number of cases, antibiotic residues could be detected in commercial milk. This has caused some people to use organic, non-treated milk. But having done extensive consulting work in the whey industry, I can tell you all major manufacturers of whey protein powders test constantly for antibiotic residues, as the milk industry in general does. The major whey manufacturers I have worked with test every single batch of incoming milk for antibiotic residues and reject any batch that finds any amount, no matter how small. Only milk that gets an ND (non-detectable) stamp of approval after testing is used to produce the whey. Thus, there are no antibiotic residues in your whey supplements. I can’t personally vouch for all whey manufacturers, as I haven’t done consulting work for all of them, but the handful I have worked with had an extreme level of quality control over the issue, and I have no reason to suspect other companies aren’t just as anal about it.

So there you have it. When it comes to assessing the quality of your whey protein via the quantity of certain ingredients, asking if there are hormones in your whey protein is a legitimate question. The answer is yes, there are hormones in your whey protein, but are the amounts harmful? Hardly. Research shows the amount of sex hormones and protein-based growth factor hormones such as BST and IGF 1, as well as non-hormonal compounds such as antibiotics are in such minuscule amounts – especially in the latter, where it’s practically non-detectable due to vigorous testing – that sounding alarm bells would be seriously premature.

To read more from Will Brink, click HERE!