It wasn’t long ago that cheese plants virtually gave whey away because it was more of a nuisance than an asset. At the time, whey had no value in processing, so the plants would search high and low for ways to get rid of it so they didn’t have to dump it. And, some farmers were willing to take it as a fertilizer source or cheap feed supplement for their livestock.

Oh, how times have changed.

Last year, a representative of the U.S. Dairy Export Council traveled overseas to address a meeting of the China Beverage Industry Association. He told those in attendance that the protein in whey makes a lot of sense for sports drinks and other beverages catering to the fitness crowd. “When our consumers can’t reach for a glass of milk, we want them to reach for a beverage with whey protein, the second-highest digestible protein (to milk protein itself),” said the U.S. Dairy Export Council representative, Matt McKnight.

Since that time, the number of articles extolling the benefits of whey protein have increased. Many of the articles are found in fitness and body-building magazines.

No Arnold Schwarzenegger, but….

No, whey protein alone won’t make you look like California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (or at least the way he did back when he was a weight-lifter). You have to combine the nutritional benefits of whey with diet and exercise in order to achieve those results.

“The muscular development that is achieved by weight-lifters is a result of years of intense resistance training,” points out Alan Reed, senior vice president of manufacturing and ingredient marketing for Dairy Management, Inc., which manages the national dairy-checkoff program.

For the average person, whey will simply help him increase dietary protein intake, improve muscle protein synthesis, build lean muscle and control weight.

“Whey protein contains essential amino acids that are needed to build new muscle and reduce muscle breakdown,” according to Matt Pikosky, director of research transfer for Dairy Management, Inc. “Researchers have found that adding just 10 grams of whey protein to an isotonic beverage following resistance exercise can improve muscle protein synthesis, leading to improved building of lean muscle,” he adds.

Basically, whey protein is part of the solution when it comes to the obesity problem in this country. And, that has major implications.

Research backs this up

Several studies have suggested that a reduced-calorie, higher-protein diet will lead to weight loss. But it is interesting to note that the quality of weight loss — greater loss of body fat and retention of lean muscle — will be better in a reduced-calorie, higher-protein diet than a  reduced-calorie, adequate-protein diet. 

A recent study by researchers at the University of Illinois and Penn State University demonstrated the benefits of higher-protein diets on weight management and body composition, including lean muscle mass. Those people consuming a low-carbohydrate:protein-ratio diet (40 percent of energy from carbohydrates, 30 percent from protein and 30 percent from fat) experienced a greater reduction in body fat than people consuming a diet with a high carbohydrate:protein ratio (55 percent of energy from carbohydrates, 15 percent from protein and 30 percent from fat). 

The study, by Donald Layman and colleagues, appeared in the March 2009 edition of The Journal of Nutrition

Other studies have shown a benefit from high-protein diets, where protein contributes approximately 30 percent of total energy intake.

A review paper by Douglas Paddon-Jones and colleagues, published in the May 2008 edition of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (supplement), concluded that a moderate increase in dietary protein in association with physical activity and an energy-controlled diet may improve the regulation of body weight by:

  • Favoring the retention or accretion of fat-free mass at the expense of fat mass at a similar physical-activity level.
  • Reducing the energy efficiency with respect to the body mass regained.
  • Increasing the feeling of fullness or satiety.

The secret is out

What do sports-drink manufacturers know about whey protein that the rest of the population needs to know?

“Whey protein has enjoyed a longstanding reputation among sports-drink manufacturers as a high-quality, nutrient-rich ingredient, ideal for beverage applications,” Reed says. “These manufacturers know it is easy to use, highly soluble and upholds clarity in clear-beverage applications. Whey protein’s natural taste is well-suited for a variety of applications, and sports-drink manufacturers know they can power up the protein in their product and still maintain clarity and mouth-feel without sacrificing taste,” he says.

“More and more food and beverage manufacturers are beginning to fully appreciate and understand the power whey protein can have on their product and their consumer,” he adds.

The consumer doesn’t have to be a body-builder. He or she can just be someone who wants to get into better shape by exercising and improving their diet.

And, people need not worry that they will end up looking like body-builders.

“The average individual who exercises regularly for their general health and wellness need not be worried about this level of muscular development,” Reed says. This includes the mom who does morning aerobics or the Saturday afternoon jogger who just wants to tone up, feel better and lose weight.

The point is this: A dairy by-product is now a powerful tool in helping people achieve these goals.