Whey Protein Supplements

By Dave DiFabio

I get asked about supplements on a daily basis. The typical questions are,"Does creatine work as well as everyone says it does?", "Are fat burners dangerous?", "What does beta-alanine do?", "Is HMB a waste of money?", and finally , "What do you think I should use?". However, I recently had a conversation that was a little different. It started with a question about whether or not a particular whey protein supplement is natural. The conversation then evolved into FDA regulations and label accuracy. The depth of the conversation actually surprised me so I decided to write a little article about it. Even though the article below focuses on whey, some of the info below can be applied to many supplements.

Are Whey Protein Supplements Natural?

What do you get when you milk a cow? That's right, milk. Therefore, milk is natural. Cow's milk contains 20 percent whey protein. Therefore, whey protein is natural in milk. However, to produce a consumable whey protein supplement, milk needs to be highly processed. When food is processed it is stripped of its nutrients and then combined with additives and preservatives. Therefore, processed food is not natural even if some of the ingredients are natural. Even if milking a cow produced pure whey protein it still would not be natural. That would just be bizarre.

What is Whey?

The term whey refers to the leftover liquid byproduct after milk coagulates during cheese production. Whey is a natural blend of nutrients, enzymes, antioxidants, and branched-chain amino acids. Organic dairy products are a great source of natural whey protein. Powdered whey protein supplements have also become a popular source of whey protein.

Why is Whey Protein So Popular?

Some studies have indicated that whey protein improves body composition and strength. The supplement form is especially convenient for providing extra protein beyond the consumption of natural food. The supplement easily mixes with milk or water to be consumed and digested quickly. Furthermore, it has been shown that the timing of nutrient consumption is important for optimizing performance and muscle recovery. Important time periods include 30 to 40 minutes before exercise, during exercise, and within 10 minutes after exercise. It is obviously more practical to mix up a protein shake to be consumed during the previously described time-line than it is to cook a high protein meal, eat some before the workout, then take some to the gym to munch on in between sets. Therefore, you can understand why whey protein supplements are so popular with athletes, body builders, and fitness enthusiasts.

Does the FDA Ensure Supplement Safety?

The FDA regulates dietary supplements under much less stringent rules than those governing conventional foods and drugs. Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, the supplement manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that a dietary supplement product is safe before it is marketed. However, manufacturers do not need to register their products with the FDA. Furthermore, FDA approval is not needed before producing or selling supplements. Manufacturers are expected to ensure their product labels are accurate and truthful. The FDA is only responsible for taking action against any unsafe products after it reaches the market. It should also be noted that the FTC is responsible for ensuring that supplement manufactures do not make unsubstantiated claims in their ad campaigns. For more information on FTC regulations click here: http://business.ftc.gov/documents/bus09-dietary-supplements-advertising-guide-industry

Are Supplement Product Labels Accurate?

Given the current FDA regulations it is not surprising that consumer groups have paid for independent lab tests of various supplements made by various manufacturers. Tests have revealed significant levels of compounds and contaminants not listed on the product label including heavy metals, synthetic compounds, and steroids. Obviously a natural food should not contain these compounds. Here's a link where you can find the websites of three different testing agencies: http://www.dsld.nlm.nih.gov/dsld/ It's important to note that these agencies do not certify the safety of the overall product or the ingredients. These agencies certify the product's ingredient label is accurate and the product doesn't contain unsafe levels of contaminants. Despite testing services, contamination and recalls do happen. You see it on the news from time to time. It seems you can never be 100 percent certain about a product.

Then Why Bother Reading the Product Label?

Some manufacturers try to do the right thing. They do research and development on their product. They have their claims investigated by university based studies. They try to ensure their products are safe and not contaminated. On the product label you will find a list of ingredients and nutritional facts. You might also find some information about the manufacturing process. For example, some things you may want to see on a whey protein package:

--The ingredient label should be short and include some form of whey protein (isolate or concentrate), perhaps natural flavor or sweetener, and a gum and emulsifier for easy mixing into a drinkable solution.

--Some brands may also include casein (another milk protein) and carbohydrates for a variety of performance and recovery factors.

--The use of cold filtering instead of heat pasteurization can prevent protein denaturing.

--The product should be made from milk that came from grass fed cows.

Before You Buy Anything:

Talk to your health care providers about any dietary supplements you are considering. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. If you think you are experiencing adverse effects or suffering from an illness caused by a supplement contact your health-care provider immediately. Then you and your health care provider should report this problem to FDA at 1-800-FDA-1088.

This government website: http://www.dsld.nlm.nih.gov/dsld/ collects data on recalls and effectiveness. You can search by manufacturer or product name as well as ingredients. This database doesn't include every supplement ever made but it does include most. First, search by manufacturer and then by product. If your search does not yield any information on the product you are seeking it could mean one of three things:

The manufacturer/product is not popular enough to be included in the data base. That alone would scare me.

There is no recall because the product has not caused any problems as of yet.

No tests have been done on it yet. Many products contain synthetic compounds that were created so recently that most scientist do not even know what the compounds are let alone what they do to the human body.

Finally search by ingredient. At the very least, you hope to find studies published in peer reviewed scientific journals that have investigated the compound's effectiveness and/or safety.


Dave DiFabio MA, CSCS, USAW

Owner/Strength & Conditioning Coach - Team Speed Fitness LLC