Whey Protein Processing Methods

by in Manufacturing Articles .

This is probably the most over looked way to assure that you are purchasing a quality whey protein product.


There are two main components of milk protein: 

1) Casein
2) Whey Protein

Whey protein in the most part is a by-product of cheese manufacturing. The casein coagulates and separates leaving raw whey uncurded on top of the casein. The casein is a very rich source of protein and natural vitamins etc as it has not been denatured in any way. 

The whey however, undergoes various processing steps and it is these processing steps which determine the quality of the whey protein in the end product. 

During the processing, fat and lactose (milk sugar) are filtered out to make a lower fat, lower carbohydrate and higher protein powder. The final protein content in a whey product can range from 30% to 95% depending on the filtering process used. The higher the protein content on a gram per gram basis, the more processing (filtering) is needed. When a whey protein count is greater than 85% in protein concentration, it is considered to be WPI (whey protein isolate). Less than 85% and it is considered to be WPC (whey protein concentrate). 

During filtration, low molecular weight compounds such as lactose is removed. The protein becomes more concentrated. The two basic methods used to process whey protein into Whey protein isolate are: 

1) Ion Exchange 
2) Micro filtration / Ultra filtration

Ion Exchange / Cation Exchange

Ionic exchange processing involves separating proteins based on their electrical charge. The chemicals hydrochloric acid (battery acid) and sodium hydroxide (salt water) are used in this process. The whey protein is mixed in the solution of hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide and an electrical charge is run through the solution. The protein attaches to the electrical reaction vessel and this is the result is raw WPI being collected and harvested. However, because of the chemical reagents used, pH sensitive protein fractions are damaged and some amino acids are denatured. Some protein fractions that become denatured are: 

1) Glycomacropeptides (GMP’s) – biologically active proteins which have a positive effect on the digestive system, antiviral activity, improved calcium absorption and enhanced immune function. 
2) Immunoglobiums – antibodies for immune boosting. 
3) Lactoferrin – has anti-viral and anti-microbial properties, anti-cancer and immune enhancing effects. 
4) Alpha lactalbumin – contains large amounts of essential amino acids. 

As you can see, a lot of the good stuff is lost with the ion exchange process. One benefit of ion exchange processing is that the end product has less fat and lactose (sugar) and in some instances higher in BCAA compared to ultra-filtered proteins and this is a heavily marketed ploy to get consumers to buy these products, despite the disadvantages of this process which denatures many of the other protein sub fractions such as Lactalbumin, Lactoglobulin and Glycomacroptides and increases the sodium (salt count) to higher levels when compared to ultra-filtrated whey protein. 

Foot Note:

In some cases a supplement brand maybe using ion exchange WPI in their formula without you even knowing. The label may just list WPI or instanized WPI without the word ionised in front of it. Instanized WPI is WPI from any source which has lecithin sprayed on to it so that the protein does not stick together. This enables an easy mixing formula. An easy way to identify if your protein brand maybe using ionised WPI in stealth is to take a look at the nutritional panel and look at the sodium (salt) content. A high sodium count compared to the potassium count normally is the sign that ion exchange whey maybe present. Micro or ultra-filtered WPI will have extremely low sodium counts compared to potassium. 

Micro filtration / Ultra filtration

The other type of processing and filtering whey is a method called microfiltration and or ultrafiltration. Micro and ultrafiltration are very similar. The main difference between them is the average pore size of the filtration membranes. Microfiltration membranes are about one micrometer, which is very small. However, ultrafiltration membrane is about 4 times smaller than microflitation at about 250 nanometers or (0.25 micrometer). Ultra Filtration is superior providing a finer and smoother mixing powder as has been witnessed by many Syn-Tec customers who have made comment on this observation alone. 

In this process the whey protein is flowed over the membranes (cross flowed is a term often used) and is forced through the membranes where natural ceramic filters are used to separate the whey protein from the raw protein solution. Undesirable components such as fat and lactose are filtered out. The particles are separated based on their molecular size and shape. This results in a micro or ultra-filtrated WPI. No heat or electricity is used so no harm is done to the protein on a sub molecular level. 

The key advantages to this processing method include: 

1) Minimal denaturing of protein
2) Preserved protein fractions
3) Better amino acid profile
4) Contains more calcium and less sodium
5) Does not damage the many immune boosting components such as alpha lactalbumin, immunoglobulins and Glycomacropeptides. 
6) Has the highest level of undenatured protein available. 

In our opinion Micro Filtered and or Ultra filtered whey protein isolate is the best quality as it is a whole undenatured protein source. The way nature intended it to be. 

Check out any protein powder nutritional label and do the sodium versed potassium test for yourself. Then take a look at other leading brands for comparison. 

Now, just a little bit on hydrolyzed whey protein isolate.

Hydrolyzed whey protein isolate is usually a WPI that has had some of its amino acid peptides broken enzymatically into shorter chains of amino acids. This aids in better absorption in the stomach. However, it is not popular because of its horrible taste due to the hydrolysis process making the whey taste bitter. Generally, hydrolyzed whey protein formulas will be no more than 20% hydrolyzed due to the bitter taste and increased cost to the manufacturer. The more that goes in the formula, the worse the taste and more expensive it gets. Unfortunately with many USA brands you will never know what percentage of the protein is hydrolyzed, as the manufactures will never put the actual amount on their label. It is usually just a token amount so it can be represented in the marketing of the formula. This often is the case too, with some other manufacturers WPI blends who mix ionised with micro filtered whey, but only highlight the micro filtered on their label. 

We believe that there is no need for hydrolyzed whey to be used when micro-filtered whey is a protein source option, due to the natural protein fractions being present which aid immune function and the natural digestion process.
Latest update: 22/06/2016

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