There's lots of good stuff in whey protein supplements – not just protein. But, thanks to those other components, sometimes concerns or misconceptions tend to pop up.
The fat content of whey, for example, has raised some concerns over the cholesterol in whey protein. Let's take a closer look at the fats in whey and see how these can influence your cholesterol levels.
First, though, we need to discuss the different types of whey and their individual nutritional content.
Concentrates and Isolates
Both whey and casein begin their life as milk. Whether by heat or other means, those two substances are separated from each other – causing the solid casein to clump up and float on top of the remaining liquid whey. Once that whey is powdered, it can be labeled “whey protein concentrate".
In this state, the whey is usually about 70 percent protein, with considerable levels of natural sugars and fats. To increase the protein concentration of the... concentrate, though, additional processing is sometimes used.
This removes the fats and sugars, bumps up the protein percentage and creates “whey protein isolate". At first, this may seem like a great thing – especially if you're concerned about cholesterol levels.
But here's the problem: those fats that people are so eager to ditch contain highly beneficial but oft-ignored substances. It should also be noted that the fat profile of whey depends largely on the diet of the cow it comes from.
Grass-fed dairy contains lower levels of saturated fats and high concentrations of healthy omega-3 and conjugated linoleic fatty acids – both of which have cardiovascular and metabolic benefits.
The Small Stuff
The causalities of this extra processing include beta-lactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin, albumin, lactoferrin and immunoglobulin – an assortment of substances that has a wide variety of benefits for several biological systems.
Most notable in this discussion, though, is lactoferrin. Numerous studies have found that the lactoferrin found in whey protein has the ability to significantly inhibit the oxidation of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.
The infamous, artery-hardening effects of LDL is actually a direct result of its oxidation. Blocking that oxidation, then, will prevent damage to your arteries.
Research has also found that lactoferrin is more effective when it's take along with alpha-lactalbumin, which is also contained in whey.
Another study with rats found that whey protein, powdered by lactoferrin, significantly lowered plasma and liver cholesterol and also plasma triacylglycerols.
Interestingly, the same effect was not seen when the animals were fed a combination of amino acids that mimicked the protein make-up of whey. This means that cholesterol-lowering benefits of whey are not linked to its protein content.
Okay... so what? So whey protein supplements that remove the fat remove the carrying agent for these cholesterol-lowering substances.
Interestingly, whey protein isolates are not completely fat free – they simply have reduced levels.
What does all this mean for those concerned about the cholesterol in whey protein?
If you select a grass-fed whey concentrate, the other components of whey will actually help to lower your cholesterol levels and improve the health of your cardiovascular system – despite the fact that it contains more fat.