• The Right Whey

    By Jay Diamond

    As I mentioned in the blog entry “A Skeptical Introduction to Bodybuilding Supplements”, I’m a fan of protein and believe that while a well-rounded diet provides sufficient protein for most people (about 0.4g/lb. of body weight per day), intense workouts with the goal of building muscle requires supplementing with this refined food (to about 0.8 g/lb. of body weight). Oddly, this isn’t very controversial among people trying to put on muscle – I haven’t actually met a bodybuilder who questions the use of protein (there is a lot of debate and questionable claims around most other supplements).

    I’m often asked questions like:

     I’ve been going to the gym for 10 years
    and I haven’t built muscle like you–
    what am I doing wrong?

    My first question is always about protein supplementation, because without the fuel you simply won’t build the muscle. There can be all kinds of other potential issues, but intake is a good start.

    What do I take and where do I buy it?

    Remember Little Miss Muffet’s curds & whey? I suspect Little Miss Muffet was ripped, because whey protein is used by most bodybuilders as a key element of building muscle. Whey is a derivative of cow’s milk and comes in several forms, with the most convenient and economical being powder. Unless you are vegan or severely lactose intolerant (it’s low lactose, but still lactose), whey is the way. For the purpose of this blog I’m going to limit the scope to the most popular types of protein powder (I’ll tackle other protein types in another blog).

    Protein powder varies widely in price, is often mixed with other additives including creatine, caffeine, flavoring, various carbohydrates, extracts, essences, or magic potions in super-secret-proprietary proportions. They are almost always accompanied by extraordinary claims like “Improved flavor!” (which means it tastes terrible but formerly tasted worse), “Build Muscle FAST!” (Disclaimer: intense exercise not included), “Get Ripped QUICK!” (Disclaimer:  intense exercise not included AND don’t expect to eat anything else).

    Three primary types of whey include:

    • Concentrates: Refined to reduce most carbohydrates, fat, cholesterol, sugars, etc. and give you somewhat pure protein. This is the least expensive and most popular form of whey powder, with consistency similar to baking flour. Usually ~50% protein. ~$10/lb.
    • Isolates: More refined than concentrates but more expensive with the consistency of table salt. As much as 90% protein. $11-12/lb.
    • Hydrolysates: Whey isolates chemically altered to break down the protein compounds for faster metabolization. Similar purity and consistency to isolates with a premium price as this is purported to be the most efficient way to ingest your protein. $15-16/lb.

    More MUST be better… right?

    Manufacturers play marketing games – as in ANY industry. For example, check out the picture below of 3 different whey protein products from Optimum Nutrition. Note: I don’t endorse these products and use them here only as being representative of popular products in the industry. The first is their low-end “Gold Standard” product offering 24g of protein per serving, the second is a more refined “performance” whey Isolate offering 30g per serving, and the third a “platinum” hydrolyzed version of the whey isolate also offering 30g per serving.


    Obviously “platinum” is better than “gold” so must live up to its name by providing more protein per serving, right?

    Hard to argue that 30 > 24. That’s 25% more!

    While true, an inspection of the scoops given in each product reveals a classic marketing gimmick – different serving sizes, and as the photo below reveals each comes with a very different scoop.


    A little label hunting shows that the serving sizes vary across the products, and the 25% protein increase is offset with a 12-18% serving size increase. So if you take the cheap protein and use a bigger scoop (exceeding the suggested serving size), you can get an equivalent protein dose for less money. Table 1 illustrates these differences:

    % over GOLD
    Serving Size
    % over GOLD

     Table 1: Serving Size
    (all mass in grams)

    While more concentrated, the added serving size is misleading… and also means that you’ll be spending more per serving for the more expensive forms.


    Table 2: Price

    Note that recommended serving size is usually suggested as a “rounded scoop”, and given the flour-like consistency of concentrate, it’s much easier to pile the scoop high for concentrates than isolates or hydrolysates. So pile it on.

    The low, wide scoop issued with the isolate (on the right) certainly makes it easier to round its more granular protein than the tall, narrow scoop (on the left) of the platinum hydrolysate, but you can just as easily determine your own serving size based on dietary goals – after all, this is FOOD, and as such you should treat it as any other part of your diet.

    I’ve tried “high quality” protein, and anecdotally haven’t experienced a difference. Since greater purity allows you to better regulate your intake (vs. other fillers and impurities), it’s sensible to prefer isolates to concentrates but not at any price. Many new bodybuilders are interested in mass gain requiring simply more calories, so the big issue is ingesting protein + calories, so purity is much less important. For those who have dietary sensitivities, go with the isolates… otherwise it probably doesn’t matter.

    Theoretically, hydrolyzed protein is absorbed more quickly, and theoretically that should speed recovery. That’s not an extraordinary claim, as processes to aid in chemical break down are well understood, as are digestion rates. The bigger question is if it matters. The answer is “maybe” but probably not unless you’re a super-elite athlete, and definitely not for the significant price premium.

    For us normal humans the most important thing is to get enough protein.

    I generally buy among the cheapest, purest protein powder (with few other additives or supplements) in bulk (5 lbs.) over the internet. Sites like bodybuilding.com, GNC.com, netrition.com, or marketplace providers on Amazon will routinely have sales and reasonable shipping costs. If you buy protein at specialty retail (Whole Foods, for example), expect to buy in smaller quantities and to pay more. I’m not picky about brand, so I generally purchase whatever is on sale that meets my criteria.

    As food, a complaint that I often hear is:

    I don’t like the taste of protein powders

    That would be your fault. Eat it with your favorite beverage, fruit, yogurt… whatever you want. I usually buy a non-volatile flavor (vanilla) and mix it with fruit, yogurt, and juice in a bullet-like blender. If you don’t like the taste, add something you like until you like the flavor.

    Concluding, my recommendation is to buy the cheapest, purest protein you can find in bulk and consume it daily. You need more than you think…

    Disclaimer: I don’t endorse any of the branded products or websites mentioned here. I’ve used/tried/bought from many of them and I haven’t been paid or received discounts from any.

    ______________________________________________________________________________________________________JD Portrait 1

    Jay Diamond is the founder of Reason4Reason – a skeptical activist group based in the San Francisco bay area. He holds dual masters degrees in engineering and business and has managed both startup companies and hundred-million-dollar programs for Fortune 50 companies. Growing up in Canada, he performed magic, studied science, and became aware of the skeptical movement. Jay has lectured around the world on science & technology, business, and skepticism. 

    Category: FeaturedFitnessJay DiamondNutrition & SupplementsSkepticism


  • Article by: Jay Diamond