What Is Whey? Here's What You Need to Know

Once strictly in the realm of bodybuilders and hard-core health enthusiasts, whey has become a buzzword among individuals at all levels of health, including those who are simply hoping to get fitter. With a wide array of whey-based products on the market, it’s well worth taking a closer look at the hype. But the question remains: What is whey exactly? Whether you’re hoping to trim down, tack on mass, or simply expand your nutritional knowledge, here’s everything you need to know about what whey is, how it works, and what it can do for your diet.

What Is Whey?

Simply put, whey is a byproduct of milk, specifically the watery part that remains once the curds are removed (hence “curds and whey”). It’s extremely high in protein, which has made it a popular nutritional supplement among those hoping to naturally build muscle. Of course, there are a number of benefits to a diet that’s high in protein, from healthier hair, skin, and nails to increased fat-burning potential and a more controlled appetite. While whey typically comprises only about 20% of raw milk, the processes of pasteurization, inoculation, and incubation, followed by the addition of rennet, allow whey to be separated and used on its own.

Whey concentrate is the result of microfiltration, typically using citric acid. This process can bring the concentration of protein to as high as 85% to 90%, although whey protein supplements tend toward the 70% to 80% range. It’s worth noting that whey concentrate contains lactose sugars and retains more of the original dairy from which it’s derived. For this reason, it tends to be slightly higher in carbohydrates and fat content, which makes it easier to mix.

Whey isolate is formulated without lactose sugars, which means that it can be easier to digest for people who are lactose intolerant but more to difficult to digest for those who aren’t. In essence, whey isolate is a purer form of whey, yielding a protein concentration that’s close to 95%. Products made with whey isolate tend to be more expensive than options formulated with whey concentrate.

For those who prefer not to dabble in dairy, a good alternative is plant-based or vegan protein, like The Nue Co.'s Plant Protein + Gut Food ($70). Whether you opt for a protein supplement that’s plant-based or dairy-based, be sure to check the nutrition label first. The highest-performing proteins include protease or amylase to help with digestion. You’ll also want to look for a high ratio (about 6:1:1) of amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine, respectively, which aid the process of muscle protein synthesis. By following these simple tricks, you’ll be able to get the best possible benefits from your protein, whey or otherwise.

Now that you know what whey is, get your daily dose with this filling protein shake that makes a perfect post-workout treat.