• Protein powders are derived from whole foods.
  • Whey and casein are complete proteins and are highly bioavailable.
  • Extracting and purifying whey and casein protein from milk allows us to significantly increase our protein intake without overindulging in milk.
  • Whey protein is superior to casein protein in terms of BCAA content, increasing MPS, and elevating BCAAs levels in the blood.
  • Whey protein should be consumed before and/or after a workout to maximize performance and recovery.
  • Casein protein is an excellent nighttime snack for those looking to increase REE and improve satiety.

Choosing a protein powder supplement can be overwhelming. Have you ever walked into a supplement store and been bombarded by a ruthless sales associate—a nutrition expert according to his name badge—trying to sell you the latest and greatest protein powder? As he guides you through the towering wall of protein powders, he entices you with extravagant claims: “With Mass Gainer 5000, you will put on 10 lbs. of lean muscle in a month. This is the purest protein money can buy; nothing but pure gains.” “This is the protein powder Phil Heath used during his Mr. Olympia 2014 run. It contains a special proprietary enzyme complex that enhances amino acid absorption by 250%!”

Sounds good, right? Before you know it, you are walking out the door, cradling two 5 lbs. protein powder tubs, and your wallet is $100 lighter. No need to fret, because soon you will be packing on the muscle. Wait a second, what the hell did you just buy?!

Before I ingest something -especially supplements- I want to know where it comes from, how it is made, and what the potential health effects are. Today, we take a closer look at protein powders, specifically dairy-based. Questions addressed include: why is dairy nutritious; what is protein powder; where does protein powder come from; how is protein powder made; what are the health benefits of protein powder? Overall, I hope to provide you with the necessary information so that you can make an informed decision when choosing a protein powder. As a college student living on a meager salary, the last thing you want to do is throw away your hard-earned money on unnecessary supplements.

What is so Great About Cow Milk, Specifically Casein and Whey Proteins?

First, let’s discuss what’s in milk—specifically bovine—and why it is so nutritious. The major constituent in bovine milk is water (87%), followed by lactose (4-5%), protein (3%), fat (3-4%), minerals (0.8%), and vitamins (0.1%). Vitamins include A, D, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pyridoxine, folate and B12. Minerals include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, and zinc. The protein in bovine milk can be broken down into two fractions: soluble (whey proteins) and insoluble (mostly casein proteins). The majority of the protein in bovine milk is casein (80%). The major casein proteins are α -casein, β-casein, and k-casein. The remaining 20% is whey protein, primarily β-lactoglobulin and α-lactalbumin.

Whey and casein are complete proteins, which means they contain all of the essential amino acids that your body can’t make including branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) leucine, isoleucine, and valine. In addition, the proteins in milk are highly bioavailable, which means they are well absorbed and can be utilized as a substrate by various cells—muscle! Although casein and whey share many similarities, they have varying amino acid profiles and purported health benefits.

Whey protein, such as lactoferrin, lactoperoxidase, lysozyme, and immunoglobulins, can be used as antimicrobial agents. β -Lactoglobulin serves as a retinol carrier, binds to fatty acids, and may act as an antioxidant. α -Lactalbumin is important in lactose synthesis in the mammary gland and acts as a calcium carrier. Caseins mainly act as carriers for calcium and phosphorus. In addition, they can function as a precursor to a host of bioactive peptides that are antihypertensive, antithrombotic, anticariogenic, and antimicrobial.

It is important to remember that proteins have many different roles in human metabolism aside from muscle protein synthesis and muscle contraction. Nonetheless, I understand that most of you are interested in using whey and casein protein for weight maintenance, and athletic performance and recovery. Don’t worry, there is a section dedicated to the use of whey and casein protein for these reasons. Read on!

Where Does Protein Powder Come From? How is it Made?

Campus Elite - curd casein proteinProtein powders are derived from whole foods such as vegetables (e.g., peas), legumes (e.g., soy and peanuts), and dairy (e.g., cow, goat, and sheep milk). Whole foods go through a series of extraction and purification steps to isolate and concentrate protein. Techniques used to extract and purify protein include: biological (e.g., bioconversion of lactic acid to lactate to lower pH); chemical (e.g., treatment with hydrochloric acid and sulfuric acid); and physical (e.g., microfiltration and ultracentrifugation).

The most popular protein powders sold to consumers are whey and casein protein extracted from bovine (cow) milk. Besides protein, protein powders contain a variety of secondary nutrients such as carbohydrates, lipids, cholesterol, vitamins, and minerals. The amount of secondary nutrients depends on techniques utilized during the extraction and purification process. Manufactures continue to improve and develop new extraction and purification techniques to maximize protein purity and minimize nutrient loss.

Why Do We Isolate Whey and Casein Protein From Milk?

Have you heard of a competitive bodybuilder or powerlifter recommending drinking a gallon of milk a day to put on weight? Woof, I don’t know about you, but the thought of drinking a gallon of milk makes me want to vomit—I’m dry heaving as I type.

Nevertheless, let’s explore this grotesque recommendation. One cup of milk (224 grams) contains 8 grams of protein. A 190 lb. male adhering to the 1.5 g protein/lb. of body weight recommendation would need to consume approximately 2.25 gallons of milk to meet this requirement. Obviously, no one is going to solely consume milk. However, if this male ate five meals a day and he wanted one meal from dairy, he would still have to consume approximately seven cups of milk to meet his protein requirement. My point is, for any athlete or average Joe/Jill who wants to significantly increase their protein intake, consuming whole milk isn’t realistic.

So, if you want to incorporate high quality protein from dairy into your diet, but you don’t want to consume a gluttony of milk, what should you do? Chemistry to the rescue, my friend!

How Do We Isolate Whey and Casein Protein?

Although casein and whey are both proteins, they have very different chemical properties—e.g., solubility. Caseins are hydrophobic (water-hating) and individual molecules are relatively insoluble in an aqueous solution (e.g., milk). Despite their low solubility in aqueous solutions, caseins are in a colloidal suspension in milk because they form an aggregate of molecules known as a casein micelle. The caseins remain in suspension as long as the casein micelle is undisturbed. In contrast, whey proteins are hydrophilic (water-loving) and soluble in the aqueous environment of milk.

Why Do We Care About the Solubility of Whey and Casein Proteins in Milk?

The separation of whey and casein protein in milk is based on solubility. Adding the proteolytic enzyme rennin (breaks peptide bonds between amino acids) or strong acids disrupt casein micelles, which causes the hydrophobic casein molecules to coagulate/curdle (one of the first steps in the cheese making process). The semi-solid substance is referred to as curd. Whey, the water-loving protein, remains in solution. Once separated, the whey (liquid) and casein (curd) protein fractions undergo further processing to yield a concentrated protein powder.

Protein Supplementation for College Students: Casein vs. Whey

When it comes to increasing muscle protein synthesis (MPS), whey protein is superior to casein protein. Tang et al. found that subjects who consumed whey protein after resistance training and at rest had MPS levels that were 122% and 69% greater, respectively, when compared to subjects who consumed casein protein. In addition, ingestion of whey protein resulted in a larger increase in BCAAs in the blood. Burd et al. and Pennings et al. have confirmed these results in elderly populations.

The benefits of whey protein are not limited to resistance training. Hansen et al. found that consuming whey protein with carbohydrate before and after training sessions improved performance and reduced muscle damage in elite runners. Breen et al. found that MPS, specifically myofibrillar, was 35% greater when subjects consumed whey protein and carbohydrate compared to carbohydrates alone.

At this point, you may be asking yourself, “Why should I bother consuming casein? Whey protein appears to be superior in every way.” Although whey protein is superior to casein in terms of BCAA content, and elevation of amino acid blood levels and MPS, casein protein powder is still a useful supplement!

Can you think of a time when consuming a slower digesting protein might be advantageous? If you said sleep, you are right! Ormsbee et al. found that nighttime feeding of casein increased morning satiety more than whey protein in young obese women. Takudzwa et al. found that 140kcal-150kcal of liquid protein (e.g. casein) meal 30-60 min before bed had a superior effect on morning VO2 and resting expenditure ratio (REE) compared to going to bed on an empty stomach. They concluded that consuming a meal before bed may play an important role in weight loss and weight maintenance by improving satiety (eat less) and increasing energy expenditure (burn more calories). Res et al. found that ingesting casein protein before sleep is effective at increasing whole body protein synthesis rates and increasing and sustaining circulating amino acid levels throughout the night after a single bout of evening resistance exercise in young healthy men. In addition, mixed MPS rates were approximately 22% higher than the non-energy containing placebo group.

Campus Elite - Bicep CurlOverall, consuming both whey and casein protein powder is beneficial to college students. To maximize MPS, muscle performance, and muscle recovery, whey protein should be consumed before and/or after a workout—resistance or endurance training. In contrast, casein protein is an excellent nighttime snack for those looking to maintain protein synthesis throughout the night, improve satiety, and increase energy expenditure during sleep.

What Brand of Whey and Casein Protein Powder Should I Choose?

I’m paranoid (in a good way) when it comes to food and supplements; I want to know everything about a product or food before I consume it. My paranoia stems from my experience as a quality control analyst and production/development specialist at a company that develops and manufactures diagnostic tests used to detect antibiotics, mycotoxins, pesticides, and bacteria in dairy products. Working with dairy products has made me consciously aware of the deleterious chemicals and organisms in diary-based foods. Therefore, I try to choose supplements that follow stringent manufacturing guidelines, are minimally processed, and are verified by independent companies.

My favorite protein powder supplement is Naked Whey: 100% Grass-Fed Whey Concentrate Protein Powder ($90 for 5 lb. tub). This is my favorite protein powder for several reasons: 1) only contains whey protein powder; no additives, preservatives, or artificial/natural sweeteners 2) doesn’t cause any gastrointestinal issues (e.g., heartburn or excessive flatulence); 3) tastes like whole milk; 4) comes from humanely-raised and pasture-raised cows; 5) minimally processed (cold processed and acid-free). ProMix (79.99 for 5 lb. bag) also makes an excellent grass-fed whey concentrate protein powder.

Both products that I recommended are very expensive. Based on my needs, the price isn’t a deal breaker. However, for some college students, $90 is too much money. For those on a tighter budget, Optimum Nutrition has several whey protein powders that are considerably cheaper—ON 100% Whey Gold Standard is 57.99 for 5 lb. tub. In the past, I have used Optimum Nutrition and haven’t had any issues.

I don’t use casein protein powder supplements. Instead, I eat cottage cheese or Greek yogurt, which are excellent sources of casein protein. If you are interested in casein protein powders, check out Naked Casein ($94.99 for 5 lb. tub) or Optimum Nutrition ($53.99 for 4lb tub).

The recommendations that I provided are not exclusive! Feel free to explore other brands and products that better suit your needs.

If you enjoyed this article, stay tuned for my next article on whey protein, where I divulge the difference between whey concentrate, whey isolate, hydrolyzed whey, and native whey.

Works Cited:

Boirie, Y., Dangin, M., Gachon, P., Vasson, M. P., Maubois, J. L., & Beaufrere, B. (1997). Slow and fast dietary proteins differently modulate postprandial protein accretion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 94(26), 14930-14935.

Burd, N. A., Yang, Y., Moore, D. R., Tang, J. E., Tarnopolsky, M. A., & Phillips, S. M. (2012). Greater stimulation of myofibrillar protein synthesis with ingestion of whey protein isolate v. micellar casein at rest and after resistance exercise in elderly men. The British Journal of Nutrition, 108(6), 958-62.

E. Tang, D.R. Moore, G.W. Kujbida, M.A. Tarnopolsky, S.M. Phillips. (2009). Ingestion of whey hydrolysate, casein, or soy protein isolate: Effects on mixed muscle protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in young men. J Appl Physiol, 30(6), 987-992.

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Hansen, M., Bangsbo, J., Jensen, J., Bibby, B. M., & Madsen, K. (2015). Effect of whey protein hydrolysate on performance and recovery of top-class orienteering runners. International Journal of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism, 25(2), 97-109.

Heino, A.T., Uusi-Rauva, J. O., Rantamaki, P. R., & Tossavainen, O. (2007). Functional properties of native and cheese whey protein concentrate powders. International Journal of Dairy Technology, 60(4), 277-285.

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Ormsbee, M. J., Kinsey, A. W., Eddy, W. R., Madzima, T. A., Arciero, P. J., Figueroa, A., et al. (2015). The influence of nighttime feeding of carbohydrate or protein combined with exercise training on appetite and cardiometabolic risk in young obese women. Applied Physiology, Nutrition & Metabolism, 40(1), 37-45.

Pennings, B., Boirie, Y., Senden, J. M., Gijsen, A. P., Kuipers, H., & van Loon, L. J. (2011). Whey protein stimulates postprandial muscle protein accretion more effectively than do casein and casein hydrolysate in older men. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 93(5), 997-1005.

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Yang, H., Wu, L., Yeh, W., & Chen, J. (2014). Beneficial effects of [beta]-conglycinin on renal function and nephrin expression in early streptozotocin-induced diabetic nephropathy rats. The British Journal of Nutrition, 111(1), 78-85.

Walter L. Hurley, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Milk Composition and Synthesis Resource Library.