Hidden Costs in Whey Protein Products

by Christine Hronec


When it comes to building muscle, whey protein is typically at the top of the supplement list. Although whey prices are on the rise, it is still possible to achieve one’s physique goals without blowing your budget. The reality is that there are a lot of hidden costs that may not be obvious to even the most seasoned gym goer picking up a jar at your local supplement shop or gym. To understand why the price of whey is steadily rising, one needs to understand how whey goes from an organic raw material to a commercial product offering shipped to your doorstep.

    • Step #1- Cows are milked
      The problem with the price of whey starts with the milk supply, as whey is made from whole milk. Milk demand is high in burgeoning countries like China and Russia that independent farmers can make more money doing business with them than with American companies. Because of this, the national milk supply has dwindled while America’s demand for dairy continues to increase. The relatively small amount of milk that is sold domestically must go to cheese manufacturers to make whey, dividing the supply even further.

    • Step #2- Raw Milk is Collected and stored at 4°C
      Milk that has been sold to cheese makers is transported to the facility by milk tanker drivers. These guys are actually accredited milk graders who are qualified to evaluate the milk prior to collection. They grade and, if necessary, reject milk based on temperature, sight and smell.

    • Step #3- Milk is transported in refrigerated tanks to a cheese production facility

      Once the raw material is approved, it’s pumped into the stainless steel tanker and driven to the cheese manufacturing plant. This is yet another step in the manufacturing process that increases the price of whey protein. The fluctuations in the cost of oil will be reflected in fuel surcharges for transportation are absorbed into the product cost.

    • Step #4- Milk is pasteurized at 72-73°C and re-cooled
      When the raw milk arrives to the destination cheese manufacturing facility via tanker it’s inspected again. The approved milk is pumped into refrigerated holding tanks, and later pasteurized (heated just enough to kill off dangerous bacteria). The milk is then re-cooled and undergoes cheese processing.

    • Step #5- Milk undergoes cheese processing (acidification where the curds are separated from the whey). Curds are collected for down-stream
      Cheese is made mainly from the casein portion of milk, which makes up about 80% of milk protein. So the processing of cheese involves draining off the fluid whey portion of the milk.

    • Step #6- Whey is pumped to a separate part of the facility
      Whey was once a useless by-product of cheese manufacturing and this run-off used to be discarded. Now that whey protein is recognized as a big business the drained whey is pumped to the whey manufacturing portion of the facility.

    • Step #7- Whey is ultra-filtered to remove fat and salts to become WPC80
      The whey permeate that is left from cheese processing is only about 15% whey, with the rest being lactose (milk sugar) and fat. To remove a good portion of these carbs and fat, the whey undergoes a series of filtering steps, called ultrafiltration. What remains is whey protein concentrate, referred to as WPC-80: it is 80% protein. The remaining permeate from cheese processing is approximately 15% whey, with the rest being lactose (milk sugar) and fat. To remove a good portion of these carbs and fat, the whey undergoes a series of filtering steps, called ultrafiltration. What remains is whey protein concentrate, referred to as WPC-80: it is 80% protein.

    • Step #8- Whey Protein Concentrate 80% is further micro-filtered to become Whey Protein Isolate 90%
      This final mixture of filtered WPC80 presents two options. The majority of WPC-80 will remain as whey concentrate, but a small percentage of WPC-80 goes through an even more rigorous filtration process to become whey protein isolate. More of the lactose and fat is removed to create a product that’s 90% protein or higher, virtually lactose free and fat free, but this is a costly process. Making whey protein isolate involves microfiltration, which requires costly membranes that need to be replaced frequently. (Another option is ion-exchange chromatography, which is similarly complicated.) All of this drives up the price of whey protein isolate over concentrate considerably.

    • Step #9- Whey Protein Concentrate and/or Isolate is spray dried to become and instantized ready to mix powder
      Whether it’s WPC-80 or whey protein isolate, the last part of the process is spray drying. The protein fluid is fed into an atomizer, where it’s separated into tiny droplets. The droplets meet a blast of hot air, which removes the moisture and leaves the protein as powder. Most quality whey proteins also undergo the process of instantizing, which allows them to mix better in fluid and not clump.

    • Step #10- Whey is packaged into large bags (33-44lbs) and stored in a warehouse
      Bags of protein powder are sold to supplement companies and also to food companies like Kraft or PepsiCo, which take the biggest portion of the protein cost structure. More and more foods are being fortified with whey protein. Since these conglomerate food companies order far more whey protein than a supplement manufacturer, the supplement guys are left fighting for what remains. Because they have to pay more for the protein powder they buy, so do you.

    • Step #11- Proteins are blended and flavored

    • Step #12- Blended protein powders are weighed and filled into containers

    • Step #13- Finished product is palletized and distributed to supplement stores and online retailers

    • Step #14- Product is picked from inventory and air shipped direct to consumers

    If you want to keep buying whey and get the most from your money, there are solutions:

    • Buy in Bulk- Purchasing in the largest containers sold will help save even thought you’ll pay more up front, the supply will last longer.

    • Buy Concentrates- Powders that use more whey concentrates than isolates are less expensive. It’s true that you get less protein per scoop, but the price increase for isolate does not necessarily add up to you getting more protein per dollar. Plus, some whey protein isolate manufacturing steps can harm some of the beneficial whey protein fractions such as beta-lactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin, and bovine serum albumin peptides, which provide performance and physique-enhancing benefits as well as antioxidant and immune-boosting properties. The gentle filtration that WPC-80 undergoes leaves these all in place. However, remember that whey concentrate contains more lactose, so if you have an intolerance, it may not be your best choice.

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