whey protein

Where Does Whey Protein Come From?

Whey Protein powder is worldwide consumed among 'fitness lovers', and not that lovers. First started as a supplement, it's now being considered another food source more. However, the picture of bodybuilders taking the famous protein shake has associated whey protein with other products not that recommened. But, far from reality; Where does whey protein come from, and how is it made?

In this post we'll talk about whey protein, the characteristics of this food and the different manufacturing process to get the final product. It will be presented both from a nutritional and engineering point of view, so scroll down and stay tuned!


Whey Protein is a concentrated source of protein. Historically, it has been used mainly on the fitness industry as a preferred protein source. The famous protein shake post-workout has been one of the stamples of bodybuilding and other strength disciplines.

Athletes and physically active subjects require of higher protein intakes (study) compared to traditional recommendations. Reaching such amounts from normal foods is sometimes hard or non-adherent. Whey protein, on its hand, is the food with the highest %protein/100g, achieving between 65-90% protein depending on the product (study). Taking this product, therefore, is an easy way to reach such amounts and keep building muscle mass overtime.

Biological value of Whey Protein

To compare protein sources and determine which one was best, scientist came up with a method called Biological Value (BV). Based on protein digestibility, net protein utilization and amino acid profile (number of essential amino acids present and quantities), one could determine the protein quality of different protein sources (study).

With egg showing 100% BV, only whey protein goes beyond that. Whey protein products show the highest BV. It provides all esential amino acids with a very high digestibility. When compared to plant based proteins, whey protein showed a higher anabolic response and muscle protein synthesis (study)

Protein Sources Biological Value


Before getting into where whey protein comes from, you have to know the different types of whey protein available on the market. The manufacturing process depends on the product. Today we'll focus on whey protein, but there are other plant-based proteins with different extraction and purification methods.

When it comes to whey protein, there are four main products:

  1. Whey concentrate
  2. Whey isolate
  3. Hydrolyzed whey protein
  4. Casein

The former two are the same product with different protein concentrations. The third one provides "broken" amino acids, which makes it easier to digest (study). Lastly, casein is another "raw material", used as a slow release protein source.

As we said before, the manufacturing process of these four products differ slightly. All four come from milk, usually cow milk. All four are purified and dried into powder. But purification methods and downstream processing are different.

Whey Protein Concentrate

The best-seller in most of the cases. Protein content usually ranges between 65-80g/100g product, containing also some fats and trace amounts of carbohydrates.

It still provides enough protein while giving more room for sweeteners, flavouring and other species to make it taste good. So, usually, whey protein concentrate flavours are better than those from isolates.

One serving provides around 20-24g, which is between the recommended protein dose to optimize the anabolic response (study). It also shows the best quality/price ratio. It's considerably cheaper than other proteins.

The downside of this is that fraud is common within this products. There are very few patents assuring quality and exact quantity of protein, and companys always put excess of low value nitrogenous compounds to elevate protein content on lab analysis. This is the called Amino Spiking.

Whey Protein Isolate

This product, compared to Whey Concentrate, provides between 80-90g protein in each 100g product. That leaves less room for flavourings, which makes the products more plain but still enjoyable.

During the manufacturing, it comes through and extra flitration process to achieve a higher protein concentration. There are patentes as Provon® assuring quality and reliable labelling. However, price increases considerably from the concentrate

Whey Protein Hydrolysate

This product is produced by protease-mediated hydrolysis of intact whey protein. Becuase the amino acids are "broken" into smaller units, digestibility and absorption is higher than other protein products (study) Due to this, it shows to elevate muscle protein synthesis more compared to whey protein (study).

It contains similar content of that from a whey isolate, and price is considerably higher than concentrate.


Casein is the resultant product of the purification and drying of casein, the most abundant protein in milk (study). Being a slow release protein, it's often used before bed to mantain amino acids levels higher for longer overnight (study).

The "mousse-like" consistency and flavour makes it one of the most enjoyable protein products. Price is similar to that of isolate and hydrosylate.


Let's start talking about where does protein come from and how it is made. It's considered a biotechnological step, including microbial fermentation and downstream processing. Simple in principle, but many parameters to consider.

Overall Process

As raw material we start with milk. Due to convenience, the milk used is usually skimmed milk, but any kind can be used.

From raw milk, a series of steps involving both phase changes and separations will give us the final product, whey protein. Here you have a process flow diagram (PFD) to get an overview of the process.

How is whey protein made

First, the raw milk is pasteurized by heating it at 70-75ºC, temperature at which most microorganisms are not able to grow and divide (study). By doing this we reduce the microbial activity in the product and prevent contamination. Then, the product is precipitated by adding an acid or another chemical. Different methods can be used, but the goal is the same; to separate the milk into solid and liquid fractions.

The liquids will be used for whey production, while the solid will be used for both cheese making and casein production.

General Steps for Whey Protein Production

Although different products require different steps and processes, there's a common denominator. The principles and basis by which all for protein products are made are the same:

  1. Separation
  2. Filtration
  3. Drying
  4. Flavouring
  5. Packaging

Each of these steps can be done using different methods. Filtration, for example, can be done in different sizes depending on the molecules trying to separate or the degree of purification you want in your product (study).

What we achieve by following these steps is a final product high in protein and in powder form, which can be further mixed with different sweeteners and flavourings to get what we know as "whey protein".


Now that we know where protein comes from, we'll get into more detail on each type of whey protein.

Whey Protein Concentrate

Once we have the liquid fraction separated from the solids by precipitating the milk, we need to concentrate the product to achieve a higher protein content. In the case of the concentrate, this is usually done by ultrafiltration.

During this step, the liquid flows through a membrane of specified porous size. This makes smaller molecules to go through, while proteins don't pass due to their higher molecular size (study). Once ultrafiltration is finished, we keep the retentate (whatever hasn't gone through the membrane) and throw the permeate to waste.

Now we are working with the permeate, which has the desired protein content. But it's in liquid state. To get a powder final product, we'll have to dry the product and remove all water content. This is done by spray drying the solution (study). As a result of this unit operation, we obtain our final product in a powder form.

Whey Protein Isolate

Although the process is very similar to that of the Whey Concentrate, an extra filtration is commonly used to further concentrate the product to obtain higher protein content and remove other nutrients such as fats or carbohydrates (study).

A method commonly used for concentrating whey protein isolates was ion-exchange (study). During this method chemicals are added to separate molecules based on their net electric charge. The addition of chemicals, however, could potentially harm the quality of proteins. Therefore, we rather go for membrane separation.

Whey Protein Hydrosylate

In the production of this product, a solution with enzymes is added to hydrolyse the protein (break it down in smaller fragments). Some of the enzymes added may be lactases or proteases (study).

Once the product is filtered by membrane separation, the enzyme solution is added. The enzyme hydrolisis of whey protein products has shown to improve digestibility and bioavailability (study).

To get the final powder form, spray drying, crystallization or thermal drying can be used. Spray drying, however, is the most used method.


This product, different from the other three, is obtained from the solid fraction of the separation.

Once we have the cheese curds, we need to decantate it to remove remaining liquid (study). Then, the solids are washed, heated and dried to get the final powder form.

You can find, however, different casein products depending on the downstream processing. For example, caseinates have been added a metal ion (usually calcium) to improve the stability of the product.

Where does casein protein come from?


After having the powder form, further steps are done to get the right packaging and fulfill the requirements:

Addition of flavouring and sweeteners

To get the final whey protein product, flavourings are added to get the desired flavour of the whey protein. This are regulated by health organizations to keep the product safe for human consumption.

Not only flavuring compounds, but also sweeteners and other stabilizers are used. The former for increasing the palatability of the product (study), and the latter for improving shelf-life (study).

Packaging and labelling

As it may seem obvious, the product must be put into some kind of container with the appropiate labelling indicating the nutritonal value, ingredients and recommended use.

Additional information such as the patent used (if used), the raw material or company's information can also be added to the label.

Analysis of the protein

Whey protein products and any other food product must undergo post-manufacturing analysis to see if the expected nutritional content is fulfilled. Depending on the product, the analytical methods are different. For whey protein, and amino acid analysis can be made (study).

Other tests for flavour, solubility in water, shelf-life or overall quality of the product can be made.


Whey protein products come from raw milk. After different separations, filtrations and drying steps we obtain what we know as whey protein in its powder form. Flavouring, sweeteners and stabilizers are added to the final powder to obtain a better food product.

In this post we have seen where does whey protein come from. Different protein products require of different steps, but there's always a common denominator.

If you still have doubts about the topic, write your question below in the comments section!

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