Native Whey vs Whey Protein: Is Native Whey Worth It?
This idea for this article comes from a recent Stack3D post in which Shane announced that Costco is now offering a 5-lb bag of Ascent Native Whey protein for $55.99 (as of April 2023). Given the hundreds of protein powders I’ve tried over the years, I don’t think I’ve ever tried (or can’t remember) one that included “native whey.” Still, with the ever-increasing prices of whey (and other) protein powders, seeing a product that wasn’t Optimum Nutrition (ON) or Dymatize delivering 20+ grams of high-quality protein/serving for under $1 is bound to attract attention.
So, I purchased a 5-lb bag of Ascent Native Whey protein (chocolate), since I wanted to try a different protein powder from our usual assortment. Best case, we have a great value protein that offers a delicious flavor, easy mixability, and pleasant mouthfeel. Worst case, it’s relatively cheap and can be covered up in the multi-ingredient smoothie I make for Sandy every morning before work (and, if you want the recipe, send me an email. I'm happy to share it!).
Nevertheless, my curiosity was piqued regarding the potential advantages/benefits of native whey vs whey protein (the primary ones being “better quality whey” and “higher leucine content”) , and I thought it would make a great topic for discussion. So, if you’ve been a long-time imbiber of whey protein powder (whey concentrate or whey isolate) or blended proteins and wondered how they stack up against native whey, you’re in luck!
We’re going to discuss everything about native whey and whether it’s worth the hype (and potentially) increased cost vs whey protein concentrate. Let’s begin by first discussing…
How Conventional Whey Protein Is Made
Any long-time consumer of whey protein knows that whey is one of the two protein sources naturally found in cow’s milk (the other being casein). Whey is a by-product of the cheese-making process, with casein (the “curds”) being used to make a panoply of delicious cheese. Once callously discarded by cheese-makers, the benefits of whey were eventually realized, and, subsequently, the thin milky-looking liquid was collected, processed, and dehydrated into the delicious, muscle-building powder we’ve known and loved for decades.
“Conventional” whey protein begins as fresh milk collected from dairy cows. The unpasteurized milk is then cooled and transported (under refrigeration) to a cheese-making plant, where it is pasteurized (heated) and then cooled (again). At this point, the milk still retains its natural 80% casein/20% whey ratio.
Now, the curds are separated using a complex set of enzymes known as rennet (and used to make cheese) while the liquidy whey is collected and transported to various filtration/separation units (microfiltration, ultrafiltration, etc.) to remove extraneous fats, carbohydrates (lactose) and other impurities. Here’s a fun fact: It takes 720 pounds of the raw liquid to produce one 5 lb bag of whey.
Whey protein concentrate (WPC) typically results from microfiltration, and whey protein isolate (WPI) usually results from ultrafiltration. Keep in mind that whey concentrate can vary in protein content between 30-80%, and whey isolate “must” be a minimum of 90% protein.
Once the liquid whey has been filtered to its desired protein yield, it is then spray-dried into a powder. From here, it can be shipped to manufacturing facilities for formulation purposes. Flavors, thickeners, inclusions, and/or other “bonus” ingredients (e.g. Velositol) can also be added to the powder at this point to create a brand’s desired whey protein product.
So, where does “native whey” fit in?
The Native Whey Difference
Whereas regular whey protein is created using pasteurized milk, native whey is produced via filtration of unprocessed raw milk. Other sources state they use “skimmed milk” as the basis of their native whey as opposed to “unprocessed raw milk.”
Using unprocessed “raw milk” (that may or may not be pasteurized depending on which source) leaves milk proteins intact, limits the amount of “chemicals” (enzymes, acids, and salts used during cheese-making), and gives native whey a higher leucine content than conventional whey protein concentrate (WPC-80).[2,5]
This graphic (from a supplier of native whey) helps illustrate the differences:
Again, take this with a grain of salt (or a scoop of whey) as it was created by a company who has a primary interest in selling native whey protein powder.
Native Whey Talking Points
A leading talking point of native whey protein is that it undergoes less processing and is subjected to fewer additives/processing components, thereby making it more “natural.” While it is true that native whey undergoes fewer steps of refinement to yield a high quality protein powder, that doesn’t inherently mean those added steps of processing are “bad” or lead to a poorer quality product, as we’ll discuss below.
For instance, whey derived from acid-casein (which is similar to whey obtained after the production of cottage cheese) contains higher concentrations of certain minerals, in particular phosphate and calcium (the latter of which is known to support bone health). Furthermore, cheese production represents the greatest resource of whey available for processing and protein recover.
So, while native whey may be more “natural” in that there are less steps in the manufacturing process, that doesn’t necessarily mean it contains more key micronutrients or health-promoting compounds (more on that in a moment).
Another key commentary from native whey protein providers is…
Higher Leucine Content (and Other Amino Acids)
As mentioned above, native whey production yields a protein powder that is higher in leucine than whey protein concentrate (WPC-80). Leucine is regarded as the “king” of amino acids as it is the most potent stimulator of mTOR (mechanistic target of rapamycin) -- the biological switch that activates muscle protein synthesis (MPS). As a result of having higher leucine levels, brands using native whey tout the notion that native whey is “more anabolic” and/or can support greater muscle recovery and growth.
However, research shows that the filtration process used in the production of native whey that yields higher leucine levels may also remove beneficial whey microfractions, including glycomacropeptides, immunoglobulins and lactoferrin -- which are known to confer various physiological benefits, such as immune support.[6,7,8,9]
In fact, a whey protein review from 2000 concluded that (albeit slightly more expensive), whey proteins rich in immunoglobulins are superior to those not containing immunoglobulins (e.g. native whey).
“Undenatured” refers to a protein that has not deviated from its most natural form, and it’s frequently used interchangeably with other marketing terms, including “non-denatured whey protein” or “whole protein” or “undamaged protein.”
Companies that produce and sell native whey claim their whey protein is undenatured and imply that somehow all other types of whey protein are denatured, which is to imply they are “damaged” or somehow of a lesser quality.
“Denaturing” itself is influenced by several factors, including:
- Temperature (e.g. high heat)
- pH alterations (very acidic/basic environments can breakdown protein structures)
- Ultra-Violet exposure (i.e. being left in the sun)
- Mechanical agitation (e.g. blending)
Something to keep in mind, though, is that just because a protein is “denatured” doesn’t render it ineffective or harmful. For instance, many of us enjoy a grilled burger or steak…high heat is applied to raw beef protein -- the result is an incredibly delicious and highly bioavailable protein (red meat) full of beneficial micronutrients. The original product could also be considered “denatured” due to the means of cooking it. Keep in mind that digestion also requires the breakdown and denaturing of proteins via mechanical and chemical means (i.e. chewing, saliva, digestive enzymes, and stomach acid).
Whey is often considered a “delicate” protein, which has led to many fears by fitness enthusiasts and much misinformation spewed by influencers and sponsored athletes that protein powder will somehow become less effective if it’s heated. Nothing could really be further from the truth and there’s no considerable body of evidence to show that denatured whey protein is ineffective in humans.
For example, hydrolyzed whey (whey protein that has been “pre-digested” via the application of chemical enzymes) has been investigated numerous times and shown to be safe (even in infants!), efficiently digested and utilized by the body, resulting in increased muscle growth and recovery.[11,12,13,17]
Another protein that’s considered “delicate” are eggs. Consuming liquid egg whites or adding raw whole eggs to blenders (a la Rocky) was a popular fad and was thought to be the superior way to obtain nature’s “perfect” protein. However, a landmark 1998 study demonstrated that cooked eggs are more bioavailable than raw eggs.
One last thing to consider is that native whey being sold is produced from milk that has been pasteurized. It may not be treated with the acid or rennet used to generate curds to make cheese, but it has been heated and cold-pressed through filters, much in the same way conventional whey protein is cold-filtered to remove impurities (lactose, milk fats, etc.).
Now that we’ve discussed the major talking points of native whey vs whey protein powder, let’s now see how they stack up head-to-head in research trials.
Native Whey vs Whey vs Milk Protein Concentrate Research
Study #1: Native Whey vs Whey Protein vs Milk Protein Concentrate
A 2017 double-blinded, RCT appearing in the IJournal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (JISSN) compared two 20g doses of different proteins in 24 healthy, young resistance trained men and women. Subjects were randomized to receive either:
Participants received one 20g shake immediately after a lower body workout and a second 20g shake two hours post-workout. Researchers also collected blood samples and muscle biopsies to track changes in the subjects as a result of their supplement.
As expected, native whey increased blood concentrations of leucine more than WPC-80 and milk. However, after five hours post-exercise, there were no significant differences in muscle protein synthesis between native whey or WPC-80. In other words, “regular” whey protein concentrate was just as effective as native whey.
Figure 7: Isometric knee extensor force-generating capacity relative to resting values following intake of milk, WPC-80 or native whey immediately and two hours after a bout of heavy leg resistance exercise.
Native whey increased MPS rates in the 5-hours post workout more than milk protein; however, after 24 hours of recovery, there were no no tangible differences in muscle recovery amon either native whey, whey protein or milk protein. This suggests that consuming enough high quality protein is more important that getting mired in the differences of native whey vs whey protein vs milk protein concentrate.
Study #2: Powdered Milk vs Native Whey
A follow-up 2019 RCT appearing in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, Hamarland and colleagues conducted another investigation comparing native whey vs powdered milk. 40 healthy untrained young men and women participated in a 12-week resistance training program and supplemented twice daily with 20 grams of protein from native whey or powdered milk.
Table 2: Amino acid and macronutrient content of supplements.
At the end of the 12-week study, there were no significant differences between the groups in terms of muscle strength or muscle mass. In other words, supplementing with milk protein powder was as effective as native whey protein powder.
Study #3: Native Whey vs Whey Protein in the Elderly
While whey protein is commonly thought of as a “young person’s supplement” (e.g. college/pro athletes, bodybuilders, high school students looking to bulk up, soccer mom’s looking to “tone”, etc.), it can also be incredibly beneficial for the elderly, a population at risk for sarcopenia (muscle wasting). The elderly human body is anabolically stunted, which is to say it is less sensitive to the anabolic effects of protein ingestion and resistance training. Older individuals typically are also less physically active and have poorer appetites. All of this can contribute to accelerated muscle wasting, which also accelerates aging.
Whey protein offers a palatable solution for elderly individuals to up their protein intake that is also easy to digest. A third study from the Hamarsland lab, this one appearing in The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, investigated the muscle-sparing prowess of native whey vs whey protein vs skim milk in elderly folks combined with a structured resistance training program.
21 healthy men and women (≥70 years) received either 20 grams of native whey or WPC-80 on separate days in a crossover design (which means every individual served as their own control), or milk. The men and women consumed their respective supplements immediately and two hours after a bout of lower body heavy-load resistance exercise.
Similar to previous findings, native whey resulted in higher MPS rates than whey and milk during the initial stages (1-3 hours and 1-5 hours, post workout). However, over the duration of the study, no discernible (“real world”) differences were observed between native whey vs WPC-80 in their respective ability to stimulate MPS or build lean muscle.
Study #4: Native Whey vs Milk in Elderly Subjects
Published in Nutrients, yet another study from Hamarsland (these guys must really love their whey protein!) investigated the the effects of two daily servings of 20 grams of protein from either native whey or milk protein in 30 healthy, elderly men and women during an 11-week strength training intervention.
Similar to previous findings, no significant differences in muscle or strength gains we documented native whey or milk protein or native whey, when supplemented as 2 × 20g daily in conjunction with resistance-training.
The Bottom Line on Native Whey vs Whey Protein Powder
Native whey protein is made from pasteurized, skimmed milk instead of the liquid by-product resulting from cheese production. This may remove some of the “chemicals” and transportation consequences common to whey protein production as well as increase the total leucine and essential amino acid content per 100g.
However, these effects are more significant in marketing and advertising campaigns than in terms of real-world results. Human studies find no significant long-term differences between the intakes of native whey vs whey protein powder (WPC-80) in terms of muscle or strength gain, despite the greater short-term spikes in leucine found when supplementing with native whey. It would be interesting to see the short-term blood leucine increases comparing native whey to whey protein isolate (which is closer to the protein content -- >90% protein -- of native whey than WPC).
Something else to consider is that, due to the production processes, native whey is lacking the beneficial, immune-boosting subfractions of whey, including immunoglobulins.
Regarding the taste difference between native whey and regular whey, that will depend on several factors, not the least of which is the final additions to the whey protein powder (stabilizers, thickeners, sweeteners, inclusions, etc.).
Both types of protein can be effective for supplementing your daily protein intake to build muscle, aid recovery, and improve body composition. Stay tuned for our Ascent Native Whey protein review (when it arrives) and we’ll compare it to other chocolate whey protein powders we enjoy.
What do you think?
Is Native Whey worth the hype?
Let us know!
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- Lactalis Ingredients. Pronativ Native Whey Protein: The Ultimate Guide for Functional Food & Supplement Manufacturers [White Paper]
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