What in the world is whey?

Whey is the liquid that is left over when milk is curdled - but why is it appearing on menus?

Whey itself is essentially a byproduct of the cheese-making process; it’s the liquid that is left over once milk has been curdled and strained

Whey itself is essentially a byproduct of the cheese-making process; it’s the liquid that is left over once milk has been curdled and strained

 

Enter “is whey good for you” into a search engine and one of the first returns is ‘Five Surprising Reasons You Need To Use Whey’ from the website of a large chain of health food shops. The next link to click reads ‘10 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Use Whey Protein’. So which is it? And what in the world is whey?

Most of know that Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey. (Could it be argued that Miss Muffet was an early influencer in the promotion of protein supplements?) Whey itself is essentially a byproduct of the cheese-making process; it’s the liquid that is left over once milk has been curdled and strained. Whey protein powders are commonly a mixture of the proteins found in natural whey, namely lactalbumin, lactoglobulin, serum albumin and immunoglobulins. Perhaps the most common form of powdered protein is found in the large, plastic tubs traditionally marketed to gym bunnies and athletes, but that have started to infiltrate the menus of dieters.

The food writer Bee Wilson took a deep dive into one of those tubs – figuratively speaking of course – in her piece ‘Protein mania: the rich world’s new diet obsession’ for the Guardian last month. She notes the pull towards protein in recent food trends and the proliferation of protein-boosted products such as protein bars, protein balls and even protein water. She notes that we’re at a stage of our “nutrient wars” where carbohydrates and fats are seen as the enemy and protein is seen by many as the hero.

According to a report in Harvard Health in September 2018 “protein is essential for building and maintaining muscle, bone strength, and numerous body functions.” However, the report cautions about the difficulty there can be in regulating the amount, type or quality of protein in the powders made by different manufactures. There is plant protein, egg protein or milk protein – that’s whey protein to you and me – and it’s believed that whey protein may be the best in terms of health benefits. The Harvard Health report lists a few concerns around the unknown long-terms effects, the possibility of digestive distress and the potential for high calories and sugar in the powders.

In her Guardian piece, Wilson recognises that protein has an essential place in our diets. Though she appears to be generally cautious of processed protein, she shares the anecdotal benefits of her athletic son’s use of the whey powder in terms of his energy levels. But her main point of concern is that this protein anxiety as she puts it is affecting the wrong group. “Most of those who can afford to buy a ‘high-protein’ tuna plate are already well nourished in amino acids,” writes Wilson.

“By contrast, in these austere times, many hard-pressed eaters are forced into a kind of protein hunger by the economic circumstances of their lives....Behind the current protein hype, there is a kernel of truth. A deficit of protein is indeed part of the hugely complex puzzle of what’s wrong with modern diets. The problem is that the right question – am I getting enough protein? – is being asked by the wrong people...”

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