You might take a scoop of whey protein religiously after a workout during the sacred “30 minute post-workout window of gainz”, but do you know if whey protein even works or how it functions? In order to maximize your physiological benefits (getting stronger and packing on muscle) from whey protein supplementation, this article is going to cover the newest whey protein supplement type on the market, whey hydrolysates, and the science behind them.
There are three types of whey protein: whey concentrate, whey isolate, and whey hydrolysate. This article will only focus on whey hydrolysate.
Considering our interest in strength training, and the subsequently related goals of getting stronger and building muscle, the main question which needs to be asked and analyzed for whey hydrolysate supplements is:
Does consumption of a hydrolyzed whey protein produce a more anabolic environment compared to a non-hydrolyzed whey protein?
To provide some context to the answer to that question though, lets examine what exactly is whey hydrolysate first.
Whey Hydrolysate Production Characteristics
Whey hydrolysate is whey protein which has been subjected to hydrolysis. Hydrolysis is a reaction involving the breaking of a bond in a molecule using water. In regards to protein, hydrolysis is the process of breaking down a protein into smaller peptides. Protein hydrolysis typically occurs in the gastrointestinal tract after protein consumption (i.e. stomach and small intestine) through the use of acid and enzymes, but enzymatic protein hydrolysis can also be performed in the lab. Enzymatic protein hydrolysis, where food-grade enzymes are introduced to whey protein, is how whey protein hydrolysates are produced for the supplement industry. In order to be absorbed by the body, all dietary protein much by hydrolyzed during the digestive process to either free form amino acids or di- and tripeptides*.
*Note – Peptides are short chains of amino acid monomers (small molecules) linked by peptide bonds. A tripeptide for example is composed of three amino acids linked by peptide bonds. A free form amino acid is a single amino acid molecule.
Both whey concentrate or whey isolate can by hydrolyzed, but typically only hydrolyzed whey isolate is used in whey hydrolysate supplements. Whey hydrolysate is the least allergenic form of whey protein, as it is already partially predigested and contains virtually no fat, lactose, and cholesterol. Many people who are lactose intolerant can handle whey hydrolysate with no issues. There are two objective measures which can be used to determine the quality of a whey hydrolysate: percentage and degree of hydrolysis.
Percentage of Hydrolysis
The percentage of hydrolysis is simply the amount of the protein which has been subjected to the hydrolysis process. A protein powder which has been 50% hydrolyzed means that 50% of the protein has undergone some degree of hydrolysis, and the other 50% of the protein hasn’t been hydrolyzed at all. Most whey hydrolysates which are sold are 100% whey hydrolysate, so this shouldn’t be too much of a concern.
Degree of Hydrolysis
Considering most whey hydrolysate supplements are 100% whey hydrolysate, the main determining factor in whether a whey hydrolysate is good or not is the degree of hydrolysis (DH). The degree of hydrolysis is the amount of hydrolysis that the protein has undergone, and this can range from no hydrolysis (DH0) to complete hydrolysis (DH100). A whey protein isolate which has a degree of hydrolysis of 10 (DH10), means that 10% of the whey protein has been successfully hydrolyzed (i.e. peptide bonds broken) to smaller di- and tripeptides and free form amino acids, and the other 90% of the whey protein isolate peptides are still tetrapeptides or larger. The higher the DH value of a hydrolyzed protein, the faster the whey protein is absorbed because some of the digestion has already been taken care of, since the hydrolysis reaction mimics our own digestive actions.
Visualization of a protein and how it is composed of individual amino acids. This chain be thousands of amino acids long.
Related to the DH is the average molecular weight (AMW) of the hydrolyzed whey. Molecular weights are measure in daltons (Da) and kilodaltons (kDa). Just as a whey hydrolysate with a high DH will have more di- and tripeptides and free form amino acids than a whey hydrolysate with a low DH, the average molecular weight is another good indicator of the degree of hydrolysis that a protein has undergone. Free form amino acids and di- and tripeptides have lower molecular weights than intact proteins, so the lower the average molecular weight of a whey hydrolysate, the faster it can be digested and absorbed into the blood stream. It is necessary to analyze the AMW of any given hydrolyzed protein supplement though because free form amino acids (which have the lowest molecular weight) are not as anabolic as di- and tri-peptides as they are directly absorbed by the gut at a greater rate and regulated by the liver to a much greater degree. Di- and tripeptides have a much easier time passing directly into the bloodstream than free form amino acids. A low AMW and a low free form amino acid percentage ensures that a hydrolyzed protein product is high in di- and tripeptides and not cheap free form amino acids. To sum up, a DH30 whey hydrolysate will have a lower average MW than a DH10 whey hydrolysate, as the DH30 whey hydrolysate has more di- and tripeptides and free form amino acids.
As the DH increases, the protein which is being hydrolyzed becomes more and more bitter, and the broken protein molecules are reduced in molecular weight. A DH100 whey hydrolysate would basically taste like stomach acid or worse, and it would be nearly impossible to turn the broken down peptides into a usable powder. As a result of these factors and production constraints, DH100 whey hydrolysates are not produced or sold.
A typical 100% whey hydrolysate has a DH value ranging from 1-9%. A DH10 or greater is considered a high DH value, and the best protein hydrolysate supplements max out at ~DH30. If you are curious as to the degree of hydrolysis of a specific whey hydrolysate supplement, request a product specification sheet from the producer.
Whey Hydrolysate Benefits
When it comes to the muscle building effects of any protein, four specific qualities must be analyzed to determine the proteins ability to create a anabolic environment. These qualities are:
- Rate of gastric Emptying
- Gastrointestinal Absorption
- Amino Acid Profile – Muscle Protein Synthesis
- Insulin Response
The faster the protein is able to exit the stomach into the small intestine for absorption, the better it is in acutely increasing circulating free form amino acids and di- and tripeptides in the bloodstream. More efficient gastrointestinal absorption also allows more protein fractions to enter into the bloodstream, creating a more anabolic environment. The level of muscle protein synthesis which is stimulated by a protein is important, and the ability of a protein to increase insulin secretion upon consumption also is important in creating an anabolic environment.
Rate of Gastric Emptying
Whey hydrolysate solutions empty with a half-time rate of 17.2 ± 6.1 min1. The half-time rate is the time required by the stomach to empty 50% of the ingested meal. For reference, a standard glucose solution, which has a very fast rate of gastric emptying, has a half-time rate of 9.4 ± 1.2 min and milk protein, which has a slow rate of gastric emptying, has a half-time rate of 26.4 ± 10.0 min1. When it comes to quickly creating an anabolic state by delivering whey protein peptides into the blood stream, the faster the rate of gastric emptying, the better.
More Efficient Absorption
Whey hydrolysate is able to be absorbed by the body more rapidly than intact proteins, such as whey protein concentrate and isolate, thus quickening nutrient delivery to muscle tissues. Free form amino acids and di- and tripeptides are absorbed extremely rapidly since they are already digested and can pass through the intestinal wall. Peptides larger than tripeptides, such as tetrapeptides, cannot be directly absorbed by the body unless they undergo further digestion into smaller peptides or free form amino acids.
Studies2,3,4 strongly suggest that ingestion of a protein hydrolysate results in a less efficient uptake by the splanchnic bed (the splanchnic bed is comprised of the liver, stomach, intestines, pancreas, and spleen) and therefore the magnitude of the acute increase in amino acids in the blood stream is increased compared to whey protein isolate and concentrate.
Amino Acid Profile – Muscle Protein Synthesis
Increasing muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is the whole reason protein powder supplements are so popular, as it leads to greater muscular gains, and compared to other protein sources such as casein and soy, whey protein is the best at acutely increasing MPS5. The amino acid profile of whey protein compared to other proteins such as soy and casein is responsible for its greater ability to increase MPS, and the 2:1:1 ratio of branched chained amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine found in whey protein is responsible for this6.
Whey Hydrolysate Insulin Response
Whey protein has been shown to greatly stimulate insulin release once the various di- and tripeptides and free form amino acids from the whey enter the bloodstream7, and insulin is a major contributor to muscle anabolism* under certain conditions. The one-two punch of increased muscle protein synthesis from whey protein and increased insulin levels makes whey protein a very anabolic supplement, and considering whey hydrolysate is the quickest and most efficiently absorbed whey protein available, whey hydrolysate will stimulate insulin release to a greater degree than whey isolate or concentrate.
Compared to other versions of whey protein and casein hydrolysate, whey hydrolysate increases skeletal muscle glycogen levels to a greater degree over a similar time period8,9. Higher muscle glycogen stores and fast absorption make whey hydrolysate a great ingredient to use in a peri-workout drink along with a fast digesting carbohydrate source, such as dextrose.
*Note – Insulin allows nutrients in the bloodstream, such as whey protein fractions and glucose, to enter into a muscle cell. Insulin also stimulates muscle protein synthesis and increases blood flow to muscles.
Does Whey Hydrolysate Live Up to the Hype?
Whey protein hydrolysate is more effective than whey protein isolate and concentrate, but since whey protein concentrate and isolate are already highly bio-available, the increased ability of whey protein hydrolysate to be absorbed into the blood stream at a faster rate is overplayed by the supplement industry for most traditional whey hydrolysate supplements. A whey hydrolysate supplement with a degree of hydrolysis of 3, which is typical for the industry, only offers a small competitive advantage over regular whey protein isolate, but the current science shows that a DH10+ whey hydrolysate definitely confers significant anabolic advantages over regular whey protein isolate or concentrate.
Whether the increased price of whey protein hydrolysate is worth the extra premium is up to you the buyer. I personally like to afford myself every advantage I can, especially as a lifetime natural lifter, and many whey protein hydrolysates on the market are very competitively priced compared to the price of whey protein isolate.
Clearly whey hydrolysate gainz and nothing else…
To answer the question of whether consumption of a hydrolyzed whey protein produces a more anabolic environment compared to a non-hydrolyzed whey protein, the answer is yes10. Consumption of a high DH, low AMW whey hydrolysate supplement has significant benefits over traditional whey isolate and concentrate supplements.
Is Whey Hydrolysate Right for You?
If you are already buying a whey protein supplement for pre, peri, or post workout nutrition I would recommend you buy whey hydrolysate instead of whey isolate or concentrate as long as the DH value of the hydrolysate is 10+. For a meal replacement, I would stick with whey protein concentrate for its cheaper price. Lower DH whey hydrolysates still offer unique advantages over typical whey protein supplements, but the higher price per pound doesn’t make low DH whey hydrolysates worth the extra cost in my opinion.
If you are lactose intolerant but still want to use whey protein for it’s superior muscle building properties, whey hydrolysate is a great choice. Whey hydrolysate is virtually free of lactose, fat, and cholesterol, and it shouldn’t cause any adverse effects, but that depends on the severity of the lactose intolerance.
Whey Hydrolysate Buying Recommendations
Overall, I would give whey hydrolysate a big BUY recommendation considering you buy the right type (aka DH10+, AMW <10,000 Da). Below I have two brands I recommend and have tried, but I am sure there are other supplement companies which sell comparable products. Armed with the knowledge provided in this article, it should now be easy to determine whether any specific whey hydrolysate supplement is deserving of the hype and is worth the cost over traditional whey protein supplements.
A great hydrolyzed whey protein powder which you can buy for a very competitive price per pound is PowerCrunch’s Proto Whey. On Amazon it typically sells for around $12.21 a pound with free shipping, and the AMW of Proto Whey is less than 1,000-1,200 Da (the AMW of a free form amino acid is 110 Da for referrence), and Proto Whey contains levels under 3-5% of free form aminos11. The low AMW of 1,000-1,200 Da of Proto Whey isn’t skewed by excess free form amino acids but rather abundant di- and tripeptides, which is ideal. The AMW of whey protein components range from 6700 kDa to 80,000 kDa12, so a reduction down to 1-1.2 kDa is quite signifigant. A high DH whey hydrolysate will typically have an AMW of 20 kDa or less. The double chocolate flavor of Proto Whey is delicious as well, reminiscent of a double chocolate cookie. For the price per pound and the level of hydrolysis it has undergone, Proto Whey from Power Crunch is a hell of a deal.
Another good source for a high quality, high DH whey hydrolysate is available from True Nutrition. True Nutrition is a great website which sells dozens of different types of protein, carbohydrate, and fat powders, all for cheap bulk prices. You can even create your own custom protein blend, which is basically a combination of whichever bulk powders you want in your desired ratios. They do add on charges for flavors, the bags used to hold the protein, and shipping, but even after all of that you usually still come out ahead. I’ve ordered from TN a couple dozen times and I always end up with a good deal.
At $14.99 a pound, the Hydrolyzed Whey Protein Ultra Grade sold by True Nutrition isn’t as cheap as Proto Whey, but you can blend it with other protein, carb, or fat powders for a customized blend, and you can custom the flavoring too. They state that this whey hydrolysate has “undergone the highest degree of hydrolysis of any of our current hydrolyzed whey proteins for the highest concentration of di- and tri-peptides”, and considering that their third highest grade of whey hydrolysate has a DH7, I would venture to guess that the hydrolyzed whey ultra grade that they sell has a degree of hydrolysis value of 10+, which is very competitive.
If you enjoyed this article, learn more about three supplements which can immediately increase your lifting performance and the most cost-effective and potent curcumin supplements.
GO FORTH AND CONQUER
1. Calbet, J. A. & MacLean, D. A. (1996) Rate of gastric emptying and plasma insulin response to peptide hydrolysate solutions in humans. J. Physiol. 491P: 60P–61P (abs.).
2. Protein hydrolysates in sports nutrition
3. The role of incretins in glucose homeostasis and diabetes treatment.
4. Exogenous amino acids stimulate human muscle anabolism without interfering with the response to mixed meal ingestion.
5. Ingestion of whey hydrolysate, casein, or soy protein isolate: effects on mixed muscle protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in young men.
6. Effect of protein/essential amino acids and resistance training on skeletal muscle hypertrophy: A case for whey protein
7. Effect of whey on blood glucose and insulin responses to composite breakfast and lunch meals in type 2 diabetic subjects
8. Post-exercise carbohydrate plus whey protein hydrolysates supplementation increases skeletal muscle glycogen level in rats.
9. Dietary whey protein hydrolysates increase skeletal muscle glycogen levels via activation of glycogen synthase in mice.
10. Hyperinsulinaemia, hyperaminoacidaemia and post‐exercise muscle anabolism: the search for the optimal recovery drink
11. Proto Whey FAQ
12. Bovine whey proteins – Overview on their main biological properties
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