By Anna Cummings MSc BSc
Anna Cummings BSc(hons), MSc, is a Functional Nutritionist, Health Coach and Women’s Exercise Specialist, who practices in Brighton and London, UK. A geek for physiology, with a background in Sport and Exercise Science, she loves lifting, and is practically in love with her Magimix. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, or to read more of her blog posts and get in touch visit www.annacummings.co.uk.
So you’re one of those people who likes a little bit extra. Maybe it’s for health reasons, maybe it’s to assist with recovery from exercise or maybe you don’t know why the hell you take it, but you read something, somewhere, some time that it could help with… to be honest, you don’t even remember, and now it’s gathering dust behind that detox tea, in the ever-filling random supplements cupboard.
Taking protein supplements can be helpful for a whole range of physiological reasons – but that is a whole different article. If you are choosing alone, how do you go about navigating the overwhelming plethora of options out there? Do you choose the hemp protein, the whey protein, the soy protein, the pea protein, the egg protein, the egg white protein, the free-range egg protein, the organic whey protein, the vegan mixed protein with raw dehydrated sprouted superfluous sunflower seeds or do you ‘GOMAD’ and drink a litre of milk after every workout, to the point where even your sweat has a slight dairy-like odour… Yeah, maybe not.
The choices do seem to be endless, as well as sometimes bamboozling, for want of a better word. So for simplicity’s sake, let’s check out one of the best absorbed, bioavailable and most popular products in the protein market: the humble whey (1). This form of protein powder exceeds the biological value of egg protein by 15% and is a rich source of all the essential amino acids (2).
[Vegan side note – Apologies, to my vegan friends at his point, someday I will write another article especially for you on the best sources of plant-based protein – promise – but you’ll probably find this interesting too.]
One day you wake up, you wander down to that well-known supplement store, pick yourself up a choco-flavoured-super-whey-bargain, pop it in your dedicated protein shaker (which you remember to wash straight away) and knock it back. Did you think about what was in the mix, what type of udder it came from, the overall quality of the protein? Probably not, because we learn to trust what it says on the tin, but not all wheys are liken to Ronseal, my friends, and these are the types of considerations to make before you supplement…
Firstly, let’s return to the udder of origin. Whey was once discarded as waste, a useless by-product of cheese production. But, into the modern age it has become a nutritious commodity, bulking out foods and bagged up as a supplement (2).
Logically, the quality of the milk from whence the whey came, leads directly onto the quality of the powder. Conventional dairy farms, where the focus is on productivity, use a much higher quantity of pesticides, fertiliser, antibiotics and hormone treatment, compared to organic husbandry (3).
Within the Organic industry, animal welfare is prioritised over productivity, with typically lower yields (4). Antibiotic use is limited, with a longer ‘washout’ period post-treatment, it must be supervised by a vet, and if an animal is treated more than three times in one year, it is no longer an organically classified specimen (3). Within conventional farms, antibiotics are often used as a preventative method, meaning farmers have largely unrestricted use of antibiotics, and therefore don’t have to be as fastidious with living conditions to encourage health (3).
Cows on an organic farms are typically healthier, with better living conditions and lower incidences of mastitis (5). In some European countries, even alternative treatments are used, such as phytotherapy and homeopathy (3); I can’t speak to the effectiveness of these, but think it’s kind of awesome that people are thinking outside the traditional antibiotic ‘box’.
Pesticide and inorganic pesticide use in the fields and feed production (which is only allowed to be 40% of an organic cow’s diet), is banned, as is the use of hormonal treatments to encourage reproduction. A controversial paper was recently published by the University of Nottingham suggesting a hormonal treatment to reduce global warming, by getting more cows, pregnant, faster (3,6)… Probably not the best solution for us consumers, or the poor cows.
I should add though, giving cows hormones consistently to produce milk is illegal, now a myth in the present day, as is the presence of puss. There are no such thing as ‘puss cells’, and what is looked at really, is the ‘Somatic Cell Count’ – the presence of white blood cells – which if too high, indicates infection, and the cow is treated accordingly (7).
The hoo-hah about these foreign synthetic substances, xenobiotics, entering a cow’s system, is that milk can act as an exit mechanism. As with humans – quoted in one of the best-named papers of all time ‘Breast Fed at Tiffany’s’ – milk can be treated as a ‘waste basket’, with the potential to contain pesticides, synthetic additives, residues from inorganic fertilisers such as heavy metals, hormones and antibiotics, among other things (8,9).
Exposure to certain xenobiotics in humans can cause altered gene expression, hormonal disruption, increase the risk of certain cancers, being carcinogens, and other pathophysiologies (10). Switching to organic milk may even reduce eczema in children under two and hypospadias in boys, according to a recent review (3)… These xenobiotics clearly pose real concern.
Although European bodies maintain that there is no risk from pesticides in foods, the Environmental Working Group disagrees (www.ewg.org), as does select literature, which points out the potentially persistent and bio-accumulative dangers that certain substances present to our tissues long term (11). Even if our body is reasonably effective at dealing with short-term challenges, there are questions surrounding the long-term damage and build up in our tissues of these substances.
Nutritionally, likely due to the organic-bovine diet being largely based on grazing and natural foraging, there are higher concentrations of polyunsaturated fatty acids present, particularly the anti-inflammatory Omega-3 (4). I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of this delightful little fatty acid, and the importance of the Omega 3:Omega 6 ratio, which is higher in organic milk, than conventional, as well as increased antioxidants, vitamins, including alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E), and minerals (3–5).
There is more selenium (Se) present in conventional milk, probably due to the increased presence of it in their feed formulation, which is heavily synthetically manipulated to encourage yield (3). Se is vital to human metabolism and thyroid health, however, high levels can be toxic to baby calves (12)… So, arguably, perhaps high Se isn’t a natural product of cows milk, and we should stick to 2-3 Brazil nuts/day to get our fill of it instead. There is indeed nutrition outside of dairy, after all!
Hopefully, you’re developing an awareness of the importance of choosing an organic and sound quality whey, over the alternative. If you care about your long-term health, it may be something that you already do, or will implement after the well runs dry on your current batch.
A couple of my favourite organic whey proteins, available to a British market, are:
The Organic Protein Company – This stuff tastes creamy and amazing. It is pure whey – no additives or preservatives . Super clean, and they have run heavy metals tests with an external company, as proof of it’s purity – the results are reassuringly low.
Motion Nutrition – These guys contacted me a while back, as being a nutritionist and exercise specialist, they were interested in my opinion on their products.
Founded by two great guys, frustrated with the chemically laden, synthetic sport supplement industry, they set out to make a change by providing the athletic world with clean, superfood-based options. After all, if you care enough about your body to strive for health and fitness, you should be fuelling it with the best – that, it deserves.
Nestled amongst a whole range of superfood-stacked-supps, their whey is organic, grass-fed, amazing tasting and comes in two different flavours – raw cacao or medium-chain-fatty-acid-full coconut yumminess. The coconut I am yet to try, but the cacao was a 10/10 for flavour, lovely and creamy, with just a hint of chocotastic lovely.
What I found particularly innovative, was their Post-Workout Recovery Shake. Another whey-based supplement, with a 2:1 Carbohydrate:Protein ratio, to optimise protein uptake and recovery after a hard session. The carbohydrate quantity is provided by a mixture of powdered organic red banana, pomegranate juice and maqui berry, which is stacked full of vitamins and minerals. The addition of wheatgrass and maitake mushroom extract, cleverly supports the immune system post-session, which is often initially compromised post-sesh – particularly when you’ve been working quite hard.
The taste is a natural mixture of berry-like, banana. No nasty lingering twangs of synthetic flavourings, no need for stevia, just straight-up-superfoods. Sometimes I needed a little more protein per scoop, with my ideal intake sitting at around 10-20g post-exercise, depending on the session type. To combat this, I just used a little extra whey when necessary. Remember guys, protein percentage uptake it optimized when consumed in small amounts – maximally at 10-20g per feed (13).
This is my favourite post-exercise supplement – big claim.
Disclaimer: Anna Cummings always advises talking to you doctor, dietician or registered nutritionist prior to embarking on any programme of supplementation
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2. Smithers G. Whey-ing up the Options: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow Yesterday – Medicinal and Menacing Whey. International Whey Conference. 2014;1–16.
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4. Średnicka-Tober D, Barański M, Seal CJ, Sanderson R, Benbrook C, Steinshamn H, et al. Higher PUFA and n-3 PUFA, conjugated linoleic acid, α-tocopherol and iron, but lower iodine and selenium concentrations in organic milk: a systematic literature review and meta-and redundancy analyses. Br J N. 2016;7:1043–60.
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9. Kühn-institut J, Baumann D, Schaefer I. Assessment of ABCG2-mediated transport of xenobiotics across the blood-milk barrier of dairy animals using a new MDCKII in vitro model. Toxicokinet Metab. 2013;(May).
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13. Moore DR, Areta J, Coffey VG, Stellingwerff T, Phillips SM, Burke LM, et al. Daytime pattern of post-exercise protein intake affects whole-body protein turnover in resistance-trained males. Nutr Metab. 2012;9(91):1–5.