How Whey Proteins became Block-Buster Supplement Products
Introduction: Milk and milk products have always been known for being nutritious but there is room for innovative disruption even in this ancient category. Whey protein which is extracted from whey, long considered a useless by-product of cheese manufacturing, was “rediscovered” in the 1990s. Two factors were important in their rediscovery: 1) New separation technologies became available to isolate relatively pure whey proteins at a reasonable cost, and; 2) Nutritional theorists realized that whey proteins were good-tasting, and rapidly metabolized by the body to amino acids thus enhancing the formation of new muscle. Whey powder, whey proteins and protein fractions currently have global sales in excess of $5 billion and projected sales of $6.4 billion by 20141,2.
Whey and Modern Whey Protein Supplements: Whey is the liquid remaining after cow’s milk has been curdled and strained. It is a by-product in the manufacturing of cheese. The dairy industry for many years considered whey a useless by-product, dumping it into rivers, using it for irrigating crops or mixing it with grains for an animal feed.
The genius of developing a whey protein supplement originated in the unique space where a growing natural supplements market and disruptive technical innovation “collided” to produce a blockbuster product. The lactose, fats, lipids and minerals in whey were removed (or partially removed) by modern filtration technology and dried to leave whey proteins in a concentrated powder form that tasted good and was easily dissolved.3
Timeline to Innovation: Although it may seem counter-intuitive, innovation is rarely about developing something entirely new. Innovation is more about “vision” and cross-application of known science and technology in ways that others have not yet envisioned. Technical innovation in particular, involves a unique creative process in which the R&D team can apply new or disparate technologies and harness knowledge outside their area of expertise and product area to create an innovative new product. The pathway to developing the whey protein supplement was no exception.
Early History of Whey Products: The intake of whey in liquid form was first described by the Greeks. Around 2500 years ago, Hippocrates recommended “serums” to enhance the immune system, increase strength and the muscle growth in the body. These serums were whey-like liquids derived from milk which where rich in lactose, minerals and proteins.
In late 16th century Switzerland, the importance of whey protein was rediscovered. Farmers noticed that the pigs which slopped on whey developed faster than the pigs which slopped on other feed options. Noticing this, the farmers started drinking the whey themselves. There was a noticeable improvement in their health, and word spread quickly. Soon after, the Swiss started health resorts and spas which attracted many aristocrats and royalty from all over Europe where the daily intake of whey was a key part of the treatment.
Understanding the Medical Importance of Proteins Opens the Floodgates: As medical science started to explain the role of proteins and amino acids in our bodies, the potential for protein products opened up. We now know that proteins provide the body with critical amino acids that serve as building blocks for the formation of new muscle. In fact, the use of whey protein as a source of amino acids for reducing the risks of diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes is the focus of ongoing research. Whey is an abundant source of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are used to fuel working muscles and stimulate protein synthesis.
The effect of whey protein supplementation on muscle growth in resistance training is yet to be clinically proven but none the less it is a very popular regimen with bodybuilders. The fast-digesting, soluble proteins in whey mean it empties from the stomach quickly, resulting in a rapid and large increase in plasma amino acids. This translates into a quick but transient increase in protein synthesis, while protein breakdown is not affected.
Use of Whey in Bodybuilding as a Supplement: In the 1940’s bodybuilders “discovered” that ingestion of high protein levels translated into big gains in muscle size.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Rheo H. Blair (born Irvin Johnson) was one of the first real modern bodybuilding “nutritional theorists.” He introduced top bodybuilders to concepts like amino acids before others in the industry even knew what amino acids were. Those bodybuilders who consumed large quantities of Blair Protein Powder (which was a high quality casein and egg white powder) routinely reported dramatic muscle gains. Most of the other proteins available during this period were derived from either soy, milk, egg or a blend of milk and egg. Unsophisticated processing methods left supplement users with a bitter, highly denatured, poorly digestible egg powder and a high-carb, lactose-filled milk powder.
A chief proponent of milk protein was A. Scott Connelly, the founder of MET-Rx. He explained the benefits of his proprietary protein, Metamyosyn and the limitations of other sources. Metamyosyn contained specific milk and egg proteins with a high level of added glutamine, an amino acid. Connelly based MET-Rx on the amino acid profile of baby’s milk, reasoning that it was logical to start with the protein that nature provided to ensure crucial growth during infancy.
In 1993, steroid guru Dan Duchaine became interested in the supplement industry and expounded on the virtues of a widely ignored protein source called whey protein. Whey was a waste by-product of the cheese-making process, and, as such, was relatively inexpensive. The primary expense with using whey protein was removing the unwanted waste components (lactose, minerals and fat). Duchaine formed a business relationship with David Jenkins who owned Next Proteins. Subsequently Next Proteins became the first company to provide a quality whey powder, called Designer Whey and Next Proteins profited immensely from the new product. Body builders followed Duchaine’s recommendations, but then supplement users started using whey protein because of its high levels of BCAAs, good taste and quick, easy digestion. The supplement industry took notice and soon every major player had a whey protein powder that could be used for shakes and smoothies.
Fast forward to today: Whey products have global sales in excess of $5 billion and projected global sales of $6.4 billion by 20141,2. Whey protein is now consumed regularly by the general public in sport nutrition products, infant formula products and in snack bars. Not bad for what was once thought of as a useless waste by-product of cheese.
Postscript: The development of whey protein supplement products is an interesting example of how disruptive innovation can occur even in an old and well-established industry such as the dairy industry. In this case, whey was “rediscovered” at least twice. We hear almost exclusively about examples of disruptive innovation in the technology industry but in fact disruptive innovation can occur in any industry, even in fields where you might least expect disruptive innovation. The point is that disruptive innovation will occur unpredictably, even in established industries and will disrupt the “status quo” of market dynamics in that industry.
- Newhope360.com “Sports nutrition drives sales of whey proteins” Richard Clarke, Nov 19, 2010 http://m.newhope360.com/product-development/sports-nutrition-drives-sales-whey-proteins
- Technical details about whey: The protein in cow’s milk is 20% whey protein and 80% casein protein, whereas the protein in human milk is 60% whey and 40% casein. Whey protein is soluble whereas casein is relatively insoluble and casein is more slowly metabolized by the body than whey. Whey is a 5% solution of lactose in water, fats, lipids, minerals and globular proteins. Whey protein is the name of globular proteins that can be isolated from whey. It is typically a mixture of beta-lactoglobulin (~65%), alpha-lactalbumin (~25%), and serum albumin (~8%), and is soluble independent of pH.
© Dennis Nelson 2013