“When I get asked this question by consumers about what they should use if if they’re on a budget, when you look at the cost to benefit ratio, I always answer whey,” Lockwood told NutraIngredients-USA.
Lockwood, who is the principal in the consulting firm AP Nutrition, has a both an academic and hands-on background in sports nutrition. After a career as an editor at bodybuilding.com Lockwood graduated to be the manager of the diet category at supplement retailing giant GNC. After that, he completed a PhD in exercise physiology at the University of Oklahoma, where he learned a thing or two about protein. Which is a good thing, as he sees no end to the growth curve for the ingredient.
“It’s gratifying to see protein do so well as it has. That’s what I did my dissertation work on, to assess the science behind the different sources,” he said.
Tricycles vs racing bikes
There are of course numerous different sources of protein, all with individual physiological characteristics. Some absorb quickly, like whey, which in effect floats in open strands in the stomach acids, the better to be snipped apart by enzymes and digested rapidly. Others absorb slowly, like casein, which clumps, curd like, in the stomach and is absorbed more slowly further down in the GI tract. A plethora of protein sources fit in between those poles.
For general nutrition, this speed of absorption curve is of little importance. Pay attention to adequate and balanced macro and micronutrient intakes, and a healthy diet can be constructed using almost any protein source. But when you are asking that protein to do more for you, to support muscle protein synthesis under the stimulus of heavy exertion, for example, some protein sources are tricycles where others are racing bikes.
Lockwood said he goes back to the beginning when looking at what supports muscle growth the best. The time of life when humans put on the most muscle with the most rapidity is during the first two years of life. Infants in the Western world typically triple their birth weight by the end of the first year, and increase at least 50% in length/height. This growth curve usually starts to flatten out somewhere in the second year, and stays on a gradual slope until puberty. The food that was designed by nature so to speak to support this spectacular initial weight gain is breast milk.
“It’s common sense if you look at what is present in breast milk. About 92% of the proteins in early breast milk is whey. Even at late lactation, after two years, you are still at about 55% to 65% whey,” Lockwood said.
Sports nutrition formulators have over the years looked at ways to customize protein delivery. A typical approach is to drill even deeper into the protein question, to see if delivering protein via its building blocks—the essential amino acids—would do an even better job for consumers. Many pre-workout supplements are built around BCAAs—branched chain amino acids—and carry a ‘fuel for the muscles’ message. Lockwood said there is some truth in these ideas around customized delivery. Protein, even an easily absorbed source like whey, does require some digestive energy and ingesting it during heavy and prolonged exercise could cause stomach upset.
“I’m not against BCAAs (branched chain amino acids). I think they have their place. During exercise or immediately after exercise I think they’re great,” Lockwood said.
But Lockwood questions whether these are necessary for most consumers. There is a big difference between highly trained strength athletes seeking to increase size and/or power and how their bodies respond both to stimuli and inputs like amino acids and the typical gym user who’s there to maintain health and general muscle tone. One size does not fit all when it comes to protein delivery. BCAAs might be of great benefit for athletes whose cells are trained as it were to incorporate certain inputs at certain times, but for of the average sports nutrition consumer, Lockwood said whey easily and simply gets done almost all of what you want done.
“Whey is one of the most innocuous protein ingredients out there, and you don’t have the taste issues you can have with amino acids,” he said.
“I get frustrated with some sports nutrition personalities and experts who tell people to take everything in the kitchen sink and then they don’t know what’s working for them and what’s not. I’m not a fan of that concept at all, really. I think the data has been misinterpreted over the years. When you look at muscle protein synthesis to me the data is very clear that whey is the best thing going,” Lockwood said.
Lockwood will be speaking on the subject of protein in sports nutrition at the upcoming Ingredient Marketplace trade show.