How is Whey Protein Powder Made?

Reviewed by Mgr. Kristýna Dvořáková
How is Whey Protein Powder Made?
Table of contents
Show Hide

Whey protein is one of the highest quality protein sources available. However, not all whey proteins are the same in composition; they differ in their production processes, which affects their composition nutritional value. How is whey protein produced, and how to choose a product that contains the highest proportion of beneficial substances for the body?

Step by step: How is whey protein produced?

1. Separation of Whey from Milk

Whey protein is made from cow's milk. Whey protein makes up about 20% of milk protein, meaning more than 100 litres of cow's milk are needed to produce 1kg of the resulting protein.

The first step involves separating the whey, by adding chymosin as a rennet to the milk. This action precipitates the casein (the remaining component of milk protein) and diverts the whey for further processing. The precipitated casein is further used to make cheese or curd.

However, the whey processed in this way still has a long way to go before it becomes whey protein. On average, it has approximately the following composition:

Nutrient content (g/100 g)
Carbohydrates (lactose)83

Dried sweet whey in this form is popularly used in infant formulas or carbohydrate drinks (gainers). However, it needs to be further processed to produce whey protein.

2. Concentrating the Whey Protein

Although sweet whey has nutritional value, it doesn't compare to that of whey protein. Now is the time to concentrate the proteins present in the whey, thereby increasing their percentage in the dry matter.

Traditionally, ultrafiltration has been the method used for this initial stage. In this process, proteins are retained on semi‑permeable membranes while smaller molecules (such as milk sugar - lactose) pass through the membrane. However, there is a significant drawback with ultrafiltration at this stage - residual milk fat is also retained on the semi‑permeable membrane. As a result, an 80% whey protein concentrate might still contain 7‑8 % residual fat. 

It is then possible to concentrate the protein by ion exchange to form whey isolate. This method, however, disturbs the native protein structure and alters the ratios of the basic peptide types in the whey protein.

A more refined solution emerged in the 1990s with the advent of CFM (cross‑flow microfiltration). In CFM, filtration occurs perpendicular to the direction of whey passage. In this way, it is possible to obtain a whey concentrate containing 80% protein with only a minimal amount of fat. Subsequent ultrafiltration of the concentrate thus prepared can lead to a whey protein isolate containing approximately 90% protein. The CFM method can be seen in more detail in the following figure.

Cross‑Flow Microfiltration

"Feed" represents the whey entering the filters and the direction of flow,."Permeate" represents the whey concentrate obtained. "Retentate" refers to substances that have been retained by the membrane.

3. Drying the Filtered Whey Concentrate

CFM filtration produces a concentrate largely free of residual carbohydrates and fats. However, it still contains a high proportion of water, which needs to be removed. Inappropriate or overly gentle drying approach could lead to the denaturation of native peptide fractions. For this reason, spray drying is used, a method in which small droplets of the original raw material are dried quickly and gently to remove water.

Whey protein is a world away. In concentrates, the protein content is about 80%, while isolates can contain more than 90%. Above all, residual sugars (lactose) and fats are still present in the concentrate, but these are minimal in a single dose of protein drink. Beyond the basic macronutrients, whey proteins are relatively rich in calcium, although they contain slightly less magnesium or iron.

How are whey proteins flavoured?

Unflavoured whey protein itself has a rather pleasant milky taste, so adding flavour usually does not cause any major complications for manufacturers. In most cases, the popular triple flavouring combination of flavouring, colouring and sweetener is used. If the flavouring is natural (e.g., stevia), you will find a mention of this in the ingredients, and the same goes for the colouring. In the majority of cases, artificial sweeteners (sucralose) with a high sweetening power are used as sweeteners, as it is not entirely desirable to supplement a whey protein concentrate that has just been stripped of milk sugar (lactose) with conventional sugar.

Whey protein is already available in this form from food supplement manufacturers. Guar gum and soya lecithin, which improve the structure and texture of protein drinks, may also be added to further supplement them.

Our Vilgain Grass‑Fed Whey Protein is a low‑temperature ultra‑filtered whey protein concentrate (WPC) that is naturally sweetened with stevia only and flavoured with natural ingredients.

Grass‑Fed Whey Protein

Grass-Fed Whey Protein Powder with Stevia

Bottom line

The production of whey protein involves several consecutive steps. First, sweet whey is extracted from the milk and from this, the whey protein is then concentrated.In the final step, the captured protein is dried into a powder, as we know it from dietary supplement manufacturers. It is certainly not a product that undergoes many chemical reactions. In most cases, the pure unflavoured product is just processed whey from milk, which is purely natural in origin.

When choosing whey protein, we should also look at the production method. For us, the CFM label means the assurance of gentle processing that preserves the native structures of the peptides present, which is a nice plus. In addition, the ratio between the different types of peptides is preserved in this way, which is another advantage over whey isolates produced by ion exchange, which, among other things, removes rapidly absorbed glycomacropeptides.

In terms of flavouring, prefer products that have a simple and clear composition. Natural colouring, natural flavouring and stevia as a sweetener is a pleasant triple combination that is abundantly sufficient to flavour whey protein. On the other hand, filler sugars such as maltodextrin or dextrose are not desirable in larger quantities.

Which Lactose Free Protein Powder Should You Choose?
Which Lactose Free Protein Powder Should You Choose?
Are you lactose intolerant and wondering what protein is right for you? After reading this article, you will be more informed.
Should You Mix Whey Protein Powder with Milk or Water?
Should You Mix Whey Protein Powder with Milk or Water?
Whey protein is the most widely used dietary supplement in the fitness world, which is associated with many issues. One of them is the method of its preparation - is it better to mix the protein with water or milk?
Which Nuts are the Healthiest?
Which Nuts are the Healthiest?
When choosing nuts, we often ask which type is actually the healthiest. Is it even possible to say? What makes each type of nut nutritionally superior and which is the most nutritionally valuable?
How and When Should You Use Protein for Weight Loss or Muscle Gain?
How and When Should You Use Protein for Weight Loss or Muscle Gain?
Protein can ease our way to losing weight as well as gaining muscle. However, it's not an all‑powerful wizard and must be handled with skill. Learn how to use protein relative to your goals and master the protein magic.
Oats and Health: Why Include Them in Your Diet?
Oats and Health: Why Include Them in Your Diet?
Oatmeal has been known as a fitness food for quite a long time. Such a breakfast cereal will provide your body with plenty of energy in a tasty and easily digestible form. One is then almost not hungry until lunchtime, or just a small snack will do the trick.
How to Make the Perfect Pre- and Post-Workout Porridge
How to Make the Perfect Pre- and Post-Workout Porridge
Still wondering how to prepare the perfect pre‑workout or post‑workout porridge? You don't have to! We've got a handy guide on what such porridge should look like and what it should contain. Of course, I'll advise you on how to make it photogenic too.
Adaptogens for Anxiety and Stress Relief
Adaptogens for Anxiety and Stress Relief
Adaptogens are known for their support for more effective stress management. What are the mechanisms behind which they work in the body, and which substances are actually backed by research?
Micellar Casein: an Overlooked Protein of Superior Quality
Micellar Casein: an Overlooked Protein of Superior Quality
Micellar casein is one of the highest quality protein drinks you can find on the market. What are its main benefits?