You probably view whey protein as a magic elixir; post-workout, just scoop the white powder into a beverage, gulp, and let those muscles start growing.
Yes, whey protein powder builds muscle, and, if you use the right brand, is a great recovery option—research backs that up.
But do you really know what’s inside the massive plastic tub? Delve deep into the wrapper’s fine print and you’ll find a list of unpronounceable ingredients. Here’s a primer on what each does, and why it's used in that giant vat taking up space in your kitchen.
This is the star of the show, but it’s technically a waste product. It’s the left-behind liquid when milk is processed into cheese. There are really two reasons why whey is able to transform from castaway to muscle-builder. The first is texture; it turns out most proteins taste pretty terrible. But, the dairy properties of whey make it more palatable.
More important, whey is packed with essential amino acids—chemical compounds the body needs but can only get through food. Whey in particular contains three amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. When you gulp down your shake, the trio gets to work, repairing damaged muscle tissue and helping that tissue grow.
Now we get to the gibberish; the stuff that’s easily grazed over on the label. Lecithin is a type of fat derived from soy. Its main purpose in your protein shake is to improve texture. The compound prevents clumping and smoothens the beverage.
Some research has also linked lecithin to improved memory; it’s often prescribed to patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Mostly though, thank this fat for preventing you from gulping chunks after a workout.
Used to thicken the texture, xanthan gum comes from a sugar compound mixed with bacteria. You probably consume this pervasive additive on a daily basis. It’s in your protein powder, but it’s also in your toothpaste, your salad dressing, and your condiments.
More commonly called stevia extract, this is a natural sweetener 200 times more powerful than sugar. It’s there to make your drink taste good without dumping in loads of sugar.
This is a patented compound of enzymes that help your body absorb the protein more efficiently. Without it, most of your shake would just go in one end and out the other without leaving behind any amino acids. A 2008 study proved that adding aminogen to protein significantly increased the absorption of protein. That’s good for you, because it turns what essentially would be a tub of sweet powder into the muscle-building recovery drink you know and love.