What Does “Undenatured” or “Non-Denatured” Whey Protein Mean?
In this article, we hope to provide some clarity on a few trending buzz words used to both describe and too often market whey protein. A protein is said to be “denatured” as a function of its exposure to any element capable of altering any one of the four protein structures, which would yield a reduction in the protein’s nutrient bio-availability.
In searching storefronts in hopes of finding the best grass-fed whey protein, you will most likely spot a label that states something to the effect, “Undenatured Whey Protein” or even “Non-denatured Whey Protein.”
The idea behind the marketing point is a suggestion that careful sourcing, manufacturing, and handling is given to the protein to ensure the protein structures are entirely intact. This single adjective markets the product’s ability to transfer its nutrients to you. This claim also leads to an inference that the other competing brands who are not claiming this front & center may be providing a whey protein that is less bio-available or not bio-available at all.
In our AGN Roots Grassfed Whey “Cold Processing / Cold Filtering” article, we get into some other areas where proteins are susceptible to being damaged as a function of the filtering method.
What Does Undenatured mean?
As we examine the various points in the whey protein manufacturing process where whey protein has the potential to be rendered nutritionally ineffective, we’ll use several descriptive words & phrases. Phrases like, “damaged protein,” “denatured peptides,” and “altered whey protein fractions” for the sake of this article, all refer to the same concept; whey protein and specific protein fractions are fragile and susceptible to being deformed. When any one of the four protein structures become permanently deformed, the body has a difficult time recognizing its nutritional value to the body.
The degree or severity of the “denaturing” depends solely on the specific denaturing element, with the magnitude of the force and its exposure time being the critical factors to the whey protein’s structural integrity.
Note: It’s essential to understand that undenatured whey protein powder can quickly become denatured or further denatured long after it’s packaged and shipped via Amazon Prime to your residents. Denaturing whey protein isolate isn’t exclusive to the manufacturing process but rather can occur at any time. "Nondenatured whey protein" is another term that means "Undenatured whey protein."
To Learn More about Protein Fractions - What Are Protein Fractions (Bovine Serum Albumin (BSA), Immunoglobulins (Ig), Alpha Lactalbumin (α-La), Beta Lactoglobulin (β-Lg), Lactoferrin, Glutathione Levels)
What Causes Denaturation of Whey Protein?
The term “denatured protein” refers to a protein compound (made up of several amino acids connected by peptide bonds) whose spatial arrangement is no longer natural.
This alteration process that physically changes the shape of the protein compound is known as “denaturation.” Many forces have the potential to denature your whey protein. Some of these forces exist during the manufacturing process, while others, incidentally applied after the protein is in the consumers’ possession.
The following elements comprise the primary forces that cause protein structures to change form (denature):
- High Heat / Temperature (161°F is the limit to be safe)
- Pasteurization Method (Nondeantured Whey Protein must be pasteurized via the Vat or HTST method only)
- Mechanical Shear (Aggressive shaking or blending)
- Chemicals (Acids used in “Ion Exchange Method” of making WPI)
- Ultra Violate rays (Sunlight)
What Part of the Protein Powder Becomes Denatured?
High Temperatures or Ultra Pasteurization damage the tertiary and quaternary protein structures -
Mechanically Shearing (Blending) your protein shake to a frothy foam air smoothie almost guarantees tertiary & quarternary denaturing.
Chemicals used in the Ion Exchange Method aren’t as harmful as most “cold-processed” (marketing) focussed whey protein brands would have you believe.
Most studies found that of the major whey proteins, α-lactalbumin, and β-lactoglobulin, both mostly go unaffected by the pH adjustment needed for the Ion Exchange method to work. (3)
Ultra Violet rays (Sunlight) primarily damages the tertiary structure.
At What Temperature Does Whey Protein Become Denatured -
Answer: Milk pasteurization standards (IDFA – International Dairy Foods Association) across the globe call for a minimum temperature for Vat & HTST Pasteurization.
- Vat Pasteurization requires heating the milk for 30 min @ 145°F.
- HTST (High-temperature short-time) Pasteurization requires heating the milk for 15 seconds @ 161°F.
We consider both Vat & HTST “cold-processing” pasteurization methods. Each method optimizes the milk for both the inactivation of bacteria (pathogens) and the preservation of the protein structure (Protein Fractions Remain Intact).
Studies over the years have shown that β-lactoglobulin (LG) is one of the most sensitive fractions to temperature-related denaturing. The research concludes that either of the “cold-processing” pasteurization methods will leave the protein structures unaltered due to temperature. (1) The study referenced looks at both β-lactoglobulin (LG) & α-lactalbumin (LA) -
- Temperatures < 70°C (158°F) - Results in no Denaturation of (LG) & (LA)
- 70°C (158°F) < Temperature < 80°C (176°F) - Denaturation of (LG) & (LA) begin, however the severity is time-dependent.
- Temperatures > 80°C (176°F) - Results in Denaturation of (LG) & (LA) after only 15 seconds
What Pasteurization Methods Assure an Undenatured or Non-Denatured Whey?
Although the cold-processing pasteurization methods (Vat & HTST) will ensure your whey protein powder is flush with nutrients able to be absorbed, these are generally less common practices. Across the industry, the current methods trend towards the HHST (Higher-Heat Shorter Time) methods, which allow for even shorter exposure times down to .01 seconds but at temperatures that immediately disrupt the whey protein structures rendering the end product, stable but “denatured” to say the least.
The overwhelming majority of whey protein and supplement brands have limited visibility to supply chain elements upstream of their ingredient company to whom they are in direct contact. These brands have no idea where their whey protein powder originates, let alone if it’s from grassfed farms. It’s a good practice to have that correspondence with any brand making such detailed claims. These claims include Grassfed, Native, Raw, Naked, Undenatured, etc.
To Learn More about Native Whey Protein - What is Native Whey Protein?
What Pasteurization Methods Denature Whey Protein -
As detailed above, if the pasteurization method exposes the milk to sustained temperatures above 161°F, the protein fractions will begin to denature. The ways that coincide with higher temperatures than 161°F fall into the HHST (Higher Temp Short Time) and the UP (Ultra-Pasteurization) category.
These HHST methods expose these fragile proteins to temperatures as harsh as 100°C (212°F). As you can see from the data above, it doesn’t take much heat to begin the denaturation process.
If you are relying on whey protein powder for specific macro targeting, you may not be hitting the numbers needed to satisfy your body’s needs. Study after study on HHST pasteurization methods, suggests structural modifications (denaturing) occur in the proteins, especially those belonging to the casein micelles.
For whey protein, the attraction for many consumers resides in the branched-chain amino acid concentrations. Where a consumer may value nutrient density and bioavailability, a manufacturer may value shelf life and stability. Unlike cold-processing methodologies that are optimized to balance microbial lethality points (safety) and nutrition bioavailability (non-denaturing). The alternative methods of pasteurization available to maximize shelf life and product stability, sacrifice nutrient content. The alternative techniques fall in the HHST category but also include the UP (Ultra High-Temperature Pasteurization) process.
The UP method exposes the raw milk to temperatures upward of 280°F. This process allows continuous flow during the pasteurization process and optimizes the output of a factory required to run around the clock - 24/7. These drivers are endemic to countries like New Zealand, whose dairy production serves global demand (Mostly China) as the largest exporter in the world. The faster companies like Fonterra routinely process, then ship dairy across the ocean; the longer the product stays stable (shelf life), the better for all involved, except the consumer.
“Raw” Whey Protein is a Myth -
Although the “degree” of structural alterations can matter if you are using a high-end grassfed whey protein product loaded with macro-nutrients, consuming “raw” milk can be wildly dangerous with severe consequences. Subsequently, consuming whey protein derived from unpasteurized milk can be deadly.
Inducing Mechanical Denaturalization -
Whey proteins, in general, are amphiphilic. They contain some elements that like water and other features that prefer oil. Many brands add an emulsifier to reduce the surface tension of the protein in solution. This practice allows for easy (no clumps) stirring or mixing with water or other choice liquids. Another way to reduce surface tension is to shear it with a blender or similar mechanical means.
Whey Protein with sunflower oil (Sunflower Lecithin) like AGN Roots Grassfed Whey Isolate due to its hydrophilic nature (ability to bind efficiently to water) is said to be “instantized” (ready-to-mix). It will perform well in terms of mixing (solubility) into solutions over a full window of pH values, which is why whey protein recipe applications can cover everything from ice cream to pizza.
Note: Whey protein that is instantized using an emulsifier such as lecithin is more susceptible to mechanical denaturation due to the reduced surface tension. Single-ingredient whey protein, also vulnerable to being denatured mechanically, does require more agitation than instantized whey due to its natural proclivity to resist dispersing in water.
When blending a whey protein solution (shearing with blades), the speed of the blender is critical to maintaining an undenatured whey protein powder. Reducing the blender speed as much as possible to achieve dispersion is ideal.
If the solution begins to foam, this is a sign that air has forced its way into the protein structure. Air molecules are not polarized one way or the other, which means they sit adjacent to the protein structure and apply an unnatural force like a puzzle piece that doesn’t fit. Eventually, if the energy is too high, the puzzle pieces break, this analogy represents mechanical denaturation.
Specifically, it’s the tertiary and quaternary structure of the whey protein molecule that gives way with the forced insertion of air molecules.
How to Avoid Mechanically Denaturing your Undentured / Non-denatured Whey Protein Isolate -
If your protein is already instantized (contains lecithin), blend all smoothie ingredients first, then stir a protein solution on the side (protein powder + water or milk of choice already mixed with a spoon). Finally, mix the blended smoothie ingredients and the protein solution as the final step.
If accustomed to using a single-serve blender with an air-tight seal like a Magic Bullet or Ninja mixer, limiting the amount of air in the container will cut the air supply down to negligible levels and allow you to blend away.
In all cases, the idea is to reduce the amount of exposure the whey protein has to mechanical shearing. Both the speed of the shearing force (energy) and the time under this tension are critical to ensure your undenatured whey protein stays that way.
Ultra Violet (UV) Rays Will Denature Whey Protein -
For the same reason, beer and wine are most often packaged in dark-colored glass (green & browns) with either a UV barrier or other form of UV protection within the glass itself; whey protein needs protection from this destructive element too. The severity of this denaturation due to UV ray exposure, in general, is less than the associated temperature that may come with this exposure. Where there is sunlight, there is likely heat.
Naturally, you wouldn’t have an attraction to a beautiful wine bottle that is clear plastic or transparent, see-through glass. The same logic applies to whey protein. Brands that house fragile whey protein in giant clear plastic tubs and market with the terms “Undenatured or Nondenatured Whey Protein” should make you wonder what else amongst their processing is lacking understanding and care.
Studies have shown that the Tertiary Structure of making WPI) of whey protein is susceptible to denaturation due to sunlight. The damage UV rays impart impact the α-lactalbumin fraction more severely than the β-lactoglobulin fraction; however, damage to both is likely, and it will render their nutritional bio-availability ineffective. (2)
~AGN Roots Grassfed Whey Team