What Does "Undenatured" or "Non-Denatured" Whey Protein Mean?
There are literally hundreds of blogs written on this topic from every pop-up whey protein brand to your local protein smoothie guru at work to your slow pitch intramural softball coach, we all know and love these folks. In this article though, we hope to provide some clarity on a few common buzz words around whey protein with the focus on buzz word “denatured” as a function of the protein’s exposure to processing temperatures required to go from milk to liquid whey concentrate.
In our AGN Roots Grassfed whey “Cold Processing / Cold filtering” article we get into some other areas where proteins are susceptible to damage, especially chemical denaturing; just as bad if not worse than cooking the proteins to death via temperature.
What is Native Whey?
There are several brands representing their products as “native whey” and in doing so always seem to claim that it is better than whey made from traditional coagulation (curdling). The word “native” in this application (adjective to describe the Whey) refers to the process of which the whey protein in question is extracted from the milk, emphasizing that the whey as described (native) is NOT a byproduct of a cheese manufacturing process (coagulation) but rather its separated from the milk by other means, often undisclosed (another rad flag for a different article).
The assumption to this marketing talking point is that there’s something about the cheese making process that renders the whey protein useless (denaturing it) as a natural byproduct relative to native Whey. These brands responsible for making claims in this space are unfortunately counting on you to make some pragmatic inferences connecting the dots such that you walk away with 2 potential beliefs neither of which they will explicitly disclose –
- Their Native whey protein is somehow extracted either before pasteurization or at temperatures less than milk pasteurized to make cheese.
- The temperature applied to a milk & culture (rennet) mix to separate the curds (casein) from the whey during the initial curdling step of cheese making is somehow damaging or more damaging than their undisclosed process; that these protein structures are permanently deformed and no longer bio-available as a result of this step due to temperatures the milk is heated to.
The Truth: The temperatures seen by milk to make cheese depends on the type of cheese and the rennet used. For soft cheeses, lower temperatures like 84°F are used, while harder cheeses will require temperatures as high as 103°F. As you can probably infer, this is lukewarm at best and isn’t even close to the temperature milk undergoes during the pasteurization process which happens upstream of this step. When it comes to denaturing protein as a result of processing (from milk to finished product), there are a few steps that can create issues, but the initial step of cheese making is definitely NOT one of them. This Said
At what temperature does milk (proteins & amino acids) start to lose bio-availability and degrade or become “denatured”?
Answer: There is a very good reason that milk pasteurization standards (IDFA – International Dairy Foods Association) across the globe call for a minimum temperature for Vat Pasteurization (30 min @ 145°F) and High temperature short time Pasteurization (HTST 15 seconds @ 161°F). These are the pasteurization methods that best optimize your milk for both the inactivation of bacteria (pathogens) and for the preservation of the bioavailability of the major and minor protein fractions & amino acids.
Studies over the years have shown that there are negative impacts to various micro nutrients when the origins of the whey stem from milk that was subject to pasteurization temperatures over 161°F. Every structure is unique and each with it's own temperature thresholds and of course depends on various other inputs whether it be agitation, time, pressure, etc...
Although these 2 specific regimes will leave your whey protein powder jam packed with nutrients your body can utilize, the practical range of pasteurization across the industry tends to trend with the HHST (Higher-Heat Shorter Time) methods which allow for even shorter exposure times down to .01 seconds, but do however expose the milk to temperatures as harsh as 212°F. As you can see by the wide ranges in magnitude of these temperatures that the denaturization (due to temperature) of your whey protein is much more likely to occur during the pasteurization process than anywhere else.
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 suggests structural modifications (denaturing) occur in the proteins especially those belonging to the casein micelles. For whey protein, the attraction to consumers resides in the branched-chain amino acid concentrations which also can be rendered nutritionally unavailable when shelf life and stability become the most important drivers in the processing. Unlike the Vat or HTST pasteurization methodologies optimized to balance microbial lethality points (safety) with nutrition bioavailability (non-denaturing), the HHST or even UP (Ultra High Temperature Pasteurization) process optimizes only shelf life and stability while sacrificing nutrient content.
To put some if this knowledge to application, the UP method exposes the raw milk to temperatures upward of 280°F. This allows the milk to continuously 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 diary production serves global demand (Mostly China) as the largest exporter in the world. The faster companies like Fonterra can process and ship dairy across the ocean and the longer the product stays stable (shelf life), the better!
What about the protein I am taking right now, how would I know if the protein has been fried, or stripped of its nutrient content or bioavailability due to exposure to harsh heat processing?
Answer: The truth is 99% of whey protein and supplement brands have no access to any supply chain element upstream of the ingredient company they are being supplied by. This means, they have no idea where their product is sourced from and whether the whey is native or processed one way or the other; it simply arrives in massive bulk bags ready to be put in 5 lb plastic tubs to be sold at a premium with all the buzz words front and center.
These brands however are the easiest to point out. If you follow this simple mental checklist, you can quickly filter through the marketing schemes out there and with confidence make a quality decision as to what you allow in your body -
1.) Does your protein state any of the following marketing claims on the package –
- Cold Processed / Cold Pressed
- Non-denatured / Un-denatured
If the Answer is “no” – Go fish (find another protein)
If the Answer is “yes” – move to the next step
2.) Does the brand, reference any details about the source of origin (farm) or display any globally recognized accreditation or certifications to back up the claim. Things like NSF Certified for Sport, Informed Choice or Informed Sport, A Greener World, ASPCA certified brand list etc…?
Safety 1st – Stay Clear of Raw Milk
Although the "degree" of structural alterations can matter if you are using a high end grassfed product loaded with potential micro-nutrients, consuming "raw" milk can be wildly dangerous with severe consequences.
At AGN Roots, although we are partial to the cooler side of the pasteurization temperature range associated with Vat pasteurization, as long as you steer clear of the hot side of HHST & Ultra Pasteurization practices you are probably getting some value out of the macro nutrients. So, if you have to choose between raw unpasteurized whey protein and ultra-cooked HHST whey protein, we highly recommend you chose the soup. If the soup is not an option, the fully cooked chalk powder is the safest bet albeit a waste.
How can you spot a protein supplement that has underwent the UP process?
Answer: There are a few low hanging signs, the package can tell you quite a bit if it's in drink from already. If its a powder, you'll have to read a little and make the determination based on what manufacturer either tells you about the origin, or leaves out entirely.
- Aseptically filled products include any diary product that comes pre-made (water/milk included) in a thick foil package with a foil seal, doesn’t require refrigeration until open, or is housed in a rigid thick plastic bottle with foil seal or even glass. These protein drinks are terrible for you in general, with ingredients in paragraph form and more chemicals for stability and shelf life than usable nutrients. If you've ever wondered how a diary protein in a drink form can last on a shelf, non-refrigerated for up to 18 months, the answer is Ultra-Pasteurization and the aseptic-fill process.
- If the package of protein powder claims to be from New Zealand or undisclosed entirely yet doesn't make mention of where exactly (RED flag). Unfortunately for Whey protein (dry powder) imported to the USA from foreign countries, once the powder is unloaded and repackaged, all the little details about how the product was processed and what company managed that process can conveniently gets tossed aside and replaced with marketing buzz words like “100% Grassfed” and “Non-denatured” in the event the origin doesn't quite align with the marketing & packaging design needed to sell the finished product etc...
AGN Roots Grassfed Whey Closing - Although we try to stay clear of these buzz words in our marketing, we are proud of our sourcing and our low temperature long time pasteurization methods used to produce our whey protein. As a result, we are able to lead the industry in protein fraction density as well as having 10% more than the next best “grassfed” whey BCAA concentration per 25 grams protein (Naturally occurring 6.5 grams of BCAAs, nothing added).
~AGN Roots Grassfed Whey Team