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The Blurred Lines Between Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Whey

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Over the last few years the fitness industry has seen a boom as the general public have experienced a shift of consciousness away from the couch potato mentality, toward the healthy, clean eating way of life. As a result, an influx of supplement companies have come to market each promising the best, cleanest and most ethically sourced products. The power of advertising, coupled with a reluctance to actually educate the consumer, leaves most claims open to interpretation and often extremely ambiguous in nature. The product that has gained the most popularity in recent times is whey protein.

Popularised by bodybuilders in the 80s and 90s, whey protein has now reached the masses, as everyone from the loopy bird who played Hannah Montanna, to Usain Bolt are seen with the obligatory protein shaker in hand.

The rapid growth in the market has left supplement companies vying for your custom and claims of “Best Protein” are everywhere! With the mass production of cheap, inferior whey protein from China, comes the influx of start up companies, all with one thing in mind…..your money! And they don’t care how they get it! Far from their minds are the concerns over quality, dangerous levels of heavy metals, false label claims, nasty chemical flavouring systems, cheap fillers, out of date ingredients, poor processing and so on. Lack of regulation means they dodge the radar and are able to bestow their lies upon the unwitting, giving them a license to print money.

Let’s just get this clear from the outset – When it comes to protein powders, or any other supplements for that matter, you only get what you pay for! And if you are stupid enough to believe what a “discount” company tells you about the “superior” quality of their protein, then you deserve what’s coming to you in the long run….bloating, gas, cramping, peptide sensitivity and a whole host of other possible allergic reactions.

What about gains though? – What gains? For those who think you are seeing gains from these cheap, poorly processed powders; the power of suggestion has just blagged you big time! Only when you start to use a real biologically active powder, will you see the gains in all their glory and we’re not just talking about muscle gains! People need to get their heads around the fact that protein powders (quality ones at least) offer us so much more in the way of health, than a six pack to die for and a set of guns.

The latest fad in the world of protein is the whole organic grass-fed thing. This has spawned a number of companies, whose big hook is the fact that their whey has been sourced exclusively from cows fed on a diet of just grass (this in itself is somewhat debatable). Prices for grass-fed powders are high, but the principle behind it is certainly an ethical one and definitely worth considering; that is until you are given all of the facts.

The idea behind whey protein from grass fed cows is to provide you with a clean end product, free from antibiotics, pesticides, steroids and growth hormones. Sounds legit so far and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. We should probably point out at this stage, our whey is actually sourced from a mixture of grass and grain-fed; it just depends on what’s available and since grass-fed (or grass-finished to give the correct name) is in much shorter supply, a combination is quite often the norm in the USA and Canada.

Antibiotics, Hormones and all that stuff…

No one wants to drink a cocktail of antibiotics, pesticides and hormones, so it’s completely understandable that more and more are questioning the source of the milk and the benefits of a grass fed supply. But is it all it’s cracked up to be? Sure, buying organic, grass fed milk, cheese and yoghurt has its benefits; most notably the higher levels of vitamin E, conjugated linoleic acid and omega 3 essential fatty acids, but these benefits are NOT passed on to whey protein powders (there may be slightly higher amounts of these in a grass-finished concentrate, but not an isolate).

Reputable producers of whey (such as our supplier, Canadian based Agropur) are heavily regulated and carry out rigorous tests at every stage of the process. This starts with testing the milk itself for antibiotics and if contaminated, will see the milk being rejected and not used to produce the whey. What about the growth hormone? Just as humans naturally produce human growth hormone (HGH), cows produce a hormone called bovine somatotropin (BST) and trace amounts will be found in the milk – around one one-millionth of a gram per litre, which is so small that it isn't even worth mentioning. Testing shows us there is no significant difference in BST content between milk from cows treated with exogenous BST and those that are "all natural". Further to this, BST is an extremely delicate compound and will be easily broken down in the digestion process anyway.

When it comes to steroid hormones, as long as your whey protein powder has zero fat (isolates such as Primal26 & Primal26 PRO), then there will be no presence of steroid hormones (as they store only in the fat portion of the whey), with any amounts in other products being so miniscule (if any), they won’t even trigger a reading. It is important to note, that even for the smallest amounts sometimes found in the native milk, none of the above mentioned will alter the molecular structure of the whey during processing and none should actually make it into the bag/tub of protein you’re buying, providing your whey comes from a reputable manufacturer.

Grass-Fed & Grass-Finished….

An overuse of the label “Grass-fed” (which includes hay and silage), now leaves the term effectively meaningless and it is currently being used in reference to any animal that was fed a grass-based diet prior to grain finishing (The cattle are fed a scientifically formulated ration that averages 70-90% grain). The actual label to describe cattle raised on nothing but grass, should be “grass-finished” and even then, this term is not strictly true, as feed also includes graminoids (collection of different sedge species) and rushes.

“Grass-finished” means the animal has reached physical maturity and was kept on grass while developing exterior and intramuscular fat, with no grain ever being fed to the animal. Even then, the calves are given a protein shake-type food supplement made of milk proteins, lard, lactose, added minerals, and an electrolyte mixture, for a time, as they cannot digest the grass (only one of the four stomachs is functioning at this stage).

The term “grass-fed” does not mean the same as “grass-finished” and is used far too loosely in our opinion, as most cattle will see a diet of grain at some point and usually toward the end of their lives (farmers often choose to feed their animals grain to supplement the pasture diet, so that the animals can more efficiently obtain energy for growth, reproduction, or weight gain). The reality is, pretty much all cows actually do eat grass for the majority of their lives, with both dairy cows and beef cows grazing on pasture at some point, before, in most cases, being grain-finished. This still allows the whey protein manufacturer to apply the label “grass-fed”, even though the cattle were “grain-finished”.

We are all for organic foods, and grass-fed produce such as milk, yoghurt and the actual meat, definitely have their benefits, but unfortunately just like the wider picture in the organic industry, organic grass-fed is mainly a ploy to get you to part with your hard earned cash. The truth is, “grass-fed” isn’t worth the extra spend when it comes to whey protein and a “grass-fed” whey protein isolate can be hung out to dry as a marketing ploy, given what we’ve talked about in this article.

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