Which Is Better: Whey Protein or Egg Protein

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Without question, the most popular protein supplements sold today are based on whey. Whey is one of two major proteins found in milk, constituting 20% of milk protein. The other 80% of milk protein is casein. For years whey was considered a waste product of cheese manufacture and discarded. Although the popularity of whey protein supplements for bodybuilding purposes began around 1993, it had been used long before that for various medicinal purposes.

The ancient Greeks first noticed the healing qualities of whey, although they didn’t understand what was in whey that precisely produced these effects. The healing effects of whey became so popular in Gais, Switzerland back in 1749 that “whey clinics” were opened throughout the country.

The form of whey used wasn’t in a powder or processed form but was the clear liquid portion of milk that often settles at the top of a bottle of milk. That is raw whey, and that’s what was used in the past. Around 1930, two different businessmen developed actual whey protein supplements.

One of them was James Kraft, whose eponymous company is still a major player in food production and processing. The other early whey producer was Eugene Schiff, another man whose eponymous company, the Schiff corporation, was for a time owned by the Weider company of bodybuilding fame. But the whey products produced by both men were crude extracts that tasted terrible, so never caught on.

Whey next appeared in supplements as part of a milk and egg protein sold in the 50s by Rheo H.Blair. Blair, who was formerly known as Irvin Johnson, was from Chicago but moved to the West Coast, where he changed his name to Rheo Blair and aggressively marketed his milk and egg protein supplement to bodybuilders via ads in Ironman magazine. There were other protein supplements besides Blair’s protein available at the time, such as various soy-based protein products, meat-based protein supplements, and even some unpalatable fish-based protein supplements that seemed to do little more than provoke vomiting.

But in truth, the milk portion of Blair’s protein was little more than non-fat milk powder, which was highly processed and also contained an abundance of lactose, the primary sugar found in milk that some people are allergic to. The egg portion was dehydrated egg powder, which was a good source of amino acids, but due to the heat used in processing, also contained oxidized cholesterol, which is considered damaging to arteries in the body.

This problem was later solved with the advent of egg protein supplements based on egg whites or egg albumin. Such supplements contain no fat and no oxidized cholesterol.

Indeed, before the advent of higher quality whey supplements in the early 1990s, egg protein was considered the highest biological value protein supplement available. Its actual biological value, or ability to be efficiently digested and absorbed was listed as 100. As such, all other protein sources were often compared to the “perfect” egg protein value. The average serving of egg protein contained about 20 to 24 grams of high-quality protein.

Although the use of heat in processing protein for use in powder form does lead to “denaturing” of some of the protein, which involves a loss of some of the amino acid content of the protein through heat exposure, egg protein was so rich in amino acids, particularly the essential amino acids that must be derived from dietary sources, that the loss of some amino acids in processing didn’t produce any major drop in the biological value of egg protein supplements. As the popularity of egg protein supplements increased, the processing also became more refined, leading to a greater retention of the native protein content of eggs without the possible drawbacks of consuming whole eggs, such as having to also consume some fat and cholesterol.

Since the egg protein products consisted of entirely egg albumin or egg white protein, it provided only protein and not much else. In fact, while egg whites are indeed nearly pure protein, it’s also true that all of the other nutrients found in eggs, including half the protein content, reside in the yolk portion of the egg, not the white. Still, while these nutrients offer many health benefits, the primary purpose of ingesting an egg-based protein supplement was mainly to get a concentrated source of egg protein, and for that, the egg white-based protein powders filled the bill.

Egg-based protein supplements would have probably still been the top-selling protein supplements if whey products hadn’t entered the scene in force in the early 90s. The first major commercial whey product aimed at bodybuilding markets was produced by a company out of San Diego, California called Next Nutrition. Their product, “Designer Whey,” was aggressively marketed by people such as Dan Duchaine, also known as the “Steroid Guru” Duchaine had brought the value of whey protein to the attention of  David Jenkins, who was a former Olympic sprinter from England, but who had later been arrested along with Duchaine for his involvement in an underground steroid sales ring.

But he still had enough money to establish the Next Nutrition company, giving Duchaine a percentage of the sales profits from Designer Whey.Unlike the old versions of whey produced in the 30s, Designer Whey looked and tasted delicious, and soon became the number one selling protein supplement. The ads for Designer Whey were rich in scientific hyperbole, such as the one that declared that whey protein had a biological value of 120. This was not possible since the maximum biological value was 100.

What the ad writers for Next Nutrition had done was to substitute the chemical score instead of the actual biological value for whey, which was 100, in the ads that appeared in every bodybuilding magazine. Whether this was just an honest mistake or a purposeful marketing lie was never revealed, but when others, including myself, pointed out the error of this specious biological value listing for whey, the hyperbolic value suddenly disappeared from the Designer Protein ads.

In fact, since the biological value figures are based on the nitrogen content of whole eggs (100 BV), and since whey protein products contain more nitrogen than whole eggs, the actual BV for whey protein supplements is 104. This is in contrast to the 94 BV of native whey in milk, but the difference exists because the protein in the whey supplement is far more concentrated in nitrogen than whey found in milk.

With the popularity of Next Nutrition’s Designer Whey product, a plethora of copycat products were eventually released, and that’s the way it remains today, with various types of whey protein supplements dominating the protein supplement market. There are three primary forms of whey protein supplements.

Whey concentrate is considered the lowest quality form of whey protein supplement, since while they contain small amounts of fat and cholesterol, they also contain up to 5% lactose, the primary milk sugar. Some people lack sufficient activity of the enzyme, lactase, which is needed to digest and absorb lactose.As such, when they consume a concentrated form of any milk product containing lactose, they suffer gastrointestinal symptoms that include bloating, abdominal cramps, excess gas, nausea, and sometimes vomiting that appears 30 minutes to 2 hours following ingestion of a high lactose-containing food.

The key word here is “high lactose,” since most people with existing lactose intolerance are able to consume smaller amounts of lactose with no apparent problems. Those who think they might have lactose intolerance can effectively deal with it by ingesting a supplement containing an enzyme that helps to digest lactose, such as Lactaid. However, this must always be ingested at the same time as the food product containing lactose in order to be effective. Whey concentrates vary in their protein content from 29% to 89%. In the past, the type of whey concentrate that was used in commercial protein supplements was the higher protein version.

But with the recent advent of higher priced wholesale whey due to market demand, many companies have started using the lowest quality whey concentrates, but have added other amino acids to the products to falsely inflate the protein content of an average serving.

But with the recent advent of higher priced wholesale whey due to market demand, many companies have started using the lowest quality whey concentrates, but have added other amino acids to the products to falsely inflate the protein content of an average serving.

This is a highly unethical practice, but can easily be discerned by viewing the product labels and noting whether the product contains “extra added amino acids,” such as glutamine and others. While the presence of these added amino acids doesn’t always mean that the product is amino acid spiked, as the technique is known, it is a good indication that it is. The good news about whey protein concentrates is that they retain the various bioactive peptides that may provide some beneficial health effects in addition to the protein content of whey. Such biopeptides are short chains of amino acids that can be absorbed whole in the digestive process, and once absorbed, exert significant health effects, such as lowered blood pressure and increased immune response.

Whey isolates are higher quality forms of whey considered superior to whey concentrate because they contain not only higher amounts of protein–90% or more–but also are devoid of fat and lactose, thus producing a pure whey product. They also still retain the valuable bioactive peptides found in whey.For bodybuilding and muscle-building purposes, whey isolates are considered the product of choice.But again, because of recent higher prices of wholesale whey, many whey supplements that formerly contained mostly isolates now consist of a blend of the cheaper whey concentrates mixed with isolates. The problem from the consumer view is that you don’t know from the label which protein source dominates in the product, although law decrees that they must be listed in order of product content. Whey isolates, similarly to the concentrates, are also subject to amino acid spiking.

The final whey protein product is hydrolyzed whey. Hydrolyzed whey is whey that has been partially enzymatically degraded or “predigested.” As such, this form of whey leads to the most rapid uptake in the body, but also the most rapid disappearance of any type of whey product. It is thought to be the least allergenic of any type of whey protein, but also are the worst tasting of all the whey products. Studies have shown that ingesting whey hydrolysates offers a number of advantages, but foremost among them may be rapid recovery from intense training.

One study found that ingesting a whey hydrolysate product after training led to complete muscle recovery in only 12 hours. Study subjects who didn’t ingest the hydrolysate required 24 to 48 hours to fully recover.However, it should be noted that this study was sponsored by a New Zealand company that produces hydrolyzed whey products. The disadvantage of whey hydrolysates  is that the price of hydrolyzed whey is far higher compared to other whey supplements.

As noted, with the advent of whey protein supplements, the popularity of egg-based protein supplements dropped considerably. But they are still available. While we know that whey products do contain slightly higher amounts of protein than do the egg products, how would the two products–whey and egg–compare in a head to head comparison in terms of providing anabolic effects in muscle? That was the focus of a newly published study. Although this study featured rats as subjects, nearly all of effects found in the study likely also occur in humans.

Whey meets egg in the metabolic octagon

Studies involving both humans and animals show that whey protein provides a number of benefits. These include an increase in muscle protein synthesis, which is the cornerstone of gains in muscular size and strength. Some studies also show that whey can benefit body composition and fat loss through a lowering of appetite 90 to 180 minutes after ingestion. It does this by promoting the activity of substances produced in the brain that affect the hypothalamus structure, which is thought to control appetite.

Whey also promotes fat loss through upgrading genes that favor lipolysis, or body fat breakdown. Still another way it does this is by promoting thermogenesis reactions, where fat calories are converted into heat.

As noted earlier, although it is far more expensive than other supplemental forms of whey, hydrolyzed whey does provide some effects that are exclusive. The rapid uptake of hydrolyzed whey (HW) positively affects the release of bioactive peptides, short chains of amino acids that produce active physiological effects in the body.

One reason why HW produces such a rapid recovery effect after training is because it produces a high rate of insulin release, greater than that of other whey protein sources. The insulin not only promotes increased amino acid uptake into muscle, but also provided a pronounced anti-catabolic effect when in the presence of a high plasma level of amino acids.

Egg protein, as noted, was the premier source of protein for many years prior to the advent of whey products. The amino acid balance in whole eggs is considered nearly perfect for promoting muscle growth, although less so with only egg whites since half the amino acids found in eggs are in the yolk portion. Among other advantages, eggs are very digestible, so that the amino acid content is dispersed rapidly after digestion.  Human studies show that consuming a breakfast that contains eggs increase satiety (lowers appetite) and promotes fat-loss.

One study, published in extract form, found that a protein in eggs, follistatin, blocked the effects of myostatin, a  protein known to inhibit muscular growth. However, this study was never published in peer-reviewed journal, and the study was conducted by a physician who happened to sell a follistatin-from-egg supplement. In truth, orally ingested follistatin isn’t bioavailable, since it’s degraded during the digestive process. Only injected follistatin would have any true effect against myostatin.

In a new study that featured rats as subjects, the rats were provided with varying combinations of whey, hydrolyzed whey, egg albumin (white) and whole egg. The primary purpose of the study was to see how these different protein sources affected post-meal anabolic effects in muscle; breakdown of body fat; and the expression of genes related to appetite control in the brain’s hypothalamus, the site of appetite control.

Thus the treatments provided to the rats were these: 1) whey protein concentrate (WPC); 2) a 70:30 ratio of hydrolyzed whey to hydrolyzed egg albumin (egg white); 3) a 50:50 ratio of egg protein to whey protein; 4) 30:70 ratio of egg to whey protein. The control was just water containing no protein. The dose of protein provided to the rats was the human equivalent of 1o grams of protein.

The results showed, as expected, that all of the tested protein combinations boosted muscle protein synthesis signaling factors, with the 70:30 proportion of whey to egg showing the most sustained elevation at 180 minutes following feeding.But a surprising finding was that the feedings that contained a higher proportion of egg to whey proteins did not boost muscle protein synthesis any greater than when the rats just consumed the plain water.

These involved low doses of protein, and showed that, when provided at low doses, whey protein is clearly superior to egg protein in promoting muscle protein synthesis reactions. This is interesting, because egg protein contains sufficient essential amino acids and particularly the branched-chain amino acid, leucine, that is most associated with upgraded muscle protein reactions. On the other hand, two prior human studies that featured both older and younger subjects found that when they ingested egg protein following resistance exercise for 8 to 12 weeks, they experienced no increases in muscle mass gains compared to a placebo group.

One study of women engaged in weight-training compared ingesting 15 grams a day of egg protein with ingesting a carbohydrate placebo (no protein), finding that the carb intake increased lean mass in the women by 1.6 kilograms, while the egg protein produced a gain of 1.5 kilograms. Another study that lasted 12 weeks found that ingesting 20 grams of egg protein following a workout produced the same lean mass gain as another group who ingested less protein with no supplemental egg protein. This differs from nearly all recent studies of whey protein, in which using a whey protein supplement following training in nearly all cases did promote gains in muscle mass when used in conjunction with a resistance workout.

The study authors speculate that because whey is involved in fostering early growth, there may be some growth factors in whey that make it superior to other proteins in promoting growth, particularly  muscular growth. Again, this is curious since the amino acid and leucine content of whole eggs should make it produce nearly the same effects as whey. Perhaps the fact that most of the egg source used in this rat study was derived only from egg whites has something to do with the disparity shown between whey and egg in the study.

Whey protein also boosted by 90% at the 180 minute mark following ingestion a pathway called Akirin-1/Mighty that is linked to anabolic effects in muscle. This pathway is downgraded in muscle by myostatin. Resistance exercise alone is known to boost the activity of this pathway. Consuming egg protein appeared to activate genes for myostatin, which wasn’t seen with the ingestion of whey.But whey protein appeared to stimulate the dominant pathway in muscle associated with muscle catabolism. The authors think that this was merely a reflection of greater protein turnover, rather than a direct catabolic effect in muscle.

This makes sense, since all studies thus far have only shown anabolic effects when whey is consumed following a workout. although some studies have shown an increase in myostatin when whey is ingested. On the other hand, the release of myostatin at that time may reflect a reaction to the higher level of muscle protein synthesis. That is, the myostatin may result as a “reflex” reaction to the higher than normal levels of muscle protein synthesis promoted by whey.

Whey also proved superior to egg in promoting various reactions related to muscle anabolic effects, including insulin signaling. Ingesting the 70:30 whey sample produced a 63% increase in muscle levels of PGC1-A compared to consuming only water. The rats consuming this proportion of whey to egg also showed a boost in a gene associated with fatty acid transport into the mitochondria portion of cells, where fat is oxidized.

What’s interesting about these findings is that normally PGC1-A is usually only increased in muscle following exercise, especially aerobic exercise. PGC-1 is considered the primary stimulus to promoting the development of new cellular mitochondria, where energy is produced in cells and fat is oxidized. Yet, in this study, whey alone was able to boost levels of PCG-1a significantly without exercise. The study authors think this happened because whey promoted increased activity of another protein, AMPK, which directly promotes PGC-1a activity.  All this would add up to an increased ability to oxidize greater amounts of fat during exercise.

In relation to fat and appetite control, the 50 to 70% whey hydrolysate increased markers of fat tissue breakdown and increased thermogenesis 180 minutes following feeding in the rats. On the other hand, consuming the mostly egg protein led to a compensatory increase in appetite stimulating peptides 90 minutes after feeding compared to the rats who drank plain water.

So it would appear that from the standpoint of producing anabolic effects in muscle, along with promoting fat-loss and appetite suppression, whey is any form is superior to egg protein. The fact that two human studies didn’t show any anabolic effects produced when egg protein was used as a supplement in conjunction with weight-training also seems to put the kibosh on using egg protein supplement over whey. Of course, whole eggs still provide an excellent source of protein, along with many other nutrients if you consume the whole egg rather than just the whites. But if  offered a choice between egg protein supplements and whey, whey is the way to go!


Mobley, CB, et al. Effects of protein type and composition on postprandial markers of skeletal muscle anabolism, adipose tissue lipolysis, and hypothalamic gene expression. J I Soc Sports Nut 2015;12:14.


Peter McCarthy