Whey Protein’s Role in the Healthy-Aging Market

Nutritional OutlookNutritional Outlook Vol. 18 No. 9
Volume 18
Issue 9

Early research into whey’s potential to fight against sarcopenia has marketers and consumers looking at whey protein in a new light.

Photo © iStockphoto.com/AleksandarNakic

Photo © iStockphoto.com/AleksandarNakic

There’s no disputing it: protein is one of the most successful categories on the functional food and beverage market today.

According to Innova Market Insights, product claims of being “high in protein” or a “source of protein” appeared on nearly 4% of global food and drink launches in the 12 months prior to July 2015. The power of protein appears to be even greater in the United States, and in the dairy market specifically, where more than 17% of U.S. dairy launches were “positioned on their protein content” in the same 12-month period, says Innova.

One of protein’s biggest players, whey protein, has made a name for itself on the sports nutrition market thanks to its potential benefits in muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and maintaining muscle during weight loss.

But new research and marketing campaigns may be taking whey beyond sports nutrition.

“Developing further from its traditional role as an excellent source of protein for muscle building and recovery for elite athletes, the muscle-related benefits of whey protein are now being transferred to the healthy-aging market,” says Noel Corcoran, sales and marketing director for whey supplier Carbery (Cork, Ireland). “Whey protein ingestion is an effective nutritional strategy to combat the age-related loss of muscle mass, strength, and function known as sarcopenia.”

Early research into whey’s potential to fight against sarcopenia has marketers and consumers looking at whey protein in a new light. Will this be the latest ingredient to expand into the healthy-aging market?


A Growing Problem

Among the older adult population, sarcopenia is a widespread, progressive, and potentially debilitating condition. An estimated 15% of people over the age of 65 and 50% of people over the age of 80 may experience some degree of sarcopenia.1 Beyond just causing a decline in muscle mass (reported at rates as high as a 2% loss each year after the age of 50), sarcopenia is often associated with physical inactivity, decreased mobility, poor physical endurance, and overall frailty.2

Making the situation even more pressing is the fact that sarcopenia affects a slice of the population that is growing, and fast. By the year 2050, the world’s population of people aged 60 years and over is expected to triple.2

Here’s where protein comes in. The current recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of protein is 0.8 g per kg of body weight, and studies as far back as 2008 have suggested that almost 40% of people over the age of 70 fail to meet this level of protein intake.1 High-protein diets have also been found to be associated with reduced instances of sarcopenia in older adults, although research into a causal link is still in the early stages.3

But given the prevalence of sarcopenia, the growing elderly population, and the indications that protein intake may be linked to preserving muscle mass and strength, it’s easy to see how there could be a place for protein in the healthy-aging market. And what better candidate than whey, protein’s superstar, to stand up to sarcopenia?

“The problem of sarcopenia is only likely to worsen as a result of the world’s aging population,” says Anne Poulsen, business development manager of health and performance nutrition for dairy cooperative Arla Foods Ingredients (Viby J, Denmark). “This creates a significant opportunity to develop convenient, tasty, and healthy food and drink products that help seniors get more high-quality protein into their diet and prevent or even slow down the development of sarcopenia.”


Preliminary Research

Though the association between general protein intake and sarcopenia has been relatively well-researched, research into a causal link between sarcopenia and protein-and whey protein specifically-is still in the early stages. However, two studies published in 2015 do explore the relationship between a diet high in whey protein and sarcopenia in older adults.

Researchers in the Netherlands recently studied the effect of a supplement high in whey protein, leucine, and vitamin D on muscle mass preservation in obese older adults who were trying to lose weight.4 The double-blind, randomized, controlled trial followed 80 obese older adults who either took the whey protein/leucine/vitamin D supplement or an isocaloric control supplement 10 times per week for 13 weeks. All participants also followed a hypocaloric diet of -600 kcal/day and performed resistance training three times per week. The experimental supplement contained 21 g of protein, and the mean age of study participants was 63.

Both the experimental and control groups showed similar reductions in body weight and fat mass over the course of the 13-week period. However, while the experimental group experienced an average increase in appendicular muscle mass of 0.4 g, the control group’s average appendicular muscle mass actually decreased by 0.5 g.

The researchers concluded that “a high whey protein-, leucine-, and vitamin D–enriched supplement, compared with isocaloric control, preserves appendicular muscle mass in obese older adults during a hypocaloric diet and resistance-exercise program, and might therefore reduce the risk of sarcopenia.”

It is difficult to draw conclusions about whey protein alone from this study since its effect on sarcopenia symptoms was only studied in combination with vitamin D and leucine, but it’s certainly a promising sign for whey protein as a healthy-aging ingredient.

Also published this year, a new research review examines the breadth of research that has previously linked protein consumption with diminished muscle mass resulting from aging.5 Again, there is still not enough evidence to establish a strict causal link between whey protein intake and protection against sarcopenia symptoms. The review does, however, provide some compelling circumstantial evidence in favor of whey protein for healthy aging.

“Whey protein has been shown to stimulate MPS to a greater extent than casein and soy protein at rest and following exercise in young and older individuals,” according to the review. Later, the study also notes that higher protein intakes have been found to be protective against weight and lean-mass loss in older adults, and “are positively associated with muscle mass” in older adults. 

So if general protein intake is associated with a reduction of sarcopenia symptoms, and whey is the best protein for stimulating muscle protein synthesis, then it certainly seems possible that whey protein may have beneficial effects on sarcopenia.

Future research may establish a more concrete, causal connection between consuming whey protein and staving off the effects of sarcopenia, but in the meantime several companies, as well as the National Dairy Council (NDC; Rosemont, IL), are already getting excited about the potential healthy-aging benefits of whey protein.

“If the growing elderly population doesn’t put more emphasis on muscle mass, strength, and functionality, they run the risk of increased falling, loss of autonomy, and greater dependency,” says Moises Torres-Gonzalez, PhD, director of nutrition research, NDC. “Powering up diets with more high-quality proteins, such as whey protein, spreading that protein intake throughout the day, and exercising more regularly are three simple steps for maintaining, and even increasing, muscle mass in older adults.”




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