Trainer’s Talk – Why does my protein powder stick to everything?

Recently, a friend of mine who started using Progenex commented on the how he enjoyed the product but noticed that the protein powder was stickier than other known whey proteins. Thus I decided to write this article from a view of a chemist and for the sake of popularity I will use Progenex as my reference (though plenty of other brands can apply to the following). If you were to look at the nutrition label of the Progenex Recovery formula, you would notice that the first and main ingredient is “hydrolyzed whey protein isolate” (5).

This differs from many store bought protein powders which typically contain a non-hydrolyzed whey protein isolate. Essentially the difference is that while the cheaper formulations provide unaltered proteins, the hydrolyzed protein is broken down into smaller amino acid chains, which are easier for the body to metabolize.
Though Progenex is not the only provider of hydrolyzed whey protein, it is the most popular amongst the CrossFit community. The growth and popularity of Progenex can be attributed to sponsorships by both athletes of the CrossFit games and professional sports.

Obviously Progenex has kept a tight lid on the manufacturing process used to formulate their powder; however from a chemist’s perspective the overall process is not that difficult. In general, in order to break down protein chains, the protein can be treated either using an enzyme (4) or by heating the protein under either strongly basic (3) or acidic conditions (2). Basically the hydrolysis process breaks the “links” that connect simple amino acids which form the more complex whey protein isolate. The concept of why hydrolyzed proteins are more beneficial than their non-hydrolyzed counterparts is that the smaller amino acids result in an increased uptake of protein during digestion. A greater efficiency of protein absorption after your workout means larger muscle gains.

Now back to the observation of stickiness in the Progenex powder; it is likely that after the hydrolysis of the whey protein, spray drying is used to generate the product in powder form (1). This process uses low molecular weight sugars, like sucralose or fructose, both found in the Progenex formula to act as a surface stabilizer to help isolate the broken down protein powder. A secondary theory of the sticky behavior could be due to residue left over during an acid or base treatment to hydrolyze the whey protein which results in amino acid salts. The residue is essentially moisture bound to the broken down hygroscopic (attracted to water) surface of the hydrolyzed protein. Thus at the end of the day, this sticky behavior regardless of being attributed to spray drying or residue, is indicative of hydrolyzed whey protein isolate. Finally this characteristic should not be viewed as a bad thing but instead more of proof you are getting what you paid for, easily digestible protein powder.

-Coach James Bondi 


(1)Adhikari B, Howes T, Wood BJ, Bhandari BR. The effect of low molecular weight surfactants and proteins on surface stickiness of sucrose during powder formation through spray drying. Journal of Food Engineering 94: 135-143, 2009.
(2)Ballin N. Estimation of whey protein in casein coprecipitate and milk powder by high-performance liquid chromatography quantification of cysteine. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 54: 4131-4135, 2006.
(3)Cheison SC, Brand J, Leeb E, Kulozik U. Analysis of the effect of temperature changes combined with different alkaline pH on the β-lactoglobulin trypsin hydrolysis pattern using MALDI-TOF-MS/MS. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 59: 1572-1581, 2011.
(4)Penas E, Prestamo G, Gomez R. High pressure and the enzymatic hydrolysis of soybean whey proteins. Food Chemistry 85(4): 641-622, 2004.
(5)ProgenexUSA.com. Progenex recovery nutrition information. Available at http://www.progenexusa.com/products/1-recovery.aspx.

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