Native Whey, a Superior Muscle Builder? Recently Observed Impressive Absorption Rates Tell You Nothing About 'Gains'

Do you have to replace your whey protein concentrate with "native whey" product to avoid missing out on massive gains? The study to answer this question has not yet been, done, but the study at hand certainly does not warrant this conclusion.
You will probably have seen the results of the latest study from a recent paper by scientists from the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences (Hamarsland. 2017). The one, where 20g of native whey protein showed significantly faster amino acid absorption than 20 g of whey protein concentrate 80 (WPC80), hydrolyzed whey (WPH), microparticulated whey (MWP), and milk proteins (Milk) after being administered to thirteen healthy male subjects (age: 26.6 ± 7.4 years, height: 180.8 ± 6.3 cm, weight: 80.8 ± 6.3 kg) in a single-blinded, randomized, five-way crossover, controlled study - a study, of which I am pretty sure that various snake oil vendors are already (ab-)using it to sell expensive "native", i.e. unprocessed whey protein as "superior" anabolic".
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Fortunately (for your wallet), Hamarsland's study does not provide evidence that the accelerated amino acid absorption would translate into real-world muscle gains in a long-term study.
Figure 1: Graphical illustration of the events on the five testing days (Hamarsland. 2017).
As you can see in the graphical illustration of the events on the five testing days in Figure 1, the Norwegian scientists had their subjects meet at the lab at 07:00 am on each of the five study days that were separated by at least 14 days fasted. When the subjects arrived at the lab, ...
"[t]hey received a standardized breakfast consisting of oatmeal and a glass of orange juice (1855 kJ: 9.2 g fat, 69.3 g carbohydrates and 16.6 g protein). [...] Two hours after breakfast, the participants performed the standardized resistance exercise session in 40 min and consumed one of the five protein supplements within 6 min after the end of the session. Blood serum and plasma samples were collected at 0, 30, 45, 60, 90, and 120 min after ingestion of the protein supplement. Additional blood samples were collected at 22 and 30 h on the study days when milk and native whey were ingested. During the study days with milk and native whey, recovery of muscle function was measured as changes in maximal isometric voluntary contraction knee extensions (MVC), counter movement jump (CMJ) 30 min prior to, and 0, 6, 22 and 30 h after the exercise session. The 0 h time point was immediately after the workout and about 20 min after the last set of leg exercise" (Hamarsland. 2017).
Unlike some of you would probably have expected before reading (about) the paper, hydro whey, which is often advertised as the "fastest whey protein your money can buy", did not rank first in the authors' analysis of the blood samples (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: Blood concentrations of total amino acids (a), essential amino acids (b), BCAAs (c) and leucine (d) before and after a bout of strength training and intake of 20 g of protein from milk, microparticulated whey (MWP), whey protein hydrolysate (WPH), whey protein concentrate 80 (WPC-80) or native whey (NW) in young men (Hamarsland. 2017).
Rather than that, the rarely studied "native whey", which is eventually nothing than cross-flow micro-filtrated (CFMF) raw milk produced the highest amino acid levels - and that despite the fact that WPC, which is usually produced by ultra-filtration of the "cheese whey", a byproduct of cheese manufacturing and was thus exposed to enzymatic processes and (optionally) pasteurization, and "native whey" have virtually identical amino acid profiles.

Previous acute response studies say: speed doesn't determine protein synthesis

If we rely on the often-heard claim that faster protein absorption would translate into increased gains, this would imply that the fractionate protein synthetic response to native whey should be higher than that we'd see in response to any other of the five tested proteins. Now, unfortunately, this response was not measured in the study at hand.
Figure 3: The faster absorption and increased aminoacidemia of whey vs. milk protein in Mitchell et al. (2015) did not translate to (A) significantly increased acute (A) and aggregate (B) myofibrillar protein synthesis.
From previous studies, we do know, however, that an increase in aminoacidemia as it was also observed in Mitchell's 2015 comparison of whey and milk protein concentrate does not translate to an increase in skeletal muscle protein synthesis (see Figure 3).

Previous "real world" (=longitudinal) studies say: speed doesn't build extra muscle

Now, the acute protein synthetic response can be misleading. A similar, but longitudinalcomparison of the effects of whey protein concentrate and hydrolysate supplementation on lean mass gains in 56 resistance-trained men by Lockwood et al. (2016) found no increase in the skeletal muscle hypertrophy response to 8 weeks of resistance training either.
Figure 4: Total lean mass (kg) before and after 8 weeks of standardized resistance training and supplementation with whey protein concentrate (WPC), WPC + lactoferrin and whey protein hydrolysate (WPH) in Lockwood et al. (2016).
In conjunction with the lack of effect the 4 sets of 10RM repetitions of leg press and knee extensions, and 3 sets of 10RM repetitions of bench press and seated rowing had on the subjects' countermovement jump (CMJ) performance in the study at hand, the existing evidence does, therefore, refute the conclusion that the results of the study at hand would imply that native whey protein is a better muscle builder (or a more effective recovery promoter) than any of the other dairy proteins Hamarsland, et al. tested.
Previous research suggests that faster amino acid absorption don't translate to increased gains and the observed increase fat loss w/ hydro whey is probably a result of its bio-active peptides | learn more  
So what does all that mean? While it may appear as if you'd have to get rid of your beloved whey protein concentrate, isolate or hydrolysate brand, the one you chose, as I have previously suggested, based on taste, price, and credibility, and buy some "native whey". There are two reasons why I believe this would be a mistake,

Reason #1 can be found in the study itself. After all, the authors readily admit that "[they] were not able to show any differences in recovery of muscle function after consumption of native whey compared to milk after a bout of heavy load strength training" (Hamarsland. 2017) - practically relevant effects on your workouts do thus not exist.

Reason #2 can be found in the literature, which shows consistently that there's no relevant increase in protein synthesis (and long-term gains) with so-called "fast(er)" proteins (Mitchell. 2015). Now, this doesn't mean that you can be sure a long-term study would not reveal other differences, such as the increased fat loss Lockwood et al. (2016 | reviewed here) observed when they compared regularly to faster absorbing hydrolyzed whey - this effect, however, has nothing to do with accelerated amino acid absorption and all with the different concentration of bioactive peptides (learn more), which could be present in "native whey", as well. After all, it is subjected to less processing steps than regular whey proteins | Comment on the SuppVersity Facebook Page!
  • Hamarsland, HÃ¥vard, et al. "Native whey induces higher and faster leucinemia than other whey protein supplements and milk: a randomized controlled trial." BMC Nutrition 3.1 (2017): 10.
  • Lockwood, Christopher M., et al. "Effects of Hydrolyzed Whey versus Other Whey Protein Supplements on the Physiological Response to 8 Weeks of Resistance Exercise in College-Aged Males." Journal of the American College of Nutrition (2016): 1-12.
  • Mitchell, Cameron J., et al. "Consumption of milk protein or whey protein results in a similar increase in muscle protein synthesis in middle aged men." Nutrients 7.10 (2015): 8685-8699.
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