Whey protein may have first gained notoriety with athletes and those looking to build muscle, but the ingredient has gained wider appeal as more Americans look to new and beneficial sources of protein.

Physicians are telling older consumers and amateur athletes about how whey protein helps build and repair muscle. Likewise, nutritionists are advising overweight consumers that the satiating protein also can help suppress appetite.

Meanwhile, of course, there is still plenty of buzz about the entire subject of protein.

In a randomized crossover design study involving 20 late-teen young women, University of Missouri Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology researchers explored whether a high-protein breakfast, compared with a normal-protein one, led to daily improvements in appetite, satiety, food motivation and reward, and evening snacking in overweight or obese breakfast-skipping girls.

Breakfast consumption did reduce daily hunger compared with breakfast skipping; however, the high-protein breakfast elicited greater daily fullness measures and also proved to reduce evening snacking of high-fat foods compared with breakfast skipping. As the researchers noted in the April 2013 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “These data suggest that the addition of breakfast, particularly one rich in protein, might be a useful strategy to improve satiety, reduce food motivation and reward, and improve diet quality in overweight or obese teenage girls.”

Interestingly, still more studies suggest this may just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to whey protein’s benefits.

Type-2 diabetes has become a widespread problem that stalls the production and efficacy of insulin being produced by pancreas. New studies by researchers at Curtin University in Bentley, Australia, suggests that the whey protein in milk may have nearly magical properties in treating the condition.

Head of Curtin’s School of Biomedical Sciences and leader of the project, Professor Phillip Newsholme, notes that whey protein has a positive impact on pancreatic cells and encourages them to release more insulin. He suggests that whey protein can help in monitoring blood glucose levels. Newsholme and his team evaluated the effect of whey protein hydrolysates (WPH) on diabetic mice, where the subjects were treated with WPH for a two-month period.

“Our study demonstrates how consumption of a protein found in milk called whey -- a highly digestible source of protein found in many dairy products -- impacts positively on the pancreatic cells, helping them to release more insulin,” says Newsholme. "This, in turn, helps to regulate blood glucose levels and could aid in the management of type 2 diabetes.”

The whey hydrolysation improved the production of insulin in the mice, and Newsholme expects to go to trial in human subjects soon, according to the September 2013 study. At the very least, the news adds to the growing number of studies demonstrating the benefits of whey consumption: a July 2011 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found dairy consumption with a focus on ensuring adequate whey protein could reduce free radical damage and inflammatory distress in individuals with Metabolic Syndrome; this study found the dairy-consuming group (of overweight and obese Americans who consumed 3.5 servings of dairy per day) saw free radical damaged to fatty acids reduced by 35% and reduced damage to LDL cholesterol by 11%, in addition to a 55% boost in adiponectin, the key type-2 diabetes-preventing hormone in fat.

Similarly, a 2011 University of Toronto Department of Nutritional Sciences study found, “[Whey protein] consumed before a meal reduces food intake.” Furthermore, “[whey protein] but not WPH contributes to blood glucose by both insulin-dependent and insulin-independent mechanisms.”

Realizing the increased consumer awareness of the benefits of protein, in general, and whey protein, in particular, manufacturers are responding with whey-rich products, though many are still opting to associate with athletes at least to a degree.

Forward Foods LLC added whey protein to its Detour-branded natural, gluten-free and whole-grain oatmeal bars. The company’s entry into the natural foods category is found in two flavors: Blueberry and Apple Cinnamon, each promising 130 calories and 4g of sugar, “80% less than leading snack bars,” assures the company. Currently, the bars are available at the company website, at bodybuilding.com and such retailers as GNC.

Curiously, the problem for some manufacturers, specifically those dabbling with Greek yogurts, is a matter of too much whey, but one supplier has developed a protein that enables such manufacturers to capitalize on their acid waste stream and use it to produce such products as whey smoothies. For every 100kg of milk that goes into the creation of Greek yogurt, only 33kg ends up in the final product, the remainder usually offloaded to animal feed and biofuel markets or disposed of in waste streams.

As Carsten Valentin, the supplier’s senior director of functional milk proteins, noted in winning the Beverage Innovation Awards at Drinktec this year, “Until now, it has simply been accepted that acid whey is an unavoidable waste product of Greek yogurt production -- but not anymore. With the addition of our protein solution to the acid whey, what was once a waste product is now a raw material that can be used to create a high-quality product with added value.”

Whether as an ingredient in its own right or as something of a means of productive sustainability, whey protein’s future seems rife with potential. pf