Many bodybuilders have lamented the fact that their favorite whey protein supplement is  much more expensive than a few years ago. The only advice we can offer is get used to it, as whey based sports nutrition seems unlikely to get much cheaper, at least in the medium term.

A certain amount of price fluctuation for commodities is normal.  One commodity that has shown a surprising lack of volatility in the last few years is bulk powdered whey protein concentrate - the base ingredient for countless sports nutrition products. In a two year span, from the spring of 2010 to the spring of 2012, the price of whey doubled. After such a hefty increase one would normally expect some retrenchment, but not so with whey. For over a year now, the cost of whey has remained like a rock at the highest levels it reached in 2012. What’s the story behind whey’s price resiliency? Well, there are two factors at work, namely supply and demand. When a commodity has a high price, it tends to stimulate production. The consequent increase in supply will then bring the price down, presuming, of course, that demand remains relatively constant. With whey, it is not so easy to increase production. When it comes to milk derivatives, cheese has a much higher value than whey, so whey can never be produced as a main product, but only as a by-product. Thus, the supply of whey is going to be limited by cheese production.

Global cheese consumption is dominated by Europe and North America, but these markets are considered near the saturation point. With large populations and rising incomes, Africa, Asia and Latin America are likely to provide the growth in global cheese demand, but even then, such growth is likely to be in the low single digits for the next few years. Thus it seems unlikely that there will be a substantial increase in the supply of whey powder in the short to medium term. On the demand side it is a different story. Global demand for whey powder is being driven by the infant formula market in China and India. While population growth in China is expected to ease somewhat, a prominent European market research firm predicts that the infant formula market in that country will double in the next five years. As well, rising incomes and the emergence of a strong middle class in both countries, as well as in Africa, is increasing demand for convenience products such as preformulated baby nutrition. Add to that the growth of the health and sport nutrition markets in emerging economies, and it seems that demand for whey protein will continue to be strong. With no dramatic changes on the horizon for the supply side, we can expect whey prices to remain firm. Some fluctuation will occur, but don’t expect the prices of three years ago to return. Aside from raw material costs, there is another factor that is affecting the big supplement manufacturers in the U.S.A.. Over the last few years, the Food And Drug Administration has been tightening up the GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) protocols. As well, there is a trend towards progressively more regulation and oversight of the supplement industry. As the cost of compliance with government regulations is increasing, most supplement companies have no choice but to pass on these increased operating costs to consumers in the form of higher prices.

Of course, nobody likes higher prices, so supplement companies have adopted various strategies to mitigate price increases for their whey powders. Common methods include adding some stand-alone,  filler amino acids, or using a small amount of plant protein to boost overall protein content.  But don’t worry -  for now, nothing is going to seriously challenge whey’s dominant position as the athlete’s protein of choice. It is still one of the very best protein sources for building lean muscle, so even at current prices, it is worth it.

A word of caution about whey prices. Most reputable brands are going to have roughly similar prices for similar whey powders. Some brands are more expensive, some are cheaper, but beware if it is too much cheaper. A price that is too far out of line with industry norms is usually a reliable  indicator of inferior quality. Ask yourself why it is so much cheaper. Did this company find some secret whey supplier that nobody else knows about? Not likely. There are  surprisingly few big whey producers in the world, and there are no real secrets  when it comes to raw material procurement. There will always be those naive souls who really believe they can buy a Mercedes or BMW for the price of a Fiat or Ford, but if you care about what you put into your body (and you should!), it is best to stick with the big name, well-known and reputable brands, even if it costs a bit more.

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