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Muscle building is hard work, but which protein source should you choose to nourish those aching muscles? Here are the contenders: whey protein isolate vs whey protein concentrate. Both are known for their fast absorption and muscle expansion, but do you know their differences?
Many have already chosen a side, whether that’s based on stats or the latest tips passed around the gym. We take a close look at the science, differences, and benefits of whey protein isolate vs concentrate to determine who should be named champion of the shaker bottles.
What is Whey Protein?
There are two proteins found in milk: casein and whey. During the cheese-making process or when making yogurt, whey protein is the liquid remaining. Casein makes up 80% of the proteins in milk, while whey makes up the remaining 20%.
Whey is absorbed by the body much more quickly than casein. Whey is considered a complete protein, containing all 9 essential amino acids, and it’s low in lactose content.
As a fast-digesting protein with many health benefits, forms of whey have become popular as supplements for protein intake. Our bodies cannot produce all of the essential amino acids, making whey particularly helpful, as it is able to provide a healthy amount of protein content.
Leucine, isoleucine, and valine are branched-chain amino acids or BCAAs found in protein. BCAAs are very important to muscle protein. Leucine, the most important BCAA is in whey protein.
According to a study from 2009, supplements with BCAA can help to improve lean muscle mass, and potentially decrease body fat. As the researchers put it:
“Ingestion of a supplement containing BCAAs while following an 8-week resistance training program resulted in a greater decrease in percent body fat, an increase in lean mass, and 10-RM strength gains on the bench press and squat vs. ingestion of a whey supplement or a sports drink. In addition, the ingestion of a whey protein supplement resulted in greater lean mass gains than ingestion of a sports drink.” (1)
Whey protein is highly accessible. You can purchase it at your local market, health food store, or online. Whey protein is used in many products such as protein bars and powders and is often mixed into smoothies.
Though there are several types of whey protein, the two most common forms of the protein are whey concentrate and whey isolate. The two have different processing techniques and nutritional content. Research in this area is consistent, and researchers are still finding possible therapeutic properties of whey protein. (2)
There are several potential benefits of whey protein in both whey concentrate and whey isolate form.
One of the main benefits of whey protein is obvious: it is an excellent source of protein. Whey protein is popular among active people such as athletes and bodybuilders who wish to add protein to their diet, though it can be beneficial for just about anybody.
Whey protein also promotes muscle growth. As a person ages, muscle mass declines naturally, which can lead to fat gain and potentially chronic disease. When strength training is paired with protein supplements and intake of high-protein foods, muscle building, and muscle strengthening can occur.
Whey supplements can increase the release of anabolic hormones which help to stimulate muscle growth. Whey protein can be slightly more effective than soy protein supplements. If an individual already eats a high protein diet of meat, fish, eggs, and dairy, the health benefits of whey protein will likely be minimal.
A 2012 study following protein timing and how it affects muscular hypertrophy and strength claimed that whey supplements may be ideal for increasing muscle protein synthesis, resulting in more muscle strength. Coupled with protein supplements, a resistance weight-training program is recommended to further enhance muscle strength. (3, 4)
Whey protein may be able to lower blood pressure.
Studies have shown that consumption of dairy products have been able to reduce high blood pressure or hypertension. This is a result of bioactive peptides found in dairy, or “angiotensin-converting-enzyme inhibitors (ACE-inhibitors, similar to medications of the same compounds).
There are limited human studies concerning how whey proteins affect blood pressure. However, research published in the International Dairy Journal found whey protein to significantly reduce blood pressure in patients who experience hypertension.
Eating more protein can result in the suppression of the appetite, which can lead to reducing calorie intake. Protein is highly satiating, meaning that it is filling, and can suppress cravings for food.
In addition to suppressing appetite, whey protein can burn fat. High protein supplements are able to boost metabolism to burn more calories.
A 2002 randomized study done on a group of healthy young women on a high-protein diet and a group of women on a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet concluded that: “high-protein, low-fat diets are helpful in explaining the efficacy of such diets for weight loss” (7, 8)
Another study published in Nutrition and Metabolism states that the group given whey lost significant body fat and gained lean muscle in comparison to the other subjects. (9)
Whey protein may also help to reduce chronic inflammation. One large review study found that whey protein in high doses can reduce C-reactive protein, which is a protein that causes inflammation. Those who suffer from diseases with chronic inflammation may benefit from high doses of whey protein. (10)
Have type 2 diabetes? Whey protein may offer a more natural solution for treatment.
This type of diabetes is chronic, with symptoms of high blood sugar. Those with type 2 diabetes do not have healthy levels of insulin, a hormone that regulates the blood sugar level. Whey protein can regulate blood sugar and increase levels of insulin, and therefore may be a good supplement for type 2 diabetes patients. (11)
Whey protein has been known to be beneficial for other conditions, such as lowering cholesterol and treating asthma. Though more research is needed, whey protein concentrate has been used in cancer treatment. Due to high levels of amino acids and antioxidants, this protein has shown evidence of protection against cancer, reduced symptoms of hepatitis, improved immune function, and more. (12, 13)
4 Differences Between Whey Concentrate and Whey Isolate
Whey protein’s most common forms, whey isolate and whey concentrate, share many health benefits as well as enhanced muscle growth, muscle repair, and shorter muscle recovery times. However, the two are created during very different processing methods and have nutritional differences as well.
1. Whey protein isolate has more protein.
While both have high amounts of protein, whey protein isolate has 90% protein content, vs whey protein concentrate products with as much as 80% or as little as 35%. This main difference is because isolate goes through a more intense filtering process that can include crossflow microfiltration, ultrafiltration, and nanofiltration. It makes you wonder what is in the other 65-20% of whey protein concentrate!
2. Whey protein concentrate contains more carbs, lactose, and fat.
Because whey protein concentrate doesn’t go through as stringent a filtering process, it can contain much higher levels of carbohydrates, lactose, and fat. This is one reason whey protein isolate is the choice for most human study trials. A more pure protein product will have fewer unwanted interactions in a research study.
Lower fat and lactose content is also the reason that more professional athletes and bodybuilders are switching to whey protein isolate. When a fraction better is the difference between 1st and 2nd, what you put in your body makes a huge difference.
Also, those allergic to dairy often find that they have a much better tolerance of whey protein isolate vs concentrate.
3. Whey protein concentrate costs less.
Well, it seems like whey protein isolate is going to be claiming this victory… or does it? If it’s so great, then why is whey protein concentrate easily the most common choice for consumers?
Across the board, whey protein concentrate is cheaper. It’s still high quality and gets the job done. And let’s face it: when you consume the same supplement on a regular basis, the price matters.
4. Whey protein isolate tastes smoother.
The filtering process means whey protein isolate has a slightly smoother texture, while concentrate can become a little gritty or chalky and coat the mouth. Some consumers say that isolate doesn’t have an aftertaste like concentrate. Many people have said that they prefer the taste of protein concentrate, likely due to the lactose and fat it contains.
Which one is better?
When it comes to the two main types of whey protein, concentrate vs isolate, consider why you are taking the protein before making a decision. Whey protein isolate has a higher percentage of protein and, therefore, more protein per serving. It also contains less lactose, carbs, and fat. It’s the better protein option for sports nutrition and those concerned with fat loss, as well as those sensitive to dairy.
The lack of lactose in whey protein isolate is ideal for those who are lactose intolerant. Although in these cases, avoiding dairy-based whey altogether and considering a plant-based protein may be a better option.
For some, whey protein concentrate is the better option, as it’s the cheapest and retains more of its nutritional carbs and fats. Some of these nutrients are lost in the longer filtration process that whey isolate undergoes.
Additional calories, carbs, and fat isn’t a bad thing for everyone. Those looking for a meal replacement in the form of whey protein powder should choose whey protein concentrate. And if you aren’t a competing athlete and just need a high-quality protein post workout, concentrate is great.
No matter what, when choosing a whey protein supplement, it is important to choose a high-quality product with well-sourced ingredients. Look for grass-fed, sustainable sources of whey. Avoid excess sugar and non-nutritive sweeteners, like aspartame or sucralose.
And ask your trainer or friends for their favorite brands — anyone who uses a whey protein supplement regularly can fill you in on their experience. The good news is that both versions of whey are available in many satisfying flavors that make post-exercise protein shakes more enjoyable.
- Whey is a dairy product and a protein created during the cheesemaking process. It is absorbed quickly by the body and is considered a complete protein with many health benefits.
- There are two main types of whey protein: whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate. They have many shared benefits and differing nutritional properties.
- Shared benefits of concentrate and isolate include: muscle growth, ability to reduce high blood pressure, encouraging weight loss, and reducing chronic inflammation.
- The processing methods of concentrate and isolate are different, which results in concentrate having a lower percentage of protein and a higher percentage of carbohydrates and fat. Isolate is processed for longer and has a higher protein percentage.
- When choosing concentrate vs isolate for your daily protein intake, it is important to consider what exactly you want. If you are lactose intolerant, isolate may be what you want. If you want to build muscle and replace meals, concentrate is for you. Either way, both have added health benefits and are great types of protein.