A Complete Guide to Understanding Hydrolyzed Whey Protein

A Complete Guide to Understanding Hydrolyzed Whey Protein

A Complete Guide to Understanding Hydrolyzed Whey Protein

When shopping for a daily protein powder, you’ve likely seen an overwhelming selection. Whether you’re headed to a health food store or a supplement shop like GNC, the options could leave you more confused than when you walked in. 

Perhaps you’re looking for regular whey protein, but then you see the following options: whey protein isolate, whey protein concentrate, hydrolyzed whey protein, hydrolyzed whey protein isolate, whey protein hydrolysate. Where do you even begin? And which form of whey will give you the optimal nutrition you’re looking for? Does it even matter which one you pick?

Fortunately, it might not be as daunting as you think. A few of those options are different names for the same thing: hydrolyzed whey protein, which is a form of whey purported to be more accessible to your body than some of the others.

Let’s review the options for whey protein and unpack the truth about hydrolyzed whey protein, whether your goal is a healthy breakfast, muscle growth, or simplifying your mid-day snack. 

Whey Protein Supplementation 101

Photo of a smoothie bottle and hydrolyzed whey protein powder

Whether you’re a weekend warrior, a bodybuilder, or something in between, you know it’s important to eat enough protein to fuel your body for the things you want to do. The more intense your workouts or daily activities are, the more lean protein you need for your body to keep up. That’s where protein supplements come in. 

Whey protein is one of the most commonly sought after (and widely available) forms of protein powder in sports nutrition. That’s because it’s a complete protein — meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids, three of which are incredibly important for muscle building. Those three are called branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), and they include leucine, isoleucine, and valine. 

All whey proteins offer these nutrients, but how well your body uses them will depend on the form of whey you consume. 

Types of Whey Protein

We mentioned the seemingly endless list of options you might encounter when walking into your local health foods store. But you’ll be relieved to know that there are really just a handful of options to comb through. Your choices for whey protein include the following: 

  • Whey protein concentrate
  • Whey protein isolate
  • Hydrolyzed whey protein (also called hydrolyzed whey protein isolate or whey protein hydrolysate)
  • ioWhey

Each of these starts out as the same substance: the liquid byproduct of cheese production. You’ve heard the term “curds and whey”? Well, the curds are the cheese clumps, and the whey is the leftover liquid that separates out as the cheese curdles. From there, the liquid is further separated through a mechanical process to remove as much casein as possible from the whey. 

Casein is another form of milk protein that’s also available in supplement form. It’s a fine protein option, but it has a lower potency of the essential amino acids needed for building muscle mass and is absorbed more slowly. As such, whey is generally preferred. It’s the processing that happens after these first steps that differentiates your options for whey protein.

Whey Protein Concentrate

Whey protein concentrate (WPC) is the least processed whey protein option available commercially as a protein powder supplement. After the whey and casein part ways, the remaining whey liquid is further filtered and spray dried. The filtration process removes some of the naturally occurring milk sugars (lactose) and milk fats, but not all of them. 

Whey protein concentrates are typically sold by protein content — e.g., WPC25, WPC35, WPC80. Most commercially available whey protein concentrates end up at about 80% protein, 3.5% lactose, and 7.2% fat. For powders, make sure to choose WPC80 to get ample protein content. The presence of fat and lactose make the flavor of whey concentrate preferable to many and it’s also the least expensive option on the market. 

Whey Protein Isolate

Whey protein isolate is the result of further processing whey protein concentrate. Because there’s additional processing, it’s slightly more expensive than concentrate. There’s also a higher density of protein and even lower levels of lactose and fat as a result of this extra processing. It’s the type of whey most commonly used in clinical studies that compare whey protein to other protein sources such as soy, pea, rice, quinoa, etc. 

Whey protein isolate contains between 90-92% protein, less than 1% lactose, and less than 0.4% fat. Because of its greater concentration, this form of protein is better for a post-workout boost.

Hydrolyzed Whey Protein

Hydrolyzed whey protein goes by many names, but the various names are all the same form of protein with the same protein content. It’s an even further processed type of whey beyond the isolate.

The process of hydrolysis involves applying an enzyme solution to whey protein isolate to partially digest its constituents so that the proteins are broken down even more before you consume them. The transformation changes longer chains of amino acids into shorter ones, called peptides. That’s why some labels will call this form of protein “whey protein peptides.” You might also see it as whey protein hydrolysate or hydrolyzed whey protein isolate. All of these are names for the same thing.

The purported benefits of this additional processing and “predigestion” are about digestion and absorption. Some argue that hydrolyzing whey will make it easier on your gut if you have trouble with lactose, making it overall better for your digestion. It’s also argued that the peptides resulting from hydrolysis are more readily absorbed into the bloodstream because they’re smaller and require less breakdown before use, although research is inconclusive. 

The scientific evidence doesn’t show much difference in how hydrolyzed whey protein and whey protein isolate are digested when looking at transit time and “gastric emptying.” But it does show that hydrolyzed whey protein yields a much greater insulin response when absorbed into the system, which might be the reason health experts recommend this type of whey protein powder. We’ll get into that more in the next section.

ioWhey Protein

ioWhey Protein is a new type of whey protein that skips hydrolysis but aims at the same goal: better protein bioavailability and utilization in your body. In other words, getting amino acids into your bloodstream and working to make lean muscle more quickly and efficiently than non-optimized whey or hydrolyzed whey.

The process to make the beneficial proteins found in whey more bioavailable in ioWhey is totally different in that it doesn’t chemically alter the structure of the protein using an enzyme (the way hydrolysis it does). Rather than partially digesting the proteins, the Ingredient Optimized process naturally enhances the protein structure so that the body’s own digestive enzymes can more easily break it down and utilize it.. 

Studies show that the io process increases the bioavailability of whey protein when compared to non-optimized whey protein isolate and hydrolyzed whey. They also show an outsized level of improvement for plant-based protein like pea when compared to non-optimized whey.

The Role of Insulin in Muscle Building

Female bodybuilder lifting weights

The role of insulin in building muscle is an interesting one. In general, nutrition experts tend to warn against eating too many sugars and carbs that could produce a sudden spike in insulin. Continual insulin spikes can lead to insulin resistance and eventually metabolic syndrome or type 2 diabetes.

But insulin exists in your body for a reason. It helps keep your blood sugar stable, promotes nutrient storage, and helps prevent cell breakdown. For this reason, it’s considered an anabolic hormone — one that promotes constructive metabolism. In other words, it can help promote muscle protein synthesis.

For this reason, bodybuilders sometimes supplement with insulin-inducing products like pure sugar, Pixy Stix, gummy bears, or other fat-free candy immediately following their training sessions. Lifting weights and other forms of resistance training cause muscle damage by design. The micro tears that result in using your body this way stimulate your body to heal and build more muscle during the repair. Insulin may help facilitate this process. 

While this type of insulin utilization isn’t necessarily promoted by health experts, it’s not a far cry from the purported benefits of hydrolyzed whey protein. We mentioned that studies show an increased blood insulin concentration when subjects drank hydrolyzed whey rather than whey protein isolate. The reason for this effect is still unknown, but it’s an interesting thing to ponder. More work needs to be done in this area to understand this process in the body and whether the net result is increased muscle gains.

To Hydrolyze or Not to Hydrolyze

Now that you have the lay of the land when it comes to the various forms of whey protein powder available on the market, it’s up to you to weigh each against the other. The factors to consider are price, your own digestive limitations (can you tolerate small amounts of lactose?), and which types of processing you believe will be most effective for you and your health or fitness goals. 

The science seems to show that ioWhey is the most bioavailable form of whey. Try it for yourself and see what you think.