Whey Protein Concentrate vs. Isolate: A Breakdown of Each Type

Whey Protein Concentrate vs. Isolate: A Breakdown of Each Type

Whey Protein Concentrate vs. Isolate: A Breakdown of Each Type

Whey protein has been touted by supplement manufacturers as a magic bullet for everyone from the average gym-goer who wants to focus on weight loss and general toning to elite athletes and bodybuilders seeking to maximize strength and performance. Does it really do what companies claim on their labels though? When it comes to whey protein concentrate vs. isolate supplementation, how do you know which type is right for you?

Join us as we explore the similarities and differences of whey protein vs. isolate along with the benefits and drawbacks of each, how they’re made, and why adding a whey protein supplement to your routine could be a good idea for your health and fitness goals.

Your Body Needs Protein to Function

Let’s start with the fact that you need a certain amount of protein for optimal nutrition to keep your body going. Protein is an essential macronutrient composed of chains of amino acids. After you consume protein, it’s broken down in the digestive process to free up the amino acids, which can then be absorbed and used by your body.

Those amino acids are critical for many functions, including building and repairing muscle. They can also be used for fuel, especially during intense exercise. However, amino acids need to be replaced quickly to ensure your body doesn’t use the amino acids already stored in your muscle mass, resulting in muscle loss, rather than muscle gain.

Your body can make some amino acids, but there are nine essential amino acids that must come from your food. Ideally, the majority of your protein sources should be whole foods, but many people — especially those with higher daily protein requirements like those who exercise regularly — use whey as a dietary supplement in the form of protein powder, either as whey protein concentrate (WPC) or whey protein isolate (WPI). Supplementing your daily protein intake is especially important if you’re involved in athletic or resistance training, or bodybuilding.

The amount of protein you need depends on many factors, including how active you are. The average adult needs about 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight per day, while athletes may need as much as 2 grams.

What Are the Benefits of Whey Protein Powder?

Whey is a high-quality protein that is fast digesting and easily absorbed, making the amino acids it contains quickly available to the body for use. It contains all the essential amino acids your body needs. It’s also particularly high in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) — leucine, isoleucine, and valine — which are critically important for building and repairing muscle mass. 

Whey is naturally gluten-free and keto-friendly, making it an excellent dietary supplement for anyone following these diets.

Whey protein powder is incredibly useful for:

How Is Whey Protein Powder Made?

Whey protein vs. isolate: Both are derived from cow's milk

While there are several forms of whey, they’re all derived from milk. Milk protein is made up of about 20% whey protein and 80% casein protein, and both of these protein types are natural byproducts of the cheese-making process. 

The solids and liquids in the milk are separated, often using enzymes and/or heat, then the solid curds are removed to make cheese. The remaining liquid whey is pasteurized and then goes through a filtration process before it’s dried to form a protein powder. Casein is processed separately to produce casein supplements.

Whey protein isolate is further purified before drying, removing most of the remaining fat, lactose, and carbohydrates. This makes whey protein isolate very low-fat and even more digestible, especially for those who are sensitive to lactose. As it’s more highly processed, it tends to be more expensive. But you get more protein for your money.

There’s one other type of whey protein — whey protein hydrolysate. It’s not as common for sports nutrition supplements, but it is found in baby formulas and medical protein supplements. For protein hydrolysate, the amino acid bonds are hydrolyzed (broken down) even further. Most of the whey protein supplements on the market that claim to be hydrolyzed actually offer very low levels of hydrolyzed protein, despite a premium price. Hydrolysis also negatively impacts taste, resulting in a very bitter taste that is difficult to mask.

ioWhey is an excellent alternative to whey protein hydrolysate. It’s very easily digested and absorbed, plus it blends into your protein shake or smoothie without affecting the taste. 

Whey Protein Isolate vs. Concentrate: Nutritional Profiles

Because of differences in processing, the nutritional profiles of whey protein concentrate vs. isolate look very different, with the main difference lying in the protein concentration and the lactose they contain.

Whey Protein Concentrate

  • Protein content: From 30% up to 80%, depending on how concentrated the powder is
  • Lactose content: As much as 50%
  • Fat content: Low, but it can be more than 2%
  • Carbohydrate content: Low
  • Calorie count: Slightly higher

Whey Protein Isolate

  • Protein content: At least 90%
  • Lactose content: Less than 1%
  • Fat content: Less than 1%
  • Carbohydrate content: Very low
  • Calorie count: Very low

Whey Protein Concentrate vs. Isolate: How Do You Choose?

Whey protein vs isolate: Photo of whey powder in measuring scoops

The health benefits of whey protein are numerous. However, the different nutritional profiles of whey protein concentrate vs. isolate mean that each type of whey protein is better suited to specific functions. To decide what type you need, consider your goals.

Whey Protein Concentrate

This type of whey protein is commonly used by many different types of people for a variety of reasons, including:

  • As a meal replacement for busy people or those trying to lose weight
  • To supplement protein intake for average levels of activity
  • To help amateur gym-goers build muscle
  • To bulk up on muscle mass

Whey Protein Isolate

This type of whey protein is most often used by athletes and bodybuilders as it digests and absorbs faster, helping the body to:

  • Burn body fat, which enhances body composition
  • Quickly replenish amino acids that may be used as fuel
  • Boost muscle growth
  • Repair lean muscle mass
  • Recover fast after an intense workout
  • Train harder
  • Improve performance

How and When to Take Whey Protein

Whey protein powder is usually mixed into a protein shake or eaten in protein bars, sometimes combined with other supplements like creatine or glutamine. It may be flavored or unflavored, in which case it is often best combined with other tasty ingredients into a smoothie. It’s worth noting that concentrate powder tends to be a bit sweeter as it contains more natural sugars from lactose.

As whey protein works fast, the time at which you take it matters. For example:

  • If you’re using it as a meal replacement, take it at mealtimes
  • If you’re trying to lose weight, drink it between meals to reduce the desire for snacking
  • For athletes or bodybuilders, take it pre- or post-workout to optimize performance and muscle mass gains.

How Do You Know Which Whey Protein Brand to Buy?

Athletic man shopping in store to compare whey protein vs isolate

The debate around which is the best whey protein continues to rage. When you’re deciding what type of whey protein powder to add to your daily routine, there are a few things to check:

  • What is the protein content? Whey protein isolate usually has a much higher protein content as it’s more refined. Consequently, it’s also more expensive.
  • How much of each type of whey protein does it contain? Some supplements are blends, so consider your particular needs and match your protein powder to that.
  • What else does it contain? Check the ingredients list carefully. Many manufacturers add in sugar (on that note, stevia, sucralose, and monk fruit extract are generally recognized as safe sweeteners), artificial flavors, fillers, and other additives. If this is the case, the supplement is no longer a pure protein.
  • Is it third-party tested? The claims of the manufacturers themselves around quality, performance, and bioavailability aren’t enough. Look for products that have been tested by independent researchers. For example, the results of taking Ingredient Optimized products have been extensively validated through a series of studies, so you can trust that partner products like Performix ioWhey Protein and Kaged Muscle Clean Meal will give you the results you want.

Is Whey Protein For You? Potential Drawbacks

While many people benefit from taking whey protein supplements, it’s not for everyone.

If you experience any unpleasant side effects, the first thing to check is whether you’re taking the correct amount of that particular supplement. As with many other foods or supplements, taking too much whey protein can cause nausea, headaches, stomach cramps, and fatigue, as well as potential weight gain. Simply correcting your dosage might sort the problem out.

If you have lactose intolerance, bear in mind that whey is a dairy protein. As a result, the concentrate can cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea. In this case, it’s worth trying whey protein isolate, which is extremely low in both those potential irritants. Some specially treated products, like ioWhey, have also been shown to cause less stomach discomfort than non-optimized whey, so it could be worth trying.

That said, some people who can’t process dairy products may also be allergic to whey. In these cases, consider an alternative protein supplement like ioPea, which is a plant-based complete protein, or go straight to a BCAA supplement like ioBCAA.

A-Whey We Go

Whey protein may not be a magic bullet, but if you exercise regularly it’s certainly worth including in your daily protein intake — while remembering that whole foods are important too.

Whey protein supplements come in two main forms: whey protein isolate and whey protein concentrate. The two types have different nutritional profiles and are well suited to particular purposes. Before purchasing a whey protein powder, assess your needs to determine which type is best for you based on your goals, activity level, and potential sensitivity to lactose or carbs. Also, check the ingredients list and do your research. Make sure you know exactly what you’re getting — for the sake of your wellness and your wallet.