If you have researched different protein sources in protein supplements and decided to go with whey based products you are on the right track. Superior amino acid profile, great taste, and multiple health benefits of whey protein make it the most popular consumers’ and manufacturers’ choice when it comes to meal replacement shakes, protein powders, or other protein supplements.
When choosing a particular whey protein product you will discover that there is another decision to make. Whey protein comes in three different types. The three main whey protein varieties available on the market are whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, and whey protein hydrolysate. Some products also may contain blends of two or all three types of whey protein.
What is the difference between whey concentrate, whey isolate, and whey hydrolysate and which one should you prefer?
To answer this question let’s start from the origin of all whey supplements – from the whole milk itself and then follow the transition from liquid whey to whey concentrate, then to isolate, and, at last, to the most processed form of whey – hydrolysate.
From milk to whey
In its unchanged form, right from the cow, milk contains various proteins, simple carbohydrates (mostly lactose), fat, vitamins, minerals, and enzymes.
80% of all milk protein comes as caseins. Caseins do not dissolve very well in water and tend to form big multi-molecular aggregates called micelles. In the process of milk coagulation caseins and fats are clumped together forming curds that can be used for cheese production. Most (but not all) cheeses are made from curds and therefore cheese protein is mostly caseins.
Whey is the translucent liquid that is left after milk has been curdled and the curds have been strained away. It contains the other 20% of milk proteins – those that are water soluble – together with lactose, some leftover fat, vitamins, and minerals.
Unlike curds that contain only one type of protein, whey contains a whole variety of them. The protein part of whey is a mixture of alpha-lactalbumin, beta-lactoglobulin, serum albumin, immunoglobulins (antibodies), other immune factors, hormones, enzymes, nutrient transporting molecules, and other proteins.
From whole whey to whey protein concentrate
Whey protein concentrates are manufactured using membrane filtration, evaporation, and spray drying. They are the least processed form of whey. Whey concentrates contain all fraction of proteins from the whole whey in their original form.
The protein content in whey concentrates varies and can be anywhere from 25% to 89% of protein by weight. Lower percentages of protein content are found in whey products used in the food industry.
Whey protein concentrate powders used in health supplements are usually standardized at 80% protein by weight. The remaining 20% are made up of moisture (water), combination of carbs and fat, and naturally occurring minerals.
From whey protein concentrate to isolate
By adding extra processing steps to remove even more fat and lactose whey concentrate may be further refined and turned into an isolate – a type of whey protein powder that contains at least 90% protein by weight and very little (if any) fat, lactose, and minerals.
Whey isolates are more expensive than concentrates due to the extra processing required. Practically speaking though, the difference between 80% and 90% is not that significant to justify this increase in price unless you are very sensitive to lactose. Remember that most lactose in whey protein concentrates is removed anyway. If you react even to very small amounts of lactose then a whey protein concentrate product with added lactase (enzyme that helps to digest lactose) might be all you need.
Not all whey protein isolates are the same
If you decide to use whey protein isolate it is important to know how it was manufactured. There are two ways to produce whey isolates. One is based on the process of ion exchange and the other uses micro- and ultrafiltration.
The main difference between the whey protein isolates prepared with these two production methods is in the composition of the proteins left in the final product. While the filtration based manufacturing preserves all fractions of proteins present in the whole whey, the ion exchange results in the loss of some minor fractions that have beneficial immunological and digestive effects. As a result the isolates that are produced by ion exchange may not have the full spectrum of benefits provided by more complete versions of whey protein, such as whey protein concentrates and whey protein isolates produced by filtration.
From whey protein concentrate or isolate to whey protein hydrolysate
Both whey protein concentrate and isolate can be further processed and transformed into whey protein hydrolysate. Proteins are exposed to acid and/or enzymes with the goal of breaking complete protein molecules into free amino acids and shorter chains of amino acids called peptides.
In a way, whey protein hydrolysate is like predigested protein – it requires less effort for digestion and is absorbed very rapidly. Keep in mind though that concentrates and isolate are already fast digesting so the gain might not be that big while the increase in price is noticeable. More costly processing makes hydrolysate the most expensive type of whey protein.
The main potential problem with whey protein hydrolysates is that they may lose the beneficial bioactive effects attributed to the complete forms of whey proteins. There is not enough research though to say anything more definitive about this.
Which type of whey protein will give you more benefits?
Now let’s summarize the information above and see how it can help us to make the best decision when choosing a specific whey protein product.
• In nearly all situations, whey concentrate products will provide you with all the benefits you need. There is no reason to worry about a bit of extra fat or carbohydrates since they are part of healthy nutrition. The amount of lactose in most concentrates is usually well tolerated by lactose-intolerant people. If you are extremely sensitive to lactose then whey protein concentrates with added lactase might be the best choice.
• If you decide to use whey protein isolate make sure that you use a product that is manufactured using micro- and ultra-filtration processes that are gentler than ion exchange and preserve the unique health benefits of whey protein.
• If you are on a rigorous muscle building program where you are only interested in pure protein intake precisely timed around your workouts and count every extra calorie from fats and carbs then whey protein hydrolysate may be an attractive choice despite its high price. For most athletes though whey protein concentrate will do the job just fine.
Regardless of which form of whey protein you choose to take, you can be sure you’ve made an excellent decision for your health and body by adding whey protein to your wellness toolbox.