Everywhere you turn your head you will see a form of whey protein for sale on sports nutrition websites. Different brands, sizes, flavors, profiles and protein types makes it difficult for the customer to know what they are buying. Typically, a customer will buy a product with kick-ass packaging or a brand name they’ve seen before. However, it is way more important to know what you are buying inside that tub versus what you see on the outside.
One of the most misunderstood topics in whey protein is the difference between whey protein concentrate (WPC) and whey protein isolate (WPI). I am going to attempt to lay this out in simplistic terms so even the beginner in this category can understand what to look for when they purchase their next tub of whey protein.
What Is Whey Protein?
Whey protein is a complex protein used within the fitness community. We say whey protein is complex because it is made up of many subfractions of of smaller proteins that each have their own unique attributes that promote different areas of health. It is important to know this because WPC and WPI each have a different process on how it is made which leads to differing amount of these smaller subfractions of proteins in the final profile of that protein. You will learn more about this later.
Twenty years ago cheese factories couldn’t give away the substance that today gives us our whey protein. The only people that seemed to be interested in the substance that made our whey protein were local farmers. These local farmers would take this substance and apply it to their crops as they believed it was a fertilizer for their crops. Thankfully this world has scientists and gym rats to change that.
Whey protein is derived from cow milk. The milk is churned by a cheese factory to make curds (these are used for cheese curds, cottage cheese, etc). There is a liquid substance that is left behind after the curds are harvested by the cheese factory. This is where we get our whey protein.
The liquid is then forced through a filtration system leaving behind a material which is dried and formed into our whey protein. Cool huh? After the material is dried and the whey protein exists this is where the “magic” happens in the industry thus giving us either a whey protein concentration or a whey protein isolate.
Whey protein concentrate powders are a popular choice among the fitness community because of it’s muscle building properties, health promoting profile and, maybe the most important attribute, it’s affordable cost. WPC contains roughly 70-80% protein. On a per gram basis it contains less protein than whey protein isolate, but it contains many of those subfraction proteins we talked about earlier that WPI remove during the filtration process.
Whey protein concentration does not have to go through the advanced filtration process that isolates go through thus making it more cost-effective to produce. An important thing to note is that because it does not go through this filtration process that WPI go through the WPC contains more of these health promoting subfraction proteins in them. Many people choose a concentration as an everyday protein because of these attributes that assist in other forms of health outside of muscle building.
Whey protein concentrate does contain more fat, carbohydrates, sodium and lactose than WPI. This is because the WPC does not go through any advanced filtration process to remove any of these. If you are not lactose intolerant, not worried about the extra fats and carbs than a WPC is a good choice as it is more affordable.
For more information on Whey Protein Concentrate check out our article here.
Whey protein isolate is a form of whey protein that goes through an additional filtration process that WPC does not go through making it a purer protein powered. Various filtration processes are available to create a WPI but the most popular are cross flow micro filtration, ion exchange, ultra filtration, micro filtration, etc. Long story short, each of these filtration processes can remove more or less of those other subfractions of proteins we find in a WPC.
A typical WPI contains 90-96% protein compared to WPC 70-80%. This right here makes it an attractive protein source for those in the fitness community because they want to know they are getting the max protein for their dollar. A WPI also contains less fat, carbohydrates, sodium and lactose than a WPC.
Whey protein isolate is also more rapidly absorbed by your body than a WPC. This leads to an increase in insulin production by your body. There are no real-world studies that I can find that leads to saying this is better or worse post-workout. However, the body needs insulin to product muscle. Rises in insulin at the wrong time can turn into body fat. Rises in insulin after a workout due to the rapid absorption of WPI could be a benefit for those looking to increase muscle mass.
Which One Is Right For Me?
So after reading all of this do you have it all figured out yet? Most likely not. This is just the surface of the protein debates. What it comes down to is you. What are your goals? What do you want to accomplish? What can you afford?
Many people will tell you that WPC is inferior to a WPI. This is not true. There are a lot of very good WPC on the market. Avoid any companies that have been accused of amino spiking, however. A WPC typically gives you 70-80% protein which has come a long way since the start of this industry. At 80% protein you are doing very well for the product you are purchasing.
If you are not currently counting calories, worried about extra fats, carbs or sodium and have zero issues with dairy (not lactose intollerent) whey protein concentrate would be just fine for you. This will even be a benefit to your wallet as you won’t have to drop as much money on a tub of it versus a WPI. You are also getting all the health benefits of the subfractions of proteins that make up this complex protein.
A whey protein isolate may be the best choice for you if you are lactose intolerant, looking for minimal calories, carbs, fats and sodium. If you cannot stomach dairy than an isolate might be a must for you if you refuse to move away from whey protein (studies still show this is the most beneficial protein to building muscle and burning fat). The high concentration of protein (90-96%) is very attractive. If you want something that is more rapidly absorbed by your body giving you that insulin boost post-workout than this is also your choice. If you are getting ready for a bodybuilding or a figure show than this should be your choice.
The choice is yours. I wanted to debunk any myths or ideas that were of common acceptance. There are very good WPC on the market that 80% of people in the fitness community can take without any issue and it would be the right choice for them. However, there are that smaller fraction of those in this community that live and breath it, for them the isolate may be the correct choice.
At the end of the day do your research. Do not buy based on packaging, brand name, or flavor. Buy based on your goals, the profile of the product, the protein yield (grams of protein per scoop divided by total grams per scoop), and what your wallet allows to you purchase. It’s your body, you make the choice.
This post was written by Ryan Bucki of Fitness Informant, a great website featuring supplement reviews and diet and nutrition articles.