Whey Protein Concentrate vs. Isolate vs. Hydrolysate

Whey protein products line the shelves of every grocery store and health food store. It ranks as the most popular protein supplement for fitness enthusiasts, those looking to drop some pounds, and everyone in between.

Choosing the right product can be tricky. Not all whey is created equal, and there are three different types. These are called concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate.

The following article gives a brief overview of the origin of whey protein and a breakdown of the three forms of whey protein powder.

Where Whey Protein Comes From

Although whey is found in several types of milk, the story of whey protein powder starts with a cow. The cow is milked and some of that milk may be used in cheese production. It is during the pressing and making of cheese that a protein-rich liquid called whey appears.

In fact, whey is a byproduct of cheese production. Moreover, cheese manufacturers used to discard it in the past. In their defense, however, this was before anyone knew just how valuable this cocktail was. 

Now resting on a stack of scientific studies involving both humans and animals, whey protein powder is known for its superior nutritional benefits. 

Many prefer whey over other types of protein due to its easy digestion and fast absorption. Yet, there are three different types of whey protein to choose from. What is the difference? And more importantly, which is better?

To make sense of this, we must look at how they are processed.

Whey Protein Concentrate vs. Isolate: The Short Version

Whey Protein Concentrate vs. Isolate

Whey Protein Concentrate

In short, Whey Concentrate is whey that has been subject to the least amount of processing.

The whey is dried and then micro-filtered to make whey concentrate. While small variations may occur in different concentrate supplements, the protein content of whey concentrate is up to 80%. The remaining 20% is a mixture of carbohydrates and fats.

In this remaining 20 %, and especially in the fat, are a lot of valuable nutrients. Due to the short processing, whey protein concentrate usually keeps more of its sources nutrients than isolate and hydrolysate.

Whey Protein Isolate

Whey Protein Concentrate vs. Isolate – Just how do they differ?

Whey isolate is processed with more refining, to further isolate the protein from the carbs and fat. While whey protein concentrate is fairly simple in its manufacturing process, the isolate refining process is further divided.

The first is a complex process using ion exchangers. The protein is isolated and made into a purer form of whey protein that contains fewer carbs and fat. As a result, it also has a higher protein ratio.

The second method used to produce whey isolate is a combination of micro-filtration and ultra-filtration.

The differences between both protein isolates are small. Isolate made through the ion-exchange process is virtually free of casein molecules, while isolates subject to the second process may have trace amounts.

By weight, isolate is upwards of 90% protein, containing little to no lactose and is almost fat-free. Whey isolate and whey concentrate contains comparable amounts of amino acids.

Whey Protein Hydrolysate

In short, Whey Protein Hydrolysate is whey that has been subject to the most amount of processing.

Whey Protein Hydrolysate stems from purified protein sources such as Whey Protein Isolate. It can be created by using heat processing with acid or by adding enzymes that break the proteins down into smaller peptides. 

This process of breaking down the whole proteins into smaller pieces is supposed to mimic what would happen to them in the body, where proteins are broken down to amino acids before they are utilized. This is often referred to as “pre-digestion”. 

The goal of this pre-digestion is to make Whey Protein Hydrolysate easier and faster absorbed, compared to isolate and concentrate. 

Which Whey Is Best?

There are currently no conclusive studies as to which protein may be more beneficial in terms of muscle growth and recovery. One review indicates that Whey Protein Concentrate may be superior due to less processing and thus more nutrients. For the average athlete, however, either of the three whey protein types may be comparable.

Some people choose isolate or hydrolysate due to their low content of lactose. While the amount of lactose in whey protein concentrate is also small, it may still bother sensitive individuals. As a result, those struggling with lactose intolerance may benefit from choosing either whey protein isolate or hydrolysate.

From an economic point of view, it makes sense to use either concentrate or isolate, as a good quality hydrolysate is generally much more expensive. Another downside of Whey Protein Hydrolysate is that the taste can often be bitter and the difference between two similar products may vary a lot. 

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