There is so much information on the internet today, it can be hard to really know who and what to believe, and this certainly holds true when it comes to the question of which is better: whey protein concentrate or whey protein isolate. Here, we will discuss the difference between the two protein sources and why one, whey concentrate, is the superior source.
First, it is important to understand what whey actually is. Simply, whey is one of two of the major parts of milk, with the other major part being the milk curd. When making cheese, the whey is the liquid portion of the milk and the solid part is the curds. To make the whey protein powder, the liquid part of the milk is pushed through a filter, and the material that is left behind unfiltered is dried and is what is called whey protein concentrate.
The health benefits of whey protein concentrate are many. Whey concentrate contains healthy fats, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Because whey protein is easily absorbed and because of its strong amino acid profile, whey protein has become a popular supplement on the market today. Whey protein has been shown to help build muscle, help with fat loss, boost immunity, boost energy, helps maintain healthy blood pressure, help with insulin sensitivity, and helps to decrease appetite. Interestingly, whey protein concentrate has also been show to help boost levels of glutathione in the body, which is a very important antioxidant in our bodies, so important in fact that it is often referred to as the 'master' antioxidant. While whey protein can be a great addition to a healthy diet due to the many benefits, not all whey is created equal, which means that not all whey will have these health benefits.
While both whey isolate and concentrate both have whey protein, the isolate form is actually a more heavily processed version of whey concentrate. The isolate is subjected to much more processing, which often involves acid and high heat for a prolonged period of time. The supposed benefit to this processing is that the end result of the protein isolate has a higher percent protein. However, the processing to create the isolate killed and denatured any of the healthful compounds in the whey, including the immune enhancers, enzymes, vitamins and minerals, and so on. This means that whey protein concentrate is more of a whole food than is the isolate. And, because the concentrate has more than just protein, it can help to promote overall health, while isolate is just protein and provides no health benefit. Isolate can have an acidifying effect on the body, which in and of itself can create health issues and can make it more difficult for the body to digest and assimilate. We will further discuss acidity in Part 2 of this series.
Especially when it comes to athletes and bodybuilders, many are purely focused on the percent protein and care very little if any about any of the other nutritional constituents. What many don't understand, however, and where marketing has come in, is that the important factor with food, including protein sources, is quality versus quantity. An interesting concept discussed by Patrick Holford, Founder of the Institute for Optimum Nutrition, in his book The New Optimum Nutrition Bible, increasing the intake of protein does not improve performance. Holford explains that even bodybuilders who are trying to get maximum muscle gains need no more protein than the recommended 15 percent of the total calorie intake from protein. Because muscle is only made up of 22 percent protein, to gain nine pounds of muscle in a year only takes less than two pounds of protein. If you divide that by the 365 days of the year, all that is needed is 2.4 grams of protein a day. The difficulty in building muscle is not often because of a lack of protein in the diet, but because of not taking enough muscle-building vitamins, minerals, and other healthful compounds that help to digest and assimilate the protein.
This means that whether you are an athlete looking to enhance performance, a body builder looking to gain mass, or any individual looking to boost health or fitness, the source of protein and its quality should be of top concern, not purely the amount of protein. When the body can easily digest and assimilate a clean, healthy protein, it will be able to build muscle more efficiently; furthermore, it can use the energy that wasn't used to digest and assimilate more difficult proteins and put it towards burning fat, boosting immunity, providing more energy for daily activities, etc. Always remember quality versus quantity when considering protein sources.
To simply summarize, whey protein concentrate is the more pure, whole food option and supplies the body with other healthful components such as health fats, vitamins, minerals, and immune-boosting immunoglobulins. Whey isolate on the other hand is heavily processed which brings about negative health outcomes, is purely protein, and contains none of the natural healthful components that the whey originally had.
Continue reading Part 2 for a more in-depth discussion of whey protein isolate and body acidity and why it is of concern.
Holford, Patrick. The New Optimum Nutrition Bible.The Crossing Press, Berkley, CA. 2004.