Whey Protein Isolate vs Concentrate: Battle of the Best

(Last Updated On: August 3, 2018)

Due to its ease of absorption and superb amino acid profile, whey protein is a popular, if not the most popular, supplement for health, fitness and sports nutrition. Whey protein is known to support fat burning, improve insulin sensitivity, boost the immune system, aid muscle gain, decrease appetite and assist antioxidant production within the body.

Whey protein is a go-to supplement for the majority of bodybuilders and athletes because it’s such a high quality protein; while people concerned with general health, well-being and longevity love whey for the boost it gives to the immune system.  

But which form of whey protein is the best one to take?

Let’s break it down.

 

What Exactly Is Whey Protein?

Whey Protein Isolate

Milk contains two proteins, casein and whey. Whey protein, which makes up approximately 20% of the protein in milk, can be obtained by separating it from the casein in milk, or formed as a byproduct of making cheese.

In its unprocessed state, whey protein contains large amounts of fat and lactose (milk sugar) which is mostly removed during the filtering process.

Concentrate and isolate are two different types of whey protein. They can be purchased individually and some protein powders contain a combination of both isolate and concentrate.

The main difference between the two types is that whey isolate has had more of the lactose and fat removed, meaning it contains more protein on a per-serving basis. Whey isolate usually contains between 90-94% protein, in comparison whey concentrate has a protein ratio of 70-80%.

Whey protein contains all 9 essential amino acids and is therefore considered a complete protein. When used as a supplement alongside resistance exercise it helps to increase muscle protein synthesis and promote the growth of lean muscle.

This high-quality source of protein is easy to digest and quickly absorbed into the body, and its high branched chain amino acid (BCAA) content means that a substantial proportion of the protein is utilized by the body.

One of whey’s major contributions to healthy immune system function is its ability to raise glutathione, which is widely considered to be the most important water-soluble antioxidant found in the body.

Whey also has a low lactose content, making it a low carb food.

 

Glutathione

Glutathione, the most powerful antioxidant in your body, is found inside every cell and helps to protect them and your mitochondria by reducing free radicals and removing harmful waste products.

As vital to good health as glutathione may be, it’s not something easily obtained from supplements as it tends to be poorly absorbed in such a form. And glutathione supplements can even interfere with your own natural production processes.

Whey protein provides all the key amino acids for your body’s natural glutathione production process

  • Cysteine
  • Glycine
  • Glutamate

Whey also provides critical co-factors, which help to create the right metabolic environment for high glutathione activity.

Cysteine is exclusive to whey protein and seldom appears in other protein food supplements, which makes whey protein the best source of glutathione promoting amino acids.

With enhanced internal production of glutathione, you boost your immune function and all of the benefits that brings to your health and wellbeing.

 

Whey Is A Complex Protein

It’s made up of many protein subfractions like

  • Beta-lactoglobulin
  • Alpha-lactalbumin
  • immunoglobulins (IgGs)
  • Glycomacropeptides
  • bovine serum albumin (BSA)

And minor peptides, including

  • Lactoperoxidase
  • Lysozyme
  • Lactoferrin

The most elementary distinguishing factors between proteins and peptides are size and structure, with peptides the smaller of the two. Peptides are defined as molecules that are made up from between 2 and 50 amino acids, whereas proteins consist of 50 or more amino acids.

Up until fairly recently it was either technically impossible or prohibitively expensive to separate these small protein subfractions for use in  anything but research purposes. But in the last few decades and especially the last few years, filtering technology has improved considerably, transforming whey protein powders from low-grade concentrates to high-quality protein supplements. Now manufacturers are able to isolate some of the highly bioactive peptides in whey, such as lactoferrin and lactoperoxidase.

Some of these subfractions only exist in small amounts – less than 1% –  in cow’s milk. Lactoferrin, one of the most important subfractions for improving overall health and immunity, and preventing some types of disease, makes up just 0.5% of whey protein derived from bovine sources.

**Interesting aside – Human breast milk contains up to 15% lactoferrin which is one of the reasons it gives such a boost to an infant’s immune system.**

One of the main challenges in processing whey, is that to remove the lactose and fat, the health enhancing and biologically active subfractions can easily be destroyed or denatured, so increasing the purity of whey by processing it into isolate has to be undertaken with care.

Some nutrition experts have criticized the Ion Exchange Method used to make isolates because it can remove some of the most important subfractions.

Using more up-to-date whey processing technologies, like cross-flow microfiltration and ultra-filtration, isolate can be produced without damaging the protein or losing the important health giving constituents. These types of isolates come at a much higher price as a result.

 

Whey Protein Concentrate

Whey protein concentrate (WPC) typically has undergone less processing than whey isolate. WPC contains low levels of fat and low levels of lactose –  a carbohydrate. The percentage of protein in WPC varies depending on how concentrated it is, with lower end concentrates typically having around 30% protein and higher end concentrates containing up to 90%.

Many people have been given the impression that a whey protein concentrate is inferior to an isolate. This is not the case.

Though whey protein concentrate contains less protein than an isolate, a high quality whey concentrate contains many beneficial compounds not found in the isolates.

Good quality concentrates contain higher levels of the growth factors, IGF-1, TGF-1, and TGF-2. They also contain much higher levels of phospholipids, and various bioactive lipids, and they often contain higher levels of immunoglobulins and lactoferrin.

Lactoferrin, if you remember, is the critical immune system booster found in breast milk, and studies show that these substances can improve immunity and intestinal health along with many other benefits that both the athlete and non athlete will find beneficial.

The drawbacks of whey protein concentrates are that they have less protein than an isolate and contain higher levels of (beneficial) fat and higher levels of lactose.

Depending on your fitness and nutritional goals, whey protein concentrate may or may not be the right choice.

The vast majority of whey protein powders on the market today are whey protein concentrates, and these are a popular and perfectly adequate protein supplement for most people, and they cost a little less than isolate.

 

Whey Protein Isolate

Whey protein isolate is processed to remove almost all of the fat and lactose, and usually contains at least 90% protein. As such, whey isolate is obviously a good choice for the lactose intolerant, those looking to keep their carb intake to a minimum, and those who are watching every gram of fat. Whey protein supplements will typically state the amount of lactose that they contain, making it easy for you to double check the product’s suitability for your needs.

It’s also the better product for people who want to supplement with whey for a specific health reason, and need a product that has preserved the appropriate peptides and subfractions.

Quality whey protein isolate is micro filtered to achieve the desired end result and while there are several forms of micro filtration, ‘cross flow microfiltration’ is something of a catch-all term for several similar ways of processing whey.

The cross flow micro filtration processing method uses low temperature filtration techniques that are able to achieve the production of very high protein contents – greater than 90% – and the retention of the all-important biologically active subfractions.

Cross flow micro filtered whey isolate protein also contains high amounts of calcium and low amounts of sodium.

An older type of filtration that produces whey protein isolate is the Ion Exchange method. This type of process has some serious drawbacks.

Ion exchange whey protein isolate is made by taking a concentrate and sending it  through an ‘ion exchange’ column to get an ‘ion exchange whey isolate.’

As we’ve already seen, whey protein is a complex protein made up of many subfractions that have their own unique benefits for health, fitness, and immunity. And as you know, some of these subfractions are found in very small quantities. And it’s the subfractions that make whey such a beneficial protein.

During the ion exchange process, the most valuable and health generating components are severely depleted. It’s true that the protein content is increased, but that benefit is countered by the loss or significant reduction in important subfractions.

This makes ion exchange whey isolates a poor choice for a whey protein supplement unless your main reason for using whey protein is to get the highest amount of protein from each gram of your supplement as possible.

 

A New Development In Whey Protein Powder Production

 Whey Protein Powder

There is a fairly recent development in whey protein processing which allows for the optimizing of subfraction ratios.

Using micro filtration methods producers are able to isolate certain bioactive subfraction proteins, such as lactoferrin and Glycomacropeptide on a large scale.

This was impossible to do on surge a large scale only a few years ago, but a small number of companies now employ the necessary filtering techniques.

This allows for a superior protein supplement that can have additional highly beneficial subfractions added back in, in amounts that can’t be found naturally. For example, the subfraction lactoferrin is nonexistent in many whey proteins due to the type of processing used. Even the very best quality whey proteins will only contain around 1% lactoferrin, and a more usual amount is closer to 0.5%.

 

So Which Whey Protein Powder Should You Choose?

It’s entirely dependant on your goals. If you only care about the protein per gram of your supplement, opt for an ion exchange produced whey isolate.

If fat grams and/or lactose are high on your product evaluation criteria, then choose a whey protein isolate produced via cross flow (or a similar type of) micro filtration.

And if you want a good source of protein with the highest integrity of beneficial subfractions then go for a whey protein concentrate.

One last note about whey protein concentrate vs whey protein isolate. Whey isolates are absorbed more rapidly than concentrates and generate a larger insulin response. This rapid absorption makes whey isolates a good post-workout choice, but for anyone wanting/needing to limit insulin release, whey protein concentrate will be the better option.

 

Whey Protein From Grass Fed Cows

When you select a whey protein that’s been produced from milk sourced from pasture-raised dairy cows, you’ll get some extra health boosting benefits that milk sourced from cows fed a pelleted grain diet doesn’t provide at optimum levels.

Leucine – this signals the mTOR mechanism to increase protein synthesis, and helps to promote muscle growth.

Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) – This is a healthy kind of omega-6 fatty acid and it’s found mainly in grass-fed beef and dairy products.

Cows that exclusively eat grass (and hay and silage during winter) have CLA levels in their meat and milk that are typically 300 to 500% greater than in those fed an unnatural grain based diet.

You won’t find these levels of leucine and CLA in typical whey protein powders. You’ll need to read labels and do some sleuthing to find the best products.

 

Whey Protein Supplement Health Benefits

There are many health benefits associated with supplementation with whey protein, and researchers are regularly adding whey to their repertoire of therapeutic properties.

Aiding weight loss

According to a study, published in Nutrition & Metabolism, obese people who consumed a specialized whey fraction, (high in leucine, bioactive peptides and milk calcium) showed significantly more fat loss while preserving a greater amount of lean muscle compared to participants who took the control beverage. Both the subject group and the control group in the study were asked to decrease their caloric intake by 500 calories a day.

Both groups lost considerable amounts of weight, with those taking the whey supplement losing more weight overall. The real significance of this research is that subjects taking the whey supplement lost 6.1% of their body fat mass.

A 5% reduction of body fat mass has been shown to reduce the risk of obesity related disease.

Anti-cancer properties

Research published in the journal Anticancer Research  has found that whey protein concentrate exhibits anti-carcinogenesis and anticancer activity.  The study authors further note that:

 “Case reports are presented which strongly suggest an anti-tumor effect of a whey protein dietary supplement in some urogenital cancers.”

Lowering cholesterol

In a study published in The British Journal of Nutrition, overweight/obese subjects who were given a whey supplement showed significant decrease in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol at week 12 than the control group. Fasting insulin levels were also significantly decreased. The study demonstrated that supplementation with whey proteins improved fasting lipids and insulin levels.

Lowering blood pressure and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease

Research published in the International Dairy Journal found that beverages supplemented with whey protein resulted in a more than six-point reduction in the average blood pressure of men and women with elevated systolic and diastolic blood pressures.

The whey supplement didn’t lower the blood pressure readings of people with normal blood pressure, which is a good thing since low blood pressure can also be a problem.

Other studies have found that similar blood pressure reductions can reduce cardiovascular disease and reduce fatal strokes by 35 to 40%.

May Help Treat Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is a chronic disease caused by high blood sugar and the impaired production and regulation of insulin. Insulin is a hormone that is responsible for taking sugar from your blood and transporting it to your cells for fuel, or if blood sugar levels are too high, safely locking the excess sugar away in your fat cells. Blood sugar has to stay within tight limits, or a cascade of degenerative health problems and even death can result

Whey protein has been found to be effective at controlling blood sugar, by increasing levels of insulin production and by making the body more sensitive to the effects of that insulin.

These insulin regulating properties of whey protein have even been compared to those of diabetic drugs, such as sulfonylurea.

Taking a whey protein supplement prior to eating or with a high-carb meal has been shown to moderate blood sugar levels in healthy people and in those with type 2 diabetes.

Whey protein supplements shouldn’t be used as your main protein source (unless you’re following a low protein diet) or as meal replacement shakes. Unprocessed and natural protein sources contain such a wide range of crucial nutrients and enzymes that you don’t want to miss out on by ejecting them from your diet. But a good quality whey supplement – whether concentrate or isolate – absolutely has its place as a healthy addition to a balanced diet.

Written by Irina Radosevic MD
Irina graduated from the University of Belgrade, School of Medicine as a Doctor of Medicine (MD) and spent over 3 years working in the Clinical Hospital Center Zvezdara, in the Department of Emergency Medicine. She also undertook a postgraduate in Cardiology from the same University and had previously worked for over a year as a Physician and Nutritionist Dietitian for the Fitness club Green Zone. She eventually left her chaotic but fulfilling job in the ER to pursue her passion of writing, travelling and mountain climbing which has included writing a first aid course for the alpine club of Belgrade. Irina currently works as a VA for PintMedia focusing on medical and travel writing. Feel free to connect with Irina on LinkedIn and FaceBook. Her CV can be seen here.