When you first heard the phrase, "Consume protein within 30 minutes post-workout," your immediate reaction was, "Easy enough." All you have to do is toss some protein powder in your gym bag, and you're good to go, right?
Well, not necessarily.
As so often happens in the wellness industry, the subject of protein powder is heavily debated. Which protein powder is best? How much should you take? What's the difference between whey and casein? Which formula is best — whey protein concentrate or isolate?
These questions (and many others) only bring consumers confusion. Below, we offer a little clarity in one key area of the protein powder debate: comparing whey protein concentrate vs. isolate.
Please note: This post is meant for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. Before taking supplements, please contact a physician or registered dietitian.
Before we dive into the whey protein concentrate vs. isolate debate, let's review what whey protein is.
Whey protein is a mixture of proteins isolated from whey — a byproduct of cheese production. Food products that contain whey include milk, cheese, yogurt, protein powder supplements, and protein bars.
If you’ve ever opened a container of your favorite yogurt and noticed some clear liquid floating on the top, that clear liquid is whey peptides. Years ago, manufacturing companies that produced dairy products threw out whey during the cheesemaking process.
Plain whey protein doesn’t have much taste, but when combined with natural flavoring agents like vanilla, cocoa, or even fruit, it is a great addition to any smoothie, or pre- or post-workout protein shake. The final product is what you see in stores in powder form.
There are two main types of whey protein: whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate.
The main difference between whey isolate and whey concentrate is what occurs during the manufacturing process. Put simply, whey isolate goes through a more intense processing phase than whey concentrate.
The filtration process of whey isolate protein removes virtually all of the non-protein macronutrients — carbohydrates and fat — yielding highly pure protein content. With whey concentrate, a greater proportion of carbs and fats remain.
In whey protein concentrate, roughly half of the carb content is made from lactose. Since whey protein isolate has far fewer carbs, it has less lactose content. This is why those who struggle with lactose intolerance should choose whey protein isolate over whey protein concentrate.
Also, for people who actively count macros and are conscious about maintaining an aesthetic physique, whey protein isolate may be the best form of whey protein to consume. This offers a high-protein supplement without the carbs or fat content.
Now that you know what whey protein is and how it’s made, let’s discuss what you really came here for — the reasons why it’s optimal for building muscle mass.
Whey protein concentrate and isolate are two of the most common forms of whey protein, and they come with similar health benefits. These include:
Let’s get scientific for a second:
Muscle tissue is made of protein. Muscle tissue is made up of fibers, and those fibers comprise chains of amino-acid molecules called peptides.
If you’re looking at the big picture of muscle building, there are 20 amino acids that help the body build protein. These 20 amino acids are split into two categories:
Because these nine essential amino acids cannot be produced by the body, we must obtain those amino acids through food or supplementation. Foods like animal meat, eggs, some plant proteins, and dairy are considered complete proteins, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids. This also means they’re ideal foods to consume if your goal is to maintain or build muscle mass.
Whey protein — whether it's protein concentrate or isolate — contains all nine essential amino acids, making it a pure protein. Both whey protein concentrate and isolate include an extra high dose of the amino acid leucine, which has been shown to effectively stimulate muscle protein synthesis and help build more lean muscle mass.
A 2003 Journal of Sports Science and Medicine study noted that whey protein contains high levels of both essential and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). In addition, the bioavailability of these amino acids is rather high, allowing your body to better absorb them.
The study also noted that while the protein concentration is higher in whey protein isolate than concentrate (reaching concentrations of 90%), the bioavailability in whey protein concentrate is better than whey protein isolate.
If your end goal is to build muscle mass, it’s important to pay close attention to the quality of the protein you consume on a daily basis — especially in the 2-3 hours before and after your gym session.
For the body to utilize protein, the small intestine must break down and absorb the protein and transport the resulting peptides and free amino acids to the blood, where they can then circulate to the various tissues in the body. Some protein sources (like animal meat for example) are difficult for the body to break down.
Therefore, it's important to select a rapid-digesting protein source (rather than a slow-digesting source) before and after your workout. This allows you to maximize protein synthesis, which builds muscle and encourages fat loss.
Whey protein’s solubility allows it to be absorbed immediately after it is ingested. The result is a spike in amino acid levels, leading to muscle protein synthesis.
Research by Nutrition and Metabolism shows that individuals who consume 20-25 grams of fast-digesting protein (like whey), may see an increase in muscle building through the process of muscle protein synthesis. This is true in the post-workout window (two hours after a workout) and up to 48 hours after an intense resistance training session.
In addition to digesting very quickly, whey protein is especially high in the amino acid leucine, which helps to promote muscle-protein-synthesis and aids recovery. Whey protein has much higher leucine content than other forms of protein, including casein, making it ideal for those trying to pack on muscle mass.
Consuming whey protein after exercise may have a significant impact on anabolic hormones and muscle strength.
In a Journal of Medical Sciences paper, researchers studied the effects of whey protein on growth hormone levels in a group of individuals who regularly exercised. During the six-week study, the group that consumed whey protein had higher growth hormone levels and built more muscle mass than the control group that received no protein powder.
Another study shows that dairy-based protein powders (like whey) can increase levels of IGF-1 in the body and support the replication and proliferation of muscle cells. IGF-1 is a hormone that is correlated with human growth hormone (HGH) and is responsible for the muscle growth (anabolic) effects of HGH. When you increase HGH levels in the body, you will also increase IGF-1.
Consuming enough protein each day is essential to building muscle.
The American College of Sports Medicine says individuals who want to gain muscle mass need to consume between 0.5-1 gram of protein per pound of body weight each day. By this standard, a 200-pound male should consume 100-200 grams of protein per day.
Consuming such a high amount of protein from whole food sources (like chicken breast, whole eggs, steak, and fish) would be extremely difficult. This is where supplementing with a meal replacement shake (made from whey protein isolate or concentrate) becomes so crucial.
The global protein powder market is expected to reach $32.6 billion by 2027. Due to the sheer number of whey protein powders on the market, you need to do your research to ensure you purchase a high-quality product.
All whey protein supplements are not created equal. As a general rule, the shorter the ingredient list — and the easier those ingredients are to pronounce — the better the product.
In addition, to ensure you're consuming protein and no fillers or preservatives, calculate the "P/Cal" (protein over calories) of a product. For example, if a supplement contains 32 grams of protein and 310 calories per serving, the P/Cal is 41%. In other words, 59% of the protein powder could be made from maltodextrin or other fillers.
If you see two protein powders on the shelf, one with a P/Cal of 41% and the other with 90%, choose the one with the higher protein-to-calorie ratio. As a good rule of thumb, it's best to find a supplement with a P/Cal over 80%.
Whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate are two of the most common forms of whey. While they both are complete proteins, help build muscle, and release anabolic hormones, there are a few key differences you should know.
Whey protein isolate undergoes a more rigorous filtration process than whey protein concentrate. This process removes the carb, fat, and lactose content from whey isolate. If you are on a low-fat or low-carb diet or are lactose intolerant, choose whey protein isolate instead of whey concentrate.
If you’re ready to improve your workout performance and build more muscle — without adding fat or carbs — we encourage you to try our 100% Grass-Fed Whey Isolate Protein powder. However, if you need the extra carbs and fat to power through your workouts, we recommend our 100% Grass-Fed Whey Protein Concentrate.