Whey Protein Isolate vs. Concentrate: What They Are and What You Need to Know

If you’ve ever had a protein shake, it was probably made with whey protein, the most popular form of protein powder out there. A favorite of body builders, fitness enthusiasts, and many people just looking to maintain healthy protein intake, whey is in high demand, with global sales expected to reach $13.5 billion by 2020. Whey protein can be an easy and delicious way to help you reach your health and fitness goals.

First thing's first: why is whey protein so popular?

Whey protein has become the go-to for many for several reasons, but the biggest ones are its affordability (it’s often the cheapest option you’ll see), how quickly the body absorbs it, the fact that it’s a complete protein, and its taste. Since it comes in a variety of flavors, whey protein can be mixed into various smoothie and shake recipes, whether you’re craving a sweet, post-workout treat, or want to throw it into a breakfast smoothie to make it more filling.

That said, if you do decide to purchase whey protein, you’ll be confronted with several options, starting with whether to choose a whey protein concentrate or whey protein isolate. Here’s all the information you need to decide which is right for you.

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So what is whey, anyway?

Remember little miss Muffet eating her curds and whey? If so, you might be imagining whey as some kind of lumpy oatmeal, but that’s not the case. Whey is the liquid leftover when you use the curds in milk to make cheese. For a long time whey would be discarded during the cheese-making process, but eventually farmers began to see the value and the benefits that whey could provide when they discovered it has an incredibly high protein content. Milk contains two proteins: whey and casein, and while casein makes up 80% of the proteins, our bodies absorb it more slowly than other proteins. Whey makes up that remaining 20%, and our bodies absorb it much more quickly.

Whey is a complete protein, which means it contains all nine essential amino acids that our bodies can’t produce on their own: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. For this reason, whey can be particularly helpful to those looking to add protein to their diets to fill in nutritional gaps, and for those who may, due to dietary restrictions, not be consuming a healthy amount of protein regularly.

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How do whey protein isolate and concentrate differ?

The biggest difference between whey protein isolate and concentrate is the level of refinement and filtration. Isolates are processed for longer so they have a higher (approximately 90%) concentration of protein, with less carbs, lactose, and fat. Because of this, whey protein isolate has more protein per serving than concentrate, and is a generally considered healthier than whey protein concentrate, which is dried immediately after being collected and has a lower protein concentration (approximately 80%).

Since the whey protein isolate is lower in lactose, it can also be an ideal option for people who are sensitive to lactose. That said, the safest option for anyone with lactose-sensitivity is to avoid whey altogether (since it is still dairy-based) and choose a plant-based protein instead.

While isolates can be slightly more expensive than concentrates, you’re often getting more out of them, since the amount of protein per serving is higher.

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When you’re choosing a whey protein powder, whether you decide on isolate or concentrate, make sure you’re choosing one with high quality, well-sourced ingredients, so you can rest assured that the protein powder you’re taking to help support your health goals is actually good for you.