One of the most popular supplements is protein powder. There are so many different protein powders on the market so it’s easy to get overwhelmed and confused on which is best. After all, protein is one thing that I’m pretty sure ALL athletes are focussed on eating - so wanting to level up with a supplement is very common. But which one should you choose? That is the question I will address for you today.
In today’s blog post, I compare the two biggest players in the protein powder game - whey isolate vs whey concentrate. So if you have ever wondered which one you should be taking or if you have wondered if whey isolate is truly the SUPERIOR option, then this blog post is for you. Happy reading!
Which protein powder is better for me: whey isolate or whey concentrate?
This is a good question and actually a very common one that I get as a Sports Dietitian. Protein powder is simply a food derived powdered form of protein that is use to supplement a diet to help boost and hit protein targets. However, there are so many different types (even beyond whey protein), so its understandably confusing on which is the better option. Today I will just be focusing on the whey protein big players - isolate and concentrate.
Let’s start with defining whey protein. Whey protein is a type of protein that's derived from milk based products and it consists of fast digesting protein and is a common ingredient in many dietary supplements (not just whey protein powder).The two most common forms you can buy as a supplement is whey isolate and whey concentrate.
Whey isolate undergoes different type of processing with the end result being a product that is virtually only protein (with negligible amounts of carbs and fats). The concentrate powder is still predominantly protein but there is a very small amount of carbs and fats left in the product.
Nutritional Differences 101
Now let's break up the difference in terms of the nutritional profile of the two different versions (the nutrition info is from a brand I personally use).
Whey Isolate Nutrition Breakdown:
Calories - 118 calories
Protein: 25g per serve
Carbs and fats: less than 1g per serve each
Whey Concentrate Nutrition Breakdown:
Calories - 146 calories
Protein: 26g per serve
Carbs - 3g per serve
Fats - 2g per serve
You can already see that in terms of protein they're very much the same and they're both derived as a whey protein so the quality of protein is the same. The only real difference is that one has a tiny but more carbs and fats which means the calories per serve are around 2-25 calories more. It should be noted that research does say that isolate whey sources are technically more bioavailable in the sense they absorb more “efficiently”. The other big difference is price - whey isolate is a lot more expensive than concentrate whey products.
So isolate vs concentrate...for that is the question
The question then becomes, are the benefits and differences of whey isolate worth the extra price tag?
To answer this question, we need to delve deeper into the comparison and look at the contextual considerations of choosing a given product. Firstly, let’s address the calorie difference as this is a big factor for athletes choosing a protein supplement. The difference in my example product is not too different to other brands when it comes to isolate vs concentrate - roughly 20-25 calories per serve difference. I personally consider this difference negligible as athletes diets are generally able to easily accommodate this small calorie difference. However, if someone was a bodybuilder, for example, and needs to be meticulous with calories and are working with small margins then I can see the justification for the more “lean” whey isolate.
Bioavailability - what is it good for?
Now let’s discuss the bioavailability factor - is the increased speed of absorption of whey isolate a worthy selling point? The reality is that this difference in practical terms is negligible for the typical athlete who would be taking this supplement as a mere supplementary form of nutrition “as needed”. Also, increased bioavailability of isolate does not mean concentrate is not well absorbed - both are well absorbed, quality sources of protein that serve the same purpose with practically the same outcomes. What also matters is: total protein intake and adequacy, protein quality (biological value of protein), and protein distribution.
I have already mentioned they are the same level of quality for a protein source so you just need to look at your decision from the context of determining if you eat enough protein in the first place and distribute protein effectively during the day. If you do, then the difference in absorption speed and efficiency becomes even less of importance.
“But what about Muscle Protein Synthesis?! Surely isolate will help me get more gains!”.
Not exactly, total protein and protein quality still take precedence and we already know either protein powder will be able to tick of these boxes.
So isolate is an expensive pointless choice?
Not quite. Whey isolate will be the better choice for those who really want the lowest calorie protein choice while still consuming a very high quality protein powder. Also, isolate protein is perfect for people who have lactose intolerance as they processing removes virtually all the lactose from the product and making it lactose-free. Therefore, if you are lactose intolerant or have IBS then the whey isolate is what you would want to choose. Whey concentrate might take you to fart city not gainz city.
Now that we have addressed the main in’s and out’s of whey protein and the comparison between the two main types on the market, I want to share some additional considerations that are important. At the end of the day, these protein powders are supplements and therefore they should be used as a SUPPLEMENTARY source of addition nutrition “as needed”. You need to make sure your food first approach is addressed first and consistent before you even worry about taking a protein powder (let alone deciding if isolate or concentrate will serve you better).
Another consideration with protein powder is taste - if you don’t like the taste then the likelihood you will take it consistently enough will be greatly diminished. Keep in mind a lot of this will come down to: the flavour of a given product AND the brand in question. However, I have personally found that between isolate and concentrate that concentrate tastes better (I mean it has carbs and fats so can’t be to surprising haha).
In addition, concentrate whey protein cooks better than isolate in baked goods and the like - which for me is important as I don’t just make protein shakes. So based on this, I can’t justify the extra price for a protein that is negligibly different nutritionally and also doesn’t taste/cook as well. Keep in mind, this is not just me saying this as my clients very often agree with this and find that isolate does not work as well in recipes I given them.
Here's a little bit of a recap to help you put all this together and help you make your decision.
Whey Isolate Pros:
- Very high quality protein source
- Lower in calories
- More bioavailable
- Lactose free
Whey Concentrate Pros:
- Very high quality protein source
- Much cheaper
- Tastes better
- Cooks better
Keep in mind that even with these points in mind, protein adequacy is KING. And also keep in mind that food should be your first and primary source of protein. Beyond that, you can use this above information to make your decision and decide if the pros outweigh the cons for the much more expensive whey isolate.
So what is my recommendation as a protein lovin’ Sports Dietitian?
With all clients I always tailor my recommendations to their individual circumstances and inform them to choose the one that works best for them. However, for both myself and my clients I will usually recommend the whey concentrate over the whey isolate. The simple reason for this is that I do not want them to be spending too much money on supplements and the differences between these two is negligible when it comes to practical terms.
Whey isolate and concentrate are both good protein sources of the same quality while the latter also tends to work better for culinary purposes. Couple this with the much better price tag, and it’s safe to see why it’s my go to. However, if you are working with small margins with calories, need very specific nutrition (for example, bodybuilding), or are lactose intolerant - then isolate is the way to go for you.
There you go. Now you know the main differences which will hopefully help you make an informed decision around your protein powder of choice. I know this wont apply to you if you are vegan but that is a different topic for a different day. If you are wanting guidance on vegan protein, feel free to email me.
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Coach Aleksa (Sports Dietitian)
Hi there! My name's Aleksa Gagic - i'm a Brisbane Sports Dietitian & Nutritionist. The aim of this blog is to provide value and spread quality evidence-based nutrition information to counter the BS floating around.