In a previous article I gave an introduction to dairy-based proteins: where they come from, how they are made, health benefits, and supplement recommendations for college students. If you haven’t read my introduction on dairy-based protein powders, read it here.
Given the myriad of whey protein powder supplements, I thought it would be fitting to have an article dedicated to whey protein powder. Despite sharing the same origin—dairy—whey powders have different nutrient profiles, chemical properties, and health benefits.
What are the differences/similarities between whey concentrate, whey isolate, native whey, and hydrolyzed whey?
Concentrates: Many people consider concentrates as the most basic and cheapest whey protein powder on the market. Concentrates undergo less processing compared to other whey proteins and contain 25% to 89% protein by weight. Compared to isolates, concentrates contain higher amounts of lactose, cholesterol, and lipids. In addition, concentrates contain higher amounts of bioactive compounds.
Isolates: Isolates go through additional purification steps to remove cholesterol, lactose, and fat. Removing secondary nutrients increases the percent protein by weight to 90% or greater. The removal of lactose makes isolates more tolerable for those who suffer from lactose intolerance. Additional processing also decreases the amount of bioactive components. Most isolates are more expensive than concentrates because of processing costs and the higher percent of protein by weight.
Hydrolyzed Whey: Hydrolized whey is touted by supplement companies as the “king of all proteins” and “the best protein money can buy.” Hydrolyzed whey is usually more expensive than concentrates and isolates alone. Hydrolysis is the process of cleaving a chemical bond by adding water. In terms of protein, hydrolysis breaks down large peptides into smaller peptides. Any type of whey—concentrates, isolates, or native—can be hydrolyzed. In fact, most hydrolyzed whey protein powders are not 100% hydrolyzed. Products like Optimum Nutrition HydroWhey and Muscle Pharm Combat Powder contain a blend of whey concentrates, isolates, and hydrolyzed whey. Like isolates, hydrolyzed whey is less antigenic, which may benefit those that suffer from a cow milk allergy or gastrointestinal disease that impairs the breakdown and absorption of proteins.
Native Whey: Unlike isolates and concentrates which are isolated during the cheese making process (e.g., enzyme and strong acid addition), native whey is isolated from raw milk by microfiltration and ultracentrifugation. Using microfiltration and ultracentrifugation maximizes the amount of bioactive components. In terms of functional properties, native whey has excellent gel strength and foaming properties, which makes it a good material for food products. In addition, native whey has excellent emulsification properties, which makes it a good mother’s milk substitute. Native whey, like cheese-based whey, can undergo additional purification steps to create concentrate and isolates whey proteins. If you think hydrolyzed whey is expensive, wait until you see the price tag on native whey. For example, Wild Whey on Amazon costs approximately $38/lb. Yikes!
What is the best whey protein powder?
The answer to this question depends on the individual. Supplement companies (e.g., Optimum Nutrition, Dymatize, and MuscleTech) argue that hydrolyzed whey protein is superior to all other whey proteins because it contains smaller peptides, which enhances the assimilation of protein in the body. Theoretically, this leads to greater serum amino acid levels and an increase in muscle protein synthesis, which equals more pronounced muscle gains. Although plausible, I couldn’t find any studies that found a statistically significant difference between hydrolyzed and non-hydrolyzed whey. Personally, I don’t think spending the extra money on hydrolyzed whey is worth it unless you have a cow milk allergy or you suffer from a gastrointestinal disorder that interferes with the breakdown and absorption of protein.
The same goes for isolates. I’m not convinced that a modest 2-3 g protein increase per 30 g serving of protein powder equates to a significant increase in athletic performance, recovery, and muscle hypertrophy. For some, like competitive bodybuilders or powerlifters, maybe this is the difference between gold and silver. Native whey, especially for college students, is out of the question. Unless you are concerned about food manufacturing, native whey is unnecessary.
I recommend trying different types of whey protein. If whey concentrate upsets your GI tract and you are farting like Fat Bastard from Austin Powers, try an isolate or hydrolyzed whey. If you have money to burn, and you want the satisfaction of having the “best whey protein,” try hydrolyzed native whey isolate. Overall, for the vast majority of the population—including college students—whey protein concentrate will suffice.
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