Whey protein is by far the most popular sports supplement in history and for good reason. It is the most bioavailable protein for humans we can get, it is actually 20% more usable than diet staples chicken or beef. This means that its amino acid profile is perfect for rebuilding muscles and other body processes. Whey protein is derived from dairy and is a by-product of the cheese making process. When raw however, whey is loaded with milk fat and lactose, which most of us don’t want in our healthy diets. Whey protein supplements as we know them have been processed and filtered to remove most of this fat and lactose. This process can happen in a number of different ways and to varying degrees. One of these is to concentrate the whey, the other is to isolate the whey from the dairy source. So what is the big difference between isolated whey and concentrated whey?
The cliffs notes version of the difference between concentrate and isolate is that isolate is more pure. The best analogy to describe the difference between the two is to compare them to water. You could look at whey protein concentrate as spring water; as it is filtered to remove impurities and most of the bad stuff in water from the ground, but still contains many of the minerals and some of the impurities of natural water. Whey protein isolate on the other hand, is like distilled water. Distillation of water is a process of evaporating water to complete isolate the water molecule from everything else that was in the water, effectively leaving it free from anything but a two hydrogen and one oxygen atom. In terms of whey protein, the minerals and impurities are the fats and lactose.
The whey concentration process filters the whey down, removing the lion's share of the fats and lactose, but not all of it. Further, the quality of the concentration process can vary quite a bit. Ultimately, concentrating protein results in a 70-85% concentration of pure protein. So in a 50 gram serving of whey concentrate, up to 35-42 grams of pure protein can be achieved, with the rest being lactose, fats, and other substrates of milk such as alpha lactoglobulins and lactoferrins, along with calcium, potassium and sodium.
On the other hand, the whey protein isolation process is much more thorough. It essentially separates the protein, almost in its entirety, from the raw whey, resulting in 90-97% pure protein. So in a 50 gram serving of whey protein isolate, up to 45-47 grams of pure protein can be achieved.
So which is best for you? There are functionally three main differences between whey concentrate and whey Isolate:
Fats and Carbs: If you are on an extremely strict diet, you can avoid some carbs and fat grams by opting for the more refined whey isolate. If, however you have a little leeway in your diet or can budget for the small amount of increased carbs and fats, you are fine with a whey concentrate.
Digestibility: If you have any lactose intolerance or difficulty digesting dairy than you may have an issue with whey concentrate as it retains more lactose. While isolating whey does not technically make it lactose free, it is filtered to a point that the vast majority of those with intolerance can consume it with impunity with no issues.
Price: Whey concentrate is less refined and thus much cheaper. If you don’t have digestion issues with concentrate and can deal with a couple extra carbs and fat grams, then It makes sense to pick a whey concentrate and save some money, which can often be up to 35% cheaper per gram of protein.
In total, whey protein is a fantastic protein supplement that just about everyone will benefit from taking. Pick a clean, trusted product and use the information above to determine which fits you budget and diet goals the best.