Difference between Whey Protein Isolate and Whey Protein Concentrate

Updated on February 24, 2018

Although both these protein types are made from the same source and have a lot in common, there is a serious difference between them that provokes a lot of fuss and discussions between those athletes and nutritionists who consider one of the variants more preferable to the other. In this article we are going to figure out what the difference is, why it is so important to competing athletes and what product to choose in accordance with your fitness goals.


Whey Protein Isolate

Whey protein itself is one of the two milk proteins. It is separated during the cheese-making process or directly from milk by filtering it. This type of protein is characterized by a versatile amino acid profile and quicker digestion and absorption properties due to its molecular structure. Like casein (the other type of milk protein), separated unprocessed whey, in addition to proteins, contains fats, carbs, minerals and vitamins. To turn it into a packaged product called “whey protein” available as a sport supplement, actually one of the most popular of them, whey is processed. Whey protein is great for muscle growth and recovery, and besides it is a very good source of high-quality protein in the daily menu, so it is highly appreciated not only by professional athletes, but by a great many fitness lovers and active people. Whey proteins are highly bio-available and are well known for their high BCAA concentration, which is very good for protein synthesis stimulation.

Whey protein is available in stores in 3 main forms: isolate, concentrate and hydrolysate. (Whey protein hydrolysate, which we are not going to talk about in this article, is basically whey protein isolate that has been additionally processed). In this article we will cover the characteristics of the first two types and create some kind of comparison chart to specify differences between them.

When comparing whey protein isolate to whey protein concentrate, it is necessary to mention that both of them are actually valuable whey protein, but concentrate serves as a basic source for isolate; it undergoes additional processing and acquires new qualities – and that is the main reason for all the existing differences between these two types of whey.

It is not easy for consumers to choose the right product among protein supplements, especially taking into account the great number of companies and brands available on the market. To make this choice a bit easier let’s see how both types of whey protein are made.

How is whey protein concentrate made? As a result of milk filtration or making cheese (as we mentioned at the beginning of this article) a new material is left behind. This material is dried to produce natural whey protein concentrate. Despite its name whey protein concentrate doesn’t consist of 100% protein; it may contain some leftover carbohydrates (lactose or milk sugar, in other words) and fats. The protein ratio may vary approximately from 30% to 80%, as the source material is natural. This protein has very high biological and nutritional value due to protein sub-fractions. The presence of these protein sub-fractions makes whey protein concentrate undenaturated, i.e. containing 3-d form natural peptides that bring a lot of benefits to the immune system and overall health.

How is whey protein isolate made? As we have learned before, whey protein isolate is made from concentrate using a separation method. Nowadays two of them are widely used: the first one is based on ion exchange and the second method is membrane filtration (combined micro- and ultra-filtration methods).

Isolate manufactured by using ion exchange changes the characteristics of the protein molecule; it helps with filtering protein from other nutrients, so non-protein components are washed from the reactor. Protein processing does not cause denaturation, therefore ion exchange is known as a high quality method of isolate manufacturing.

Isolate made by using membrane filtration (microfiltration and ultrafiltration) is based on using molecular size for separating protein from carbs and fats in the whey stream. Membrane filtration implies using pressure across a membrane surface. It helps smaller molecules safely pass through the membrane while larger molecules are retained.

Both methods are very effective, as the final product has a very high protein to non-protein ratio (up to 96%). Therefore whey protein isolate is considered to be lactose, carbohydrate and cholesterol free. Whey protein isolate is easily mixed with water and quickly digested, which helps the consumer to get an immediate amino acid supply.

Whey Protein Isolate vs Whey Protein Concentrate

What’s the difference between whey protein isolate and whey protein concentrate? The first and most obvious difference is that isolate is additionally processed concentrate; it is more thoroughly separated from other nutrients like fats and carbs, and therefore can be considered a more pure form of whey protein. But by turning this information into figures you can see that the difference isn’t crucial until you calculate every single gram of carbs consumed. Most whey concentrates contain about 80% protein (on a dry basis), about 9% carbohydrates (about ½ of this is lactose) and 5-6% fats. As far as whey protein isolate’s nutritional value is concerned, it should be noted that isolates usually contain about 92-96% protein (dry basis too) and a few grams of carbs and fats. It goes without saying that isolates are much more expensive than concentrates, because using modern technologies for filtration is costly.

What does it mean? It means that choosing isolate you get a couple of grams protein more for the same serving and your shake will be almost carb- and fat-free; this is very important for competing athletes, but is that such a great deal for people who simply enjoy fitness and going to the gym as a hobby? Taking into account the well-balanced molecular structure of whey protein concentrate and the health benefits it brings, it is more of a whole food and in this regard is superior to whey isolate. But considering the remarkable nutritional value of isolate and the fact that it is almost carb- and fat-free, it still remains a question what type of whey protein to choose and for what purpose.

Comparison Chart

Whey protein isolateWhey protein concentrate
Processed whey protein concentrateNatural by-product in cheese making (dried)
More of a functional supplementMore of a whole food
A bit more expensiveA bit more affordable

It is necessary to mention that whey protein in any of its forms available today has outstanding digestibility qualities and a great amino acid profile in comparison to many other types of protein. Therefore as long as you don’t calculate every single gram of carbs and fat digested and don’t suffer from lactose intolerance – you can safely choose whey protein concentrate and save some money.

There is nothing wrong with whey protein concentrate, but the fact that isolate still is the gold standard when comparing different types of protein is something to consider. Many people, in particular professional athletes and fitness fanatics, are still interested in products with maximum protein content and so isolate perfectly meets their requirements. And whether is it worth its price – it’s up to every single consumer to decide.

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