Whey is a liquid produced as a by-product of the production of cheese. Once milk coagulates, the leftover materials that are soluble from milk are contained in whey. After cheese is processed, the whey is removed, as is the fat, and then it is again processed to be used for food.1 For people who are new to using or learning about whey protein supplements, it can be a bit confusing at first. There are different types of whey protein, and it’s hard to know what the difference between each type is. Additionally, it can be hard to find concrete information about which form of whey protein would be the most beneficial for your needs.
The three types of whey protein that are whey protein isolate, whey protein concentrate, and whey protein hydrolysate. All three of these forms of whey protein contain high levels of bioavailable protein, that is, protein that is ready to be absorbed by your body to assist in recovery and muscle building. However, some forms of whey protein do have advantages over other forms of whey protein. For example, if you were an individual who doesn’t tolerate lactose very well, you would be best suited to choose a form of whey protein that contains a lower amount of lactose.
Whey protein isolate is a highly filtered form of whey protein that contains a lower amount of lactose, but is not entirely lactose free. Many supplement companies will say that their whey protein isolate is entirely lactose free, but there is just a significantly lowered amount of lactose. Some will argue that this amount is negligible, but it is still present. Compared to other forms of whey protein, whey protein isolate contains a higher percentage of protein. This means that for every gram of whey protein isolate you consume, a higher amount of it is actually pure protein. As a result of the processing, the whey protein isolate is stripped of beneficial nutrients and amino acids, and may result in a lower amount of absorbable protein.
The next form of whey protein we are going to talk about is whey protein hydrolysate, which is a form of protein that has been processed even more than whey protein isolate, and the protein in it is partly digested already. This is done to ensure that the whey protein hydrolysate is digested as quickly as possible. Some companies state that you need the fastest digesting protein possible after your workout, although this is not necessarily the only thing that is important while choosing a whey protein powder. As a result of the extra processing, whey protein hydrolysate is much more expensive than other forms of whey protein.(2)
The third and final form is whey protein concentrate. It has significantly less processing than other forms of whey protein, which is actually a good thing. The processing of other forms removes natural nutrients from them, and while they might be faster absorbing, less protein is available to be absorbed and properly digested. Whey protein concentrate contains more lactose and other bioactive compounds. By weight, there is slightly less protein than whey protein isolate or whey protein hydrolysate, but this is typically only by a very small amount. In terms of being able to digest and process the protein, whey protein concentrate is by far the most beneficial form of whey protein. While whey protein concentrate has less protein for its weight than other forms, the protein that it does have is much more digestible than the protein found in the further processed forms of whey protein. For example, the whey protein GSH Ignite contains un-denatured hormone free whey concentrate, so you obtain all of the beneficial nutrients found naturally in whey. Whey protein is a very fast digesting form of protein and without a doubt fast enough to ensure that you recover from your workout as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.(3)
Hopefully this has cleared up some of the confusion that you might have about the different forms of whey protein. While each form of whey protein has its own unique benefits, there are often downfalls with these products, too. These downfalls come from the processing used to achieve the form of whey protein, so the best bet is to choose a protein that has been processed as little as possible, like a whey protein concentrate.
1. “Whey.” The Encyclopædia Britannica. 15th ed. 1994
2. Foegeding, EA; Davis, JP; Doucet, D; McGuffey, MK (2002). “Advances in modifying and understanding whey protein functionality”. Trends in Food Science & Technology 13 (5): 151–9
3. Candow DG; Burke NC; Smith-Palmer T; Burke DG (2006) “Effect of whey and soy protein supplementation combined with resistance training in young adults.”