(Sometimes a reader will email me a question that needs a full article to answer properly, and sometimes it’s an answer I think others will benefit from hearing. This is one of those times.)
QUESTION: I’m confused about which whey protein powder I should use and what the differences are between isolate, concentrate and hydrolyzed? Is one type any better and more effective than the others? Which one do you use and recommend?
ANSWER: I’m going to be completely honest here. It is VERY hard for me to fake any interest in answering questions about supplements. Seriously. It bores me to death. So, in an effort to keep myself awake, I’m going to make this as simple and straight forward as possible.
Let’s begin with the basics of each…
- Concentrate: This is the least processed form of whey there is, which means it’s the cheapest form, the form that contains the most additional non-protein stuff (most notably lactose and fat), and the form with the most potential to cause digestive issues (due to that aforementioned lactose).
- Isolate: This is what you get when you take whey concentrate and filter out the vast majority of the stuff that isn’t protein, thus leaving you with a much more pure (i.e. more protein per scoop), easily digestible (bye-bye lactose), and expensive form of whey.
- Hydrolyzed: This is whey isolate that has gone through a bonus round of processing (it’s been predigested), thus making it the purest, fastest, most bioavailable and easily digested/absorbed form of whey on the planet (and the most expensive by far). However, as wonderful as this all might sound, it’s important to remember that in the context of real world application, it mostly amounts to “overpriced marketing horseshit.” Just throwing that out there.
- Blend: This would be a powder that contains a combination of some or all of the above, typically concentrate and isolate.
Now let’s answer the first question on your mind…
Which Is Best For Building Muscle And Losing Fat?
With all else being equal – where you are getting a sufficient total amount of protein each day from mostly higher quality sources – is one form of whey “more effective” than the others?
Um, no. I’d say there is virtually no meaningful difference whatsoever in that regard.
Now for the next question on your mind…
So Then… Which Should I Use?
Despite the overwhelming lack of “effectiveness” differences, there are still a few important factors worth caring about. Price would certainly be one of them, and digestibility would be another.
Here’s what you need to know.
100% Concentrate Is Ideal For You If…
Eh, it’s probably not truly ideal for anyone.
I mean, maybe if you’re dead broke and require the cheapest form of whey there is? That’s the main scenario that comes to mind. And this also assumes you have no issues digesting it (many people do) and can actually find a powder that is 100% concentrate. It’s pretty rare at this point.
100% Isolate Is Ideal For You If…
You are lactose intolerant/have significant issues digesting whey concentrate.
If so, chances are you’re going to have issues with many (or most, or in some cases literally all) whey protein powders that contain any amount of concentrate… due again to the lactose it contains.
So for example, if you’ve noticed that you get bloated and/or find yourself greatly exceeding your average daily FPD (farts per day), and you suspect that your whey protein might be the cause… you may very well be correct.
The first option in these cases is to just try some other brand. Yes, even if it still contains some amount of concentrate. I’ve personally noticed big differences just from one brand to the next despite the fact that it was a similar form of whey (more about that in a minute).
But if every concentrate-containing protein powder you try causes digestive issues for you, the simple solution would be to switch to a powder that is comprised entirely of whey protein isolate.
It will be more expensive because of the fancy filtration process it goes through to become isolate, but it’s that process that removes virtually everything from the protein (lactose, fat, carbs, cholesterol), thus making it a much purer and lactose-free form of whey.
Which in turn usually eliminates all of the digestive issues.
Also keep in mind that there are different filtering methods used and some are better than others. Specifically, “ion exchange” is the worst way of doing it (it denatures the protein more than any other method), so you want to avoid that. You only want to see words like “microfiltration” or “cross flow microfiltration” or “cold microfiltration.” That’s the type of filtering you want.
If you’d like a recommendation, this is the only 100% isolate I’ve ever tried, and it’s probably the purest (not just in terms of being lactose-free, but in terms of being natural, unflavored, no artificial anything) there is: NOW Foods Whey Protein Isolate
Hydrolyzed Whey Is Ideal For You If…
You enjoy wasting money on unproven overhyped garbage you don’t need that doesn’t do anything beneficial whatsoever.
In this case you can also feel free to get a blend (see below) and then take all of the money you end up saving and set it on fire. Your results will be exactly the same, only now you’ll at least get to experience the added excitement of setting money on fire. Fun!
A Blend Is Ideal For You If…
You are the rest of the population… which is probably most of the people reading this.
That includes me, too. Yes, even though I AM someone who has issues digesting dairy/lactose.
Basically, if you want the best combination of everything that’s good about whey protein (quality, digestion, taste, price, purity, BCAA content, immunoglobulins and other fun stuff I am way too uninterested in to actually discuss in any detail), then a blend containing isolate and concentrate would probably be the best choice for you.
And as far as I can tell, most of the protein powders on the market fit this description. All you need to do is read the label and look at the ingredients to find out.
So, it’s really just a matter of choosing one that tastes the best (which is a personal preference), digests the best (as I mentioned before, I’ve tried a bunch of brands and found some caused my average daily FPD to increase to “this-is-probably-why-I’m-single” levels, while others amazingly don’t take it above baseline at all), and of course costs an amount you’re okay with paying.
For me personally, Optimum Nutrition’s 100% Whey Gold Standard is that brand. It’s what I use.