Whey Protein Isolate vs Concentrate vs Hydrolyzed vs Blend: Which Is Best?

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. 

Yup, even if the supplement company claims their whey has magical powers. It doesn’t. Not even a little. You’re not going to build muscle or lose fat any differently.

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.

The end.

77 thoughts on “Whey Protein Isolate vs Concentrate vs Hydrolyzed vs Blend: Which Is Best?”

77 Comments

  1. Jay,

    I was wondering about your thoughts on protein absorption. There is a lot of contradicting info out there that suggests an athletic adult young male can absorb 10g per serving all the way up to 50g. I would assume the rates one’s body can absorb a liquid supplement would be different from actually eating meat. It can be tough to get up around 200 grams of protein consumption daily short of throwing a chicken breast in your oatmeal!

    Also in other posts you’ve mentioned timing is crucial. 30 minutes post workout is close to ideal, and that’s my goal.
    I use the same whey protein supplement suggested here on aworkoutroutine.com, I guess my dilemma is that assuming one scoop is one serving = 24g, does it really matter if I split it up throughout the day or just throw a triple scoop in and chug?

    And why do you remain a ghost? This is the greatest fitness material out there!

      • While it’s true a male can only absorb so much protein, but they don’t take in the factor that more protein keeps a person more full for a longer period of time. PLUS if someone was to really follow 30g per meal, it would be crazy as to how many meals one would need to really meet his metabolic requirements!

        So don’t hold back. Meal timing is also not relevant as mentioned by the legend above 😀

        • The maximum amount of protein a person can absorb in one meal is likely more than a typical person is actually capable of consuming in a single meal.

          – The Legend

      • By 2040, we will know that you write with your non-dominant hand as a result of having trained yourself relentlessly to write with the other hand to deceive your adversaries. By 2050, we will discover that you have had seven cavities, though by that point you’re sporting a jaw composed entirely of self-cloned teeth. By 2060, we will learn your favorite color. By 2060, we find out your zodiak sign. By 2080, we will find out that you died in 2078 due to an acute overload of fitness information, but not before transferring the contents of your brain into a sentient computer known as Gains-Bot 9000, aka Deep Gainz.

  2. Love Optimum Nutrition. I’ve been using for a couple of years now and it’s the best tasting and least offensive.

  3. Good reading. What about the best time to take them? Before workout, after workout, as meal replacement, before bed?

    • Your goal is to consume a sufficient total amount of protein each day. When you consume it is of minor importance in comparison, and when you consume whey is of even less importance. Hell, if you can hit your totals with solid food sources, you can feel free to skip the whey altogether.

  4. A couple things I would like to add. I take my protein shake using half milk/half water to help dilute the milk within 30 – 45 minutes post workout on my gym days with creatine. Off days in order to get my creatine, I it have with a glass of chocolate milk. Which I heard that chocolate milk is an excellent source of protein and is just as good if not better for you than a whey protein powder as it is already made with whey ingredients. This also makes the powder form last longer.

    The other point I want to make is, I have tried the Six Star Whey Protein as well and the Body Fortress brand both being the budget supplements as having a family I can’t really spend the amount on higher end supplements, the Six Star tastes ten times better than Body Fortress.

  5. I dont do any whey. I use plain jane unflavoured, unsweetened Yellow Pea, Brown Rice, Hemp and Pumpkin Seed protein powders blended in my smoothies. Plain jane and as unprocessed as I can get.

    • As long as you total protein intake for the day is what it needs to be and ideally comes from mostly higher quality sources, your choice of supplement barely matters. Whatever suits your needs/preferences/wallet.

  6. Hi Jay! Good article!

    IMO, the concentrate protein is the best choice if you can find it and if you dont have problems with lactose. Years ago, I spent a lot of money on hype and realized that there is no need to, i switched to drink pasteurized egg whites which are less expensive and work better for me than whey.

    Keep up the good work…

    Regards!

  7. Great article Jay.

    For us old guys who’ve been taking high quantities of protein for a long time (age 40+), one thing to consider is our cholesterol intake. As one ages, and continues to have high-protein intake, it becomes ever-important to keep the cholesterol at low levels. I’ve taken Optimum Nutrition’s blend for years, and agree, it’s great; but I’d consider NOW’s isolate due to the cholesterol benefits.

  8. Isn’t brand quality an issue? We’ve seen studies that suggest some level of lead or other harmful stuff?

    I use ON as well, but only because I was under the impression that I might die a slow lead poisoned death with the walmart brands.

    • The lead stuff is less scary than you think. Alan Aragon covers it here.

      Quality is still important, though it’s mostly an issue in terms of having other crap included in the whey, bad filtration methods, etc.

  9. I’ve been using a lot of The Protein works stuff – cheaper than most and I find the quality really good.
    Managed to pack on some serious muscle mass but really struggling getting rid of the tyre. I have to make like forest gump and run!

  10. Jay, I simply LOVE Optimum Nutrition’s Vanilla 10% Whey Protein. It tastes great!! It’s low in both fat and carbs and has 24 glorious grams of Protein! Plus, I can add my chia seeds to it to make it a bit more nutritious for my particulars. In addition, to being ‘user friendly’ for those of us who have a hard time with Lactose, a 6.15lb. Bag of it, here at my local Costco sells for about $60.00. Thanks for recommending it via your website. Keep on doin’ your thang, Jay! p.s. LOVE YOUR PUSH/PULL/LEG Workouts in your ‘The Best Workout Routines’ e-book!!

  11. I started using ON double choc but after about half a tub started giving me stomach cramps. Seems all Whey makes me a little sick

  12. Thoughts on plant vs. animal protein absorption? I bought my first vegan protein, Sun Warrior, because all others were rough on my digestion. Let’s not talk about that part further!!!! LOL But my philosophy was this was a better option than NO protein supplement.

  13. If you care about artificial sweeteners, be aware that Optimum uses acesulfame potassium, a little-known and less studied artificial sweetener. I found it almost everywhere when I started looking. Jay Robb’s products are a prominent exception.

  14. Just curious about the other harmful ingredients put into these products.

    What are your thoughts on this.

  15. The NOW brand you mentioned is the brand I have always used. I buy the plain stuff and mix with cocoa or some fruit. Great article!

  16. I’m guessing you may have an article on this, but why take this whey/protein stuff? I’m not being cranky nor contrarian. I simply don’t know what it is supposed to do for me. I’m one year into the beginners program and it still works for me! I may never move to the intermediate. Well, maybe one day.
    Thanks

    • Same here. Am on 3 days full body workout. And due to family commitment and others, hard to find time to squeeze in more days to train sometimes. And sometimes can only manage once or twice daily. So guess this will make me stuck at the beginner’s program forever, which is actually the program I like the most.

        • So, even if I am training on and off, it would be good to progress to the intermediate program after 6 months. I do believe my motor skills and lifting style are proper after so many years of on and of training.

          By the way, just a suggestion, we do not get an email reply when there is an answer or reply to your questions, perhaps that would be a good function?

          God bless and all the best.

          • This one covers when to switch from the beginner to intermediate routine.

            As for the email-when-there’s-a-reply idea, I don’t remember the exact reason, but I vaguely remember there being something about it I didn’t like when I thought about adding it a few years ago.

    • Just a convenient high quality source of protein. Nothing magical about it, and you certainly don’t NEED to take it as long as your hitting your protein requirements each day.

      • As usual I found my answer in your book chapter 7. (Reading is our friend). Regarding whey, that is. Also saw several 3 day split routines that I liked. Still, I think I like the 3 day full body routine. I’ve gone backwards a little in terms of weight because I felt like my form was slipping in my efforts to overload progressively.

        Maybe I’m wrong but like I think I’ve read her that as long as I’m making progress withe the beginners routine, why change? I’d be interested in your thoughts Jay.

  17. So, how many grams of creatine per day do I need during the loading phase?

    JK.

    Nice article man, keep informing. You are one of the best sources for well rounded, well documented and completely sensible information that I have found. I look forward to your blog posts and hope you start writing more frequently.

    Aaron

  18. Following you as I have for the past few years, I thought you were going to totally say something like “it doesn’t matter where your protein source come from (meat, supplement, dairy etc..) & at what time of the day you’ll take it, so long as you take it” I was surprised to see you discussing supplements in more details, this was fun!

  19. Something people may be unaware of is stuff called ‘textured vegetable protein’ that is used a lot in vegetarian meals. It takes on the flavor of what it’s being cooked with and can replace meat in tacos, quesedillas, chili, veggie burgers, soups, stews, etc for very cheap… under $3 for about 12 servings @ 12-14 grams of protein per. Just a suggestion for people looking to get protein from different sources. You can find it at Trader Joes, Whole Foods, or online.

  20. AWESOME ARTICLE MAN… I’M GLAD I USE THAT PRODUCT ALREADY !! THANKS BUD I WAS REALLY CONFUSED ON THIS STUPID TOPIC AS WELL!

  21. One point of contention with this article. You state, “If you’ve noticed that you get bloated and/or find yourself greatly exceeding your average daily FPD (farts per day)” then it might be the concentrate. I’ll be switching to concentrate for this exact reason. Yes, my co-workers hate me. Any suggestions on the worst “offenders”? Thanks!

  22. Great article. I use ON Gold Standard as well but go for the naturally flavoured version since it has good old fashioned sugar instead of artificial sweetener.

  23. Good read,To be honest though,i just recently bought that “horseshit” you mentioned in the article,the hydrolyzed whey protein from ISO 100,by dymatize.To my memory this is my 6th different product i am trying,ON gold standard, muscletech phase 8, iso pure zero carb, ultimate nutrition 100% whey,BSN syntha 6,and now this.Although ON was most used by me,i just bought ISO 100,is there really no difference apart from the cost?

  24. Hey man, great articles overall!

    Just wondering though, I have a pretty aggressive dairy intolerance and so I generally skip anything even slightly dairy related (in fact, one of my more scientifically inclined friends suggested I might have an intolerance to the milk proteins themselves, though this isn’t something I’ve yet been bothered to put to the test).

    As a result, I’ve been using pea or soy protein isolate instead. Given what it is (pretty much just pure protein as far as I can tell) I can only imagine there’s no discernible difference, but I thought I’d check- is there any factor or reason you know of why soy or pea protein would be best avoided?

    Cheers,

    Pik

    • Sorry mate, just saw you answer this in the questions above. Having (briefly) read Lyle McDonald’s article, he seems to feel that pea and soy isolate are slightly inferior but still OK- which given that all stripes of whey protein seem to give me trouble means they’re probably best for me. Thanks again!

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