- Whey protein, while being the best supplemental protein powder, can come in various further processed forms.
- Whey protein with different purities and molecular sizes can vary in absorption rates with the most clear differences seen between concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate.
- Further processing techniques can modify protein further but, beyond the first three variants, these further variations do not provide much in the way of practical benefits.
Behold, the natural life cycle of a dietary supplement:
- It is first introduced and only “hardcore” people use it, admittedly too fast, and deal with unknown risks but possible benefits as well.
- It is then hammered out a bit more and put through a “trial by scientific fire.” Many supplements die in adolescence here but some make it through.
- It then joins the ranks of “proven” supplements. In this supplemental “adulthood” it becomes one of many viable options and still gathers research.
- It will soon, after much research, settle on an “optimal” form where the dose, extraction, source, and way to take are all pretty much decided upon. It gets “grandfathered” into the hall of greats that not many supplements get into.
- Finally, it gets beaten over the head with marketing as people ignore all the stuff decided upon in the previous stage in attempts to get more money.
We saw this cycle well with creatine monohydrate.
After much research was done to establish creatine monohydrate as excellent (and micronized as a possible “enhancement” due to improved water solubility), rather than just selling creatine monohydrate dozens of companies decided to make variations for no real reason.
Some of them were horrendously bad as well, like creatine ethyl ester and liquid creatine which both actually destroyed the creatine before it got to your muscles. Hah, great job, remind me never to call you for a babysitting gig, genius.
Anything goes for getting that delicious market share on some of the big name supplements.
And what’s a bigger market than whey protein itself?
Whey protein is beyond proven, mostly because it’s just whey protein (and as such we can just extend a lot of data on dairy proteins and food in general) but also because it, along with soy protein, are research standards in assessing the quality of a protein.
Naturally many companies have made their own protein powders and tried to vault their products into the “latest and greatest” status using various buzzwords and processing techniques.
But does any of it matter? What is proven and what is nothing more than a nonsensical buzzword?
Is it even possible to make a “best” whey protein powder anymore?
To look at the possibility we need to first look at whey in its rawest form—let’s get a moove on.
- What Is Whey Protein Powder?
- The Different Kinds of Whey Protein Powder
- The Different Processing Methods of Whey Protein Powder
- What Makes the Best Whey Protein Powder?
- The Bottom Line on the Best Whey Protein Powder
Table of Contents
Whey protein is one of the two types of protein made from dairy, the other being casein.
To be more specific, one of the first steps in cheese processing is to apply a coagulating enzyme (typically renin) to separate “the curds from the wheys.” The separation of the coagulating components of milk, the curds, from the non-coagulating liquid component, the whey, is the core difference between casein and whey respectively.
The curds are what will become casein protein while the wheys are … aptly named.
Of course, we don’t just drink the unprocessed wheys; that would be highly disgusting (at least in my opinion which is highly valuable and oh-so-humble). We need to process it somehow which is what led to different “forms” of whey protein. Simply put, they are different processing techniques.
So the first question we have to ask is which form of processing is the best and the second question, which we’ll all ask ourselves after the article is written, is whether or not we should even care?
An inch is bigger than a centimeter but if you’re looking for a meter then they’re both inadequate options after all. Being “technically sort of better maybe?” at the cost of deliciousness may not be enough to validate some of these types of whey protein.
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To start, we need to do something to the now chunk-free milk residue that will soon become whey protein. Let’s start by, you know, actually measuring the protein content in some “whey.”
Whey Protein Concentrate
Whey concentrate is the most basic form of whey protein. Legally speaking it can be anywhere between 35 to 80% whey protein by weight.
Let’s throw a dog a bone when we get a chance though, in protein supplements it’s rare to see a concentrate with anything below 80% protein these days.
Keep an eye out for discount protein bars though. Whey concentrate used as a food additive is not above using a lower percentage of protein if they were going to accept carbs and fats into the final product anyways. (Keep an eye out for our, better, protein bars too, I might humbly add).
This percentage means that a scoop of whey concentrate (before any additives) that weighs 20 grams will usually be 16 grams of whey proteins. The other four grams? Sugars, fats, and maybe some non-whey proteins slipped in there.
And that’s pretty much it. When it comes to the basic definition of concentrate it’s pretty simple—it’s just concentrated more than the natural level in milk (which is about 20% of the proteins in milk, the other 80% are casein proteins).
Whey concentrate is the simplest and most common form of whey protein. It simply ensures that the final level of whey is “concentrated” relative to the raw dairy it’s coming from. For powder supplements this usually means 80% but it may be less for some solid food products.
Whey Protein Isolate
Whey isolate differs from concentrate solely based on the percentage of protein that it must be, by weight. While concentrate can legally be anywhere between 35 to 80% whey isolate must be 90% or above.
Practically speaking this means that a scoop of whey isolate (before any additives) that weighs 20 grams will have 18 grams of whey protein at minimum. It’s a good starting step if you want a protein supplement and not many other carbohydrates, fats, or non-whey proteins in there.
Now, the major question: is isolate better than concentrate?
Well, if you’re buying whey protein for the whey protein then technically … yes? It is, at its core, literally just a case of there being more whey protein in the product on a weight basis. If you want a product that exceeds 90% whey protein by weight it’s going to, by definition, be an isolate.
Practically speaking, however, if you take a single scoop of concentrate versus isolate each day for a few months then it ends up being a choice between getting 4 to 6 grams of caloric additives (with concentrate) versus getting less than that.
And if you’re concerned with that you either have the strictest diet in existence or you’re missing the forest for the trees here.
But all the above leads to some more technical benefits of whey isolate over whey concentrate:
- Whey concentrate is 80% protein by weight, and is standardized for X protein for scoop, scoop sizes are bigger. This may make it less mixable then smaller scoop sizes unless more water is used.
- Whey concentrate is 4/5ths protein, and 1/5th not protein. This could very well include lactose, which means to some people concentrate is digested more poorly than isolate (not to everybody, however)
- Due to smaller overall size and fewer impurities, whey isolate is absorbed faster from the stomach (although to be clear this is not thought to be enough of a deal to influence muscle growth in and of itself).
So if you have the choice between concentrate and isolate, and it’s pretty much the same price and taste, opt for isolate. However, don’t fret in the slightest if you stick with concentrate—it’s still protein after all.
Whey Isolate is technically better than concentrate but it’s mostly better for digestion and mixability reasons. The protein quality and long-term benefits end up being essentially the same.
Whey Protein Hydrolysate
Protein hydrolysates are also known as “hydrolyzed protein.”
The raw protein source, whether it’s concentrate or isolate (or neither) is introduced to the process of “acid hydrolysis” where acid and water is used to break down the protein into smaller components.
Acid hydrolysis is sort of like “pre-digestion.” You don’t need to rely on your stomach as much to digest it, and it was first introduced in baby foods since many babies do not have strong enough stomachs to properly digest the milk of other species. Furthermore it becomes “hypoallergenic” and is less likely to cause allergic reactions than other dairy proteins.
However, since it has improved digestibility in this pre-digested form it was also investigated for the purpose of being a performance enhancer. Specifically, one for during or immediately before a workout since blood flow is redirected away from the stomach during exercise making digestion stall somewhat.
The process of making a protein a “hydrolysate” is not exclusive to whey and makes proteins pass the stomach much quicker as they are essentially pre-digested.
When it comes to studies on hydrolysate right now we have studies where hydrolysate either outperforms isolate as a pre-workout, or they perform roughly the same. Taking hydrolysate outside the workout window does not appear to provide any significantly greater benefits compared to the other proteins.
So ultimately, it’s technically the best form of the three but comes at a higher price that may not validate it being that much better.
Furthermore, a side-effect of the acid hydrolysis process is that unless there’s a heavy focus on flavoring then whey hydrolysates are incredibly bitter. This also seems to apply to casein hydrolysates since milk protein is high in the amino acids that are, by chance, highly bitter (the BCAAs in particular).
It also becomes astonishingly more mixable, with some brands even boasting translucency after mixing about 12 grams of the protein into 500 mL water.
If your goal is to get the best protein to take during an intense workout, or if you tend to get nauseous when you eat something too soon before a workout, a protein hydrolysate may be the best option. Just be aware they tend to cost more and may be highly bitter.
This is because it is simply the milk before the separation of curds and wheys, with both casein and whey protein included in the mix (usually at 80% casein and 20% whey for bovine milk). A little bit of liquidy wheys but mostly gel-forming curds does wonders for the constitution of a solid food.
But for the amino acid profile and health benefits? Literally the same as a glass of milk.
Don’t get me wrong, milk protein is good, but that’s because a glass of milk is good. If you’re going to buy an isolated protein supplement to circumvent the carbohydrate and fat content, however, most people opt for either whey or casein since they have special properties and functions which can be played around with.
Milk protein, due to this, ended up being the discount protein used in many commercial protein bars and nothing more spectacular than that. It’s still a great option but it just isn’t fun, you know? At least with isolated casein protein you can make some protein pudding.
Milk protein is a type of protein consisting of mostly casein with some whey mixed into it. It works, does it’s job well, but is otherwise uninteresting and is probably the least common whey protein supplement out there (since it’s usually only a fifth whey at best).
The aforementioned forms of whey (concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate) are sort of the “big three” forms of whey protein. All whey should be one of these three forms to start lest it be just milk you can buy in the store.
Of course there are a few techniques that you can add onto the process in the hopes of making the product even better, or at least in the hopes that a nonsensical buzzword makes people buy your product over competitors.
Whey Protein and Microfiltration & Ultrafiltration
These processing types, microfiltration and ultrafiltration, are types of processing that focus on the size of the molecule in particular.
Think of a conveyer belt in a gold processing plant. There are going to be little nuggets of gold alongside bigger rocks so, if you want Skynet to organize everything for you but don’t want to spend a lot of money, you just put up some mesh screens so the big stuff doesn’t get through.
These processing techniques apply the same logic but to the microscopic scale, looking at the size and weight of protein molecules and letting the smaller ones pass while the bigger ones get caught behind.
If this sounds silly, just understand that proteins tend to be in foods and in our bodies (as enzymes) in their “quaternary” shape, which looks like a bundle yarn made up of amino acid chains:
The two most common quaternary protein structures in whey, ß-lactoglobulin and alpha-lactalbumin, have weights of 18,000 kDA and 14,000 kDA respectively.
If you manage to get a mesh around 16,000 kDA (and some pressure to push the stuff through) you can literally separate them into two vats without resorting to using any chemicals that some people may feel “contaminate” the dairy. This is just an example though as ultrafiltration tends to be in the 5,000 to 10,000 kDA range.
(Just a side note, kDA or kilodaltons is a measure of weight so it’s not the best example when talking about the size and shape of the molecule but… you get the point it was a bad analogy I apologize).
So anyways, it’s a mesh.
Now, the money question. Is the above anything we should actually care about when buying a protein?
Put simply, dairy protein will always have those aforementioned peptides in them and they will be at relatively constant levels (ß-Lactoglobulin at 2 to 4 g per liter of milk and alpha-lactalbumin at 1.2 to 1.5 g per liter of whey; both bovine milk).
So if a company wanted to make a specially made “bioactive” whey protein focusing on high levels of these peptides, which may carry benefits on their own, then microfiltration and ultrafiltration are definitely valid techniques they can use.
But, of course, it would be nice if they could mention it on the label. Otherwise how can you legally prove the levels are elevated?
Microfiltration and ultrafiltration are techniques that can help a finished protein product get varying levels of some bioactive peptides, and this processing technique could be used to make some whey products “healthier” than others due to elevated levels of these beneficial peptides.
Ultimately, however, said peptides should be listed on the label in their new (concentrated) amounts. If they are not then this process could also be used as a simple marketing tool since the words sound cool.
Whey Protein and Cold-Processed
Cold-processed protein is a bit of a weird topic to address, firstly because why the hell is it called cold-processed protein?
This refers to what is known as High Pressure Processing (HPP), a processing technique that uses pressure in lieu of heat. It’s frequently used with raw dairy products sold in stores so people don’t get bacterial infections and die and some people say that the “unique” taste of raw milk is preserved with HPP since heat is not used.
Now, HPP could very well have some unique effects on food products. For example, this study found that applying pressure to whey protein changed it’s hydrophobicity (aversion to water) that could alter whey’s taste properties in a food matrix.
But the texture of solid whey doesn’t matter when it comes to a powder and doesn’t really impact absorption or digestion-related issues at all.
And the idea that cold-processed is “better” because it avoids protein denaturation (the unravelling of protein structures into more linear ones) is a bit silly because denaturation is gonna happen one way or the other.
We need to denature protein in the stomach in order to digest it anyways, and some will happen when a protein powder just, well, exists and is subject to the passing of time. It’s no biggie.
It’s rare for people to claim that non cold-processed whey protein is deaminated, which is the process of taking the nitrogen off of amino acids and rendering them nutritionally useless, and that’s good because it’s an entirely false claim. That only happens when you nuke a protein to the high heavens and is beyond the human palate unless you like charcoal curds.
Cold-processing actually refers to various forms of pressure-processing, usually High Pressure Processing (HPP) which could have value in making milk retain a “raw” taste. Beyond the taste, however, it does not hold any unique health benefits.
Whey Protein and Partial Hydrolysis
Partial hydrolysis … oh boy.
I bet a few of you are gonna facepalm after this section ‘cause unlike cold-processing which is quite indirect in what it refers to, partial hydrolysis … is hydrolyzation but only partially.
Yes, I know, astounding!
But seriously, I want to reiterate the obvious because that’s exactly what it is. When a protein supplement brags about “partially hydrolyzed whey isolate,” what they’re actually saying is “we bought some whey isolate and then hydrolyzed a bit of it”.
But if they don’t specify how much of the mixture is hydrolyzed then we’re getting into “proprietary blend” territory where the terms are being used for marketing. I mean, if a company actually hydrolyzed half of the protein wouldn’t they want to brag about it and claim 50% hydrolyzed whey on the label?
So if you’re buying a protein that says “partially hydrolyzed” in the ingredient list but doesn’t outright list how many grams of hydrolyzed protein are on the label, understand that it could be as little as 1% or less and do absolutely nothing different from non-hydrolyzed protein.
Partial hydrolysis is just using a bit of hydrolysis but, unless this is listed, it’s unknown how much of the protein was hydrolyzed overall. It’s more likely a marketing technique that companies put on their labels in order to try and make their proteins seem better than competitors.
So, with all that out of the way … what makes the best whey protein?
To be honest, blunt, and to many of you completely bloody predictable, the best whey protein powder is …
- The protein powder that’s cheap enough that you can afford to consume it every day.
- The protein powder that’s tasty enough that you want to consume it every day.
- The protein powder that has a source that isn’t complete trash.
Ta-da! Simple as that. You probably already have the best whey protein powder in your house and I don’t even know what brand it is. Most protein powders are pretty similar these days.
The only real ways a protein powder can come ahead of its competition is if it works on its taste profile or attempts to drive the price down.
It’s why we accepted a lower than initially expected per-bottle profit when making Whey+ since we wanted to get it around $1.30 per serving of whey isolate. It works, it tastes great, and $40 for 30 servings is low enough that adding one of these to an order is pretty damn competition price-wise for pure isolates.
There’s also the fact that you know we don’t throw a bunch of fillers, artificial flavorings, or preservatives or dyes in our stuff, which many of you appreciate.
If you want a concentrate or milk protein for even cheaper then … well … that’s why other companies exist. Premium supplement companies gotta draw the line somewhere around here!
At the end of the day the importance of having protein in your diet cannot be understated but the reiterance of how many of these proteins are not that drastically different from one another cannot be overstated.
For as long as there is a market, there will be marketing claims, and in a free market some people are free to make as many stupid claims as they want. A whey protein that is 400% more anabolic than competitors? I sure do love me some whey trenbolone acetate!
Above all else, vote with your stomach. Start with concentrate or isolate, lean towards the former if saving money or towards the latter if your stomach is not made of iron, and perhaps consider hydrolysate if taking it immediately before or during a workout.
The most important decision is flavor, Whey+ got that cookies and cream and unflavored if you are prone to experimenting with a blender.
In case you don’t know, it’s a 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate protein powder made from exceptionally high-quality milk from small dairy farms in Ireland.
Check it out, I think it’s pretty sweet.