bodybuilder alongside protein isolate

Whey protein isolate vs concentrate: what’s the big difference?

When it comes to training and supplementation, there is no shortage of long-running debates. From the best rep range and rest time to the ideal supplement stack and dosage amounts, there are differing opinions on many subjects. But few topics are more contentious than whey protein isolate v concentrate — which is the superior option?

Besides, what’s the real difference between isolate and concentrate? 

While few dispute the benefits of protein supplements, opinion is split on the best type. Here we look at the differences between these two popular protein products and the best use for each type. We also take a broader look at protein supplementation, its benefits, and the other options available.

The importance of protein for athletes

Before we get into the pros and cons of the different types, we want to look at protein itself. What is it good for? And how will protein supplements help you achieve your health and fitness goals?

Protein is easily one of the most widely used supplements in the world. Everyone from amateur athletes to champion bodybuilders uses some form of protein supplement to increase their daily protein intake and achieve optimal muscle growth. This could be in one of many forms – a snack bar, a meal replacement, or the trusty post-workout shake.

It is that final use – post-workout – that best speaks to the biggest benefit of protein supplementation. Widely regarded as critical for muscle development, high-quality protein helps protect, repair, and build lean muscle mass. As such, it is key to achieving a wide range of fitness goals.

Science backs this up, with research showing that consuming protein after resistance training can increase muscle growth. A number of studies have found a direct correlation between post-workout protein intake and the efficiency of recovery. A protein shake after your gym session has also been linked to better training results, including improved reps to failure.

This is particularly true when protein is taken in conjunction with leucine. Leucine is an essential amino acid that aids in the processing of protein. As such, it helps the body extract the greatest benefit from its protein intake.

Protein is also great for those looking to lose weight. It is the most filling macronutrient and is often used in diet products to help suppress the appetite. It also plays a critical role in protecting muscle mass while losing weight.

This is important because weight loss usually comes from a combination of fat and muscle. However, by maintaining lean muscle — which burns calories quicker than fat when at rest — you can burn more fat. Combine this with a positive effect on muscle growth, and it is easy to see why high-quality protein is such a crucial part of most people’s weight loss plan.

For more information about protein, check out our Ultimate Guide to Protein Powder.

The right whey: why whey is the most popular choice for protein supplementation 

If you have been looking into different protein supplements, you have probably noticed the utter dominance of whey protein powder. Most protein products use at least some form of whey-based ingredients. There are three main reasons for this:

  1. Whey is widely available: Whey is actually the by-product of the manufacturing of many dairy foods (cheese, butter, yoghurt). As such, not that long ago, producers of these foods had to pay people to take them off their hands. Nowadays, supplement makers tap into this ready supply, using it to make the protein powders we know and love.
  2. Whey is cost-effective: Because it is so widely available, whey is a relatively cheap raw material. The refinement process is also fairly straightforward, meaning the final product is not particularly expensive to create.
  3. Whey works: Whey is one of the best natural protein sources available. It is considered a ‘complete’ protein supplement, containing many other important vitamins, minerals, and health benefits. As such, it is an extremely effective supplement that supports a wide range of fitness goals.

In its most natural form, whey is a thin liquid from cow’s milk. Liquid whey is extracted while making cheese and several other dairy products; generally speaking, for every kilogram of cheese made, ten litres of whey is produced.

In addition to high protein content, whey contains all 20 essential amino acids needed for daily living. Amino acids are often called the building blocks of life as they bind together to form proteins. They also assist with several other critical biochemical processes and are effectively responsible for enabling the body to work at its best.

While all the amino acids are important, nine are considered ‘essential’ because the body does not naturally produce them. This means that to perform at our best, we must take in these amino acids through our diet. While most protein supplements contain at least a few essential nutrients, whey protein provides all nine.

Whey protein has also been shown to encourage the body’s production of leptin. Leptin is the hormone that tells your brain that you are full and helps regulate your appetite. This means that if your goal is to lose weight, whey protein supplements could help you feel fuller for longer.

Despite all these benefits, the availability of whey means that it remains a cost-effective option for supplementary protein. Compared to many other products on the market, it provides great value for money, particularly for those taking larger volumes. As such, most gym-goers choose whey as their base protein supplement, combining it with other, more expensive products if they have specific goals or requirements.

Want to see the benefits of whey protein for yourself? Check out our great range of whey protein products.

The main difference between whey protein isolate and concentrate

Broadly speaking, there’s not a huge difference between protein isolate and concentrate — realistically, they are very similar products. They both come from the same raw ingredient and provide many of the same benefits. They also go through the same initial refinement process and act very similarly to dietary supplements.

However, there are a few subtle but important differences. To truly understand what sets these products apart, we must first examine how whey protein is processed.

As already noted, whey is originally extracted from cow’s milk. Once separated, it goes through a filtration process to help concentrate the protein content. This also helps remove most of the liquid, as well as most of the fat and lactose.

After filtration, what is left is usually about 80% protein and can be dried to make whey protein concentrate. Alternatively, this can be refined to remove almost all the remaining fat, lactose, and cholesterol. This is done via Cross-Flow Microfiltration and leaves a product about 90% protein. This can then be dried to make whey protein isolate.

With this in mind, it is easy to understand why protein isolate and protein concentrate are similar:

  • Due to their shared raw ingredients and same essential amino acids, they are both rapidly absorbing proteins, ideal for taking straight after your training session.
  • They are both lean sources of high-quality protein as they are both low in fat and carbohydrates (protein isolate more than protein concentrate).
  • Both products may be suitable for people with sensitive stomachs or lactose intolerant as both have very low lactose content (again, protein isolate more than protein concentrate).

Also, despite the additional refinement protein isolate undergoes, the amino acid profile is almost identical to that of protein concentrate. Both products contain all 20 amino acids – including all nine essential amino acids – generally at comparable concentrations (when measured by weight). 

This means you will get all the benefits of whey protein, regardless of whether you choose whey isolate vs concentrate.

All that being said, the additional filtration process does create a few important differences. Most notably, the extra processing of protein isolate impacts:

  • The amount of protein: As a more concentrated product, protein isolate gives you more protein per scoop. As noted above, protein isolate is usually about 90% protein, whereas protein concentrate is generally 80% protein or less (some products have as little as 30% protein).
  • The macronutrient balance: While both products are lean sources of high-quality protein, protein isolate is leaner. As protein concentrate undergoes less refinement, it contains more carbohydrates and fat. This is an important consideration if you are tightly controlling your macronutrient intake.

The production cost: As protein isolate undergoes additional filtration, it costs more to produce. Also, as protein is the most valuable macronutrient, the higher concentration of protein isolate increases its value. As a result, while both products are relatively cost-effective, Protein Isolate is usually more expensive to buy than Protein Concentrate.

Why would I choose protein isolate?

If you have specific training goals and nutritional requirements and do not mind spending a little more, protein isolate could be the product for you.

The higher protein concentration and lower carbohydrate and fat content make protein isolate the perfect lean protein source. It provides an unparalleled level of control, allowing you to increase your protein intake without affecting your other macros. Sure, it costs a little more, but if it is just protein you are after, protein isolate usually gives you the best bang for your buck.

Protein isolate is a particularly good choice for those looking to lose weight. It allows you to take in all the protein you need to build and protect muscle without unwanted extras. It also means you can be more selective about your fat and carbohydrate intake, making sure you are only taking in high-quality macronutrients.

Similarly, if you want to build serious lean muscle, protein isolate is the best choice.

Also, because it is so highly filtered, protein isolate is a more suitable option for those with sensitive stomachs. As it only contains the smallest traces of lactose, almost everyone can take protein isolate without significant issues.

However, there is one consideration when taking protein isolate – because it has virtually no fat, it has no fat-soluble vitamins. As these are important to your overall health and performance, you will need to make sure you get these from other sources. However, if you eat a balanced, clean diet, this should not be a problem.

Why would I choose protein concentrate? 

If you struggle to build muscle or are on a budget, protein concentrate is the product for you.

Because of protein concentrate’s more balanced macronutrient profile, it is a great option for ‘hard gainers’. While it is still a lean source of high-quality protein, its comparatively higher fat and carbohydrate content means it is best for building mass. If muscle growth is your goal, which is usually difficult for you, protein concentrate should help.

Because protein concentrate is usually cheaper than protein isolate, it is a popular choice for those just starting their training journey. The lower price point makes protein concentrate products more accessible, and they are often seen as an entryway to further supplementation. After all, if you have never had a protein supplement before, you want to know if it works before you spend a lot of money.

Also, because it is less refined, many people prefer the flavour and texture of protein concentrate. Those who do say that it is smoother and creamier, which can make it more pleasant to take.

With all of this in mind, it is understandable that many consider protein concentrate the ‘easier’ choice. It is a solid option that you can take regularly without too much thought or careful planning. You can also increase your intake without as much of a need to rebalance your other macros.

That being said, if you choose protein concentrate for the cost and require a larger volume of protein, you will need to plan this carefully. Increasing your dose to meet your protein needs will also increase your carbohydrate and fat intake. If your diet is not adjusted accordingly, this could lead to additional weight gain.

Other whey protein products 

The world’s love affair with whey protein extends beyond isolates and concentrates. While these two types are the most common, the following whey protein products are also widely available:

  • Hydrolysate: This takes the refinement process further, exposing it to an enzyme that helps break the amino acids down. This can help with digestion and speed up the absorption of the protein. It’s particularly good for people with sensitive stomachs, as it is effectively pre-digested, making it much easier for the body to process.
  • Burner Blends: Some supplement suppliers provide blended products to meet specific training goals. Most burner blends combine whey protein (usually isolated and concentrated) with other, slower-release proteins and ingredients that help burn fat (e.g. green tea, caffeine, guarana). Max’s advanced fat burning protein, Super Shred, is a great example of one of these blends.
  • Gainer Blends: Similar to a burner blend, a gainer blend combines multiple ingredients to help you build mass faster. These products usually contain several protein types (including whey protein – isolate and concentrate) and high carbohydrate content. If this sounds like something you want to try, check out our Max’s Absolute Mass.
  • Slow Release Blends: These products are specifically designed to support recovery and muscle development while you sleep. They usually contain whey protein (generally only concentrate) and several other types of slower-release protein. They often also include ingredients that support quality sleep (chamomile, skullcap, etc.) and encourage HGH production (L-Arginine, L-Glutamine, etc.). If you would like to try a slow-release blend for yourself, check out Max’s Anabolic Night.

No whey: other options for protein supplementation 

There are many ways to get more protein into your system. The best option for you will depend on your goals and dietary requirements. Other protein options you may want to consider include:

  • Casein: This is the other type of protein sourced from milk – in fact, 80% of the protein in milk is casein. Casein is known for its slower digestion rate, making it perfect for taking before bed to aid muscle growth and recovery. It also contains higher levels of leucine, which is an essential amino acid that supports protein absorption.
    As such, it is often used in conjunction with whey protein isolate or whey protein concentrate for a more sustained release of protein.
  • Pea Protein: Often seen as the most well-rounded plant-based alternative to whey, this is a great option for people with specific dietary requirements (e.g. vegans).
    Like whey, pea protein is considered ‘complete’ as it contains all nine essential amino acids, though not at the same levels as whey. It is also possible to get both pea protein isolate and pea protein concentrate, which generally indicates how much protein is in the product.
  • Soy Protein: As in the culinary world, when it comes to supplements, soy has long been considered the preferred alternative for those not eating animal products. It is also well-regarded for its ability to help increase bone density and improve cardiovascular health.
    There are some concerns about a link between soy products and increased oestrogen levels, but there is limited scientific evidence to support this claim.
  • Hemp Protein: While it is currently less widely used than other types, hemp protein is gaining popularity. This is partially because of its reputation as one of the most natural products and partially because it is a good source of omega-3. Omega-3 is a fatty acid that is best known for its ability to reduce the risk of heart disease.
  • However, while hemp protein is complete (i.e. it has all nine essential amino acids), it is low in several of these – like lysine. As such, it is best to use hemp protein in combination with other proteins to make sure you are getting the complete nutritional benefit.

The final verdict: whey protein isolate versus concentrate 

In the battle of protein isolate v concentrate, there really is no loser. Both are great options for increasing your protein intake, and both have the potential to provide great gains.

That being said, there are a few key differences between these products that should be considered. While protein isolate provides a higher protein content, it is generally more expensive. Conversely, while protein concentrate is cheaper, it also has a higher carbohydrate and fat content.

So… which should you choose? Well, that really depends on your situation and goals. If you are serious about your training and want ultimate control over your macros, protein isolate is probably better. However, if you are just starting out or need extra help building mass, protein concentrate may be more suitable.

Also, it is important to remember that whichever option you choose, protein supplement alone will not deliver your desired results.

Most experts recommend getting most of your daily protein from high-quality dietary sources. This means that if you want to up your protein intake, you should increase the amount of dairy, eggs, and poultry you eat. For more information on optimising your diet based on your goals, check out our Ultimate Nutrition Guide.

Your training regime is also critical, as, without regular exercise, your body will have nothing to do with the extra protein. Whether you are a fitness beginner looking to increase your strength and stamina or an experienced gym-goer looking to take your gains to the next level, your workout plan needs to be designed to support your goals. For more information on putting together the perfect training plan, see our Ultimate Training Guide.

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