HOW TO CHOOSE THE BEST WHEY PROTEIN POWDER FOR YOU
The market is absolutely flooded with protein powders all claiming to be the best whey protein, so it can be hard to know where to start. Options range in cost, flavor, purity, and even make-up. Whey isolate, whey hydrolysate, whey concentrate… how do you know which is the best whey protein, and what do they mean?
While they all come from the same source-milk, they do have some variation in macronutrient profile and digestibility. For starters, to make a protein powder like whey, dairy milk is separated by heat or other methods to remove the fats (solid, usually to make cheese) and the liquid that is left behind is whey. Milk in its whole form is a combination of whey and casein protein, about 80% the latter, which is slower to digest, making it a good option for taking before bed for enhanced muscle repair at night. If you were to take just the whey liquid, separated it from the solids, and process it and dry it into a powder, you would be left with whey concentrate. That product is going to be up to 80% protein and 20% carbs and fat in the form of lactose and glucose. Notice how I said UP TO 80%? That’s because depending on the manufacturer, this number can be far less- as little as 35% protein if they don’t filter it well enough or at all (Etherton et al, 2019). This form of whey protein still contains a decent amount of lactose (20%) and has a sweeter taste due to the remaining lactose sugar, and can lead to symptoms like bloating or gas for those with lactose intolerance issues.
Whey isolate on the other hand is arguably the best kind of whey protein- while it may be slightly more expensive to manufacture, it is well worth it due to the superior nature of the resulting product (Tinsley, 2018). Whey isolate is further processed and strained, and leaves a much higher protein content and a very small amount of carbohydrates and fats. Whey isolate can contain 90%+ of pure protein, so comparing a serving size of both types, 23-25g of protein in the isolate beats out the measly 18gfound in concentrate (Tinsley, 2018). Additionally, any lactose that is left can be as low as 1%, so for most people with minor to moderate lactose intolerance, this superior protein choice is still a suitable option.
Fortunately, whey protein powder has been relatively well studied over the years, and the results have been pretty consistent in favor of whey and specifically whey isolate. When compared to whey concentrate as well as other protein powders like rice, hemp, and soy-whey isolate rules them all, and was shown to elicit the HIGHEST blood amino content after consumption- meaning the most EAAs were absorbed and are going to work to start repairing muscles after a heavy lift or intense WOD (Brennan etal, 2019). What makes a protein powder of higher quality than others is its leucine and essential amino acid (EAA) content. There are both non-essential and essential amino acids and while all are important, the essential ones are the ones you can’t go without (hence the name). Leucine is one of these amino acids and has been studied specifically as it relates to recovery, and has been shown to be very effective at inducing muscle protein synthesis (Nortonet al, 2006). Leucine is also present in slightly higher concentrations in whey isolate than whey concentrate.
Finally, the issue of whey hydrolysate. As discussed, the difference between whey concentrate and isolate is further processing to hone in on a finer product that is basically isolated protein with negligible other macronutrients. Compared to other types of protein, whey is best, but among types of whey, it appears isolate is the best whey protein out there. When whey protein is further broken down (or hydrolyzed) they are attempting to make the amino acids even smaller, so they absorb even faster. This practice is not nearly as well studied as “whey versus other proteins” or even “concentrate versus isolate”, so my recommendation is to not waste your money on it. Whey isolate is remarkably bioavailable and efficient as it is, with a huge bang for your buck.