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Whey Protein Concentrate vs Isolate

If you’ve been in the fitness realm for a while, chances are you’ve been introduced to whey protein before. It’s one of the most studied supplements out there and has been used since the 1970s amongst bodybuilders and weightlifters (“what protein do you use, bruh?”).

Over the past decades, manufacturing technology has improved the quality of protein powder from being able to filter out all the unnecessary waste products to dramatically improving its taste and texture. From strongman giants to knitting grandmas, whey protein has its place for a wide demographic.

However, these complex and different manufacturing processes will determine the quality of the powder that ends up in the bottle. Currently, whey protein is divided into 3:

  • Concentrates (WPC)
  • Isolates (WPI)
  • Hydrolysates (WPH)

These three different products are derived from the same source- dairy. However, there are differences between them, and one person may favor one over the other. Obviously, these are animal-based proteins and aren’t vegan-friendly.

In this article, I will be comparing whey protein isolate vs concentrate since these two are the most common and the most asked about. From there, you can look for some of the best whey protein supplements in the market.

The Process

To understand why both protein forms are different, a vague idea on how they are made is important. This, too, justifies the price the consumer pays for the product.

Whey is basically a waste liquid product from the production of cheese and yogurt. The fast-digesting proteins found in this product is called whey protein.

Whey Protein Concentrate

Instead of throwing this valuable liquid away, manufacturers separate lactose and minerals from the liquid using a process called ultrafiltration, where whey components are filtered or concentrated based on membrane size and eventually dried into a powder form. This forms the basis of manufacturing whey protein concentrate. According to the Agricultural Marketing Services, this method produces between 34-80% protein content.

Whey Protein Isolate

To make whey protein isolates (at least 90% pure protein), a variety of processes such as ion-exchange or micro-filtration are followed through after the ultrafiltration. The product would consist of very little fat from 7% to less than 0.4%, sugars, and unneeded micronutrients.

WPIs are much lower in lactose, and those with lactose sensitivities fare better with WPIs.

Nutrition Profile

WPCs may have more health benefits when compared to WPIs. This is due to the immune-boosting effects of some minor fractions in whey protein such as lactoferrin (LF) that stay in the mix even after processing. LF is also important in promoting intestinal cell growth and possibly regulates the absorption of iron in the intestine.

Even though whey isolate is much higher in protein content, the process it takes to transform protein concentrates to isolates may denature some of the available bioactive peptides, depending on the technology used. This can be seen when using ion-exchange purification process. Using micro-filtration, though more expensive, keeps the bioactive components intact. It is worth finding out what manufacturing processes the company uses for its WPI products.

You’re not at a loss, however. Whey isolate would digest faster in the body because the lactose and fat have been removed, and the body only needs to churn through the protein. Serious bodybuilders and other competitive athletes take advantage of this property by having a shake as soon as they wake up and/or post-workout to initiate protein synthesis. By having it as a pre-workout, you can quickly flood your muscles with a continuous supply of amino acids during a workout, if you haven’t had a BCAA supplement already.

Depending on the manufacturer and flavor, the nutrition profile for each product may vary. But for the comparison of whey protein concentrate vs isolate, we’ll look at one of bodybuilding’s favorite supplement brands, Optimum Nutrition (ON). You can expect different brands and manufacturers to have similar nutritional properties.

100% Gold Standard whey (per serving - 31g)

100% GOLD STANDARD isolate (PER SERVING - 31G)

Calories

120

110

Total​ fat

1g

0.5g

Cholesterol

50mg

<5mg

Sodium

130mg

190mg

Total Carbohydrates

4g

1g

Protein

24g

25g

Typically, whey concentrate products are cheaper than their isolate counterparts. You can expect more than a $15 difference between the two. If you’re still confused about what protein powder you should decide on, the next segment of this article should provide some clarity.

Asking the Right Questions

Before bringing a tub of whey home, you should consider asking yourself some questions:

Am I bulking, cutting, or maintaining my physique?

If you’re bulking or just maintaining your physique, WPC would do it. If you’re cutting, and must restrict calories, your answer is WPI.

What are my fitness goals?

Are you just trying to stay healthy and exercise moderately for steady muscle gains? You can get by with WPC and save some money. But, if you’re a serious athlete, killing it in the gym or field and need the fastest absorbing kind of protein for fast recovery, then it’s the WPI.

Am I on a low-carb diet which restricts my carbohydrate intake?

If you are, then go for the WPI. If not, it doesn’t matter.

Should I be watching my cholesterol levels closely or do I have some leeway?

This is dependent on what your doctor says, so do consult a medical professional for advice if you’ve had any cholesterol-related complications.

Am I lactose intolerant?

If you’re sensitive to lactose, chances are the WPC will give some gut issues. Don’t risk it and go for the WPI. However, if you have a dairy allergy to the point it can get severe, I recommend doing research on plant-based proteins, and proceed from there instead.

Would the above answers justify the reason to spend a little extra (for WPI)?

Different people have various goals, lifestyles, dietary restrictions, and budget. This one is completely up to you to decide.

Summary of Comparison

Overall, there isn’t a huge difference between the two, because they do come from the same source. However, for your convenience, I’ve listed the key points in the table below. By the end of this article, you should be able to decide already.

WPC

WPI

Protein concentration

34-80%

>90%

Rate of digestion

Slower

Faster

Bioactive compounds

Present

May be lost (depending on filtration process)

Lactose (for those with lactose intolerance)

Present, with varying quantities

Almost nil

Price

Cheaper

Expensive

Take-Home Message

Let me get this message across: If you can’t afford it, whey protein is not necessary to improve your performance as many supplement companies market them to do. Whether you favor WPC over WPI (or vice versa), it will not make you the next Mr. Olympia tomorrow. But whey protein is a complete protein source that is super convenient to have. That’s basically it, besides the health benefits.

If you are already eating right, sleeping well, and working hard, that’s already enough to make some serious progress. As much as I love my whey protein, nothing beats the basics. Once you have that checked and your money right, then you can seriously consider bringing home a bottle.

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Want to Improve Your Health?

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Better health starts in the kitchen, with the food that you eat and the meals you prepare. Getting the best outcomes involves making good choices about the food and the ingredients that you use. 

Check out my recommended products to see where you can get started. 

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