Is all protein made equally? And, why are there so many different forms of whey protein?
I thought I knew the answers to these questions, but when I formulated all of the products for Ladder, I quickly learned that there’s a dark side of the supplement industry that has nothing to do with illegal ingredients or dangerous products.
In many cases, the “good” supplements you take might not be giving your body what you think. That’s because different types of whey proteins might make a difference in absorption.
And, more importantly, the number of loopholes on supplement labeling makes it almost too easy for supplement companies to lie about what’s on the label.
In the last 10 years, research shows that health officials have issued almost 800 warnings to dietary supplements containing dangerous ingredients. And, in nearly every case (98%), the USDA found that the ingredients in question were nowhere on the label.
If you want to make sure the label you’re reading is accurate, make sure you’re taking a product that has a third-party certification. Good options include NSF Certified for Sport, Informed Sport, and BSCG.
If there’s no third-party certification, just know that means no one has validated that what is says on the label is actually in the product.
Beyond smoke and mirrors on your protein label, here’s what you need to know about choosing between different protein powders and how to find the best whey protein for your needs and hard-earned money.
What is Whey Protein?
Whey protein is considered the gold standard protein for a few simple reasons: it’s high in protein per serving, lower in carbs and fat, and is loaded with all of the essential amino acids and high levels of the BCAAs. And, its absorption is very high, meaning your body can put that protein to work to help with muscle growth and recovery.
That doesn’t mean whey is your only protein option or that others aren’t good substitutes. After all, whey is dairy-based. So, if you have a dairy allergy, it could be an issue. If you’re just lactose intolerant (as you’ll find out), some whey options might not cause any issue.
But, if you’re looking for a convenient, affordable way to add more protein to your diet, whey protein is one of the best options you’ll find.
How Is Whey Protein Made?
Whey comes from milk and is a byproduct of the cheese-making process. When you turn a gallon of milk into a block of cheese, you add enzymes to the liquid. This causes the liquid to separate into liquid and curds. The leftover liquid is pure protein, which becomes whey.
Understanding how whey is made will help you make sense of why there are different types of whey, such as whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, and whey protein hydrolysate.
The more you process and filtrate the product, the more it makes little changes to the final version of the whey.
You’ll hear a lot of different benefits (and see that some proteins are more expensive), but most of it is just marketing hype.
Whey Protein Concentrate
Whey protein concentrate is the most basic form of whey protein. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, but there are regulations that mean whey protein concentrate can have a wide range of purity.
By law, being labeled as “concentrate” means that the product can be anywhere between 35 to 80 percent protein by weight.
This is a big deal if you’re worried about the amount of protein you’re using and absorbing. Put another way, if you scoop out 100 grams of protein powder, it can be called concentrate if anywhere between 35 and 80 grams of that scoop is protein.
That’s a pretty big range, which is why third-party certification is so important. If you don’t have someone validating the label accuracy and you see whey protein concentrate on the label, it’s harder to know exactly how much protein you’re really getting.
If the label is accurate, whey protein concentrate is a good option for most people because of its price and value.
But, it does have some limitations, if you need to consider smaller details like carbs, fats, and lactose in your protein.
If you want an idea of how whey concentrate is created, here’s a good visual: imagine liquid whey falling off a conveyor belt into a bucket. The liquid is filtered for impurities, dehydrated, turned into a powder, flavored, and there you go — delicious whey protein!
Because it’s such a simple process, whey concentrate tends to be the cheapest source of protein supplementation.
Whey Protein Isolate
Whey protein isolate, from a legal standpoint, provides a little more peace of mind about the purity of your protein. That’s because earning “whey protein isolate” on a label means that, unless your supplement provider is lying (which, unfortunately, does happen), means that your protein must be, at least, 90 percent protein by weight.
Going back to our 100-gram example, if you scoop out 100 grams of protein, then you will be getting a minimum of 90 grams of protein.
Many supplement companies tout that their isolates are more “pure.” They’ll use marketing tactics to brag about their filtration process, whether it’s ion exchange, cold-filtration, or microfiltration. All of these methods filter out different-sized particles to help you get a “clean” version of whey.
That’s not to say these don’t have different minor benefits (for example, most isolates have less than 1 percent lactose), but whey isolate is defined by protein by weight, not by filtration.
Because of the extra level of filtration and higher guarantee of protein by whey, whey protein isolate tends to have a higher price relative to concentrates. This is because whey protein isolate will have fewer carbs, almost no fat, and almost nonexistent levels of lactose. Additionally, whey protein isolate tends to have better solubility, which makes it easier to mix and creates a “smoother” drink.
Whey Protein Hydrolysate
Unlike concentrate and isolate, whey protein hydrolysate goes through a very different process.
Hydrolysate is a protein that is treated with enzymes and acids to reduce particle size and destroy “quaternary protein structures.” (That’s a mouthful, but it means removing bioactive immunoglobulins, which can help support immune function).
The origin of hydrolysis in dietary protein arose from a need to make baby formulas non-allergenic.
Research shows that whey protein hydrolysates are absorbed faster than isolates or concentrates. This is mostly due to no gastric digestion being needed for hydrolysates.
The hydrolysates also seem to increase muscle protein synthesis (MPS) quicker than other forms of protein. But, research suggests that it doesn’t necessarily result in more muscle.
That’s because total daily protein is more important for muscle gain than the speed of protein digestion. If you are focused on gaining muscle (or even losing fat), it’s more important to focus on how much protein you eat in a day than how quickly it’s absorbed.
The speed of digestion does come with a few downsides. Whey hydrolysates tend to be more bitter because the amino acids proline and leucine are no longer being constrained in a protein structure, which means it hits your taste buds differently.
Whey protein hydrolysate is also the most expensive form of protein
What about Soy Protein?
Soy protein isn’t a variation of whey, but it’s oftentimes compared and criticized when compared to the popular dairy protein.
Most of the fear and concern are linked to phytoestrogens in soy protein. People worry that those phytoestrogens will decrease testosterone levels and not support muscle building.
But, if you decide to go the soy route (for whatever reason), the downsides are low. All soy sold in food products (except raw soy products such as edamame), including soy protein, are heat-treated before they are sold.
This heat treatment destroys select enzymes in the soy (such as trypsin), which prevents the digestion of protein in your stomach and small intestine.
Additionally, soy proteins are processed in two ways that are similar to whey.
If you’re creating a soy protein concentrate, manufacturers leech the protein with ethanol and neutralize the pH. This process removes most of the soy isoflavones, which are left floating in the ethanol and no longer in the soybean.
This is an important step because it means that soy concentrate supplements are incredibly low in soy isoflavones, and thus they are not really a concern.
As for soy isolate, the ethanol leeching is not mandatory (instead it is optional), so it’s possible that some soy isoflavones may be present.
As for the soy isoflavones themselves (let’s assume you do routinely consume them), they are not too much of a concern for male fertility and health. That doesn’t mean soy can’t have any hormonal impact. But, it does mean that you need to eat a lot of soy protein to potentially have any disruption of your hormonal levels, and it needs to be a soy protein isolate (which is less common).
For most people, having a soy protein shake per day wouldn’t come anywhere near the soy protein threshold, and, therefore, there’s not much need to worry if you choose soy as a whey protein alternative.
Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.