by Will Grumke March 26, 2021 6 min read
One of the most popular supplement categories on the market today is protein powders.
No matter who you are, there’s a good chance you can find a type of protein or flavor that aligns with your goals, your tastebuds, and your lifestyle. The most common type of protein used in powders, and even protein bars, is whey protein.
First, I want to quickly explain what “whey” is, and where it comes from. Whey protein is derived from milk. It’s actually what’s left over after milk is processed to make yogurts and cheese.
This liquid makes up about 20% of the total protein that is found in milk. The other 80% is casein protein. (Side note: Casein protein digests slowly in comparison to whey, and can take up to 8 hours for your body to fully break down and absorb.)
Whey protein is a more rapidly digested protein source. Both casein and whey contain a complete amino acid profile, meaning they have all of the amino acids your body needs.
However, whey has a stronger essential amino acid profile, especially in regard to Leucine. Leucine is the amino acid that actually starts muscle protein synthesis. Basically, it triggers your body to repair tissue, while also increasing the total fats and carbs you use for fuel.
Now that we know where whey protein comes from, and what whey is ... it’s time to differentiate between the two different kinds of whey protein.
I mentioned earlier that whey protein comes from milk. So, how does whey concentrate differ from whey isolate?
That all comes down to how the whey is processed. The ratio at which the whey protein is separated from the total carbs and fats is where they are different.
A whey isolate is no lower than 90% protein by weight. This means that out of 100 grams, 90 grams or more is whey protein. This is viewed as a “more pure” form of protein.
On the other hand, a whey concentrate is between 35% and 80% protein by weight. So, out of 100 grams, a whey concentrate has between 35 and 80 grams of protein, with the rest being carbs and fats.
Now, when looking at that it seems obvious that whey isolate is the better source of protein. That just might have you questioning, “why would anyone even use whey concentrate?”
Let’s talk about that.
Isolate definitely has some superiority in most cases, but that does not mean concentrate doesn’t have its place. They both have a great amino acid profile, and have different roles they each play in helping someone with their nutrition.
Whey isolates, being lower in fats and carbohydrates, are a rapid assimilation protein, meaning your body digests it more rapidly than concentrate. In fact, an isolate will digest quicker than your typical whole food protein sources, such as: chicken, steak, fish, eggs, etc.
Whey concentrates digest similar to a whole food protein source. Different protein sources digest at different rates, but concentrates are more comparable to the foods listed above.
As I stated earlier, whey isolates , also referred to as rapid assimilation protein, digest and absorb more rapidly than whole food protein sources, which means the most effective time to drink them is right after a workout.
Let me explain...
When you work out, you are either purposefully breaking down your muscle tissue, or that breakdown is happening as a byproduct of the physical performance you're doing.
Knowing that our body uses protein AND the amino acids that make up protein to repair and build new muscle tissue, it makes sense that speed is king in the post-workout setting.
The faster we can supply the muscles we worked with a high-quality source of protein, the faster we can recover. This is why whey isolates are so effective post-workout, because their rate of assimilation is so rapid. Because of this rapid digestion and absorption by the body, the protein can get to the muscle faster than a chicken breast would, ultimately leading to better post-workout recovery and results.
“What if my goal is fat loss and not so much building muscle?”
Post-workout is just as important for you as for someone who is trying to build muscle. The faster we can get our muscles to start the rebuilding process, the faster we can start using fat and carbs for fuel again.
Plus, the more muscle we can maintain or build while trying to lose body fat, the better our metabolism will be overall. I don’t know about you, but having a faster metabolism sounds great when I am trying to lose body fat!
Now, that is not to say you can just take protein after a workout and drop a bunch of fat. Fat loss and muscle gain first come down to overall calorie intake. Then, next in line is overall daily protein intake, which is also the hardest macronutrient to get in for most people.
That is another reason why drinking a whey isolate after workouts is so great. It will help you hit a more optimal amount of protein on a daily basis. Actually, that brings up a great point when it comes to whey concentrate.
Now that we know an isolate is rapid assimilating, what is a concentrate considered? It can be referred to as a sustained assimilation protein.
Since it contains more carbohydrates and fats, whey concentrates digestion is slower than that of a whey isolate. This does not make it useless though, because whey concentrates are a great option for protein throughout the day.
Concentrate is typically a main protein source used in “blended” protein supplements, which are a combination of several types of protein that mimic the digestion of a whole food protein source.
Think of those mornings when you aren’t able to cook breakfast, need a mid-day snack, or a bedtime treat. These are the perfect scenarios to use a sustained assimilation protein shake.
These will keep you full longer than an isolate, since they digest a bit slower. But that’s what makes it perfect for filling in gaps where whole food protein isn’t convenient or accessible.
Plus, like I mentioned earlier, overall calories play the biggest role in your progress, but right there in second place is your daily protein intake, which is difficult for a lot of people to manage consistently.
If we are already using an isolate after our workouts, but still need a bit more protein ... a sustained assimilation protein would be perfect to plug in! Regardless of whether your goal is to lose fat or to gain muscle, hitting your protein goal is very beneficial.
See what I did there?!
But really though, just like whole foods, protein supplements can differ in overall quality and the results that come along with that.
When I mentioned that whey protein came from milk earlier, I did not go in depth on the specifics of the processing. However, it is a major factor in the quality of the product you are putting in your body.
So, let’s quickly break down what we should be looking for in a protein powder...
First, I would make sure the protein is Low-Temperature Processed. This means that the protein is not exposed to extremely high heats during the dehydration process.
Think about a chicken breast. If I put a chicken breast on the grill at 1000 degrees to cook it as fast as possible, it would be burnt, and actually break down some of the protein, due to the super high heat. Nobody wants a hockey puck-style chicken breast anyway!
Second, look for a product that is Cross-Flow Micro-filtrated, which is a process where natural ceramic filters are used to separate the whey from the milk instead of harsh chemicals. Chemicals such as hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide are what I’m referring to here.
These chemicals will “denature”, or break down, some of the protein in the product, which lowers the amount of protein your body can absorb.
In addition to the difference in quality, protein powders that are processed with high heats and chemicals can also lead to some less-than-desirable things, such as a gritty taste, upset stomach, etc.
That's why our Level-1 and Phormula-1 protein powders are both Low-Temperature Processed, and Cross-Flow Micro-Filtrated. That's how we ensure that our 1st Phorm proteins are the highest-quality products possible.
If you do have any more questions about protein, nutrition, or anything else please reach out to our Customer Loyalty team by giving us a call at 1-800-409-9732.
NASM Certified Personal Trainer, NASM Certified Nutrition Coach, NASM Certified Fitness Nutrition Specialist, NASM Certified Weight Loss Specialist, NASM Certified Behavioral Change Specialist, NASM VCS Virtual Coaching Specialist, CrossFit Level 1 Trainer