Whey Protein Concentrate vs. Isolate: What’s The Difference?

Whey protein is a popular type of protein used in supplements that help you build muscle and strength, like protein powder and protein bars. Whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate are two different and common forms of whey protein.

You might be wondering what’s the difference between the two, and which is the better option for you.

This article explains the differences and similarities between whey concentrate and whey isolate and helps you decide which one to use.

What Is Whey Protein?

Whey protein is one of the two proteins found in milk and other dairy products, the other protein being casein

All animals that produce breast milk, including cows, goats, camels, and even humans, contain whey protein. When you buy a whey protein powder, you’re purchasing whey protein from cow’s milk.

Regular cow’s milk contains 20% whey and 80% casein, both high-quality proteins. You absorb whey protein rapidly, making it a popular protein source to use after lifting weights when your muscles are hungry for nutrients and building materials to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.1 The food industry also uses whey protein for its functional and nutritional properties.

Whey protein comes from a liquid by-product from cheese manufacturing called whey.2 That liquid is mostly water, plus some lactose, fat, minerals, and protein. It contains less than 1% protein, which means that you have to start with 150 kilograms of whey and remove more than 149 kilograms of water, fat, sugar, and minerals to end up with a 1,000-gram jug of whey protein powder.

Your body uses the protein you eat for many anabolic processes, including repairing and building muscle. Whey protein is a complete protein that provides enough of all the amino acids you need, including BCAAs, branched-chain amino acids. It is beneficial for athletes looking to build muscle and recover from hard training. 

This is what the amino acid profile of whey protein looks like:

The two most common forms of whey protein on the market are whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate. They both have high protein content with very similar compositions, and the main difference between whey concentrate and isolate is how they are produced.

What Is Whey Protein Concentrate?

Whey protein concentrate is the most common and inexpensive form of whey protein. Most whey protein concentrates on the market contain either about 35 or 80 percent protein. Concentrates containing 35 percent protein are used in the food industry to manufacture things like yogurt, processed cheeses, bakery and snack products, and infant formulae. The whey concentrate used in sports supplements is the type containing around 80 percent protein.3

During the processing of whey protein concentrate from liquid whey, the water and a lot of the lactose and fat is removed. The protein content of whey concentrate is between 70–80 percent protein, which is less than isolate, since more fat and sugar remain in the finished product. Concentrate typically contains more biologically active compounds and chemicals, many of which have potential health benefits.4

The lactose content of whey concentrate is usually not enough to cause issues if you suffer from mild to moderate lactose intolerance. However, if you are severely lactose intolerant, it might be problematic. If that’s the case, consider using a whey protein isolate or look for a concentrate with added lactase enzymes, which help you break down the lactose.

A protein shake made with whey protein concentrate is usually thicker than one made with isolate. Some people prefer this consistency over the thinner, more watery consistency of whey isolate, but it’s purely a matter of preference rather than function. Many also like the taste of concentrate better, probably because of the higher fat- and sugar content.

What Is Whey Protein Isolate?

Whey protein isolate is the purest form of whey protein, with a higher protein content than concentrate. Isolate contains at least 90 percent protein.5 Isolate starts out as concentrate but goes through an extra purification step, removing more fat and lactose. If you are lactose intolerant, that means chances are higher that you can use whey protein isolate without any discomfort.

Isolate mixes easier than concentrate, making the finished shake thinner, less filling, and easier to drink. You don’t get the creamy texture you get with a whey concentrate, though.

Whey Protein Concentrate Vs. Isolate: Which Is Better for Building Muscle and Losing Fat?

If you’re looking to build lean muscle mass and become stronger, you should aim for a protein intake of 1.7–2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.6 7 That means you need at least 136 grams of protein per day if you weigh 80 kilograms or 175 lbs. That’s not an easy task for everyone, especially if your appetite isn’t the greatest.

That’s where protein supplements like whey concentrate or whey isolate come in. They are inexpensive, convenient, and a great way to increase your total protein intake. Both whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate contain plenty of the essential amino acids, making them ideal for building muscle. No strong evidence suggests that either one of them is superior to the other. 

Even though your total protein intake is, by far, the most important consideration, some evidence suggests that supplementing with whey protein, in particular, maximizes gains in muscle mass and strength improvements.8 Because whey is a high-quality protein, using it as part of your diet, in combination with strength training, is a valid strategy to help build muscle and strength.9

Simply put, whey protein gives your muscles what they need for muscle building and strength gains. And, since whey protein concentrate and isolate both provide the same type of amino acids, you can expect the same results from either one. Concentrated and isolated whey protein seems to have virtually identical effects on lean mass.10The protein content of whey isolate is higher, so you can use less of it. On the other hand, concentrate is less expensive, so you can use more of it without paying more.

If you’re actively trying to cut down or limit your fat or carbohydrate intake, you might find whey isolate the better option since it contains less of both. However, that does not mean that concentrate is any less suitable for building muscle and losing fat.

Scientific evidence shows that whey protein helps you lose body fat. Of course, you still need to burn more calories than you take in to lose fat, to begin with, but whey protein is helpful when part of such a diet.11 However, only whey protein concentrate, not isolate, show this effect in studies. You can, of course, use whey protein isolate as part of a successful weight-loss plan, but the evidence only supports concentrate as giving an extra boost to fat loss.

Health Benefits of Whey Protein Concentrate and Whey Protein Isolate

Whey protein contains many biologically active compounds that benefit your health, enhancing your immune system and acting as anti-oxidants.12 Whey protein is also good for your blood sugar and helps you fight inflammation and combat high blood pressure.13 14 15

Even though whey protein isolate is a high-quality protein, it might be at a disadvantage compared to whey concentrate if you’re looking for health benefits. The purification and filtration processes that remove much of the lactose and fat also eliminate some of the micro-nutrients, protein fractions, and immune-globulins responsible for the potential health benefits of whey protein.16

What About Other Proteins Than Whey?

Whey is not the only protein you can buy in supplement form, even though it is the most popular. Other proteins like casein protein, soy protein, pea protein, and many more, also come in several forms like concentrates and isolates.

Let’s take soy protein as an example.17

When you prepare soy protein concentrate, you start with defatted soy meal, then you remove the most of the soluble carbohydrates and some flavor compounds using various methods. You can then separate the protein from the carbohydrates by centrifugation.

Soy protein isolate is made using the same basic methods, but with a few extra steps, where the separated protein goes through vacuum flash evaporation, pressurization, and spray drying. Finally, you end up with a highly refined soy protein isolate with minimal bean taste.

Soy protein concentrate contains between 65–90% protein, while isolate contains a minimum of 90% protein.

The same goes for whatever protein we’re talking about. Protein concentrates end up retaining more of the carbs and fat in the original product, like the liquid whey or the soy meal, than isolates. Protein isolates go through more refining and you get a more pure end product with more protein per 100 grams. The method of turning the base product in a concentrate or isolate differs from protein to protein, but the concept is the same.

Summary

  • Whey protein is a rapidly absorbed, high-quality protein providing you with all the amino acids your body needs for muscle growth. It’s a great option if you’re looking for a protein supplement to boost your daily protein intake. Whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate are the two most popular forms of whey in dietary supplements.
  • Whey protein concentrate contains less protein and more fat and carbs than whey protein isolate. Isolate is a purer form of whey protein, having gone through more purification steps.
  • Whey isolate gives you more protein per serving, but whey concentrate is the less expensive option, meaning you can use a higher dose and still pay less per serving.
  • The carbohydrate and fat content of whey protein isolate is very low, making isolate the better choice if you want to limit your intake of those nutrients.
  • Both concentrate and isolate help you build muscle and get stronger as part of a protein-rich diet. There are no significant differences between them in this regard.
  • Whey protein offers several potential health benefits, and whey concentrate might be the best option since it retains more of the relevant active compounds.
  • Concentrates and isolates of other proteins work the same: concentrates are less refined with more carbs and fat, while isolates is the purer product.

Regardless if you use whey concentrate or isolate, you can be sure you’re giving your muscles what they need, when they need it, to fuel your efforts in the gym and to reach your fitness goals.

Further Reading

If you liked this article, check out our other articles about protein in general and whey protein in particular:

References

  1. Nutrition & Metabolism volume 9, Article number: 40 (2012). Nutritional regulation of muscle protein synthesis with resistance exercise: strategies to enhance anabolism.
  2. Encyclopedia of Dairy Sciences 2nd Edition
  3. Encyclopedia of Dairy Sciences (Second Edition)2011, Pages 873-878. Milk Protein Products | Whey Protein Products.
  4. J Sports Sci Med. 2004 Sep; 3(3): 118–130. Protein – Which is Best?
  5. Journal of Dairy Science, VOLUME 88, ISSUE 11, P3826-3839, NOVEMBER 01, 2005. Characterization of Dried Whey Protein Concentrate and Isolate Flavor.
  6. Nutrients 2021, 13(5), 1416; Does Protein Supplementation Support Adaptations to Arduous Concurrent Exercise Training? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis with Military Based Applications.
  7. Br J Sports Med. 2018 Mar;52(6):376-384. A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults.
  8. Sports Medicine volume 46, pages 125–137 (2016). Effects of Whey Protein Alone or as Part of a Multi-ingredient Formulation on Strength, Fat-Free Mass, or Lean Body Mass in Resistance-Trained Individuals: A Meta-analysis.
  9. Nutrition and Dietary Supplements Volume 11:37-48. Whey protein supplementation and muscle mass: current perspectives.
  10. Nutrients 2019, 11(9), 2047; Comparative Meta-Analysis of the Effect of Concentrated, Hydrolyzed, and Isolated Whey Protein Supplementation on Body Composition of Physical Activity Practitioners.
  11. Nutrients 2019, 11(9), 2047; Comparative Meta-Analysis of the Effect of Concentrated, Hydrolyzed, and Isolated Whey Protein Supplementation on Body Composition of Physical Activity Practitioners.
  12. J Nutr Biochem. 2003 May;14(5):251-8. Functional properties of whey, whey components, and essential amino acids: mechanisms underlying health benefits for active people (review).
  13. Lipids in Health and D.isease volume 11, Article number: 67 (2012). Dietary whey protein lessens several risk factors for metabolic diseases: a review.
  14. Nutrients 2015, 7(2), 1131-1143; Effect of Whey Supplementation on Circulating C-Reactive Protein: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials.
  15. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2010 Jul;18(7):1354-9. The chronic effects of whey proteins on blood pressure, vascular function, and inflammatory markers in overweight individuals.
  16. Dairy 2020, 1(3), 233-258; Whey Proteins and Its Derivatives: Bioactivity, Functionality, and Current Applications.
  17. Functional Foods, Principles and Technology. Woodhead Publishing Series in Food Science, Technology and Nutrition 2009, Pages 237-277.