- Whey protein isolate and concentrate are both forms of high-quality whey protein that go through different amounts of processing, resulting in a different macro split.
- Whey protein isolate contains a higher percentage of protein and less fats and carbs—a better choice for those with specific dietary needs or goals.
- Whey protein concentrate is cheaper than isolate and contains vitamins and minerals that are stripped from whey isolate during processing.
“Ideally, the majority of your protein should come from whole food sources like beef, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy, and beans, but a good protein powder is a convenient, high-quality option if you are not able to meet your needs with whole foods alone,” says Imashi Fernando, MS, RD.
What’s a “good” protein powder? Whey protein is considered the gold standard because, per Fernando, it’s packed with all nine of the essential amino acids your body needs (1).
Before making a beeline for the protein powder aisle, you should know there are two main types of whey protein: whey protein isolate and whey protein concentrate. They’re both complete sources of protein, but for your goals, you might want to lean one way or the other.
Here’s everything you need to know about whey protein, including whether to choose isolate or concentrate.
Differences Between Whey Protein Isolate and Concentrate
How They’re Made
Both whey protein isolate and concentrate come from milk. During cheese making, special enzymes or acids are added to heated milk. These enzymes are what cause the milk to coagulate (or become solid) and separate from the liquid—which is whey.
The whey is then washed, dried, and turned into powdered form. Different brands then take this powder and formulate their own blends of other vitamins, minerals, and other added ingredients to make the powder taste and blend better.
The main difference between whey isolate and concentrate is that whey isolate goes under more processing in the final steps of production.
This results in higher protein content and less carbs, fat, and lactose—which might make it a better option for those who are lactose intolerant. However, “the amount of lactose in both whey protein isolate and concentrate is low enough for most people who have lactose intolerance to use without trouble (3),” says Fernando.
How much more protein does whey isolate contain? Significantly more.
Whey protein can be labeled as “concentrate” if it has anywhere from 25 to 80 percent protein by weight (4). Whereas, whey protein isolate must be at least 90 percent protein by weight (4). Fewer fats and carbs mean more protein per scoop.
The exact macro breakdown will vary by brand and blend. “Look at the ingredients label to pick a product with no artificial additives, fillers, or preservatives,” Fernando advises. “Flavored protein powders can often have added sugars, which negates the slight edge whey protein isolate may have over whey protein concentrate.”
Per Standard Scoop
Up to 1 gram
Up to 3.5 grams
“Since whey protein isolate packs more protein per scoop, it can be great for those trying to meet high protein needs with less powder while also having greater control over carbs and fat,” says Fernando.
It might be a better option for anyone with specific fitness goals, too.
“The only groups I see really benefiting from whey protein isolate are professional athletes and competition bodybuilders,” says Fernando. “Individuals looking for that one percent extra in performance that they can get by very strict macro control.” For everyone else, she points out that the difference in nutrition is so small, it really doesn’t matter.
Digestions and absorption
Thanks to its lower fat content, protein isolate doesn’t have fat to slow down the digestion process. That means whey protein isolate digests more quickly than concentrate if you’re looking for quick post-workout nutrition.
Even though whey protein concentrate is absorbed more slowly, after it’s absorbed it may trigger slightly greater muscle protein synthesis (MPS) than isolate alone (5).
MPS is the coordinated process your body uses to deliver nutrients to muscle cells in need of repair and is critical in maintaining and rebuilding muscle tissues.
Each serving of whey protein is packed with benefits. One study found that those who exercised and took whey supplements, including whey isolate and concentrate, saw increases in lean muscle mass (6).
However, whey protein concentrate might be the better choice for benefits. “Because whey protein isolate processing removes some of the nutrients, it may be less filling than whey protein concentrate,” says Fernando.
Plus, the purification process that removes the lactose and fat from whey protein isolate also eliminates some of the micronutrients and protein fractions like lactoferrins, B-lactoglobulins, and immunoglobulins (10). These bioactive peptides are responsible for a host of benefits from enhancing your immune system to boosting gut health.
Taste and texture
Since whey isolate is more refined, it mixes easier into shakes. However, “because whey isolate has less fat, the shakes will not be as creamy or have the same smooth mouthfeel as a classic whey protein concentrate shake,” says Fernando. However, she points out that some people might actually prefer the thinner shakes since they’re easier to drink quickly and less likely to interfere with your appetite for other meals.
Concentrates or blends tend to be the cheapest protein supplements. This doesn’t mean whey protein concentrate is low-quality, just that it goes through less processing and therefore has a lower protein purity when compared to whey protein isolate.
If you aren’t concerned about the macro ratio, taking a slightly higher dose of whey protein concentrate can result in the same amount of total protein at a cheaper cost.
Isolate or Concentrate: Which Is Better?
It all boils down to your goals and dietary restrictions. “It really will depend on your preference in terms of texture and palatability,” says Fernando. “There is very little evidence to show that one is superior for building muscle or weight loss. Both are complete sources of protein.”
Whey protein isolate may be better for those with lactose intolerance. Same for those limiting fats or carbs. It can also help in situations where every calorie counts; for example, if you’re in a cutting phase.
If you don’t have dietary issues or specific weight loss goals, is protein isolate worth the money? Maybe not.
Whey protein concentrate still offers high protein, low carbs, low fat, good absorption, a wide variety of amino acids, and it’s a complete protein. It’s also cost effective and widely available.
“It’s easy to get caught up in which product is optimal for muscle gain and fat loss. Both isolate and concentrate can help you reach your goals,” says Fernando. Studies show both can help you boost muscle and lose weight (1). Pick the one that works best for you, and reap the benefits.
Best Whey Protein Isolate
Looking for the best whey protein isolate powder? Here are Fernando’s top recommendations that tick all the nutrition boxes.
Best Whey Protein Concentrate
For a boost of protein and muscle recovery, try Fernando’s top whey protein concentrate protein powder picks.