Which Whey to Go When Choosing a Protein

Hundreds if not thousands of protein powders are available on the market today. This often makes choosing one that suits individual training and dieting goals a bit confusing. Even for the most nutrition-savvy customer, the attractive package and bold claims made on the label can distract them from the most important information on the bottle. The supplement facts panel and more precisely the ingredient profile.  When inspected these two items can tell the consumer about the quality, dosages, digestion rate, and type of protein found in the product. Spending money on a protein that doesn’t work or address what an individual is trying to accomplish is equivalent to flushing money down the toilet. This article will give you the knowledge to decipher the different types of protein and make an informed choice.

A Quick Comparison of the Different Protein Types

Isolates Concentrates Hydrolysates Casein Blends Plant
Digestion Rate Fast Fast Fast Slow Fast, Medium, & Slow Fast, Medium
% Pure Protein 90% 25-80% N/A N/A Varies Varies
Best Taken Pre/Post Workout. Throughout day Pre/Post Workout. Throughout day Pre-Workout Before Bed Pre/Post Workout. Throughout day Pre/Post Workout. Throughout day
Source Animal Animal Animal Animal Animal Plant
Complete Protein Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Varies
Lactose Free Yes No Yes No Varies Yes
Price $$ $ $$ $$ $$ $$$


Whey Isolates: 90% Pure Protein

What is it?

Whey Isolates are gram for gram, the highest quality forms of protein available (90-98% pure protein). This level of purity is achieved through a cold, cross micro and ultrafiltration process that removes the larger, less absorbable protein molecules while also filtering out fat, lactose, and ash.

What does the research say?

Research suggests that whey isolates rapidly increase amino acid levels in the body which significantly elevates muscle protein synthesis; a process that is responsible for muscle growth, strength, and recovery. A 2006 study conducted by Cribb et al. found subjects who supplemented with whey protein isolate in conjunction with a 10-week strength training program significantly increased lean mass, decreased fat mass, and improved strength.

Who is it best for?

Whey isolates make an excellent choice for lactose intolerant individuals or for people who want a protein that is low in carbs and calories. Furthermore, isolates are generally fat, cholesterol, and gluten free. Lastly, people who want only the highest quality of proteins should stick with a whey isolate.

How quickly does it digest/absorb and raise amino acid levels?

When consumed, whey isolates elevate amino acid concentrations in the blood above baseline after ~20 minutes and peak out at ~60 minutes, followed by a gradual decline that can last up to 1.5 to 3 hours depending on the dose taken.

When is the best time to take it?

Strength athletes should take whey isolate 30-60 minutes’ pre-workout and immediately post workout to maximize muscle protein synthesis.  Endurance athletes should take whey isolate immediately post-exercise with a carbohydrate. It can also be consumed throughout the day or between meals to meet individual protein requirements.


Whey Concentrate: The Most Common Protein Powder

What is it?

Whey concentrates comprise the majority of protein powders found on store shelves.  Concentrates, compared to isolates, go through less filtration steps with the final product being anywhere from 25-80% pure protein and containing more carbs, lactose, and fat.  It is imperative to select a concentrate that is 70-80% pure protein as stated on the label.

Similar to isolates, concentrates digest and absorb quickly leading to elevated amino acid levels and muscle protein synthesis stimulation. Concentrates also have more subfraction proteins compared to isolates (due to fewer filtration steps) that provide many health-related benefits. Furthermore, whey concentrates often are a more affordable than isolates. Finally, isolates are only superior to concentrates by having more protein on a gram to gram basis.  Both isolates and concentrates have the same effects on muscle growth and recovery.

What does the research say?

Compared to other protein sources whey concentrates have a multitude of research supporting its uses and benefits. Study after study has demonstrated that individuals who supplement with a high-quality concentrate can increase lean mass, decrease body fat, improve strength and speed recovery from muscle damaging exercise. A 2013 conducted by Volek et al. found subjects who supplemented with whey concentrate in conjunction with a 9-month strength training regimen experienced significantly greater gains in lean mass and fasting leucine concentrations compared to groups that supplemented with either soy or carbs.

Who is it best for?

Concentrates are best for individuals on a budget or who want an effective option to isolates. People who want more calories, fat, and carbs in their protein powder should also consider a concentrate.

How quickly does it digest/absorb and raise amino acid levels?

When consumed, whey concentrates elevate amino acid concentrations in the blood above baseline after ~30 minutes and peak out at ~60 – 90 minutes, followed by a gradual decline that can last up to 4 hours depending on the dose taken.

When is the best time to take it?

Same guidelines as whey protein isolate.

 

Whey Protein Hydrolysate: The Protein That May Help Burn Fat

What is it?

Whey hydrolysates are broken down proteins.  This means the long chains of amino acids typically found in isolates and concentrates are broken down into single amino acids. This makes hydrolysates the fastest digesting protein source. Hydrolysates also have the unique property of being able to enhance protein synthesis when combined with lower doses (less than 15 grams) of other forms of protein.

What does the research say?

Research has demonstrated that a unique benefit of hydrolysates is they may decrease body fat to a greater extent compared to other forms of whey protein. Lockwood et al. (2016) recently discovered that subjects who consumed either whey protein concentrate (WPC) or hydrolysate (WPH) in conjunction with an 8-week resistance training program experienced similar gains in total body skeletal mass and lower body strength. However, the WPH group also demonstrated a 6% decrease in fat mass.

Who is it best for?

Hydrolysates may be most advantageous for individuals who are trying to build lean mass while also trying to decrease fat mass. However, they have not been shown to be superior in regards to enhancing muscle size, strength, and recovery compared to isolates and concentrates.

How quickly does it digest/absorb and raise amino acid levels?

When consumed, whey hydrolysates elevate amino acid concentrations in the blood above baseline after ~10 minutes and peak out at ~30 minutes, followed by a gradual decline that can last up to 2 hours depending on the dose taken.

When is the best time to take it?

Since hydrolysates digest very rapidly they should be consumed 10 -15 minutes’ pre-workout, immediately post-work, or throughout the day/between meals to meet individual protein requirements.

 

Micellar Casein: The Slow Digesting, Sustained Release Protein

What is it?

Compared to whey proteins, Micellar Casein digests and absorbs more slowly. This property of casein leads to a sustained increase in amino acids and inhibits protein degradation to a greater extent. It also prolongs muscle protein synthesis (MPS) times up to 8 hours depending on the dose taken. This is why casein is an ideal nighttime protein source. However, casein does not create as great of an anabolic response as whey protein when comparing the extent of which it elevates amino acid levels and stimulates MPS.

What does the research say?

A 1997 study conducted by Boirie and Dangin gave subjects a 43-gram dose of casein and measured amino acid levels for several hours.  The casein caused a slow increase in amino acid concentrations, which remained elevated above baseline for 5 hours and had a positive effect on whole body leucine balance.  In another study, casein supplementation resulted in superior gains in strength and muscle mass, along with greater fat loss, compared to whey.

Who is it best for?

Individuals who want a slow digesting protein to decrease protein breakdown or a protein source to use before bed should consider casein as an option.

How quickly does it digest/absorb and raise amino acid levels?

When consumed, micellar casein elevates amino acid concentrations in the blood gradually and peaks out after ~30 minutes, at which point amino acid levels remain consistent and can last up to 7 hours depending on the dose taken.

When is the best time to take it?

Micellar Casein is an ideal choice when an individual may go 4-5 hours without eating. It is also best taken before bed to provide a sustained release of amino acids to help the body maintain a positive nitrogen balance.


Blends: A Combination of Different Protein Sources

What is it?

A protein blend combines multiple sources of protein such as whey, casein, egg, and milk isolates into one product.  The theory is by mixing different proteins with varying rates (fast, medium, and slow) of digestion and absorption that muscle protein synthesis times will be optimized.

As an example, whey isolates digest and absorb faster than casein which leads to a rapid spike in amino acids levels and increases muscle protein synthesis to a greater extent. On the contrary, micellar casein has a more significant anticatabolic effect than whey isolates and prolongs muscle protein synthesis times. Theoretically, combining the two means more significant increases in lean muscle mass and shorter recovery times compared to when ingested separately.

What does the research say?

A 2006 study conducted by Kerksick et al. examined the influence of a “fast” protein source (whey) compared to a blend of fast and slow proteins (whey and casein), ingested post-exercise over a 10-week period of resistance training. Subjects who ingested the mix of fast and slow proteins showed significantly greater increases in muscle mass (+1.8 kg) than those who ingested only the fast protein.

Who is it best for?

Blends are best for individuals who want the benefits of multiple sources of protein as is relates to sustained amino acid release and greater MPS times.

How quickly does it digest/absorb and raise amino acid levels?

No research exists at this point showing how quick and how long protein blends elevate amino acid concentrations in the blood, but in theory, it should fall somewhere between whey and casein.

When is the best time to take it?

Protein blends are best taken 30-60 minutes’ pre-workout, immediately post workout, between meals or right before bed.


Plant Proteins: An Option for Vegetarians and Vegans

What is it?

Sources of plant proteins include soy, rice, pea, pumpkin, and hemp.  Plant proteins are considered to be a complete protein but yield less protein and essential amino acids on a gram for gram basis compared to other sources like whey. Most plant based proteins are void of allergens, contain additional vitamins and minerals and like whey isolates are easily digested.

What does the research say?

A 2013 study examined the effects of whey and rice protein supplementation in 24 resistance trained males in conjunction with a three-day a week strength training program.  At the conclusion of the 8-week study, the researchers found “both whey and rice protein isolate administration post resistance exercise improved indices of body composition and exercise performance; however, there were no differences between the two groups.”

Who is it best for?

Individuals who do not include animal sources of protein in their diet and who need to supplement to fulfill their dietary protein requirements.

How quickly does it digest/absorb and raise amino acid levels?

The digestion and absorption rates of plant proteins are similar to a high-quality whey concentrate or isolate.

When is the best time to take it?

Same guidelines as whey protein concentrate.

 

How much protein should you supplement with pre/post workout and throughout the day?

The general recommendation is to supplement with 25-30 grams of protein (whey, casein, blend, or plant) 30-60 minutes pre workout and immediately post workout, in addition to every 3-4 hours throughout the day to maximize muscle protein synthesis and promote muscle growth and recovery.


The Bottom Line on the Different Types of Protein

The protein that works best for each individual comes down to a variety of factors.  If you want the highest quality protein available and/or are lactose intolerant use whey isolate.  If you want a more affordable, high-quality protein use whey concentrate. If building muscle while simultaneously losing fat is a priority consider whey hydrolysates. If you want to maintain a positive nitrogen balance overnight casein is the best choice. If you want a combination of all the go with a protein blend.

Regardless of which protein you choose, research shows that consuming high-quality protein immediately before or following a training session, throughout the day or before bed increases the rate of muscle protein synthesis and hence muscle growth, strength, and recovery.  This applies to both endurance and strength athletes as well as the general fitness enthusiast.

One thought on “Which Whey to Go When Choosing a Protein

  1. I am a solid supporter of Mark Glazer and Nutrabio products. I have been using Nutrabio’s Whey Isolate Protein for over seven years now and will continue to use it. Mark Glazer is a business man with integrity, he not only talks the talk but he walks the walk. That is something you seldom find in the health supplement business. He has my full support.

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