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The whole town and his wife seems to be using whey protein.

Whey protein isolate – everybody knows – works; you know it works. It is the best protein for improving body composition (reducing fat while improving lean mass)! Or is it really?!

Whey protein isolate may be the best protein for you in most instances, that may not be the case always! Depending on your fitness goal, whey protein concentrate (and, even casein!) can sometime give whey isolate a run for its money. How is that?!

Well, read on to find out!

However, before we get into the nitty-gritty of which type of whey will best serve your purpose, let us get to know a bit more about why you should supplement with whey, in the first place.


Why should I take whey supplements?

Resistance training causes increase in muscle mass. This is due to increased muscle protein synthesis (MPS) that resistance training induces (Hulmi et al., 2009; Hakkinen et al., 2001; Hulmi et al., 2007). However, intense workouts alone are not enough to keep packing on lean muscle mass; you have to ‘stay anabolic’ most of the time to be able to keep that MPS working for you.

Without complicating matters, here’s a look at how resistance training increases lean muscle mass: a resistance training session causes muscle protein breakdown. This is then followed by repair of the damaged muscle tissue so that the muscles come out stronger the next time you hit the weights. For the muscles to get stronger, however, proteins ingestion (over and above normal needs) is crucial. Needless to say, the process of repair will suffer if you aren’t loading up on proteins.

That resistance training combined with protein supplementation causes muscle hypertrophy is well-documented (Moore et al., 2009; Hulmi et al., 2009; Cribb, Williams, Carey, & Hayes, 2006).  Ingestion of a whey protein supplement either immediately before or after a training session is – considered by some – to be the best for this purpose; also whey increases muscle protein turnover like no other protein. Furthermore, whey protein seems to work equally well in women as well (Josse, Tang, Tarnopolsky, & Phillips, 2010).

Another benefit of supplementing with whey is, improved post-workout recovery  This is likely due to the ‘anti-catabolic’ action of essential amino acids (Bird, Tarpenning, & Marino, 2006; Hoffman et al., 2010; Etheridge, Philp, & Watt, 2008).


What is Whey Protein?

You most likely know that whey is one of the 2 milk proteins – the other being casein. Casein is the more abundant of the two and it is casein that gives milk that white colour. In commercially available cow’s milk, 20% of protein is whey while the rest of it is casein (Hulmi, Lockwood, & Stout, 2010; Ha & Zemel, 2003; Etzel, 2004; Krissansen, 2007).

Whey is produced in large amounts as a by-product in the cheese industry. However, this whey has loads of fat, milk sugar (lactose) and salts in it and is not suitable for improving body composition.

During the process of whey purification, whey concentrate and isolate are produced sequentially. During the initial steps, larger molecules are separated out resulting in formation of whey concentrate. These larger molecules are proteins, lactose, immunoglobulins, amongst other less important ones. To produce whey isolate, cheese whey is passed through an ultrafiltration process (ion exchange or other methods). The ultra membrane filters fat, milk sugar (lactose), salts and other unwanted ingredients leaving behind a pure form of whey (Barile et al., 2009).

Hydrolysates, on the other hand, are formulations where large protein molecules are broken down into smaller fragments. The hypothesis is that this might further increase the rate of absorption of whey. However, this might not be totally true and hydrolysates may not offer much of an advantage over isolates or concentrates.


Types of Whey Protein

Whey is available commercially as either isolate or concentrate. ‘So, what’s the difference between them and which one should I be using’, you might want to ask?

The main difference between the two is the quality and the amount of protein content – isolate is purer and thus will contain almost 100% protein (well, 90-94% to be precise) while whey concentrate will contain protein ranging from 70-85%.

‘Well, that settles it – I am going with whey isolate!’, you might say. Hang on, not so fast! There is more to it than just protein content.


Comparing Whey Isolate and Whey Concentrate

Since whey isolate is higher in protein content, has a better amino acid ratio and thus bioavailability, it is absorbed into your system way quicker than whey concentrate (or any other protein, for that matter). That makes whey isolate the ideal post-exercise anabolic drink (Hulmi et al., 2009). Some researchers have suggested taking whey protein isolate before workouts as well in addition to your routine post-workout shake for maximum benefits (Esmark et al., 2001; Cribb & Hayes, 2006). Quicker absorption will mean almost instantaneous rise in blood amino acids which are then taken up by ‘hungry muscles’.

Having said that, the need for immediate post-workout protein supplementation in now being increasingly questioned (more below).

High protein content and higher quality of protein, however, that does not clinch the deal in favour of whey isolate. Concentrate has something up its sleeve that will make sit up and take notice!

As stated earlier, in comparison to isolate, whey protein concentrate will contain lesser amount of protein (in the range of 70-85%). However, somewhat similar to casein, whey protein concentrate will get absorbed slowly – this helps you stay anabolic for longer! Slower absorption also helps with absorption of other important nutrients from food like calcium. Not a lot of people know this but calcium plays an important role in causing fat loss (in addition to keeping your bones healthy)! Add to that the added benefit of appetite suppression for longer and casein suddenly become an important tool for your fat-loss goals or intermittent-fasting health journey…

Furthermore, whey protein concentrate is loaded with immunoglobulins – this helps boost your immune system and therefore may be beneficial in dealing with the intense stresses of training (especially if you happen to overtrain!).


Whey Isolate

Pros

    • pure; contains 90-94% protein!
    • purity means that it is great for gaining / maintaining lean mass while getting ripped (ideal when nearing competition or a photo shoot)
    • contains all essential amino acids in the best possible ratios
    • bioavailability for humans is best amongst all proteins – meaning, of the amount ingested, more is likely to be absorbed. For instance, in a scoop containing 25 g of whey isolate, almost all of the protein in there, will be going into your muscle
    • lightening fast absorption; ideal post-exercise drink – helps you get into the anabolic mode almost immediately

Cons

    • pricier than whey protein concentrate – to ensure purity, the commercial production of whey necessitates use of complex filtration procedure, hence the price
    • although whey isolate will help recovery after workouts, it loses out to whey concentrate in some respects. This is so because immune boosting constituents of milk protein like alpha – lactoglobulins and lactoferrins are removed during the purification process

Whey Concentrate

Pros:

    • lot cheaper than whey isolate
    • has a slower absorption rate than whey protein isolates; thus ensures a steady state of elevated amino acids in the blood and helps you stay anabolic for longer. This also reduces the need for frequent dosing
    • slower absorption helps with absorption of other important minerals like calcium and reducing blood glucose and lipid levels
    • induces appetite suppression which may help longer fasting interval, thereby improving body composition and metabolic disease parameters
    • contains immune boosting complexes (alpha – lactoglobulins and lactoferrins) which help post-exercise muscle recovery
    • helps fight diseases – for instance, chronic hepatitis C (Elattar et al., 2010)

Cons:

    • some amount of fat will be present so not ideally suited during times when keeping body fat% down is desirable
    • if you have any degree of intolerance to milk and dairy products, you might want to forget using whey concentrate on account of its lactose content – which is missing from the more purer whey isolate

TAKE HOME MESSAGE

In conclusion, isolate and concentrate are equally good – however, your circumstances – price, training goals and lactose intolerance – should tip the scales in favour of one or the other.


Recent developments

  1. More recently, the presence of a post-workout anabolic window (of opportunity) is being increasing questioned. ‘Not only is nutrient timing research open to question in terms of applicability, but recent evidence has directly challenged the classical view of the relevance of post-exercise nutritional intake with respect to anabolism’ (Aragon and Schoenfeld, 2013). The amount and quality of protein that you consume throughout the day is, now, thought to be more important than immediate post-workout whey ingestion.
  2. BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids – leucine, isoleucine and valine) may be overrated and ‘data do not seem to support a benefit to BCCA supplementation during periods of caloric restriction’ (Dieter BP, Schoenfeld BJ and Aragon AA, 2016).

Reference List

Aragon AA, Schoenfeld BJ (2013). Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window? Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2013;10:5 /1550-2783-10-5.

Barile, D., Tao, N., Lebrilla, C. B., Coisson, J. D., Arlorio, M., & German, J. B. (2009). Permeate from cheese whey ultrafiltration is a source of milk oligosaccharides. Int Dairy J, 19, 524-530.

Bird, S. P., Tarpenning, K. M., & Marino, F. E. (2006). Liquid carbohydrate/essential amino acid ingestion during a short-term bout of resistance exercise suppresses myofibrillar protein degradation. Metabolism, 55, 570-577.

Cribb, P. J. & Hayes, A. (2006). Effects of supplement timing and resistance exercise on skeletal muscle hypertrophy. Med Sci.Sports Exerc., 38, 1918-1925.

Cribb, P. J., Williams, A. D., Carey, M. F., & Hayes, A. (2006). The effect of whey isolate and resistance training on strength, body composition, and plasma glutamine. Int J Sport Nutr.Exerc.Metab, 16, 494-509.

Dieter BP, Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon AA.(2016). The data do not seem to support a benefit to BCAA supplementation during periods of caloric restriction. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition;13:21. doi:10.1186/s12970-016-0128-9.

Elattar, G., Saleh, Z., El-Shebini, S., Farrag, A., Zoheiry, M., Hassanein, A. et al. (2010). The use of whey protein concentrate in management of chronic hepatitis C virus – a pilot study. Arch.Med Sci., 6, 748-755.

Esmarck, B., Andersen, J. L., Olsen, S., Richter, E. A., Mizuno, M., & Kjaer, M. (2001). Timing of postexercise protein intake is important for muscle hypertrophy with resistance training in elderly humans. J Physiol, 535, 301-311.

Etheridge, T., Philp, A., & Watt, P. W. (2008). A single protein meal increases recovery of muscle function following an acute eccentric exercise bout. Appl.Physiol Nutr.Metab, 33, 483-488.

Etzel, M. R. (2004). Manufacture and use of dairy protein fractions. J Nutr., 134, 996S-1002S.

Ha, E. & Zemel, M. B. (2003). Functional properties of whey, whey components, and essential amino acids: mechanisms underlying health benefits for active people (review). J Nutr.Biochem., 14, 251-258.

Hakkinen, K., Pakarinen, A., Kraemer, W. J., Hakkinen, A., Valkeinen, H., & Alen, M. (2001). Selective muscle hypertrophy, changes in EMG and force, and serum hormones during strength training in older women. J Appl.Physiol, 91, 569-580.

Hoffman, J. R., Ratamess, N. A., Tranchina, C. P., Rashti, S. L., Kang, J., & Faigenbaum, A. D. (2010). Effect of a proprietary protein supplement on recovery indices following resistance exercise in strength/power athletes. Amino.Acids, 38, 771-778.

Hulmi, J. J., Ahtiainen, J. P., Kaasalainen, T., Pollanen, E., Hakkinen, K., Alen, M. et al. (2007). Postexercise myostatin and activin IIb mRNA levels: effects of strength training. Med Sci.Sports Exerc., 39, 289-297.

Hulmi, J. J., Kovanen, V., Selanne, H., Kraemer, W. J., Hakkinen, K., & Mero, A. A. (2009). Acute and long-term effects of resistance exercise with or without protein ingestion on muscle hypertrophy and gene expression. Amino.Acids, 37, 297-308.

Hulmi, J. J., Lockwood, C. M., & Stout, J. R. (2010). Effect of protein/essential amino acids and resistance training on skeletal muscle hypertrophy: A case for whey protein. Nutr.Metab (Lond), 7, 51.

Josse, A. R., Tang, J. E., Tarnopolsky, M. A., & Phillips, S. M. (2010). Body composition and strength changes in women with milk and resistance exercise. Med Sci.Sports Exerc., 42, 1122-1130.

Krissansen, G. W. (2007). Emerging health properties of whey proteins and their clinical implications. J Am Coll.Nutr., 26, 713S-723S.

Moore, D. R., Tang, J. E., Burd, N. A., Rerecich, T., Tarnopolsky, M. A., & Phillips, S. M. (2009). Differential stimulation of myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic protein synthesis with protein ingestion at rest and after resistance exercise. J Physiol, 587, 897-904.

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