Whey Protein Isolate, Hydrolysate, and Concentrate: Which Is Best?

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whey protein hydrolysate concentrate isolateYou may think of protein supplements as a supplement for muscle heads, but they’re for everyone – provided that you choose the right one for you. You need dietary protein for your body’s day-to-day upkeep and to age well. Up to a third of older adults don’t get enough protein for various reasons, like reduced appetite and changing tastes. There are lots of ways to get protein, and here, I’ll go through one of the most convenient and beneficial forms: whey protein.

What is Whey Protein?

Whey is a protein-packed byproduct of production. It’s that pseudo-clear liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained. Cheese makers used to toss it aside as waste material, until food scientists started to understand its value.

Today, we know that whey protein isn’t just a single protein. Instead, it houses an impressive array of proteins: beta-lactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin, and serum albumin. These are complete proteins, comprised of the essential amino acids central to protein synthesis and increased muscular hypertrophy ().

Our bodies can produce non-essential amino acids from lesser amino acids, but we cannot produce the essentials ourselves; we must eat quality . Whey is a naturally occurring, essential protein that satisfies – hence its popularity.


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Is Whey Protein Dairy?

Whey comes from milk products, so yes, protein is dairy. However, some people who cannot tolerate dairy can tolerate whey.

It depends on gives you trouble. Most people are either:

  • Lactose intolerant. Lactose intolerance is a sensitivity to a form of sugar in dairy products
  • Casein sensitive. Casein sensitivity is an intolerance of one of the proteins in dairy products

Some dairy-sensitive people react to both lactose and casein.

Whey protein contains trace elements of lactose, so extremely sensitive people may have problems digesting it properly. Because whey is, by definition, the stuff that separates from the casein (a milk protein) when it curdles, it has even less casein (save for trace amounts) – rarely enough to be noticeable to anyone but the most casein-intolerant. But that’s pure whey, straight from the cheese factory. Whey protein powders have been processed to have even less of both.

With whey protein supplements, lactose may pose a problem, but casein almost certainly will not. But, certain forms of protein supplements have enough of the casein and lactose removed that they will be agreeable to people with sensitivities.

Whey Protein Isolate vs. Concentrate vs. Hydrolysate

When choosing a whey protein powder, you’ve got a couple options:

  • Whey protein concentrate
  • Whey protein isolate
  • Whey protein hydrolysate

Whey Protein Concentrate

Whey protein concentrate contains about 70-80% protein, along with some fat and lactose. Whey protein concentrate is less processed and more whole, but has less protein.  Otherwise, it’s probably fine to go with concentrate for most applications (or otherwise further you could instead).

Whey Protein Isolate

Whey protein isolate is about 90-94% protein, and is made up of pretty much pure protein with very little of the other dairy elements remaining. To get there, it goes through a more rigorous refinement process than whey protein concentrate and hydrolysate do.

Bodybuilders are drawn to the “purity” of whey isolate, lured by the moderately higher protein counts. Isolate is also considerably more expensive than concentrate, and the purported boost in beneficial effects on protein synthesis are overstated; drinking any kind of whey protein shake will have a beneficial effect on your muscle recovery and protein synthesis. If cost is not an issue, or you’re mildly sensitive to dairy, then isolate is your best choice.


Sweetened with monk fruit extract and coconut milk powder, this mix is made with only the good stuff, so you can shake up your day and help support lean muscle mass without compromise.


Whey Protein Hydrolysate

Whey protein hydrolysate is “predigested” whey, or whey that has been partially broken down using enzymes. The process makes it easier to absorb, and potential allergens are broken down to inactive forms. That said, people who have dairy allergies should consult their doctors before ingesting.

The catch? It’s expensive. Whey in general is already highly bioavailable and easily absorbed by our bodies, so absorption is rarely an issue with whey. Hydrolysate is great marketing. That’s about it. The elite of the elite – those hulking magazine cover superheroes with tanned, smiling faces atop straining, veiny necks – may have actual cause to maximize protein absorption, but most of us definitely don’t need to fuss over that stuff.

The exception would be if you are old enough to have dental issues or that would make it hard for you to absorb protein. In that case, skipping a few steps in the breakdown process may be a good thing.

If you’re keto, keep in mind that whey protein hydrolysate could spike your blood sugar.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDI) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, or 0.36 g protein/lb.

That’s the official, on-the-books answer, but I have differing opinions on actual protein needs. I’ve been an elite competitive athlete, and I have lots of friends who have various reasons to optimize their protein intake. Protein needs are highly individual, and depend heavily on your goals, age, and activity level.

I go into the details in .

Is Whey Protein Primal?

Whey protein falls into the 80/20 category. It isn’t strictly (and certainly not paleo) in that it wasn’t available to , but it can be an effective, occasional high-protein meal replacement with most – if not all – of the potential allergens mitigated or negated. It’s an analog, a bit like dairy itself. If you can’t handle any dairy, skip it, or see how you do with whey isolate. If you can handle dairy without a problem, a whey protein powder is a pretty good way to shuttle nutrients into your body, especially if you’ve chosen to go the post-workout nutrition route  – which .

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