When it comes to whey protein, you have three main choices: whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate and whey protein hydrolysate. Although they all begin life the same way, each of these options is processed in different ways and, therefore, offers a slightly different end-product.
In this post, however, we're going to focus specifically on whey protein isolate.
What, exactly, is it? How does it differ from the other whey offerings? Most pressingly, should you be taking it?
Where It All Begins
As mentioned, all whey protein powders come from the same basic source: milk.
When a curdling agent – like heat or acid – is applied to the familiar white liquid, something surprising happens. The solid portions, which we are largely unaware of, clot together and float on top of a pale liquid. Those curds are then strained off and used to make cheese or casein protein.
That leftover liquid, however, is dried and powder. And that's where whey comes from. The protein supplement made from the whey at this point is what we know as whey protein concentrate.
Rich in complete proteins, whey protein concentrate also contains a fair amount of fats and sugar. For supplement companies desirous of being able to advertise huge percentages of protein in their product, this isn't a great thing.
Plus, fats and sugar sort of get a bad reputation these days. So, the company uses a variety of method to remove the majority of fat and sugar from the whey. This creates the product we call whey protein isolate.
Pros and Cons
As mentioned, whey protein isolate has had the “unwanted” fats and sugars removed. This allows manufacturers to claim that their protein has a higher percentage of protein and puts customers minds at ease since they aren't using calories on anything but protein.
Here's the problem, however: whey has a lot more to offer than protein. Bound up in that fat is a huge number of highly beneficial peptides and antioxidants. These substances can help to improve your immune function, as well as your digestive and cardiovascular health.
When that fat is removed, those substances are either taken out all together or are made significantly less bioavailable. The additional processing also runs the risk of damaging the amino acids that make up the protein in whey.
Those amino acids are, in fact, the entire reason for taking protein supplement and anything that makes them less useful to your body essentially devalues the protein powder.
Plus, whey protein isolate tends to be more expensive because of the extra work that went into its production.
The Big Question
So, with all of this information, we come back to the real question: Should you be taking whey protein isolate? No. Probably not.
Granted, isolates offer a slightly higher concentration of protein but this is only possible by sacrificing other general health benefits. The increases processing also raises the price and can reduce the quality of the resulting protein powder.