Whey protein, the most popular kind of protein powder, is naturally rich in branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). Your body needs these molecules to build proteins and support everything from your skin to your muscles. While there are plenty of great plant-based and vegan protein powder options out there, whey naturally has far more BCAAs, according to Jim White, R.D., owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios.
Even then, though, your search isn’t over. Glance from tub to tub of whey and you’ll notice many read either ‘whey protein concentrate’ or ‘whey protein isolate.’ So what’s the difference?
Though both wheys sport benefits, one may better suit your personal nutritional needs and fitness goals. Whey protein isolate is processed further than whey protein concentrate in order to remove the carbohydrates, fats, and lactose that occur naturally in whey protein, says White. “While whey concentrate is about 70 to 80 percent protein, whey isolate is more like 90 to 95 percent protein,” he says. (Good to know: Since whey isolate requires more processing to reach the protein’s purest form, it tends to be more expensive than concentrate.)
Concentrate May Be Best For You If…
You exercise regularly and simply want to add a protein shake to your daily routine. (Unless you’re lactose intolerant, that is. Lactose is not filtered out of whey concentrate, White says.)
Whey concentrate contains about five more grams of fat and carbs than whey isolate, and with these few extra grams come beneficial nutrients like conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs). “CLAs, which are found in meat and dairy, are healthy fats that can help to decrease body fat,” explains White.
The extra carbohydrates in whey concentrate create more of an insulin spike than the very few carbs (or complete lack of carbs) in whey isolate. Your insulin actually helps you transport protein into the muscles faster, says White, making a whey concentrate shake a great post-workout drink.
Isolate May Be Best For You If…
The thought of drinking milk gets your stomach rumbling, you’re on a strict calorie diet for weight loss, or you follow a low-carb or ketogenic (high-fat) style of eating. “If you watch your macronutrients (fat, carbs, and protein) really closely or are taking multiple servings of whey per day, the fat and carbs in concentrate can add up,” White says.
Regardless of which whey strikes your fancy, look out for a few things on the label. “Some protein powders boast 60 grams of the muscle-building macro, but research suggests our bodies can only absorb about 25 to 30 grams per meal,” says White. So don’t just pick the powder that has the most protein.
Then, take a look at the ingredient list. “Go for a whey protein powder that contains fewer than five to seven ingredients,” White adds. The shorter the ingredient list, the better.