We’ve all seen the expanding array of different protein supplement sources, like whey, casein, egg, and plant-based. But there are also different forms of these sources, which some consumers may find confusing.
Since whey is generally regarded as the most effective source of protein for supporting resistance training gains and recovery, it’s important to get a good understanding of its different forms. Here, we’ll take a deep dive into the different forms of whey protein, with a specific focus on hydrolyzed whey.
What Are the main types of whey protein?
Every protein powder undergoes a decent amount of processing to become the stuff you chuck into your shaker bottle. With whey protein, this involves filtration and separation of whey from full dairy sources, and higher quality supplements will undergo additional processes to remove things like fat, lactose, and other dairy components. The end result of this process is the type of whey you get.
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There are three main types of whey protein: whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, and whey protein hydrolysate, also known as hydrolyzed whey.
Whey concentrate is usually the least isolated form of whey, but also the cheapest. To qualify as whey protein concentrate, a protein powder would have to be between 29 percent and 89 percent total protein by volume. That’s quite the spread, so this is why you might want to be weary with super-cheap protein sources. For the most part, many whey protein concentrate sources are between 70 percent to 80 percent protein by volume; this results in a decently effective product without increasing price too much.
Whey protein isolate is a step above concentrate; isolate is at least 90 percent protein by volume. This leads to isolate products being more “pure” than concentrate products—and typically more expensive, too. One easy way to tell the difference between two sources is to look at total scoop size vs. how many grams of protein there are in a scoop. Cheaper concentrate products will probably have about 25 grams of protein in a 40 gram scoop, whereas a whey isolate could have that same 25 grams of protein in a 30 gram scoop.
Hydrolyzed whey is a form of whey in which at least 80 percent of the whey protein in the product consists of tiny protein molecules called peptides. To be able to do this, a manufacturer has to perform protein hydrolysis, which either involves an enzymatic process or superheating the protein to break down longer protein chains into smaller peptides. This is an expensive process, which is why hydrolyzed whey ends up costing more.
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So what are the benefits of hydrolyzed whey? Well, our bodies also hydrolyze protein using enzymes in our digestive system. Since a good chunk of hydrolysis is already done with hydrolyzed whey, we can digest it even faster than other sources of whey. Additionally, we likely get more “benefit” per gram of protein with hydrolyzed whey since it’s so readily digestible, which can help you retain more protein.
When Is hydrolyzed whey The Best Option?
Hydrolyzed whey has many perks, but to determine which form of whey protein is best for you, you have to start with your goals. This is one step that far too many people skip over. How can you know what supplements might help you if you don’t know your objectives?
If your main fitness goal is to gain muscle and/or strength, you’re probably fine with any form of whey protein. We don’t have many studies on the topic, but the ones we do have (like this one and this one) show that any form of whey will help you gain muscle and strength at a similar rate.
Now, keep in mind that many of these studies included untrained folks, or people using protein supplements for the first time. That’s not a direct apples-to-apples comparison with someone who’s been training regularly for years while consistently eating a high-protein diet. However, one very interesting study did find that subjects taking hydrolyzed whey also lost a lot of body fat throughout a training program, whereas subjects taking other forms of whey did not. All groups made similar muscle gains, but the hydrolyzed group also got shredded. The science behind why this happened is a little murky, but rodent studies suggest that consuming hydrolyzed protein can increase fat-burning hormones within 30-minutes of consumption.
Therefore, if your primary goal with exercise or resistance training is to lose fat, hydrolyzed whey might be worth the extra coin. On the flip side, if you’re only concerned about building muscle or strength, or if you’re an athlete in a weight-gain phase, you can probably save a few bucks and stick with other forms of whey protein.
As always, your nutrition and supplements should support your goals, so you need to identify your goals before filling your shopping cart.
Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.