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Is All Whey Protein Created Equal?

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Is protein equal in quality? And, why so many types of whey protein?

I believed I knew the answers but I discovered the shady side of the supplement industry while testing the protein content of various products. Supplements you believe are good may not deliver what you expect due to varying whey protein absorbency.

Labelling loopholes allow supplement companies to deceive consumers easily. Over the past decade, health authorities have issued nearly 800 warnings on dietary supplements with dangerous ingredients, which were not disclosed on the label in 98% of cases.

To ensure accurate labelling, choose a supplement with third-party certification, such as NSF Certified for Sport, Informed Sport, or BSCG. If no third-party certification, no one has confirmed the product meets label claims.

When choosing protein powder, consider the label and opt for a third-party certified product for best results and value for your money.

What is Whey Protein

Whey protein is a type of protein that is derived from cow's milk. It is a complete protein, meaning it contains all of the essential amino acids that your body needs to function properly. Whey protein is commonly consumed as a supplement in the form of a powder, which can be mixed into liquids or added to foods to boost their protein content.

Whey protein is popular among athletes and fitness enthusiasts because it is quickly absorbed by the body and can help support muscle growth and repair. It is also used by people who want to increase their overall protein intake or improve their nutrition.

There are three main forms of whey protein: whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, and whey protein hydrolysate. Whey protein concentrate is the least processed form and typically contains around 70-80% protein, along with some lactose and fat. Whey protein isolate is a more purified form of whey protein, with 90% or more protein and minimal lactose and fat. Whey protein hydrolysate is pre-digested and absorbed more quickly by the body, making it a good option for post-workout recovery.

Process of Whey Protein Production

Whey protein is produced as a byproduct of the cheese-making process. The following is a step-by-step explanation of how whey protein is made.

Step 1: Cheese Production

Cheese is made by coagulating the protein and fat in milk, leaving behind a liquid whey.

Step 2: Whey Separation

The liquid whey is then separated from the solid curds and collected.

Step 3: Whey Treatment

The collected whey is then treated to remove impurities, such as lactose and minerals, and to adjust the pH to optimal levels for protein extraction.

Step 4: Protein Concentration

The whey is then subjected to various filtration techniques, such as ultrafiltration, to concentrate the protein.

Step 5: Protein Isolation

The protein-rich concentrate is then isolated using techniques such as ion exchange or membrane filtration to separate the protein from other components in the whey.

Step 6: Drying and Powdering

The isolated protein is then dried and powdered to produce whey protein powder, which can be consumed as a supplement or added to food products.

Different Forms of Whey Protein

There are three main forms of whey protein: whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, and whey protein hydrolysate. The difference between the three forms lies in the processing and purification techniques used, as well as the protein content and other nutritional components.

1. Whey Protein Hydrolysate

Whey protein hydrolysate is a unique form of whey protein that goes through a distinct processing method compared to concentrate and isolate.

Enzyme and Acid Treatment

Whey protein hydrolysate is treated with enzymes and acids to break down its particle size and eliminate certain protein structures, specifically bioactive immunoglobulins.

Purpose of Hydrolysis

Hydrolysis was first introduced in dietary protein to make baby formulas hypoallergenic.

Faster Absorption

Studies have shown that whey protein hydrolysates are absorbed faster than whey protein isolate and concentrate, as they do not require gastric digestion.

Impact on Muscle Protein Synthesis

Whey protein hydrolysates have also been shown to increase muscle protein synthesis more quickly than other forms of protein, but it doesn't necessarily lead to more muscle growth. This is because total daily protein intake is more critical for muscle development than the speed of protein digestion.

Bitter Taste and High Cost

However, the faster digestion of whey hydrolysates comes with some drawbacks. They tend to have a bitter taste because the amino acids proline and leucine are no longer contained in protein structures. Additionally, whey protein hydrolysate is the most expensive form of protein.

2. Whey Protein Isolate

Legal Definition of Whey Isolate

Whey protein isolate, according to the law, offers assurance of protein purity. A label stating "whey protein isolate" means that the protein is at least 90% pure by weight, unless the supplement provider is untruthful (which, unfortunately, occurs). So, if you take 100 grams of the protein, you will get a minimum of 90 grams of protein.

Supplement companies may claim their isolates are "purer" through filtration methods such as ion exchange, cold filtration, or microfiltration, but these only remove different-sized particles for a "clean" version of whey. Though there may be minor benefits from these methods, whey isolate is defined by protein purity, not filtration.

Solubility and Price

Due to the extra filtration and higher guarantee of protein, whey protein isolate tends to be more expensive compared to concentrates. This is because whey protein isolate contains fewer carbs, almost no fat, and almost no lactose. Additionally, whey protein isolate has better solubility, making it easier to mix and creating a smoother drink.

3. Whey Protein Concentrate

Definition and Regulation

Whey protein concentrate is the most basic form of whey protein. According to regulations, it can contain between 35 to 80 percent protein by weight.

Label Accuracy

Having a wide range in protein content, third-party certification is crucial to ensure label accuracy. If the label is accurate, whey protein concentrate is a good option for most people due to its price and value.


Whey concentrate may have limitations in terms of smaller details such as carbs, fats, and lactose content.

Production Process

The production process of whey protein concentrate is simple. Liquid whey is filtered for impurities, dehydrated, turned into a powder, flavored, and packaged. This simple process makes whey concentrate the cheapest source of protein supplementation.


In conclusion, whey protein comes in three main forms: concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate. Each form offers its own unique benefits and limitations. Whey protein concentrate is the most basic form with a protein content ranging from 35-80% by weight, making it a cost-effective option for most people. Whey protein isolate, on the other hand, is defined by being at least 90% protein by weight and is marketed as being a purer form of whey protein. Finally, whey protein hydrolysate is absorbed faster than other forms and is used to increase muscle protein synthesis, but it is also the most expensive form of whey protein. When choosing a whey protein product, it's important to consider your personal needs and goals.


  1. "The Health Benefits of Whey Protein." Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 26 Sept. 2019,

This article from Mayo Clinic provides a comprehensive overview of the health benefits of whey protein, including its effects on weight management, muscle building, and overall health. It also includes information on the different forms of whey protein and how they differ from one another.

  1. "Whey Protein: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions, Dosage, and Warning." WebMD, WebMD,

This article from WebMD provides in-depth information on the uses, side effects, interactions, and dosages of whey protein. It also includes a section on warnings and precautions to consider when using whey protein supplements.

William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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