Protein is the macronutrient that is at the forefront of most avid trainees conversations. I often get asked how much protein they should take, when is the best time or what brand is good. It’s usually a given that unless you’re lactose intolerant or vegan you’ll probably consume some whey protein as a part of your daily training routine. However, little is often said about what type of whey protein to take and in most instances, most individuals don’t know the difference.
What is whey?
Whey is one of two proteins that are removed from raw milk. In raw cows milk, you get whey and casein. The whey is a highly marketable commodity and almost all of this is removed before your milk is bottled and delivered to the supermarket. When you drink milk, almost all of the protein found is casein. The main difference between casein and whey is the speed that the proteins are able to be digested. Whey is an extremely rapidly digesting protein and even creates an insulin reaction when ingested which means it can get into your cells quickly. Casein, when consumed, forms a ball, much like curdled milk and takes far longer to digest. This makes it an ideal protein before bed or as part of a daytime missed meal. When buying your protein powder do read the label and see what proportion of your protein is whey or casein. Casein may be referred to as milk protein. It’s not bad to have a blend of proteins but remember that each has a slightly different effect.
Whey or no whey
The first thing to consider is your actual goal before you set out on purchasing your protein. If it is to simply increase your protein for the day or it’s to get a hit of fast acting proteins to ensure you get pure protein powder. By this I mean you should check the ingredients. Many protein powders come with added carbohydrates. These are cheaper and ultimately lower the protein content per serving. Adding carbs isn’t necessarily a bad thing, they just have another purpose and effect. For the thrifty shopper, you may think you're getting a bargain when you see 5kg of mass gainer that sports 40g of protein per serving. The problem is your serving is 120g and you get 70g of carbs in that.
Whey too different
So what are the different wheys you can buy and what’s the difference?
Whey concentrate is probably the most common form of whey you’ll find. In its natural state, it’ll offer around 80% protein which contains all essential and non-essential amino acids. It’ll come with around 6-7% fats (mainly saturated) and 5-6% carbs in the form of lactose. You’ll often see the protein content written twice labeled ‘dry basis’ or ‘as is’. The ‘As is’ is the lower number and is the one you should go off. The ‘As is’ number is the amount of protein you actually receive per serving as the whey has a small degree of moisture. Be mindful of companies boasting higher numbers. The average ‘as is’ for whey concentrate is around 77%. This number can fall significantly if you start to add flavours and sweeteners, often by 3-5%, and some even lower. Some “pure whey” will be as low as 68-70%. This is important when tracking your macros.
Whey concentrate is probably the best value for money, mixes well and tastes good. The carbs and fats in the powder to help with natural flavour and texture. You can’t go too wrong with this protein.
Whey isolate is exactly what it says in the tin. It is the same whey from concentrate but in a more ‘isolated’ form. It has been filtered to remove most of the carbs and fats to boast around 90% protein. The dry unflavoured variety is around 93% protein but the flavoured ‘as is’ will offer more like 85% actual protein. The fat and carb content is now down to a poultry 1-2%. As you can see this is about as close to pure protein as you’ll probably get. With isolate, the cost does increase as it’s been further processed and I find the flavour and texture loses a little and starts to go thin. When I’m competing I tend to lean more on isolate as it’s purer and I’d rather get my carbs and fats from proper sources, therefore, the extra cost for me is justified. When I’m offseason I’m happy to have concentrate to save some cash.
Whey hydrolysate is not one you may have heard of. It often appears down the list of ingredients when you buy a protein powder that has a blend of proteins and offers a unique time-release property. Whey hydrolysate is different from the other two in that it has been broken down into di and tri-peptides already. What this means is that when you ingest any protein it is in the form of the long complex helix shaped chains of amino acids all joined together. In order to get the individual amino acids, we must break these bonds. This is digestion. The protein chains are first broken into smaller chunks of two and three amino acids, these are called peptides. So essentially, whey hydrolysate is a pre-digested whey protein. This makes it extremely rapidly digested, faster than isolate and concentrate. It does, however, make it very expensive. For this reason, it’s usually included in smaller quantities in a blended format as opposed to a pure form. You can buy it on its own but it’ll set you back around £30 per kg. For me, this is not worth the extra money as your overall protein content is more important than how fast it gets absorbed. The nutritional values are similar to that of concentrate.
All three whey’s are a derivative of cows milk and have a high and easily digestible protein content. They are all complete proteins with high levels of glutamine and leucine. The concentrate is the cheapest with hydrolysate being the most expensive. If you’re an average Joe looking to increase your protein intake and have no digestive sensitivities, then just stick with concentrate. If you’re more concerned about macros and performance then go for isolate or if you don’t mind the extra cost the buy hydrolysate.
My top tip is to read the label. See what you’re getting and don’t be sold on fancy packaging or hype. Look out for fillers and soy lecithin as these take away from your protein content. My personal choice is a Go Nutrition triple chocolate whey isolate 90. You can’t go too wrong with this, it tastes great and does exactly what I want it to do.
(A big thanks to our #gngang member Alastair Stewart – Owner Fat Al’s Gym )