Whey. Isolate. Hydrolysate. Casein. There are a LOT of options when you go in the store or click on the supplement website. And while you'll be told or read that something is the best, odds are it's what the store or website is trying hard to sell that month. Today, I'm going to explain the difference between all those things up on that wall so you can be a more educated consumer next time you buy protein powder. Who knows, maybe you'll be able to teach the sales guy something!
There are a range of benefits that come from including whey in your fitness program. Whey can be used as a milk alternative to people who are lactose intolerant (although you should verify there is no lactose in the powder you choose if you have a lactose issue). When coupled with exercise, whey helps many people lose significantly more body fat while retaining their precious muscle mass. Whey has also proven to be a very powerful antioxidant. Some studies have actually shown that whey isolate has an even more powerful antioxidant effect than fruits and vegetables, as it works on a cellular level as opposed to just seeking out free radicals in the blood stream.
When choosing a whey protein, you generally have 3 options. Whey protein concentrate. Whey protein isolate. Whey protein hydrolysate. All have beneficial qualities, but all are a bit different in their own way. Let me break down a few specifics about each one:
- Whey Protein Concentrate: Most "cheap" whey proteins you'll see at the store are made up of whey concentrate. In the spectrum of whey proteins, WPC is absorbed quickly, but at a slower rate than it's isolate and hydrolysate counterparts. This is due to the filtration process used. Since WPC isn't processed at a super high level, there are still milk-like qualities to it in the form of lactose and milk fat. Most "100% whey" protein powders at the store have a blend of WPC and isolates. The amount of WPC can range anywhere from 30-90%. I usually tell people you can get a general idea how much WPC is in it based on the fat and carbohydrate content of the powder. If the contents of one scoop are something like 2g fat, 7g carbohydrates, and 15g protein, you can bet there is a higher amount of WPC in the product. If you buy a powder with the same fat and carbs, but something more like 30g of protein, odds are there is less WPC and more isolate. That all being said, WPC is a good product, but on the lower end of the whey protein spectrum.
- Whey Protein Isolate: As WPC powder can range anywhere from 30-90% protein, when you buy a canister that uses the word "Isolate" on it, the protein content is immediately around the 90% mark, if not more. Whey protein isolate is rendered using processes than remove nearly all milk fat and lactose from the protein. What you are left with is a smaller molecule of protein that is very pure and very rapidly digested. A quality isolate powder will have 1 or less grams of fat and carbohydrates and be much lower in cholesterol compared to concentrate. Fair warning. Isolate is generally going to cost you about 25% more than a WPC based powder.
- Whey Protein Hydrolysate: If isolate is the Cadillac of whey protein, Hydrolysate is the Ferrari. When you drink whey protein, the digestive system has to use enzymes to break that protein down to use the amino acids contained in it. Manufacturers can use a process called hydrolysis to "pre-digest" whey, so it provides the most rapid absorption and requires the least digestion of all the whey protein types. These are the protein hydrolysates (look for the word "hydro" on the label, generally speaking). This type of protein is great for someone looking for the best protein absorption you can get, with a bigger available budget. Three pounds of hydrolysate will generally cost as much as five pounds of isolate. . Hydrolysates do hold an edge to the other two types of proteins, yes. However, in my opinion, hydrolysates aren't necessary to achieve great results. I would only recommend buying them if money isn't an object.
Casein makes up around 80% of the protein in cow milk, whereas whey is around 20%. Where a quality whey protein is absorbed in your system practically before you put the shaker bottle down, a high quality casein turns into a gel when it hits your stomach acid. This gel is slowly absorbed, therefore providing an IV-like trickle of amino acids into your blood and muscle.
As a post workout protein, casein is inferior to faster digesting proteins as it is much less anabolic (muscle building). However, as it pertains to helping you sustain the muscles you've built, casein is king. Casein, while great in powder form, is also readily available in solid foods. Solid cheese has the highest amount of casein protein, aside from powder form, followed by cottage cheese. While the proteins in meats and nut butters digest at a slower rate, they are in fact not casein proteins.
A good casein protein powder will not set you back terribly in price, and they are fairly easy to pick out based on labels. Most will say 100% casein or say something to the effect of "12 hour protein." If sustained release of amino acids and muscle retention is a high priority, which in almost all cases it should be, a good casein product will be very beneficial to you.
Blended proteins often times have at least 2, if not up to 4 different kinds of protein in them. At the very least they are going to have some type of whey, usually an isolate or hydrolysate, and a casein protein blended together. Other times they will include processed egg protein and sometimes soy. The main purpose of these proteins is to provide you with an all in one source of protein. You will get fast, medium, and slow digesting protein, in addition to often added recovery agents such as glutamine and creatine.
Other types of blended proteins are the so called "mass builders." You'll generally be able to spot the mass building proteins in the store by the word "mass" often inscribed in huge lettering on the canister, or by the enormous size of the canister itself. This doesn't mean you get more servings because the canister is huge. Often times, a mass powder has several protein sources, creatine, extra fat and a large amount of carbohydrates all in one package. If your goal is calorie excess and putting on bulk, this is the kind of protein powder you will want to buy.
I really recommend reading labels on blended protein powders. Find out the kind of protein it has in it, how much protein, fat, and carbs it has, and see if there's any extra things like creatine added. If there's a question of anything in there you think you might not need in your regimen, maybe it's best to pick up a pure form of something else. However, blended proteins in many cases are great as a meal replacement, and will take the guess work out of deciding how much of what certain kind of protein you should be taking at what times. Have a scoop after your workout, before bed, or just as a snack. Blended proteins can be very convenient.
Bonus: Branched Chain Amino Acids
As I mentioned before, your muscles are made up of proteins, which in turn are made up of amino acids. The body naturally produces many amino acids, but it cannot make nine of them itself. They have to be ingested either through food or in supplement form. I won't list the nine, but three of these amino acids are key in muscle building. Leucine, IsoLeucine, and Valine. These are the branched chain amino acids.
BCAAs are critical in muscle development because unlike other amino acids that are metabolized in the liver, BCAAs are metabolized specifically in the muscles themselves. Leucine is generally recognized as the dominant one of these three, and in general is the most sought after amino acid by people interested in building muscle mass. Food sources that are high in leucine include chicken and eggs. However, a good BCAA powder requires no food digestion, can be taken pre, during or post workout and is an amazing tool for preserving lean mass and recovering from a hard workout. Taken before a workout or during, it can help increase muscle endurance.
While protein powders contains a good level of BCAAs, a pure BCAA supplement requires no digestion unlike protein. You can take BCAAs after your workout, followed shortly after by a protein rich solid food meal to promote muscle growth, or you can stack BCAAs along with protein powder after your workout to nearly guarantee muscle preservation and promote new muscle growth. It can only help your overall cause.