What is the Difference Between Protein Powders?



The Ultimate Protein Guide continues with a review of different types of protein powders. In Part II, we discussed the benefits of each type of protein, and in Part I we tackled just how much protein you really need. But now we get into the specifics of the powders. After all, if you look at the nutrition information on any supplement label it seems like their are 20 different types of protein powder variations, each dependent on the type of processing.

To help you decide what is best for your goals–and what is worth your money–we separate marketing myth from hard science. As with every part of The Ultimate Protein Guide, the researchers at Examine.com provided the content and research.

What is The Difference Between Protein Powders?

Whey Protein Concentrate

Concentrate is usually the most basic form of protein. By law, being labeled as concentrate means that the product needs to be at least 35% to 80% protein by weight. (So, if you scoop out 100g of protein powder it can be called concentrate if anywhere between 35 and 80g of that is protein).

There is not much else to a concentrate. If you want an idea of how whey concentrate is created, here’s a good visual: If you imagine whey falling off a conveyor belt into buckets, all you need to do is filter out impurities, dehydrate it, flavor it chocolate, and call it “Delicious Chocolate Whey Concentrate.” (Coming soon to a supplement store near you!) Some supplement companies may do more than that to their concentrate products, but it is not required.

With such a simple process, concentrates also tend to be the cheapest sources of protein supplementation.

Protein Powder Rules: Concentrate just means that at least 35% to 80% of powder is protein.

Whey Protein Isolate

Isolate, from a legal standpoint, also has very little restrictions on what is required, except that more than 90% of the weight must be protein. Going back to our 100g example, if you scoop out 100g of protein you will be getting over 90g of protein.

It is merely another form of standardizing the amount of protein per scoop. There are no other legal requirements for isolates beyond this stipulation.

Many supplement companies tout that their isolates are more ‘pure’, and may brag about what filtration processes they use (ion exchange, cold-filtration, ultra or microfiltration; these terms are common for whey and casein proteins), but this is up to the company to decide and not an inherent attribute of whey isolate. That’s not to say these don’t have benefits, but isolate itself is defined by protein by weight.

Isolates tend to have a higher price relative to concentrates. Whether it is worth the money is a personal decision on the protein to calorie ratio, as well as perhaps solubility. (Some companies may intentionally make isolates more water-soluble for better mixability in shakes).

Protein Powder Rules: Isolate just means that at least 90% of powder is protein.

Whey Protein Hydrolysate

Unlike concentrate and isolate, hydrolysates are actually significantly different from a processing standpoint. A hydrolysate is a protein that is enzymatically and acid treated to reduce particle size and destroy “quaternary protein structures.” (That’s a mouthful; but it means say bye-bye to any bioactive immunoglobulins, which can help support immune function.). The origin of hydrolysis in dietary protein arose from a need to make baby formulas non-allergenic.

Due to low particle size, hydrolysates are very water soluble. (Some brands to the point of fully dissolving in water.) But beware because milk hydrolysates offer a very bitter taste; the bitterness is due to the amino acid proline no longer being constrained in a protein structure and it being free to assault your tastebuds with a large bolus of incredible bitterness. Proline and leucine make a very bitter duo.

Hydrolysates are indeed faster absorbed than isolates, mostly due to no gastric digestion being needed for hydrolysates.

Protein Powder Rules: Highly water soluble, hydrolysate is treated so its molecule size is very small. Fastest absorption.

What about Soy Protein?

Scared of phytoestrogens? Do the terms genistein and daidzein and the mysterious equol sound disturbing? (Or do they sound triplets from a Sci-Fi movie?) The real quest: Are these three molecules, known as soy isoflavones, going to halve your testosterone levels and make all your hard-earned muscles wither away?

Let’s start from the top.  All soy sold in food products (except raw soy products such as edamame), including soy protein, are heat treated before they are sold. This heat treatment destroys select enzymes in the soy, and will cleanse any heat-treated soy product of trypsin inhibitors, which are known to prevent the digestion of protein in your stomach and small intestine.

Beyond that, soy takes two main routes during processing. Once you have soy flakes (heat treat the beans, standardize moisture, crack the hulls, flake them, and extract with hexane) you can either go the soy isolate route, which begins the mathematical process of getting more than 90% protein by weight. Alternatively, you can go the soy concentrate route where you simply leech them with ethanol, neutralize the pH, dry them and begin to mill them.

Ethanol leeching removes most of the soy isoflavones, which are left floating in the ethanol and no longer in the soybean. This is an important step because it means that soy concentrate supplements are incredibly low in soy isoflavones, and thus they are not really a practical concern. The extra processing steps are due to soy being a very popular commercial food. (Many foods add soy chips to increase the protein content.)

As for soy isolate, the ethanol leeching is not mandatory (instead it is optional) and thus it is still possible that soy isoflavones may be present.

As for the soy isoflavones themselves (let’s assume you do routinely consume them), they are not too much of a concern for male fertility and health. But that doesn’t mean soy can’t have any hormonal impact.

When the soy isoflavones act on the estrogen receptor they can indeed induce ‘estrogen-like effects,’ but are weaker than estrogen in doing so; sometimes the soy isoflavones get in the way of estrogen and prevent estrogen from signalling. Technically, all three soy isoflavones can either be phytoestrogens (estrogen promoting) or antiestrogens, depending on how much circulating estrogen you have.

In menopausal women (minimal estrogen) they do not need to compete and thus induce estrogenic effects while in men or women with high estrogen levels they may compete with estrogen itself (and prevent a good deal of signaling).

What to make of it all? Most of the concerns about soy are overblown, although not completely misrepresented. You do not need to worry about these ‘bad things’ in soy protein concentrate. And while soy isoflavones will not put you on the fast track to gynecomastia (achem…”man boobs” or “moobs”) there is a potential estrogenic impact.

Don’t Read Health Info. Understand It.

Tired of bad and misleading information? You’re not alone. Now you can learn:

  • What workouts will work for your body
  • How to eat and live the way you want
  • When you should be worried about the latest health study

You’re one step away from a better approach to health. Sign up below, and Born Fitness has your back.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.