Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
17 Jun

Dear Mark: A Few Questions About Protein Powder Marketing Claims

Protein PowderI get a lot of protein powder-related questions. Some are requests to try or advertise a new product. Others are queries regarding all the different marketing claims. Is whey protein concentrate really better, more “immune-boosting,” and more complete than whey protein isolate? Who wins in a head to head deathmatch – isolate or concentrate? Should you be worrying about the grass-fededness (yep, that’s a word) of your whey protein? And is beef protein isolate better than everything else? It certainly appears to be the most paleo of the bunch, being made from, well, beef.

For today’s edition of Dear Mark, we’re going to sift through the marketing fluff and get to the meat of the matter. Let’s go:

Is whey concentrate better than whey isolate?

First, let me explain the difference between whey isolate and whey concentrate. Whey is a byproduct of cheese-making. Some brands of whey protein are derived from milk, but the vast majority comes from cheese. This is fine, even though “byproduct” sounds bad. When you make cheese, you get whey. That’s been the case for thousands of years of cheese-making. The arguments for concentrate being superior usually go something like this:

Since concentrate contains trace amounts of lactose and milk fat, it’s more of a whole food and therefore superior to whey isolate.”

Sure, I prefer whole foods, too, but when using whey, I’m trying to obtain a very specific nutrient – protein.

Since concentrate contains more than just protein, it contributes more health benefits and immune boosting effects, whereas isolate provides no health benefits and fails to boost your immunity. Isolate is just for dumb jocks who would actually be better served by a quality concentrate, whereas concentrate has the unique ability to increase endogenous production of glutathione, the master antioxidant.”

The vast majority of studies examining whey protein’s beneficial effects on general health, immune functioning, and recovery from training use whey protein isolate, not whey protein concentrate. Let’s take a look at a few:

Among patients with fatty liver, whey protein isolate supplementation improves liver blood work and reduced fatty deposition. It also increases glutathione production and endogenous antioxidant status, and these increases correlate with the improvements in liver health.

A combination of whey protein isolate and resistance training boost glutathione levels, HDL, and total antioxidant capacity in young men.

In both young and older men, whey isolate after resistance training increases muscle protein synthesis (but the older guys need more protein to get the same effect).

That’s isolate, mind you. Regular old whey protein isolate. Studies show that whey concentrate boosts glutathione, too, but not because of anything unique to concentrate. It’s the cysteine, an amino acid found in both whey concentrate and whey isolate. You could take N-acetyl-cysteine supplements and get similar effects.

Since concentrate contains a small amount of fat, it therefore contains conjugated linolelic acid (CLA), a dairy fatty acid with some beneficial health effects.”

This is technically true, but the amount of CLA in full-fat dairy from pasture-raised animals is relatively small.

Fully pasture-fed cows produce dairy fat with just 22 mg of CLA per gram of fat (PDF). That’s enough to produce some of the health benefits of consuming full fat dairy, but that’s because full fat dairy has enough fat grams to make it worth it. There’s comparatively very little dairy fat left over in concentrate. A glass of whole, pasture-raised milk has around 8 grams of dairy fat. A serving of your typical whey concentrate has less than one gram of dairy fat – not much room for CLA. The CLA content of a whey concentrate derived from the first colostrum of a time-traveling wild auroch who eats only ancestral grasses, sedges, and rushes unbesmirched by GMO-fed bees, pesticides, and heavy metals would still be negligible compared to actual full-fat dairy. I find it unlikely that any whey concentrate would have enough CLA to make an impact. They could if they added supplementary CLA, I suppose, but even supplementary CLA is fraught with problems.

Whey isolate is the superior product overall. It’s far higher in protein than concentrate, ranging from 90% protein and up, with concentrate being anywhere between 29% and 89% protein. Since they’re asking about a product called “protein powder,” I’d say that people are generally interested in higher protein contents. It’d be nice if there were studies directly comparing whey isolate to whey concentrate, but, to my knowledge, those don’t exist. The fact that whey protein isolate remains the gold standard for studying the effects of whey protein on human health, however, is incredibly telling.

There’s nothing wrong with concentrate, necessarily. It’s way lower in protein and it’s got varying amounts of lactose – which can unfortunately pose an issue for lactose-intolerant people – and fat. It’s also liable to retain impurities and more likely to trigger allergic reactions (mostly because of the lactose content). That’s about it.

What about grass-fed whey?

Why do we eat grass-fed meat and milk? Grass-feeding can affect the fatty acidantioxidant, and micronutrient content of meat and dairy in a favorable way, but not the amino acid profile. Whey protein is about the protein – the amino acid profile. And the amino acid profile of grass-fed whey protein is identical to that of grain-fed whey protein. You could make an argument based on ethics if you want, but if we’re talking strictly nutritional content, the two are indistinguishable.

I suppose if you were going with a high-fat whey concentrate, you might want grass-fed, but once again the amount of fat in most whey concentrates of which I’m aware is so low as to make the fatty acid profile irrelevant. At that point, you might as well just get your hands on some quality grass-fed raw milk and supplement that with a scoop of whey isolate.

Isn’t beef protein isolate superior to whey protein?

Most proprietors of beef protein isolate would have you believe that they are turning muscle meat into protein powder. That filets, porterhouses, and other prime lean cuts are being broken down into a fine mixable powder. That the raw primal energy of the bull is being delivered to your pectoral muscle fibers via blender. While it’s a nice story and I’d be all for using such a product, it simply isn’t financially feasible to turn what we think of when we hear the word “beef” – muscle meat – into protein powder. The reality is that beef protein isolate comes from hooves, skin, and all the other throwaway bits that usually get diverted into the kibble. It’s gelatin, not that there’s anything wrong with that; I’ve sung its praises before. But you’d be better off just saving your money, buying some properly-labeled gelatin (or making some beef stock), and using whey isolate for your protein shakes instead.

Check out the nutrition label from Carnivor, a popular beef protein isolate product. You’ll notice that they’ve added branch chain amino acids as a supplement to the gelatin masquerading as beef protein isolate. If beef protein isolate really were derived from muscle meat, there’d be no reason to add separate BCAAs, as muscle meat is especially rich in them. Gelatin, however, contains none, and so they must make up for that. The result is a protein powder that’s probably quite effective at supporting hypertrophy, but not because it contains beef protein isolate.

Last, I’ll add that some beef protein sellers claim that their beef protein isolate is “minimally processed.” I’m not sure how one could ever make that claim. There’s a ton of processing involved in converting spare animal parts into a spray-dried gelatin powder.

Those are three of the most common protein supplement marketing claims people write in about, but I know there are more. Feel free to write in with any other protein powder-related questions you might have.

Thanks for reading!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Ralph: Good question, but the answer is very simple – a supplement is not a food in the same way a medicine is not a food. A supplement is there to fulfill a nutritive need not being attained by diet alone, in this case primarily rapid protein absorption post workout. Whey as a meal replacement isn’t ideal, and personally I don’t go down that track, nor do many PBers AFAIK.

    Why not eat a steak or drink a bunch of raw egg whites right away post workout? Convenience and post workout nausea are two big reasons, much the same reason as when you get a headache you’re more likely to just take an aspirin tablet than boil yourself a big cup of willow bark tea. Being primal is an ethos designed to maximize your lifestyle, not the other way around.

    Taking advantage of the conveniences of our era is not oppositional to eating a diet of whole, organic, nutritive food, so long as the two practices are truly supplemental. This is the key distinction.

    Personally, I’ve been using a Whey Isolate/Casein combo powder up until now, primarily to minimize the insulin spike from a pure whey powder loaded with extra carbs and also because I find I recover better with the sustained protein release of casein along with a hotshot of whey.

    I find I’ve been using it less since going primal, only after workouts where I feel I need it rather than every time. Soreness hasn’t been an issue and lean mass gains have been steady… Even when really hammering myself I haven’t come close to going catabolic. Total weight drop of 40 lbs during a 6 month period doing that, and steady gains on all lifts.

    Reventon wrote on June 18th, 2013
  2. Can dairy intolerant have the marks powder?

    Lisa wrote on June 18th, 2013
  3. I think this post forgot to mention that protein isolates are usually acid/ion exchange processed protein which denatures the amino acid profiles by using acids and chemicals to separate the whey from the fats. Protein isolates are deficient in key amino acids and nutritional cofactors and have less immune supporting components.

    I like evolvedNS’s eWhey. It’s organic whey with probiotics, colostrum and sweetened with coconut sugar, is high in amino acids and the vanilla bean tastes delicious!

    Troy wrote on June 18th, 2013
  4. There is one difference between grass fed whey and ‘regular’ whey protein powders that I would like to see you discuss – grass fed whey has a much higher lactoferrin content (at least according to the labeling on my bucket)

    Frederik wrote on June 19th, 2013
  5. Mark you made a rare scientific error by implication:

    “It’s also liable to retain impurities and more likely to trigger allergic reactions (mostly because of the lactose content).”

    Nobody is ALLERGIC to lactose or any other simple sugar for that matter. By definition, an allergy is an immune mediated process, and simple sugars are too small (and too essential for life) to generate allergic reactions. The negative reactions some people have to lactose has to due with a loss activity of the enzyme that is responsible for the digestion of lactose. When lactose then passes unabsorbed into large intestine, our colonic bacteria go on a feeding frenzy, producing lots of gas and short chain fatty acids which then lead to the typical symptoms of lactose intolerance.

    Concentrate probably does trigger more allergic reactions than whey isolate by virtue of lower purity and higher contamination with casein. The casein fraction of dairy is much more antigenic (likely to cause allergies) than whey, which is another reason–beside lactose intolerance–that people who don’t respond well to whole dairy, can do fine with whey protein.

    Sorry to get all geeky, but as a gastroenterologist, this distinction matters to me…

    Websipe wrote on June 19th, 2013
  6. I avoid all dairy as I cannot digest any of the dairy proteins (lactose or casein). I would love to see some information on some of the alternative protein powders. Despite eating salads and meat for most meals and eggs for breakfast some days I still struggle to ingest enough protein. Being able to add a protein shake after a heavy workout day could be a good option to have.

    Stephanie wrote on June 19th, 2013
  7. My husband used to have a lot of protein shakes when he was growing up (he’s 37 now), when he believed they were good for him. His opinions have changed somewhat now though, and he won’t touch them. Hes very sceptical that most of them even contain what they claim to, so he tries to get all his protein from his diet. Research now also seems to indicate that plant-based protein is far more beneficial for our health than animal protein. Just our opinion :-)

    sparrowhead wrote on June 20th, 2013
    • What research?

      Richie wrote on July 19th, 2013
  8. Great points on isolate vs. concentrate. Like you said, if you are truly viewing this as a “supplement” to protein you would naturally get through a primal diet, concentrate would give you the most bang for the nutritional buck. Others may think of their protein shakes as a complete meal replacement, and may prefer the other ingredients in isolate.

    Gray wrote on June 20th, 2013
  9. Looking up protein powders, I came across a ludicrous article. ‘Whey Protein protects against a High FAT diet’ I was like whaaat??

    The researchers stated that “whey protein may have therapeutic potential to reduce the incidence of diabetes and fatty liver diseases, especially in at-risk individuals who consume excess energy and fat and lead a sedentary lifestyle. The protective effect of whey protein was consistent with higher basal metabolic rates and mitochondrial oxygen consumption and lower metabolic utilization of dietary lipid.”

    I think they got Standard American Diet confused With a High fat diet, because the two are totally not the same thing. The first causes the problems, the latter fixes those problems. Yeah Protein helps with insulin and fullness and so many other factor but has nothing to do with cancelling out the terrible effects of High fat but more grains, sugars, beans and other icky carbohydrates.

    That is so sad, cus I was trying to find a High Fat protein powder, instead thats what I got. Join me a giant disappointed sigh.

    Brandi wrote on June 21st, 2013
  10. Whey is an excellent proetin to get bigger, but it sometimes make my stomach feel funny. I am currently testing pure egg protein powder. It’s not delicious but so far I’ve had zero stomach problems, is there any other way around this issue?

    Renzo wrote on June 25th, 2013
  11. isn’t there hydrolyzed whey protein as well? shouldn’t that also be included in the comparison?

    Julia wrote on June 27th, 2013
  12. What about other protein powders? I’ve recently heard of egg white protein powder. While obviously not primal, it’s a low carb high protein that I know my body.can tolerate. Anyone have any experience with this stuff?

    Kylie wrote on June 29th, 2013
    • I have used egg white powder in the past; it’s a real pain to mix and is not the best tasting thing out there. Maybe there is better powders on the market than what I had. I have also read it’s high in oxidized cholesterol, but no idea if that is a valid statement.

      Peter wrote on June 29th, 2013
  13. How doest the common practice of using heat-processed affect the whey protein isolate.

    nikkyo wrote on July 3rd, 2013
  14. I was interested in Mark’s comments about grass-fed whey isolate vs regular whey isolate since we make our MariGold Bars using grass-fed whey.

    While Mark is correct in that whey isolate does not contain fat, so you don’t get the benefits of grass-fed fat, he totally missed another very important point. And that is the GMO exposure, HORMONE exposure, and ANTIBIOTIC exposure of milk used in traditional wheys.

    So, there are absolutely some very good reasons you want to choose grass-fed whey isolate over traditional whey isolate!

    When using non-gmo grass-fed whey isolate, from cows that are also hormone free and antibiotic free (like we do), you get all the muscle building benefits of whey without the negatives of traditional whey.

    Mari Ann Lisenbe wrote on September 20th, 2013
  15. What about Pea Protein Isolate? Is that any good?

    Nate wrote on October 10th, 2013
  16. 100% agree here that closer you can get to ingredients in their natural state the better your body is going to do recognising them as nutrients and not foreign agents. flow on effect of this is better assimilation, utilisation and net gain from the foods you are fuelling yourself with.
    After a huge amount of trial and error personally i have found vege proteins digest easier and i feel better after eating them. just what i have found. being alkaline forming within the body and complete protein sources i have found sprouted brown rice and pea protein to be pretty good options.
    Cheers :)

    Michael wrote on December 1st, 2013
  17. Buy Whey Protein Concentrate at Rs. 1300 per Kg. Anuj-9313696020

    Anuj Deshawar wrote on January 8th, 2014
  18. This is pure, imported Whey Protein and has high protein percentage (80%).
    Davisco Whey Protein is used by all the big whey protein companies and known for its quality products in USA, Canada and all over the globe.
    It is UN-FLAVORED and has natural taste (no sweetener or flavors are added).
    For the purchases below 5KG, Rs: 1300 / Kg. (For shipping Additional Rs. 150 will be charged)
    For the purchases above 5KG, Rs: 1250 / Kg(Shipping Free in Noida, delhi)

    Anuj Deshawar wrote on January 8th, 2014
  19. Hi there, I’ve been reading a lot about whey protein isolate powder and a lot of people are saying they get anxiety and panic attacks when starting to intake isolate whey protein, when starting to take vegetable protein powder that stopped (which I think they only developed anxiety due to all the other crap sometimes protein powder has like taurin).
    I developed Panic attacks but never had one due to whey protein powder intake in fact I think it helped me coping with that disorder.

    what are your toughts on that?

    Bruno wrote on February 6th, 2014

    Gabe López wrote on February 8th, 2014
  21. Thanks for the great information on whey! I personally don’t know if the smaller increase in benefits of an isolate justify its much greater cost compared to whey concentrates.

    I personally stick with whey concentrates when I need a boost in my workouts and don’t have time to get my nutrients from solid food.

    Byron wrote on February 26th, 2014
  22. Does anyone know if there are any other alternatives to whey protein that does not have coconut in it?

    Kylie Goddard wrote on April 30th, 2014
  23. Wɑy cool! Some extremely valid pointѕ! I appreciate you writing this post and also the rest of thе websjte is
    гeally good.

    Flat roofing Materials wrote on May 28th, 2014
  24. Try Ignite Workout Optimizer, Rebuild Recovery Optimizer and then use Iso-Whey Protein Optimizer.

    MJ wrote on August 6th, 2014
  25. No one is mentioning anything about the most important reason to choose grass-fed whey, which is that we’re supporting businesses that treat their cattle more ethically than companies that use whey from conventionally raised cows. Why would you preach a primal, sustainable lifestyle and then support companies that don’t align with that belief just to potentially build marginally more muscle? That’s pretty weak in my opinion. If you have core values the best way to act on them is to vote with your dollar.

    Tanner wrote on December 19th, 2014
  26. I’m and serious starving after I leave the gym. I was told to try whey isolate because it will crush the hunger and not cause me to gain weight. Is this true?

    Robin wrote on January 23rd, 2015
  27. The concentrate means that only 50% of the protein needs to be Isolate and that the rest is made up of lesser quality and cheaper protein sources.

    The cheapest and lowest quality of which is Kertain protein. Keratin is a protein derives from the slaughterhouse leftovers found in animal hair, nails (hooves), teeth and skin.

    So Isolate is much better!!!!

    Michael Lawrence wrote on February 10th, 2015

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