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Dear Mark: A Few Questions About Protein Powder Marketing Claims

I 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 [7], 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 [8], whey protein isolate supplementation improves liver blood work and reduced fatty deposition [9]. It also increases glutathione [10] 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 [11] in young men.

In both young and older men, whey isolate after resistance training increases muscle protein synthesis [12] (but the older guys need more protein [13] to get the same effect).

That’s isolate, mind you. Regular old whey protein isolate. Studies show that whey concentrate boosts glutathione [14], 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 [15] 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 [16]). 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 [17] – 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 [18]-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 [19].

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 acid [20]antioxidant [21], 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 [22], 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 [23] before. But you’d be better off just saving your money, buying some properly-labeled gelatin [24] (or making some beef stock [25]), and using whey isolate for your protein shakes instead.

Check out the nutrition label [26] 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!