Out of all the nutrients we feed our bodies, protein may be the most desired for people who exercise. We all constantly hear about protein: how much, how often, which kind.
While you may know about whey protein, what you may not know about is hydrolyzed protein, which is created by hydrolyzing, or pre-digesting, intact proteins into a mixture of amino acids and smaller proteins.
Some supplement manufacturers’ claim that the “pre-digestion” enhances bioavailability, thereby increasing muscle protein synthesis. Because of their supposed power, hydrolyzed protein can cost as much as 30% to 200% more than their conventional counterparts.
But is hydrolyzed protein worth the extra money? The research gives a definitive answer of “No”.
How Fast Is Whey Protein Digested?
Whey is a “fast” protein, meaning it is digested quickly and absorbed, and its amino acids are rapidly delivered to the bloodstream and thus muscles. This has been demonstrated time and time again, most recently, by Burd and colleagues:1
Basically, what this study found is that the essential amino acids are higher when a person ingests whey (“fast” protein) as opposed to casein (“slow” protein). This higher concentration of essential acids is associated with higher muscle protein synthesis both at rest (“FED”) and after exercise (“EX-FED”).
This is one reason why ingesting protein before exercise may be superior to after; the spike in amino acids will occur exactly when blood flow to the exercising muscles is maximal, thereby directing the building blocks to where they are most needed.
Is Hydrolyzed Protein Digested Faster Than Whey?
Protein response is not due to bioavailability alone, which is important in terms of whether you should take hydrolyzed protein. While Koopman and colleagues2 show that the amino acid level is much higher with “fast” protein, the difference between “pre-digested” (hydrolyzed) protein and intact protein was negligible.
Thus, simply being a “fast” protein is not good enough. When comparing hydrolyzed whey and casein, Tang and colleagues3 show something very important about the difference between hydrolyzed whey and casein:
Compare that to the difference observed by Pennings and colleagues:4
What these studies show is that non-hydrolyzed whey is approximately twice as good as casein. This is the same difference between hydrolyzed whey and casein. So, the “pre-digested” whey is no better than intact whey.
Are Hydrolyzed Proteins Superior To Intact Proteins?
The answer we’ve found in these studies is “No”. Koopman and Pennings show that hydrolyzing casein makes it a “fast” protein, but this doesn’t increase its ability to stimulate protein synthesis. The studies from Tang and Pennings show that whey is twice as good as casein regardless of whether or not it is hydrolyzed.
Is there just something magical about whey? Collectively, these data say “yes.” In other words, whey is better than both intact casein, a “slow” protein, and hydrolyzed casein, a “fast” protein.
Intact whey is already a “fast” protein, so how much faster could hydrolyzing make it? Not much. Should you spend more money on “pre-digested” protein? Our conclusion is that in terms of hydrolyzed protein: don’t believe the hype – whey has not been dethroned.
- Greater stimulation of myofibrillar protein synthesis with ingestion of whey protein isolate v. micellar casein at rest and after resistance exercise in elderly men. The British Journal of Nutrition (2012). ↩
- Ingestion of a protein hydrolysate is accompanied by an accelerated in vivo digestion and absorption rate when compared with its intact protein. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2009). ↩
- Ingestion of whey hydrolysate, casein, or soy protein isolate: effects on mixed muscle protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in young men. Journal of Applied Physiology (2009). ↩
- Whey protein stimulates postprandial muscle protein accretion more effectively than do casein and casein hydrolysate in older men. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2011). ↩
This is not clear to me, you say: What these studies show is that non-hydrolyzed whey is approximately twice as good as casein. This is the same difference between hydrolyzed whey and casein. So, the “pre-digested” whey is no better than intact whey.
…. but the graph Pennings and col. does not show hydrolyzed whey, only hydrolyzed casein?
Good observation. You’re right, there is no direct comparison: the Tang data in the second figure show hydrolyzed whey is twice as good as casein while the Pennings data in the third figure show intact whey is twice as good as casein. I came to that conclusion by combining these two observations (if A = 2C and B=2C then A=B) (theoretically). Thanks for the comment!
thanks for the clarification Bill. very interesting article.
I find in general that Hydolyzed whey does not give me gas and seems to be easier on me.
You also do not touch on how isolate vs concentrate weigh in
Hi Marty, IMO less gas alone would justify the premium. And the difference between isolate and concentrate is a tricky one as they are much more similar relative to intact and hydrolyzed… maybe in a future article!
Thanks for the feedback.
Hey Marty, you make a GREAT point, which is that hydrolized protein is easier to digest than Whey Protein concentrate or isolate. FYI, whey protein concentrate has at least a few grams of fat and lactose in each serving, whey protein isolate is 90% bioavailable and has minimal fat and lactose, which causes less bloating. Finally, Hydrolized protein is easier to digest than even whey protien isolate because it’s yet another step of processing, but this extra step of processing can make the protein taste bitter. As Bill pointed out in his article, while it does help with digestibility, it does not help the protein absorb any quicker which is how he came to his conclusion.
From least to most expensive => whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, then hydrolized protein.
Happy to see you are still follow our blog posts! Hope you’re doing well.
Thank you for this informative article, Dr. Lagakos. I really appreciated seeing the charts and science behind the assertions; few health articles these days display the source material.
I had always presumed that, unless one had a gastrointestinal issue that hindered normal digestion, the increased digestibility of hydrolyzed protein was unnecessary. My former concern was whey isolate vs. concentrate, and as Marc pointed out isolate’s merits, I find whey isolate to be superior because of its bio-availability, which is more important than digestibility, for me, anyway. It seems to be a purer form of protein (90-94% protein ratio, where whey concentrate has about 70-85%), and it contains fewer carbohydrates.
Most of my musings may be rather insignificant since we should ideally be getting our protein from whole food sources and use whey for what it was meant to be – that is, a supplement and not a major source of protein.
Thank you again for the article. I read my BuiltLean emails first and quickly click on the links every week!
Hi Russela, thanks for the feedback, and I agree about whole food sources of protein. For me, the real advantage of protein shakes is “convenience” not bioavailability/digestibility/superiority.