Protein supplements are extremely popular. They are a staple for a lot of gym rats.
But what if we told you that your protein shakes might not contain anywhere near as much protein as you think?
A number of different protein supplement manufacturers have been caught out for lying on the label in the past.
Back in 2015, MusclePharm and a number of other supplement manufacturers were found to be seriously mislabelling their products. In particular, the MP Iron Mass product was found by third-party testers to have about half the protein content that it listed on the label.
Lying on the nutrition label is nothing new. However, the high profile case really hit home with a lot of consumers. The idea that supplement manufacturers could get away with lying – and so egregiously – for so long put many people off buying protein supplement altogether.
For a while at least.
Since 2015, bodybuilding supplement brands have gone from strength to strength. Manufacturers that were caught out in the past are still selling enormous volumes of product.
Are people right to be so forgiving?
Is mislabeling a thing of the past; a shameful practice that we don’t have to worry about anymore?
OF COURSE NOT!
We think that a huge proportion of protein supplements on the market today have misleading labels. Some are more serious offenders than others. But we regularly see nutrition labels that make us deeply suspicious; in our opinion, it’s highly likely that many of the most popular protein supplements on sale in the US and UK today contain far less protein than the label suggests.
In this article, we’ll discuss the common ways that supplement manufacturers mislead consumers. We will explain the main tactics they employ, how the scams work, and how you can avoid them.
Have you been ripped off by bogus protein shakes in the past? Have you always known something fishy was going on? Or are you and industry insider who has seen this happen first hand? Please share your experiences with us at the end!
Most Prevalent Scam – Protein Spiking
The most common way that protein manufacturers spoof their labels is a process known as “protein spiking”.
To explain what this is, we need to give you some background.
When labs test for protein content, they do so by measuring nitrogen content. All amino acids – the building blocks of protein – contain nitrogen. Measuring for nitrogen content is therefore a good way to gauge the amount of protein in a given food or supplement.
Carbohydrates and fats do not contain any nitrogen. It is also a quick and easy thing to measure. Protein is roughly 16% nitrogen, so if we have a figure for nitrogen, we can extrapolate total protein content. This is why most labs tend to test for nitrogen content rather than measuring the specific quantities of each amino acid.
However, testing for nitrogen does not necessary give you an accurate figure for the total protein content. All it gives you is a rough estimate for nitrogen content, from which you can roughly estimate the amino acid content of a food or supplement.
Lots of manufacturers take advantage of this fact by ‘spiking’ their protein powders with cheap amino acids. This allows them to cut back on expensive whole protein sources like whey and soy isolates, saving them a lot of money.
For example, say a whey powder claims to contain 25g of protein per serving.
It is perfectly possible for each serving to be 15g of whey, 6g of glycine, and 4g of taurine.
You are only getting 15g of whole, complete protein here. You’re also getting 6g of glycine, which doesn’t really contribute a great deal to muscle growth, as well as 4g of taurine.
Yet the label would still show 25g of protein because that’s what nitrogen tests found! Obviously you’re going to assume that all 25g of protein comes from the whey, with its great amino acid profile. But you’d be dead wrong.
This problem gets even worse when you consider the non-protein nitrogenous compounds found in many bodybuilding supplements.
Creatine is by far and away the biggest concern here.
Creatine contains nitrogen. The chemical formula for creatine is C4H9N3O2, so clearly nitrogen is not an insignificant part of the molecule.
Nitrogen tests therefore pick up the amount of creatine in a supplement and potentially count it as protein. Or more likely, they allow the nitrogen from the creatine to inflate their estimates for the protein content.
So if a protein shake claims on the label to provide 25g of protein and 5g of creatine, the more accurate label might look like this:
- Whey – 10g
- Glycine – 5g
- Taurine – 5g
- Creatine – 5g
Not exactly what you had in mind, right?
Yet in our opinion this is far from a rare occurrence. It is highly likely that dozens of different protein supplements on the market today contain far less protein than they claim. At the very least, we think that much more of their formulas are made up of cheap, ineffective, benign amino acids than complete, whole protein sources like whey, casein, pea, and soy.
That’s all well and good, but what are you supposed to do about it?
How are you supposed to know which label is telling the truth and which has spoofed the results through protein spiking?
There are actually a few reliable ways to tell if you’re being ripped off.
Here are our favourites.
Amino Acid Profile Not Given
It’s very easy to find out a protein’s amino acid profile.
Even if a manufacturer doesn’t have adequate testing facilities to get an accurate measure of individual amino acid content, they have access to lots of data showing roughly what the amino acid profile of a given protein source looks like.
So they can at least give you estimates on the label for leucein content, valine content, and so on.
When they don’t, we think it might be because they don’t’ want to reveal that they’ve cut right back on the complete protein sources and stuffed their product with one of the cheaper amino acids like arginine, glutamic acid or glycine.
Low Levels Of Important Amino Acids
Some supplements do give you a complete amino acid breakdown on the label.
But unless you know what you’re looking for, this can be a little meaningless. Many manufacturers know that few people ever look at the amino acid profile, and even fewer people understand what they’re reading.
However, if you do your research, the amino acid profile of a protein shake can give you a very good insight to what it really contains.
For example, we know that whey is about 10% leucine. This is partly what makes it such a good protein source; leucine being a key contributor to muscle growth.
So if we look at the label of a protein supplement that supposedly contains 25g of whey isolate, we expect there to be 2.5g of leucine.
If there’s less, then we know that the 25g of protein shown on the label does not all come from the whey; instead, it is made up of whey and potentially numerous other sources; casein, soy, individual amino acids, and/or creatine.
It’s always important to read the ingredients list as well as the label. The front of the bottle might say “whey isolate” and “30g of protein”, but that doesn’t mean there’s just over 30g of whey isolate. If you look at the ingredients list, you’ll likely see a mix of different protein sources, of which a small part is whey isolate.
Always be skeptical when buying supplements. You need to be particularly skeptical when buying protein supplements. Manufacturers have some very clever tricks up their sleeves to make their products look much better than they actually are.
Always read the ingredients lists, look for amino acid profiles, and make sure the amino acid content looks like it belongs to the products main protein source; that is, make sure it isn’t half whey and half glycine!
The best way to ensure that this doesn’t happen is to stick to good quality, reputable brands that always open themselves up to rigorous third-party testing. You get what you pay for at the end of the day.