When it comes to muscle gain, retention and overall body composition (your muscle-to-fat ratio), there is no more crucial part of your diet than protein.
A lack of protein will wreak havoc on your body and progress – no matter if your main goal is to lose fat or gain muscle.
Protein is an absolute cornerstone of fitness nutrition, so it’s no wonder that protein supplementation is so popular. It’s one of the few supplements that I wholeheartedly recommend and stand behind in an industry that is overrun with gimmicks and unnecessary junk.
One of the reasons protein supplementation is so popular is because it can be difficult, if not downright impossible to meet your daily protein requirements using only whole food sources. Sure, if you don’t go to have a job or go to school full time then you might have the time to plan out and cook up enough sources of protein to meet your daily allotment on an ongoing basis. However, it’s much, much more convenient, simple, and cheap to meet that number using a protein supplement in addition to whole foods.
By far, the most common form of protein supplementation is whey protein powder. This scoop-able powder can easily be added to water or another beverage of choice to make a quick protein shake. It’s even commonly added to recipes to boost their protein content (I like to mix some in with my oatmeal). Whey protein is a mixture of globular proteins that have been isolated from a by-product of cheese production. The purest and highest quality whey protein that’s readily available in bulk is WPC-80. This is what’s used in many of the highest quality protein brands around the world and is extremely effective when used as part of a proper nutrition plan.
The Perfect Storm for Amino Acid Spiking to Enter the Scene
Sounds good so far, so what’s the problem you wonder? Well, recently the cost of bulk whey protein has skyrocketed. This is in no small part due to the fact that the sports nutrition giant Gatorade has recently started putting whey protein in its sports recovery drinks. This has made waves throughout the protein industry and sent demand and prices skyrocketing. The price has been increasing at a rate of 30% per year and has doubled since 2009. Other smaller and previously reputable supplement companies have been left scrambling. They were faced with a choice; find a way to lower costs or perish.
As with so many other products in the increasingly competitive modern economy, the quality of many whey protein supplements has suffered. Instead of going under, supplement companies simply lowered the amount of dietary protein in their product. You might not think this is a big deal, but here’s the kicker: they didn’t lower the reported protein content on their packaging to match this reduction. This means that the cover of your favourite protein brand may be reporting that there’s 25 grams of protein in a scoop of their product when in reality, you might only be getting 20 or 15 grams of complete dietary protein per scoop. The worst part? What they’re doing is completely legal.
You can thank the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for this little loophole that is allowing supplement companies to sell you a subpar product that is no doubt hurting your progress regardless of your specific fitness goals. The FDA uses a process called the Kjeldahl method to estimate its protein content in biomass (food included). I say ‘estimate’ because this method doesn’t actually directly measure the protein content in the food it tests. In an attempt to reduce cost and speed up their testing, the hundred year old method they use actually measures the nitrogen content in food – not the actual protein content. They then multiply the nitrogen content by something called the nitrogen factor to give the estimated amount of protein in whatever it is they’re testing. Normally, this works quite nicely, as protein is unique amongst the macronutrients for its possession of a carbon-nitrogen sigma bond. If you’ve done any upper level Organic Chemistry or Biochemistry classes in University then you’ll likely be quite familiar with these concepts and might be interested in reading the nitty-gritty’s of the process. If not, feel free to to skip down a few paragraphs.
The Loophole That Allows Amino Acid Spiking
The problem with the Kjeldahl method is that in exchange for measuring true protein content, it measures ammonia instead and equates this amount to be nitrogen. It uses a strong acid (usually concentrated sulphuric acid, H2SO4) to oxidize the biomass. This extracts the nitrogen content contained in the biomass in the form of ammonium sulphate, where it is then distilled with sodium hydroxide into its final measurable form of ammonia. Normally, since neither carbohydrates or fats are unable to be converted to ammonia in this way, this is a reliable and acceptable way to determine the protein content exclusively.
Now here’s the loophole. Individual amino acids (the building blocks of full protein polymers) also have the capability of being converted to ammonia using the Kjeldahl method. That is, you can artificially inflate the nitrogen content (and therefore the estimated protein content) by inserting individual amino acid monomers into a food item, thereby causing the result of the Kjeldahl test to appear to have more complete protein than it actually does. The FDA does not account for these differences, and it takes the total nitrogen content, regardless of its origin, to be protein. The is problematic of course, because individual amino acids do not have the same ability to repair and build muscle tissue that complete dietary protein sources do. The extra individual amino acid monomers are little more than cheap filler to your body.
The most popular amino acids that supplement companies use to trick the Kjeldahl test are glycine, taurine and glutamine. Also popular for this purpose, though not an amino acid, is creatine. It’s said that creatine can actually mimic protein in the Kjeldah test by producing as much as 143% more nitrogen than dietary protein itself. This happens due to the multiple nitrogen-carbon sigma bonds contained in a molecule of creatine. This makes it a particularly useful filler to put in whey protein supplements as it artificially inflates the protein content more than anything. While creatine can be useful and has its place in a supplementation regimen, it has absolutely no place being in a whey protein supplement.
So, we know now that supplement companies artificially inflate their whey protein products by filling them with amino acid monomers which are little more than useless filler. We also know that they do this using glycine, taurine, glutamine and creatine. They use these amino acids in particular because they’re dirt cheap, as much as 4x cheaper than WPC-80 per pound. This allows them to legally keep reporting the protein level as being much higher than it actually is – all due to a silly loophole caused by the FDA’s attempt to keep testing costs low.
Why doesn’t the FDA just close this loophole?
This is a great question, and in large part it boils down the enormity of the situation. Protein estimation through nitrogen extraction is already an imperfect science. On top of that, sweeping changes would need to be made across the entire food industry if the FDA were to tackle these issues that pertain to these supplements. One scientist made the remark that it would be “like opening pandoras box.” In a sense, the cost-benefit analysis just isn’t there for them. One can make a rather drastic comparison to a plane crash. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a series of tragedies due to the same issue(s) before that issue(s) is confronted by the airline industry and the necessary changes are made to prevent a similar tragedy in the future. If issues of this enormity that pertain to actual human lives often fall subject to considerations such as cost and feasibility, you can imagine that perhaps this far less serious issue of amino acid spiking might too.
Indeed, now, after countless lawsuits brought forth by various complainants over the past three years that confront the issue of amino acid spiking, supplement companies are finally taking notice and changing their practises. Not all have fallen in line, and they’re not yet required to by law by the FDA for the reasons postulated above, so it’s still extremely important to remain vigilant consumers.
How to Avoid Spiked Products:
There are a few things you need to look out for when shopping for protein powders. They are:
1. Protein blends (proprietary blends). Companies will often hide the fact that they’re spiking their amino acids by hiding them in a blend of different protein products. When listed as a blend, they’re not required to give the consumer the quantities of ingredients in the blend. It could literally be a 50-50 split between complete proteins and cheap filler amino acids and you wouldn’t even know it. When you look at the blend ingredients on the labelling, make sure it doesn’t contain glutamine, taurine, glycine, etc. However, if these are part of a full amino acid profile on the label, that’s ok (remember, those amino acids are all part of a protein, but none of them constitute being a protein in isolation).
2. Creatine. If a whey protein supplement contains creatine, then you can be sure it’s protein content has been way over exaggerated and you can’t be sure what amount of protein you’re really going to get. Creatine in the ingredient list is a surefire warning sign to put your wallet away.
3. Glycine, taurine and glutamine. If any of these things are listed after the type of protein in the ingredients list (the type of protein will be one of or a mixture of whey concentrate, whey isolate, rice, egg, or casein/milk protein), like pictured below, the protein powder has been spiked and you should look for another brand.
What Brands are Safe?
There are a number of established brands out there that have proven through lab testing to not participate in any amino acid spiking schemes. They’re transparent in their ingredients and in their business practices, and in my opinion earn the money of their customers. In order of their flavour profile, I’ll list my favorites in order:
- PES (Cookies & Creme)
- Cellucor (Red Velvet Cake Batter)
- Optimum (Vanilla Ice Cream)
- Quest (Chocolate Milkshake)
- Dymatize (Pina Colada)
Help put pressure on supplement companies to change their dishonest ways by boycotting products that use amino acid spiking practises. Tell your friends and spread this around to create a more educated consumer base, the fitness community deserves it.