Here’s a little protein powder scam that few people know about: supplement manufacturers dumping cheap ingredients into their powders so that they can pass tests to claim a higher protein content than they truly have.
Scandalous, right? Well, that’s the supplement industry for you. Here’s how it happens and what to look out for on labels so that you avoid getting scammed.
What is Protein Powder Spiking?
We gym bros like protein powder. It’s a quick, convenient, and cost-effective way to hit our daily protein targets.
Whey protein is not the cheapest, but it is popular due to the high BCAA content, particularly leucine, which is critical to the muscle building process.
Now, with consumers becoming wiser there is a rising demand for products that claim to have been lab tested, but this comes at a time of overall rising global demand (and thus prices). Consumers are becoming sensitive to these price increases and given a lack of general education about what they should be looking for on the packet, the incentives for companies to cut costs by cheating the system are all there, and many do.
I’m talking about the rise of the phenomenon known as ‘protein spiking.’
How Protein Spiking Works
Some labs test for the nitrogen content of protein powder rather than the amounts of the individual amino acids – the building blocks of protein.
Under normal circumstances, as every amino acid contains nitrogen, measuring the nitrogen content of a powder should indicate how much protein it contains. However, this assumes that the manufacturers are honest, ha!
The first way they cheat the system is to dump cheap amino acids like glycine and taurine into the mix.
Amino acids are not all of equal value. This robs you of some of the ones that are critical to the muscle building process.
The second is to add other nitrogenous, but non-proteinogenic (protein creating) acids into the mix, such as creatine and beta-alanine.
These are cheaper by the gram, and gives the manufacturer the benefit of being able to list these on the packet, knowing that consumers have enough general awareness of these to think they are good, but not be educated enough to realize that, in fact, they are just being robbed of the protein they should be getting.
So, let’s say you are looking at a tub of protein and considering whether you should purchase it. The front of the packet advertises 25 g protein, 5 g creatine; the back label does not have the amino acids listed.
This could potentially mean that you have only 12 g of whey, with 5 g of creatine, 4 g of added glycine and 4 g of taurine added. – Without the individual amino acids listed, you simply do not know.
How to Check Protein Powder Quality
Let me tell you specifically what to look out for to ensure that you are using a quality product. I’ll then show you examples of me checking a few popular powders.
Some Red Flags To Look Out For When Choosing A Whey Powder:
1. It has a proprietary blend (or doesn’t list leucine content).
- Proprietary blends are just a way for manufacturers to hide the actual quantity of the ingredients they are using in the mix so that they can use less of the beneficial but expensive ones.
2. Leucine content, when listed, is lower than 2.7 g per 25 g of protein content.
- 11% of whey protein content should be leucine. So we should see ~2.75 g per 25 g of protein.
- 25% of whey protein should be BCAAs. So we should see ~6.25 g per 25 g of protein.
3. The cost per 25 g of the claimed protein content is considerably cheaper than average.
- Whey is a commodity traded on the open market. You can be ripped off and pay way too much – I’ve seen 11x market price protein from one “luxury gym” called RIZAP in Japan which targets rich but ignorant people. They are highest on my shit-list. But you should not ever find a powder that is significantly cheaper than everything else. It’s like trying to buy cheap gold bars – if you manage to find one, it is not gold.
If your protein powder doesn’t pass these checks, you’re rolling the dice with the quality of what you’re getting. I advise you buy something else.
For more useful graphics, check out my Instagram.
Comparing Whey, Beef Protein and, Vegan Protein
I feel that it might be useful if I showed you examples of me checking popular products, and at the same time drew quality comparisons of beef and vegan proteins with whey.
1. Dymatize Elite 100% Whey
You can see that there is 2.8 g of leucine listed on the front of the packet per 25 g of whey.
Double-checking the back label, the leucine quantity is only listed as 7.8 g per 100 g. This was a red flag, but I then realized that this was per 100 g of powder (the whey makes up 70% of it). Dividing 7.8 by 0.7 gives us the ~11% we are after.
This product passes our quality test. ✅
2. Beef Protein Isolate Sample Protein
‘Beef Protein’ appeals to consumers because the name suggests quality. But as far as I can see, this must be the only reason for the existence of this category of protein products because the quality pales in comparison to whey.
The protein that we get from meat has approximately 30% less leucine and BCAA. Powdered versions are much lower than this because the manufacturers are not creating it from the typical cuts that we like to eat, but including various parts of the animal that we don’t.
To illustrate my point I’ve chosen one of the most popular beef proteins on the market. There are two red flags on the front of the tub:
- Just 2 g of BCAAs are listed (whey would give us 6.25 g).
- There are more grams of amino acids listed than protein, 28 g vs 25 g.
Looking at the back of the packet you can see that:
- Glycine is 22.8% of the mix. This is very high. (Beef contains ~7% on average, whey protein a lot less.) Recall that glycine is one of the cheap filler amino acids that manufacturers use to pass the nitrogen testing for protein content. This is suspicious.
- Hydroxyproline is in the mix. This comes from collagen, which comes from skin, bones, and tendons. This explains why the amino acid number is higher than the protein number because it is a non-proteinogenic amino acid.
This powder does not pass our quality test. I cannot recommend this product. ❌
3. SunWarrior Warrior Blend Plant-based Protein
Note: The amino acids are listed per serving, each containing 19 g of protein.
Most of the vegan protein powders I have come across do not have the amino acids listed. The few that do are complete shit. This is one of the exceptions, but you pay dearly for it.
The leucine content is 8.6% versus whey’s 11%. The BCAA content (noted by the red stars) is 17.7% versus whey’s 25%. The essential amino acid (EAA) content is 39% (this is the red plus yellow stars), versus whey’s typical 50-60%. (Essential, in the nutritional context, means that it cannot be made in the body, we have to get from our diets.)
Unfortunately, to get a reasonably high-quality plant-based protein that also stands up to testing like this one, you need to pay a lot more than whey. When I checked for the lowest selling prices on Amazon, this is 3.3x the cost of the Dymatize Elite Whey.
Unless you are a vegan, I don’t recommend this product. ❌
Protein Quality – Frequently Asked Questions
What do you think of [product name]? What products do you recommend?
I will not make specific recommendations because a manufacturer can change the formula of their products at any time. Use this guide to make an educated decision on buying a product that is available to you at a reasonable cost and shipping rate in your country. I’m not here to make that decision for you.
Does this advice apply to pre-packaged protein drinks and protein bars?
Yes. I’d bet the abuse is even more rife for these small item purchases because the manufacturers know that people will neither think to check, nor likely demand it.
I am lactose intolerant and cannot consume whey shakes. Is there anything you recommend as an alternative?
A 70:30 mix of pea and rice protein closely mimics the amino acid profile of whey. You can order custom blends from a number of stores, I’ve heard good things about True Nutrition.
What protein do you use?
The Dymatize Elite Whey. It passed quality test at the time of purchase (product formulas change, so always check), is as reasonably priced as anything else I can get here in Tokyo, and they agreed to fund my friend Alan Aragon’s protein research regardless of the results – a rare honest gesture that I appreciate.
How does the quality of casein protein compare?
Similar enough to whey to not have any meaningful difference.
How much of my daily protein intake is it fine to get from protein shakes?
There is no upper threshold I can point to; whey is just a powdered food source after all. However, it’s best to think of protein powders as compliments to an already varied diet – supplemental. The one serious consideration is that when you are dieting, hunger will be your enemy at some point. Limit the calories you drink in favor of real food as this will help.
How do we know that the product labels are accurate?
The short answer is that we can’t be certain.
LabDoor is a company that performs independent quality checks and displays the results of their test results online. However, I take issue with the overall scoring system they use. As they are such a popular website, I feel this needs to be addressed.
LabDoor defines ‘quality’ as purity, safety, and accuracy of labeling. This is how they define those terms and what the problem is with them.
- Purity – This means how much of the powder is protein, not how much of the protein is protein. This punishes whey concentrate powders unfairly because they contain more carbs, favoring the more expensive whey isolate powders. This should not factor into the rank in my opinion.
- Safety – Pretty much anything containing any form of artificial sweeteners have red ingredient safety ratings, despite the lack of evidence of the ones flagged as being harmful in human trials.
- Accuracy – This measures only the accuracy of the label claims, and only counts for 10% of the overall score.
So, do not choose a protein based on it having a high rank in LabDoor. There are high-ranking but low leucine and BCAA containing products on their list. What I recommend that you do is find a product you are considering first, then check there only to see if the label accuracy rating is high and take that to be a proxy of the accuracy of the leucine and BCAA claim. Ignore everything else.
Thank you for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments.