Protein Spiking – Are You Being Cheated?

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As a consumer of sports nutrition products, you deserve to get what you pay for.  But, some companies produce products that are not True-To-Label. In some cases, it may be under-dosing the effective ingredient(s); using poorly absorbed forms of the same active instead of highly bioavailable but more expensive options (e.g. oxides of calcium, zinc, or magnesium instead of chelates); purchasing lower purity material from an overseas supplier rather than using a “pharmaceutical” grade product from a patent-holding supplier.

There are two examples that represent the “worst case,” which should be stated as “worst cases” to appease any English majors out there: adulteration of a product with a banned or pharmaceutical ingredient (e.g. presence of banned anabolic steroids in “prohormones” or Viagra in sexual enhancing “supplements”); and substituting the label claimed ingredient for a lower potency ingredient or just useless filler (e.g. DHEA substituting for “prohormones”).

Protein PowderThe consumer is nearly always unaware of these substitutions and compares products on an “all else being equal” basis, using several common decision points: does the product claim to contain the ingredient(s) one is seeking; is the serving size the same to provide a sufficient dose; how many servings does the container hold; is the flavor/aftertaste/smell appealing; has it received good reviews or recommended by a trusted source; and is it produced by a company that has a good reputation. The final and often main decision point is “how much does it cost?” Let’s not hide the fact that most of us have to consider the VALUE we are receiving for our money.

So, there is no fault to a consumer who makes a choice based upon cost. In fact, those of you scraping together money for gym fees and supplements are the people giving the most to the company, sacrificing other expenses to try and increase the enjoyment or efficiency of your training. I still shop when there are discounts, coupons, and free shipping.

Companies are aware of the power of pricing, especially those catering to the cost-conscious. They realize that even though there are many “choices” in front of you, there may not be a lot of options you can afford. Thus, all they need to do is convince you that they are offering a same/similar product for less.

Here is a reality that many of you may not be aware of – the profits in the sports supplement industry have been dwindling down for years, except for products with new or premium ingredients with proven science. When creatine monohydrate first came to market twenty years ago, it was $40 for 100 grams retail, and it sold like crazy. It was the first mass builder that put on muscle rather than weight. Now, it can often be found for $40 a kilogram (1,000 grams) retail, with some companies undercutting that.

Whey protein had a similar introduction, and now is a consumer staple which means there is little profit margin. Additionally, dairy protein cost has gone up considerably, just like all other food items. Cattle production and dairy facilities are expensive ventures, affected by feed cost, drought, transportation, currency exchange rates, etc. If you have been buying groceries for the last decade, you have seen beef, milk, and cheese escalate in price.
But, companies sell a lot of protein. Every bodybuilder wants it. Old people want protein now, and every “diet guru” is preaching protein to one degree or another. This means more competition for dairy protein, again increasing that cost to the manufacturer, law of economics. So, companies look at protein sales as a foundation to their success, just as bodybuilders do.

In the “Golden Era” (which is pretty much any time period when an old person grew up since we all remember things being better in the past), bodybuilding was a culture, not a business or profession. A bodybuilder’s credibility was based upon what he showed he could do, not empty promises. Further, those who were proven through their dedication, learning, accomplishments, etc, served as the “gurus” and would share training tips, diet advice, even cook meals together. When something worked, people quickly knew. If a “snake oil salesman” tried pushing something that was a scam, word got around.

Fortunately and unfortunately, the small and close-knit culture became a community and then a market segment. Sharing and word-of-mouth stopped being the source of information. Instead, all sorts of marketing tricks became the new source of information. Many companies focused on “STYLE” not “SUBSTANCE” for success. In part, this is because a large segment of the consumer base is/was adolescent or young men who were susceptible to the promises of big muscles and bikini-clad babes.

Bodybuilder DrinkingSo, what does this have to do with protein spiking? Think to what you have bought as a “sports supplement” this last month or two. The vast majority will include a protein powder, MRP (meal replacement powder), or RTD (ready to drink MRP). You look at shelf upon shelf of protein until your eyes glaze over. You need a push that will make you reach for something, anything, just get away from all that protein before you go catatonic with choices. Regardless of all the nutrient labeling, product information, bells and whistles, it often goes down to brand familiarity or cost.

So, knowing this, brands that wish to grab the early consumer (young first-timers), or those who are cost-conscious, will price their product significantly less than the first line premium brands. They may claim they are able to do this by not spending money on advertising, bulk purchasing, lower overhead, a generous spirit that wants to provide amino acids to all the world’s poor and suffering bodybuilders or whatever. In rare cases, this is true. However, there are two things that determine profit, which is what every businessman/woman needs to continue operating a business – cost and margin.

By the time adolescence is over, you have probably learned there is little charity in the retail market. The best you can hope for is fairness. So, the “wise” consumer avoids “too good to be true” promises, and looks for companies with either a strong name backing the products (celebrity endorsement), a long-history of providing quality products (reputation), or best “bang for the buck.” This narrows the field to a few choices. So, how do companies in the final round of reaching the consumer dollar compete? Some apply their resources to providing not only the quality of ingredient you are paying for, but also information and education about how to use or what to expect from the product(s), and regular newsletters or blogs to continue inspiring and educating its customer base. This is time, labor, and cost-intensive. It is what you should expect as a consumer, but realize it is not just a marketing department putting out “big muscles and bikini-clad babes.”

Other companies may make variable efforts in this direction, but the real profit for them comes from either “piggybacking” what is successful after another company makes a name for an ingredient, or convincing the consumer with a glitz-blitz that he/she has bought the best product and “WOW!” got it for an unbelievable deal.

An unbelievable deal!?–Think about those words. So, to focus on the reason for this article, this has happened among some key brands, some with well known bodybuilders endorsing the respective company. Of course, there are some second or third tier brands involved as well. In fact, some companies have been sued for allegedly deceiving consumers with the practice of “protein spiking.” You can search through Google to find the names and allegations.

What Is Protein Spiking?

So, what is protein spiking? Let me give a hypothetical example – I have a high-quality whey protein that provides 40 grams of this protein per serving. Its cost and the margins demanded by retailers (manufacturers are not the ones setting the final cost, it is a chain effect through distributors, retailers, etc) require a retail price of $2.00 a serving. Wow, that is pretty high, $60 for a month of whey protein. So, the consumer (that is you) is shopping and sees a great, convincing article on the value of whey protein for promoting anabolic processes in exercised muscle, written by my company, and showing the science behind the effects and need for certain levels of specific amino acids, benefits of oligo-peptides, rate of absorption, etc.

Got to have that, need to feed the biceps!!! But $60??? That is the cost of a night out with friends or a tank of gas. (Hmm, doesn’t seem like that much with those examples, but let’s move on). Wait, here is another product and I have heard of this company OR recognize the face/name endorsing it OR it is shiny, and it says “WHEY” in big, really colorful letters. Hey, 40 grams per serving. It is the same. AND it is only $35 dollars! BINGO, add to cart and purchase. But, the protein-spiking lawsuits assert that certain companies are LABELING their products as containing 40 grams of protein (or whatever serving size), with the claims that the protein is sourced from whey when they are apparently adding a fraction of that as whey and bolstering the rest with cheap ingredients like glycine, arginine, creatine. Even urea and melamine have been used in the past. Melamine made the news a couple years ago when it appeared in baby formula. If some companies would stoop so low as to put the same ingredient in baby formula that was found to poison dogs when put into pet food, I’m pretty sure people with the same mentality would consider bodybuilders fair game.

Wait, wait, wait. If these companies are adding amino acids to protein, what is the harm? Isn’t protein a bunch of amino acids? Yes and no. It is the same as saying a stack of 2×4 boards is a house. Amino acids are the “building blocks” to protein, and when formed into specific proteins, there is a difference in function, and efficacy. Whey protein has been shown in, well, a boatload of studies to be effective at rapidly increasing amino acid supply to the bloodstream and promoting “muscle protein synthesis” or building and repairing muscle. Casein and egg protein have value as protein, but whey stands alone due to its amino acid profile, as well as rapid digestion and absorption. Amino acid profile is a term that relates to the amount of each amino acid contained in each protein. Whey is very high in branched chain amino acids, and specifically L-leucine. L-leucine has a number of signaling effects as well as being a “building block,” making it particularly valuable – and expensive.

So, if a 40 gram serving would cost the consumer $2 a serving, how does a “protein spiking” company offer the “same” at half the cost? Yep, put half or less of the amount of whey in a serving and fill the remainder with cheap-cheap ingredients. Examples cited in some of the court proceedings listed glycine, creatine, etc. These products run about 10% of the cost or less for a quality whey!

Magnifying glassOK, some of you are thinking “BS” because there are companies that analyze all these products to make sure the label claims are valid. Get ready to cry, but keep it inside, don’t want to upset any children in the room. An accepted method of validation for protein is based upon measuring the amount of nitrogen (or amine groups) in a serving. This gets “sciency,” but remember the term “amino acid?” This means the class of molecules has an acid group on one end, and an amine group on the other (each amino acid has an unique “R” group that determines what it is, like leucine or tryptophan). So, to keep analyzing cheap and easy, the assurance people just have to count how much nitrogen is in the serving to qualify as containing that much “protein.” Label claims don’t care what KIND or where the protein comes from, that is the marketer’s responsibility.

Businessman counts moneySo, what if your company could get the same nitrogen count from cheap and relatively ineffective amino acids, instead of having to spend money on providing expensive whey protein? THEY MAKE MONEY! Oh, not fairly or legally, according to these lawsuits.

Sad, confused, or losing interest? How about getting mad. This practice is the equivalent of sitting down to an expensive steak dinner at a restaurant and they put a bowl of Jello in front of you. Bon appétit they say, thinking “chump” as they walk away. Yes, you are their chump. I have been there, so welcome to the club.

Corporations live on their customer base, and that base grows through trust and word of mouth. Bodybuilding has long been viewed as “low hanging fruit” by the unscrupulous, using images and emotionally charged messages to convince those of us with dreams that they can help us get there. The unscrupulous depend on the constant influx of new, young people trying to improve their physique or health, as well as those of us who have to make every dollar count. They may not get loyal customers, but it they are constantly replaced, the money keeps coming in. What has happened in these examples is that our dollars were taken, without fair value received.

While it is possible that in some cases, a 3rd party supplier may have pulled a fast one on the sports nutrition companies, it’s unlikely. If a company was the victim of an unscrupulous supplier, then there was a breakdown in their quality assurance chain.
Protein spiking is just one more example of the bodybuilding industry being infiltrated by those chasing dollars.

As a consumer, I know it is tempting to go for the lowest cost whey, but the old saying of “you get what you pay for” is too often true. The good news is that there is a movement from within the industry building for a more expensive but vastly more accurate measure of analysis to be implemented. This is called amino acid profiling and basically says if the label claims 40 grams of whey, it should contain 40 grams that when split down chemically to individual amino acids has the same “fingerprint” as the reference pattern for whey.

You have been patient if you made it this far in this article, but don’t let this lesson pass you by. When you are looking at a great deal, like really great, treat it with some skepticism at first. If it proves to be true, you found a winner. However, if you discover that it fails to meet the claims, or was proven to be a false story, hold the company accountable. If there is a legitimate reason, and things happen on rare occasion, the company should explain and be held accountable. If it was purposeful, then you were deceived and you should avoid that company like you would in any other relationship where you are lied to.

Editor’s Notes

Click on the links below for more information on current Protein Spiking lawsuits:

_DSAbout the Author

Daniel Gwartney, M.D. took the path less traveled and combined his passion for health, fitness, and bodybuilding with the knowledge and experience learned during his medical training. A former world-ranked natural bodybuilder, appearing on the covers of Muscle Media 2000 and Ironman Magazine, and a regular contributor to several of the top bodybuilding and fitness magazines, he provides unique insight into the application of fitness into medicine and medicine into fitness.