When you are choosing a protein supplement to help increase your overall protein intake for the day, one of the determining factors (aside from flavour, of course) is likely to be the amount of protein you get per 100g, or per scoop. The higher the number, the fewer ‘tag along’ macros you are getting, and the higher quality the powder is.
But it seems that all is not as it seems, and this might not be the best way to go about things.
Amino Acid spiking was most recently in the news after one supplement company was sued for something known as ‘amino acid spiking’ and mislabelling of products.
This is not an isolated incident, with a large number of supplement companies (both small and globally recognised) being put under the microscope and found to be cheating the system.
But what does it mean, and what does it actually mean to you? Let’s take a look…
When did the drama start?
A few years ago a user of the online discussion board Reddit posted a thread offering to take samples of people’s protein supplements and test them to determine the protein content therein. He then posted the results for people to see (1).
(Worth baring in mind here is that one single test of one single sample is indication of possible cause for concern but is IN NO MEANS CONCLUSIVE. It represents the results of that test done on a single sample and doesn’t necessarily reflect the rest of the brand or even the rest of the tub which the sample came from – the numbers are a red flag but nothing more).
This caused outrage. Thousands of threads popped up on forums and one brand even withdrew its product from the market. From this point on, people were suspicious.
Jump on a small amount of time and people started to talk about a new way that companies had adopted to cheat the system. This was a far more clever way to move the goalposts – Amino Spiking.
What does amino spiking mean?
Amino spiking basically means that a company puts a load of free amino acids into a protein supplement to artificially boost the protein content. They do this because amino acids register as protein when you test for these things.
To test for the protein content of a supplement, or indeed any food, we use a method known as ‘Nitrogen Testing’. Protein is made up of various chains of amino acids and each chain contains nitrogen – meaning that we can test for the nitrogen content of a food and find out how much of it is made up of amino acids. Unfortunately this means that we are looking, basically, for amino acids and not ‘protein’ itself.
Say I put 10g of lysine (which is an amino acid) in for nitrogen testing. Despite the fact that it ISN'T complete protein, the test would tell me I had 10g protein.
This is a problem because your body requires the full spectrum of amino acids to use protein as it is supposed to. There are 22 known amino acids of which 9 are considered essential. In this context, the term ‘essential’ means that we cannot synthesise it ourselves and must ingest it ourselves in order to function properly. When products are ‘amino spiked’ you are getting a lot of non-essential amino acids and a small amount of these essential ones, which basically means you’re not getting as much protein as you think you are.
What this loophole in the test means is that you could bottle up a product which has 15g protein per serving, dump a load of cheap and nutritionally useless, non-essential amino acids such as Glycine, Taurine or Creatine into it and put that it has 25g protein on the label. This gives a poor product but it will pass testing, and it gives a greater profit margin.
In essence, it rips you off.
Of course, these amino acids aren’t entirely useless. Taurine and Glycine are found in complete proteins already, for example and they contribute to muscle growth – problem is that they are found and needed in small or equal amounts to other amino acids. A gram or two is incredibly useful, 9-10 grams is not.
So yes, your body uses certain amino acids such as BCAA or creatine to do other stuff which is beneficial, when you are buying a protein powder you are using it to top up your daily protein intake and this practice means that you are being short changed. You pay for 25g, you should damn well get 25g!
So how do you find out if the protein you use is spiked?
Step 1: Check the label
This is the most important part - Look at the label above which comes from a very popular protein supplement. (I'm not saying what it is. If you know what it is please don't put it in the comments. I don't want to get sued here). It states that per serving there is 26g protein, 7g carbs and 2g fat which makes it a pretty decent product, but now look at the ingredients.
Ingredients are always listed in order of inclusion percentage, this means that the ingredients are listed in order of how much is in there.
Well - This isn't strictly true – it can go deeper.
If you look at the ingredients list, you'll see that some are contained within brackets. For example: "protein blend (milk protein concentrate, whey protein concentrate etc etc).
The items contained within the brackets, by UK labelling standards, do not need to be in order of inclusion percentage. The "protein blend" is the top inclusion ingredient, and will be listed first. However, when the ingredients of that blend are included in brackets after, they can be in any order.
This is a particular issue when the ingredients list is something like: Protein Blend (whey isolate, whey concentrate, milk protein, soy protein) - There, soy protein could have the highest inclusion percentage but anyone would assume it has the lowest.
This goes not only for protein supplements but also regular food (another handy tip is if you buy store bought smoothies. ‘A blueberry smoothie’ should logically have a load of expensive blueberries in, but when you check the ingredients it’s usually just apple juice with a couple blueberries added to change the colour. Cheaper product, better profit). Remember this percentage rule as I'll refer back to it in a second.
First up on the list is the protein blend which is as you would expect from a protein supplement, then you have Maltodextrin which is usually added for flavour.
Then you have Taurine…
Taurine is a free form amino acid. This means that if you were to test this product it would come out as a protein, but your body can't use it the same way. We need a certain amount of taurine day-to-day and supplementing it can actually be beneficial in some cases but after we’ve ingested all we need it will be converted into carbohydrates by our body in a process known as gluconeogenesis. That means that you, the loyal and unsuspecting customer, are paying money for protein and being given carbs, the cheapest macro there is.
Reading the label there are 7g carbs here. The protein sources will contain a couple of trace carbs and then we have to think about flavourings etc so that won’t all be the maltodextrin that we see on the label. As a rough estimate there could be 5g of maltodextrin present.
That there is 5g maltodextrin in the product, we can deduce that, according to the inclusion order rule, there is up to 5g of taurine, so now you're down to 21 grams of complete protein per serving. Move along a little further on the list and you have glycine which is another (very cheap to buy in bulk), essentially useless amino acid.
All of a sudden (baring in mind there is about 16% carbs), you are paying through the teeth for a product which is only 60% protein by weight and a bunch of junk fillers.
That, is what I would call a scam. It’s very easy to spot, though. When you buy a protein look on the label and check the ingredients, if you see glycine, taurine, glutamine or any other amino acid present in the ingredients, you are being scammed.
Another, even sneakier way to do this is to add creatine to a product. Creatine is a protein (as far as nutrition goes) which is made up of Arginine, Glycine and Methionine, so it will register as a protein on a nitrogen test. A company can put that their product contains, for example, 27 grams of protein per serving and 5 grams of creatine, making it an ‘all in one’ supplement. Great. But if you check the label and see that the nutrition info says 27g protein yet creatine is listed as an ingredient underneath, you are being scammed because it’s not 27g plus the creatine at all. That’s 22g protein with 5g creatine on top.
(If it has creatine in, but it's listed under 'Supplement Facts' rather than 'Nutritional information' then that's totally cool as it's not being counted towards the protein count).
Finally, added BCAA is totally unnecessary in whey as there is naturally occurring huge amounts already so if you see a protein touting added BCAA that's a big red flag, too.
Step 2: What is the price like?
Protein powder in it’s rawest form is a very important food stuff. It’s found in baby formula and a huge amount of dairy products. Because of this demand it is quite expensive.
If you are paying £30 for 5kg of whey protein from the internet, or opting to get the cheapest option you can find in a supermarket or high street store then you need to bare in mind that you get what you pay for. These companies do not exist to benefit you by charging you less than everyone else and if something seems to good to be true, it probably is.
Step 3: Do you trust the company?
Do some research into companies before you buy their stuff. There is a lot of shady goings on in the supplement industry and it's not unfair to say that profits rather than your results are the main driving force behind a lot of product development.
Look for past histories of fraud or other criminal activities (again, not naming names here) and of course look at who is involved with mainstream sporting teams or events and who isn’t. Naming names here, Optimum Nutrition are involved with a number of top flight rugby teams who are stringent about which products their athletes are able to use because of drug testing policies. There are a lot of nutrition companies who cannot make the same claims.
Debate rages on about whether this or that company is guilty, and of course I have to mention the way in which protein is actually used by the body. As hinted to above, we use each amino acid for a certain function, and we use them SEPARATELY. This means that, although it’s not a complete protein, if you dump 10g isoleucine into your body you will use a bunch of it for certain tasks, it doesn’t all get wasted.
I’d argue though that that isn’t the point. The point here is that companies on an open market are exploiting legal loopholes to sell inferior products to an unsuspecting marketplace built up of people who are trying to better themselves and enrich their lives through improving their dietary habits.
To me, that’s despicable.
So be careful. Always check the label and go with a brand that you trust. And watch out, there are sharks out there.