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Protein shenanigans: Spiking, shortcutting quality and source mixing

Creatine Whey and BCAAs
Longtime sports nutrition formulator discusses recent and ongoing protein adulteration concerns.

Editor’s note: This article is a companion piece to Kneller’s op-ed on supply chain woes and associated greed.

Today, it’s not so easy to spike protein and get away with it. In the past, when creatine monohydrate was only around $2.00/lb., many brands would remove a couple of grams of whey protein isolate 90% (WPI90) or WPC80 from their formula and replace it with the cheaper creatine which pings or “counts” as about 1.5X the amount of protein as WPI90/WPC80 does on a gram-per-gram basis when tested.  Plus, creatine is a well validated, safe and effective ergogenic ingredient.

Pulling out 5 g or so of whole protein from a serving and adding in 3 g of creatine monohydrate is more or less going to register the same amount of net protein per serving (using the nitrogen content testing method, the one the FDA seems to like). But today?  Whoa! Creatine costs more than WPI90, so that is a dead issue.

Other amino acids (free form) historically used to spike protein include glycine, glutamine and oddly enough, taurine. This happens when the price of these amino acids becomes a lot less than the price of a whole protein.

Only the most brazen (stupid?) companies would try to cheat a protein test this way in this age, as it’s easily detectable. That, however, does not mean companies are not constantly looking for a way to cheat. In the last six months, as dairy protein prices skyrocketed into the stratosphere I have been asked about or have seen the following “creative” methods for increasing net protein content:

  • Companies scouring the country looking for short-dated or out-of-date protein (expired) to purchase on the cheap and then NOT retesting it as required by law. 
  • Companies looking for out-of-specification protein to purchase on the cheap. WPI90 should have 90% protein in it (it will have a little ash, fat and carbohydrate too that makes up the other 10%). WPC80 should have 80% protein in it. You would think large manufacturers of protein would have the manufacturing to spec of this stuff down to a science, and largely they do. But humans make mistakes—sometimes during processing that WPI90 ends up looking more like “WPI86”—so it really can’t be sold as 90% protein. Or WPC80 ends up at “WPC70”. Often these proteins taste a little “off” (I find that, brand notwithstanding, I can pretty much after 25+ years in the industry put a little protein in my mouth and tell if it’s off spec, but adding in a hair more sweetener or cocoa powder can often fix that.) WPC34 is also often blended in and not declared on the label.   
  • Using non-whey (or even non-dairy) whole proteins. Some are bad choices due to allergen concerns (soy, egg), but rice protein is innocuous, mixable, usually tasteless/pleasant-tasting and relatively cheap. Rice proteins are ubiquitous in both the prepared meal industry (think frozen dinners) and animal feed/foods for that reason. In all honesty, the clinical difference between rice and whey proteins is essentially non-existent, and some good, peer-reviewed, published research correlates such. Read that sentence again; it is absolutely true. Yeah, the “bro-scientists” will be quick to point out that the Biological Value (BV) of rice protein is “only” 83, while that of whey protein is 100 (actually it can ping in at 104). BV is an antiquated and lousy way to evaluate the usefulness of protein, but it sounds really cool though, right?

BV must be important, and whey is 20% “better” than rice at least, right? Well, better testing methods for evaluating protein quality exist. PDCAAS (Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score) is the next most cited testing method but is also, in my opinion, quite limited. I think DIAAS (Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score) is probably the best method out there today.  However, it too has practical limits.

Rice is the world's leading staple cereal food and is the major source of protein for many parts of the world. Various rice proteins are even used in baby formulas. Rice is among the first solid food fed to babies in many cultures, in part because of its hypoallergenic status from lack of gluten. Rice protein is technically an incomplete protein source for human babies, with lower lysine and lower threonine being the limiting amino acids. Fortification (we would call it “spiking” if not disclosed) of rice proteins with these two limiting amino acids dramatically improves rice protein quality though. Rice protein-based baby formulas can usually be found on the shelf; they contain rice protein concentrates, isolates or hydrolysates, fortified/”spiked” with lysine and threonine.

Fascinating science, but probably irrelevant. Why? If consumers are paying for something labeled as “whey protein” and it really contains rice protein (or even milk based, cheaper caseinates, which have a distinct taste and usually make them a dead giveaway) not on the label, they are being ripped off, even if it’s not going to physically harm them. Then there is the whole “melamine in rice protein” scandal(s) history which you can easily Google. That isa case of spiking that could really physically harm users.

There are other methods that companies use to game the protein tests, and greed continues to drive brands to find new ways of gaming the market. But consider the flip side: Glanbia owns Optimum Nutrition, BSN, Isopure, Nutramino, Slimfast, Body and Fit, among other brands) is a multi-billion-dollar entity; it grew 17% or so last year and is easily “numero uno” in sports nutrition through the sale of mostly protein “stuff” as powders and RTD’s (and as a wholesaler/producer of proteins for other brands). And Post Holdings owns Dymatize and Premier Nutrition (and other labels) that are both huge in size and hugely profitable brands based around protein products. Both of these parent companies are both huge and honest players. They could not bear a protein-spiking/adulteration scandal. Here they are, huge in size and profit, just not triple digit percentile profit.

 

Bruce Kneller is a longtime sports nutrition formulator/developer and currently is a principal (the “K”) in Millstone, NJ-based KLZ Holdings LLC along with Hector Lopez, MD, (the “H”) and Tim Ziegenfuss, PhD (the “Z”). KLZ is an early stage R&D company with two US patents and one commercialized product in the sports nutrition space (3D Pump Breakthrough).

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