Over the years, I have tried and tested dozens of supplement brands, and scores of different products – from “Fat-Burners” to BCAA’s, Fish Oil to L-Carnitine, and Pre-Workouts to Protein Powders. One thing that has been for sure: there are the good, the bad, and the downright disgusting!
What has been worse than the taste of some of these supplements though, is learning some of the dirty little [secrets and] tricks that some companies use in order to pull the wool over the consumers’ eyes.
Now, if you’ve read my first CXP Edge article – Supplements: The Essential Basics – then you’ll already have skimmed the surface of one of the nastiest tricks of all… ‘Proprietary Blends’. (It’s definitely worth flicking back to that post for a read, if you haven’t already!). But today, I’m going to be lifting the lid on “Protein Spiking”…
Don’t be alarmed by the term ‘spiking’ though – they’re not adding anything *harmful* to the supplement. What it is though, is another example of these companies taking advantage of a [largely] under-informed consumer base.
Essentially, what it all comes down to is: Nitrogen. Not the type you see being used to freeze bad guys in the movies. No. Just the simple composite that forms part of the “makeup” of PROTEIN. See, when food, beverage and supplement companies put those nutrition labels on the packaging, they have to conduct various tests in order to measure the actual amount of each nutrient. Supplement companies have a simple test for this [regarding protein] that looks at the total amount of nitrogen content, which in turn will help them conclude the overall amount of protein that’s contained.
‘Chances are, there’s only 20g or less…’
Thing is, *amino acids* can help “boost” the readings and make it appear as though the content of complete protein is higher than it actually is. Dipping into the basics for a moment – there are “essential amino acids”, and “conditionally essential amino acids”; much like ‘essential fatty acids’, the former are compounds that the body cannot synthesize by itself, therefore, we must source them from foods that are rich in these nutrients.
However, the conditional ones can only be made in certain amounts, and so, we should try to consume foods that contain them in order to fulfil the body’s requirements for them. Such conditionally essential aminos include: taurine, glycine and glutamine (among others).
The problem is that when these amino acids are included in your Whey Protein (for example), they will increase the nitrogen content and make it seem as though there is more overall (*complete*) protein than there really is. So, you might see on a tub of protein powder boastful statements about containing ‘5g of Glutamine’ and/or other aminos, which – off the bat – sounds great… After all, they each have massively important roles in the body. However, if the product also claims to have – say – 25g of Protein… Chances are, there’s only 20g or less (depending on how much/many other aminos have been added in to boost the nitrogen read, so as to claim higher amounts of overall protein).
Now, you’ll always here Trainers and Nutritionists referring to Amino Acids as the ‘building blocks’ of Protein. Good analogy. Fits nicely. Let’s consider them to be – more specifically – like Lego bricks…
Imagine you’ve gone ahead and bought a new Lego model – a small fort with knights and a dragon, for example. And with that “kit” you find mostly the right pieces, but you find that instead of some of the pieces you need to build the fort, you’ve wound up with extra Lego hands for the knights and “gold coins” for the treasure [that the dragon guards?]… Basically, you have a bunch of Lego that can [technically] be used, but not in the way that’s advertised on the packaging. You’ll end up with a fort that has no turret. Lego knights with hands to spare, and whatnot. This is not what you expected to buy, and the result is that you’ve been left with an incomplete Lego model.
Swinging things back into the context of supplements…
While the added Arginine or Glycine or whatever other additional aminos they’ve thrown in may sound like a bonus, you’re actually a) getting short-changed [on what you think you’re paying for], and b) ending up with more of the stuff that you need LESS.
‘… these companies are given “wiggle room” by the governing entities…’
Why do they do it? Why do big supplement companies give you more of the stuff you don’t need [as much], and trick you into thinking you’re getting more of the stuff you’ve actually handed your cash over for in the first place. Well, because it increases their margins. Amino Acids (such as the ones mentioned so far in this article) are far cheaper than *complete* proteins. Therefore, they can spend less money on production, tell you what you want to hear (that you’re getting “loads of protein”), and charge you more as a result, thus sky-rocketing their profits!
It’s much the same as the game that food & beverage companies play; see one of their dirty secrets, which has been widely revealed to the world over the past half-decade, is that these companies are given “wiggle room” by governing entities [such as the FDA] in terms of what they report. It equates to about a 15% margin of error on what they’re saying is in their products. So, if a yoghurt company says that there is only 10g of sugar in their yoghurt, it could actually be the case that there is 11.5g… Or if a pizza box says there is 40g of fat, there might be 46g (or more).
Keep in mind, the figure ‘15%’ is an average. But also, consider this: that 15% [or greater] could apply to almost everything you’re consuming throughout the day. So, your total carb intake might be 230g instead of the 200g you think you’re eating. Those 1800kcal (if you’re on a diet) could actually be 2070kcal… So, unless you are eating completely natural/raw/organic food (that doesn’t come from a tin basically!), then you could be blowing your “macros” out of the water!
Another similar [and nasty] trick the food industry uses is the marketing scheme of telling you that something is ‘zero fat’ or ‘zero calories’; what they’re not telling you is that in order to make these products “zero” in those particular macronutrients, they’ve had to add in other sh*t that you REALLY don’t want in there! It’s simple misdirection.
‘Selling you the idea that you’re getting more…’
They tell you zero fat so that you don’t notice how much extra sugar they’ve chucked in (to improve the taste); nutritionally speaking, you’d have fared better with the little bit of fat than all that extra sugar – I won’t rant about insulin spikes right now! And “zero calories”… well, just take a look at how many additives are in there – usually things that have names that are hard to pronounce. Fact is: there is ZERO need for “zero calorie” products. If you need to cut calories, just stop shoving so much cr*p in your face! The chemicals that they add into those “zero” products are NOT doing your body any good.
But okay, back to the protein spiking…
What you want to extrapolate from this is: buy a protein powder that contains that ONE thing – plenty of high quality, complete protein. Whey, Casein, Pea, Hemp… whatever. (Just not in the form of a “concentrate” – I’ll come out with another post on that soon!). And not with added Amino Acids. If you want Tryptophan (say, to help with sleep – one of its primary functions), or Glycine (which helps repair cartilage, as well as being a precursor of heme [part of haemoglobin]), then consider buying these as separate supplements. That way, you know you’re getting the right amount of protein in your protein powder, and you can accurately control the amount of Arginine (or other aminos) you’re consuming too.
So, remember – it’s all just marketing. Selling you the idea that you’re getting more than you actually are! Therefore, when you see the “added [insert unnecessary ingredient here]”, think again. Consider the fact that it could just be protein spiking – they’ve most likely tried to bolster their nitrogen reads so as to ‘legally claim’ that you’re getting what they’re claiming. Remembering that ‘more is NOT always better’, but that ‘less is more’ [sometimes] is going to mean that you’re investing your money in supplements that do what they say on the tub!
Guys and gals, I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and that it has opened your eyes to some of the dirty little tricks that some supplement companies (as well as a LOT of food & beverage companies) employ in order to line their pockets with more of YOUR cash! Be savvy to it, do your research (keep reading these posts), and hopefully, you’ll a) see better results from the supplements you do use [from now on], and b) not be getting ripped off anymore.
Also, you can Like & Follow CXP on Facebook and LinkedIn (Instagram, Tumblr & Medium will be coming over the next couple of months). And be sure to share this post with anyone who you think may benefit from the nuggets of wisdom that have been sprinkled throughout!
In the meantime… Train hard, and train smart!
Yours in Training,
Chris Atkinson | Master Personal Trainer, SDO