A recent class-action lawsuit has brought to light a shady practice in the supplement industry that has been a problem for many years. This practice is called “protein spiking” – a company tells you that a supplement is supplying X grams of protein per serving but is actually only supplying two-thirds of that or less!
How have these companies been able to get away with protein spiking? Typical supplement testing to detect the amount of protein only measures the nitrogen content of the supplement and not the protein content directly. Amino acids and their derivatives or metabolic counterparts like creatine, betaine, or beta-alanine all contain nitrogen. Individual amino acids like glycine are extremely cheap compared to whole proteins like whey and soy isolates – so by combining 20 grams of whey protein with 5 grams of glycine and 5 grams of creatine, the nitrogen content of that supplement will appear as though it has 30 grams of protein. This is very deceptive and potentially harmful to your performance expectations, as your muscles may not be getting what they need to support your training.
How does this affect your performance?
Different concentrations of amino acids may have variable effects on muscle metabolism. The scientific literature has shown that individual amino acids can have different effects on body and muscle metabolism when supplemented independently. For instance, the BCAA leucine and its metabolites are strong signals for turning on muscle protein synthesis and growth, and do this better than arginine.
Research suggests that there is a minimum threshold of leucine supplementation required to turn on muscle protein synthesis. Additionally, maximizing the leucine content of a protein can maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis to your advantage.
This is where protein spiking can hurt your expectations. Whey protein has about ~1 gram of leucine for every 10 grams of whole protein. In order to turn on muscle protein synthesis or maximize it, science suggests that you need almost 2 grams or 3-5 grams of leucine per meal, respectively. So if your goal is to get 2 grams of leucine by consuming 20 grams of whey protein, you need to be sure you’re actually consuming 20 grams of whey protein. If your supplement label says that you are getting 20 grams of protein per serving but 5 grams of that is creatine and another 5 grams is a cheap amino acid like glycine your undershoot your leucine needs by a whole gram!
What should you look for in a protein?
In my book, The G.A.I.N. Plan (www.yourGAINPlan.com) I address a common myth that “all proteins are created equal.” The science shows that when it comes to building muscle, this just isn’t true. Proteins are made of nitrogen-containing amino acids, with different combinations and ratios of the essential and nonessential amino acids. Essential amino acids are those that your body can’t make from others, so they are “essential” in your diet. The non-essential amino acids are the ones that are very abundant in food and synthesized in your body from essential amino acids.
Proteins that contain all of the essential amino acids are considered “complete” proteins. The popular complete proteins used in supplements are milk-derived whey and casein, and soy and egg. These complete proteins are highly digestible and well-absorbed by most individuals. Incomplete proteins like lentils or wheat gluten lack certain essential amino acids and require combinations of various incomplete proteins to form a complete protein source. Vegans have to be very cognizant of this as their diet requires combinations of protein sources to obtain all the essential amino acids.
The good thing is that when I take home a GNC product I am certain that it contains the amount of protein stated on the label and that it is 100% Real Protein. I know that when it has added leucine, creatine, betaine, beta-alanine, etc. that the protein content in the supplement facts will not be deceptive. This is why I consistently use GNC protein to maximize my performance.