In the nutritional/dietary supplement industry, unless you've been hiding under a rock for some time lately, you've almost certainly heard of a number of controversies involving the integrity of certain popular products sold by successful companies and their large retail distributors.
See the NYT piece here for just one example.
(This case involves herbal supplements in particular, but is representative of glaring problems in the broader nutritional supplement industry, including sports/performance supplements.)
As the article notes, dietary supplements are exempt under federal law from the FDA oversight accorded to prescription drugs, opening loopholes for unscrupulous supplement companies to exploit in their race to higher profit margins, no matter the methods used.
So, what does all this have to do with protein powders?
A lot, it turns out.
You see, protein powders are dietary supplements exempt from effective FDA oversight as well (except for the 'honor code' system pointed out in the article), providing a loose regulatory environment for companies to exploit in an effort to gain competitive advantage in a very crowded marketplace full of 'copycat' products and disingenuous trading practices.
'Amino spiking,' if you haven't heard (it's definitely gaining steam in the industry) refers to the practice of bolstering the quantity of protein listed on labels by cutting, or spiking, the protein with added free form amino acids, such as, most commonly: l-leucine (and the other BCAAs), l-glutamine, and l-glycine.
By cutting protein powders with additional amino acids, supplement companies are (legally) allowed to claim higher quantities of full spectrum protein than actually exists, by virtue of a loophole in a test called the Kjeldahl method, which measures the amount of nitrogen in a powder as an indicator of its protein content.
Since free amino acids contain as much nitrogen as the equivalent mass of whole proteins (but are much less expensive to source), companies can inflate, on nutrition labels, the amount of protein per serving using added amino acids.
This allows them to manufacture the formula much less expensively and maximize profit margins.
So, what does this mean to the protein buyer?
Well, (first and foremost) from a performance perspective, ingesting high-quality sources of complete proteins is far more effective for muscle growth and repair than consuming equal quantities of free form amino acids.
This is, after all, the reason we're buying protein powders in the first place, right? Even the amino acids (particularly l-leucine) believed to be largely responsible for regulating protein synthesis are more effective as part of intact or pre-digested (di- and tri-peptide) proteins than in free from.
Thus, gram-for-gram, you’re better off having a serving of protein powder consist of 100% whole proteins than, say, 95% whole proteins and 5% l-leucine.
More basically, when you buy a protein powder that claims more protein per serving than actually exists (sometimes MUCH less: one company is alleged to have been selling products claiming as much as 50 grams of protein per serving, but according to lab tests, only contains 12 grams!), you're being defrauded out of your hard-earned money.
That is, companies spiking their powders are flat-out lying to you and selling fraudulent products, and are obviously not businesses worthy of your patronage.
As a consumer, you should insist that if a protein powder is 'enriched' or 'fortified' with certain free form aminos, that the quantities of these amino acids are not included in the stated protein amount per serving.
The problem is, from a Nutrition Facts labeling perspective, there’s no way to know this – you simply have to blindly believe in the integrity of the product you’re buying.
How to Identify Amino Spiking, and What to Buy Instead
How do you ensure that the protein powder you choose wasn’t deceptively cut with amino acids?
As noted above, you can’t know for sure without lab testing, but there are red flags suggesting that the product could be spiked, and it is my strong recommendation that if you see these red flags when reviewing the label, refuse buying the protein powder in question and move on to a safer bet.
Do this: Skip the “Supplement Facts” or “Nutrition Facts” and go directly to the “Ingredients” list on the label.
If, following the protein source (e.g. whey protein concentrate, etc.), you see any of the aforementioned free form amino acids (or even creatine, which is nitrogen containing) listed as standalone ingredients, then move on. Free form amino acids can have a place in your supplement strategy, but they don’t belong in your protein powder.
(Also -- be aware that, much more brazenly, some companies will advertise that their product is “fortified” or “enriched” with l-leucine or BCAAs, l-glutamine, etc. as a marketing gimmick to make their products more impressive to naïve consumers. While it’s possible that such companies honestly state the amount of protein per serving on the label (i.e. not counting the free form amino acids as 'protein'), there is truly no way to verify this.
Look for protein powders that only contain high quality whole protein sources, such as, for example:
- Whey protein isolate
- Whey protein hydrolysate
- Micellar casein
- Casein hydrolysate
Want to Learn More?
Check out my free '2017 Protein Powder Buyer's Guide (Special Report)' below: