Protein spiking is the supplement version of McDonald’s filling most the your coke with ice.
The demand for protein powders has increased over the last few years. On the face of things, protein powder may seem expensive. That’s why most of us want to get as much value for money as possible.
Thus some sleazy companies have taken advantage of this. They’ll put cheap ingredients into their formulas. This means you end up with a low-quality powder, which does not do the job of a high-quality powder.
For a protein to build and repair your muscles, it needs to be rich in branched-chain amino acids (BCAA’s). These amino acids are Isoleucine, Valine and Leucine.
What is protein spiking?
There are 20 different amino acids that make protein. As I mentioned, some are more important than others when it comes to building muscle.
So what some companies will do, is create their powders, so they are rich in low-quality amino acids.
They do this, because they are cheaper. As well as being cheaper, they are still protein, thus labelled as protein on the packaging.
So they can still state it’s a high protein on the label, without breaking any laws.
They use the non-essential amino acids, the ones your body can produce by itself, such as Glycine.
When talking about amino acids and proteins, I like to use the analogy of a car.
If amino acids are various components of your car, the car would be a complete protein. You need all the components to build a functional car.
It’s no good having lots of windows and no engine.
Below is a table of the essential and non-essential amino acids. The non-essential amino acids can are already in the body. The essential amino acids though, you get through eating. Thus including lots of non-essentials without the essentials is kinda pointless.
|Essential amino acids||Non-essential amino acids|
How is protein content measured?
There are various methods. But one popular method is the “Kjeldahl method”.
This is where they break the food down with acid. This releases nitrogen, they then measure the nitrogen content.
Why is Nitrogen measured?
Protein is the only macronutrient that contains nitrogen.
Fats and carbohydrates do not.
The only issue with this method is, that it doesn’t tell you which amino acids are in the The only issue with this method is, that it doesn’t tell you which amino acids are in the protein powder. Thus a sleazy company can dump cheap non-essential amino acids into their mix.
Some companies also add other compounds, which constrain nitrogen. This can be elements such as creatine.
Though creatine is a great supplement, it is not protein. When buying a supplement, you should be getting exactly what you asked for.
How do I know if I’m buying legitimate protein supplements?
There are 2 ways to know if the protein you’re buying is worth the money.
- Listed ingredients
Over the last few years, we’ve been more aware of the importance of protein. A lot of people turn to powder to help them get enough.
Yet, foods high in protein are more expensive. This is because protein requires more energy to produce compared to carbs and fat. So people will look online and try to source out the cheapest protein powder. Again this is smart but can lead to issues.
Unfortunately, some companies have taken advantage of this. They know not everyone will know what protein spiking is.
So they will make their powders far cheaper than the market leaders. This isn’t because they’re generous. It’s because their powders are low quality and cheap, they still profit, despite charging less.
So the first red flag is; is the powder cheap? As they say, if it sounds too good to be true, it is.
Checking out the ingredients, is a sure enough way to be sure, what you’re getting won’t be a scam.
Ingredients have to be listed in quantity order. That’s why a lot of fruit juices have apple or orange juice listed as the first ingredient. Then all the tasty tropical ingredients are right at the end.
When checking for a protein powder, you want “whey protein” as the first ingredient. Then any other ingredients after, will either be thickener or flavourings.
What you don’t want to see listed are non-essential amino acids. For example one cheap brand I used to buy from, had Glutamine listed as one of the ingredients.
But Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the human body (1), so adding it to a powder is pointless. You want the amino acids the body doesn’t produce. The ones which you need to build muscle.
Below are the ingredients listed for one powder:
Protein Blend (Whey Protein Concentrate, Micellar Casein, Soy Protein Isolate), Cocoa Powder (Chocolate Flavour Only), Flavouring, Glutamine Peptides (Wheat), Natural Colour, Sweetener (Sucralose).
By adding Glutamine, they’ve kept the protein content high, but lowered the quality.
Now here is the ingredients list from a reputable company, who yes charge more, but you get what you pay for:
Whey Protein Concentrate (Milk) (96%), Emulsifier (Soy Lecithin), Flavouring, Colours (E162, E163), Sweetener (Sucralose)
See the difference?
The company above only has whey concentrate as their protein source. Whereas the other company has cheapened powder, with an abundant amino acid.
This is the no different to trying to sell ice to an eskimo. This is classic protein spiking.
What about vegan blends?
The first set of vegan blends should be a combination of pea, beans and or rice.
Soy protein powder is also a good choice. Soy is one of the rare plants, which contains all the essential amino acids.
A paper, showed those who used soy had no big difference in muscle growth than those who used whey. So if you’re vegan soy is definitely something, I’d recommend to include in your diet. (2)
Though most vegan powders are good. The same sort of caution applies. Make sure they are not dumping non-essential amino acids in their mix to make it cheaper.
Do I think protein spiking is a dangerous epidemic that is a danger to all our muscle gains? No, I don’t.
But I know it’s easy to go online and find a protein half the price of the others and be tempted to purchase it.
If you’re buying from a reputable brand, I’m 99% sure you’ll be getting a good product. Whether that is whey, casein or vegan protein.
Yet, if you’re not sure, check the ingredients and see what else is included. If there are other amino acids included, which are non-essential. Proceed with caution.
Josh is a Registered Associate Nutritionist, with the Association for Nutrition (AFN). He completed his degree in Nutrition at the University of Roehampton in 2021. He passed with a First Class with Honours.
Josh is also a tutor for up-and-coming Personal Trainers, where he teaches a Level 4 Advanced Nutrition course. This is for Personal Trainers looking to upskill their nutrition knowledge. This is done at Norfolk Health & Fitness.