Protein Spiking, a PSA

About a week ago in the first part of the supplements that don’t suck series, the issue of protein spiking, a process by which supplement companies dilute their products, was briefly mentioned. With a new wave of protein spiking related lawsuits currently being launched against companies as large as MusclePharm, it would be prudent to take a break from the supplements that don’t suck series in order to delve in to this issue.

Protein spiking is a process that takes advantage of Kjeldahl method, a which measures the nitrogen content of a substance. Since proteins are composed of long chains of amino acids, and amino acids contain nitrogen, the Kjeldahl method is used to get a rough idea of how many grams of protein something contains. When designing the test over 100 years ago, Johan Kjeldahl set eggs and meat, each with a 6.25 conversion ratio of nitrogen to protein, as the standard for testing foodstuffs. Doing the math the other way, we find that dietary protein is therefore, on average, 16% protein (16%x6.25=100%).

Simple enough.

However, not all amino acids have the same nitrogen to protein ratio as meat does. Glycine, for example, is 18.66% nitrogen by weight. For every gram of glycine, the Kjeldahl method registers 1.16g protein. Creatine is even higher in nitrogen by weight, and every gram of creatine registers as 1.8g of protein. Other cheaper aminos register as less, but they nevertheless contribute to the overall nitrogen content determined by the Kjeldahl method.1

Now, if you’re a supplement manufacturer operating in a marketplace with little regulation, what do you do with this knowledge?

Well, if you’re a company run by good people who don’t lie and cheat and steal, nothing; you continue as you were, selling whey to people just looking to get their gainz on.

If you’re a company run by dicks, you add cheap aminos to your product, increasing the nitrogen concentration and tricking people in to thinking they’re buying more protein than they actually are. With the money you save, you can even license the face of a famous bodybuilder to make people think you’re legit.

Unfortunately, it’s not just supplement companies using this technique.

In 2008, Chinese authorities executed two people, and imprisoned five others, after they discovered that 22 companies were using melamine, an organic base containing 66% nitrogen by weight (1g melanine Kjeldahl methods as 4.1g protein), as a spiking agent in baby formula. Six infants died as a result of kidney damage, and over 54,000 were hospitalized.2

Though nothing meriting an execution has yet occurred in the west (though I wouldn’t put it past /r/bodybuilding), it does make one wonder why there isn’t more regulation in place to protect consumers, as the problem is endemic to the industry.

The best published analysis so far of protein quality was done by Labdoor, after a diligent redditor with lab access found some pretty suspicious things going on with protein samples that he requested from other redditors. Labdoor followed up, and these are the results3:

Labdoor Protein Analysis

Click to enlarge

Keep in mind, some of the products listed contain carbs as a stated ingredient, so a product like cytogainer may not be such a rip off as it first seems.

If you’re suspicious of a protein mix not on this list, there’s a couple of things you can do. The easiest thing to do is to look at the ingredients on the package.

“We typically see two situations:

  1. The disputed amino acid is within a “protein blend”

    In this case, you’ll see a product whose label looks something like this:

    Protein Blend (Whey Protein Isolate, Glutamine Peptides, L-Leucine, Egg Albumen, Whey Peptides, L-Isoleucine, L-Valine), Cocoa (Processed With Alkali), etc etc etc

  2. The disputed amino acid comes after the dietary proteins

    Here’s an example:

    Protein Blend (Whey Protein Concentrate, Brown Rice Protein Concentrate, Whey Protein Isolate, Egg Albumin, Milk Protein Isolate, Partially Hydrolyzed Whey Protein), Taurine, Glucose Polymer, Cocoa Powder (Dutch Process), L-Glutamine, etc etc etc…

In either example, it’s really not possible to tell how much “watering down” is being done, because the whole batch of ingredients are counted as “proteins”. For all we know, they could each be in equal dosing!”4

Slightly more difficult, but still fairly easy, is to compare the amino acid profile printed on the product with a the known amino acid profile of whatever protein you are buying. Simply googling “amino acid profile casein”, for example, will give you an idea of what you’re looking for. In many cases though, the amino acid profile of a protein will not be printed on the product itself, which alone should be enough of a red flag to warrant finding a different brand.

Finally, avoid buying non meat based protein supplements with taurine or creatine in the ingredients or amino profile. Neither is naturally occurring in non meat sources, and both will throw off the Kjeldahl method.

Until regulators step up their game, the onus is on the customer to make sure they’re not being ripped off.

Good luck.



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3: (probably NSFW)

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