We have been discussing in our series of articles on the issue of underdosed protein some of the features which are common to how proteins should be labelled. In part 4 we disclosed some of the tricks which certain manufacturers will use to lower the cost of their protein powder, which results in a poor quality product being passed off as something better than it is. In this, the final part of our series, we will go through some examples of things that should provide signs that all is not right in a protein product.
Raw material price rises
In case you are unaware, the wholesale price of protein powder ingredients such as whey protein and milk protein have gone up significantly over the last 2-3 years. This is largely driven by demand outpacing the supply of the product, leading to the dairies inevitably increasing the prices at which they make protein powder ingredients available to manufacturers who, in turn, will pass on the increased costs to brands. Clearly the implication is that the prices of a particular protein powder supplement should be rising,, assuming everything else which goes into determining the price remains the same.
When we look at big brands such as Optimum Nutrition, BSN, Gaspari, Reflex and Syntrax we should see a rise in their retail price over the last couple of years which has indeed happened although, to a large extent, many retailers have chosen to swallow some of the rise in costs. Nevertheless all these brands and most other well recognised brands with widespread distribution across many retailers and countries have also shown price rises as an inevitable consequence of the rise in raw material costs.
Cheap proteins do not always go up in price though
If we make the broad assumption that the cheaper proteins on the market will likely be working off smaller profit margins and, if we add to this the fact that most of them will be buying much less protein from the dairies than a big manufacturer, how is it that many can keep their prices low? There are an abundance of brands out there selling whey protein powder at the same price today as they did two years ago despite consistent price rises throughout that period of time.
Giveaway 1 – If a protein powder out there has managed to sell at a price considerably lower than much bigger companies can produce one for, in the midst of a large rise in dairy prices, this should make you suspicious. Something clearly does not add up.
Whey protein that tastes like a milkshake
Something that is sometimes requested by customers is for us to suggest a protein powder that tastes like a milkshake you might find in McDonalds. If we consider such a milkshake will be very high in sugar and fat, and very low in protein then you can imagine why that might be hard to do. Unless a brand uses a high proportion of carbs, fats, or thickeners, it will not come remotely close to that type of thick, creamy, milkshake-like taste. You certainly will not get it with a whey protein powder with a high percentage of protein, where high is over 75% protein. At this level, a whey protein cannot help but have less fat and carbs, and the natural properties of whey protein concentrate, and especially whey protein isolate are for it to have a thin texture, be naturally sweet, mix easily and be a light beverage in general when it comes to consumption.
High quality whey proteins such as Gold Standard Whey, Hydrawhey and Instant Whey all meet this definition which is why we recommend them highly to customers looking for a genuinely high quality whey protein they can trust 100%. These are examples of brands who have made considerable investments in making a product that naturally may not be the easiest to flavour, and managed to do so.
Unfortunately, like with most things in life, quality comes at a price and so when you see a whey protein claiming similar levels of protein but resembling a milkshake in texture and taste you have to be deluded to believe the claims. If Optimum Nutrition can’t achieve this with all their resources then you have to conclude it is impossible to do so.
Giveaway 2 – A high quality whey should meet certain criteria. Anything which somehow manages to avoid doing so while claiming a high protein percentage is likely an underdosed protein.
Blends that don’t add up
Protein blends are increasingly popular on the market today, making many manufacturers decide to set up a blended protein comprising multiple sources of protein. However, we discussed in the last part of our series there is evidence that certain brands mislead customers by incorrectly labelling how the various proteins in the product are listed on the label. Let’s look at some of the ways we can see through this.
Signs of soy
Soy protein is a cheap, and to many peoples’ way of thinking, inferior source of protein. It also happens to be high in protein content although it is low in the essential amino acids that are key for bodybuilding. Nevertheless, its high protein content means an inferior blend containing little whey can artificially inflate its protein content by using soy to replace whey. This could result in a product where whey contains just 1-2% of the protein content of the product overall. How can a consumer recognise such a product when the labelling deceives you by listing whey first on the ingredient panel?
Soy protein has a different amino acid profile compared to whey, being relatively lower in the branched chain amino acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine, while being relatively high in glutamine and arginine. Assuming the label showing amino acid profile is on your tub of protein this is one way of being able to determine the soy versus whey content of a blend.
An easier way to tell the composition of a protein powder is the taste and texture with soy protein tending to have a gritty, sandy texture compared to whey and not tasting as good. Anyone who has compared the taste of soy milk versus regular milk will be able to attest that the taste of soy is, for want of a better word, a little weird.
Giveaway 3 – If your whey protein or blend tastes chalky and bad, it is likely including soy regardless of what the label may say.
Don’t fall for the amino acid smokescreen
Something which manufacturers will often stress in their marketing is how a particular protein is high in particular amino acids even though in a complete protein such as whey protein concentrate there should be a fairly consistent amino acid profile. When we find certain amino acids being emphasised on the label or marketing we should look closer.
To use an example, have you ever seen marketing claims such as “fortified with amino acids” making reference to the protein’s high quantity of particular levels of amino acids? This sounds really good but what does it actually mean?
In practice, what it means is replacing whole protein such as whey protein concentrate with a sprinkling of amino acids which in some cases can be procured more cheaply than whey protein. By taking whey protein out of the formula and replacing it with an amino acid blend which is cheaper to produce, it lowers the product cost but manages to fool the nitrogen tests run by third parties to determine protein content. In other words, water down a protein by replacing some of the protein with amino acids and your product still looks like it is a high quality protein even though some of the protein has actually be taken out. This is why nitrogen testing and claims by manufacturers showing certificates of analysis are worthless.
That doesn’t mean a consumer cannot make a good guess at which proteins may do this. First of all, it tends to be done by small, budget brands with few business controls competing at the bottom of the market on price. This echoes our first point to be wary on low priced proteins offering the world for a pittance as the amino acid trick is one they could be employing to fool nitrogen testing.
A product using amino acid blends will rarely explicitly state this but if the amino acid profile looks off then that is the first sign of trouble as we would expect similar amino acid profiles across different whey protein powders for instance and if a particular protein does not match what it should do then it should serve as a red flag.
Additionally, a protein using amino acids to replace whole proteins is likely to taste bad with the taste suffering increasingly as more protein is replaced with amino acids. They also tend to suffer from being gritty in texture, and mix less easily with a residue of amino acids being almost impossible to dissolve.
Giveaway 4 – Watch out for amino acid blends and claims of protein being fortified with amino acids. Don’t fall for the marketing.
This series of articles has covered all the various issues surrounding how protein powder underdosing and mislabelling can arise and how consumers can learn to identify fraudulent products to better enable them to make informed buying decisions. By bringing this practice into the spotlight we hope that it encourages greater customer awareness and also serves as a signal to those engaged in this type of practice that they should cease from doing so and instead focus on making high quality products to establish credibility in the marketplace.
At Predator Nutrition we believe strongly in offering a service where we put customers first and establish the integrity of the products we sell, even if that means losing sales to those who care only for the price of a product and not its quality. We hope that after reading this series of articles you will agree that in a race to the bottom on price, it is customers who end up losing out by spending their hard earned money on worthless products.
© 2012, Reggie Johal. All rights reserved.