Exposed! Muscle-building products are whey too low in the good stuff
Far too many protein supplements don’t live up to the claims on their labels and may be ineffective
Most of SA’s bestselling whey protein products don’t live up to the protein content claims on their labels, or meet the amino acid levels stipulated the by health department.
The products (in powder form) are widely consumed by the sports and fitness community to help gain muscle and lose fat, and studies have shown they can be effective – but only if properly formulated.
As part of his Masters research in the field of pharmacy, Durban pharmacist Kiolan Naidoo, along with Varsha Bangalee and Rowena Naidoo, had an accredited lab in Pretoria analyse 15 of SA’s top selling whey protein products. They wanted to find out if they matched the protein analysis on their labels and whether they complied with the health department’s food labelling regulations in terms of amino acid content.
Of the 15 products, 11 are produced in SA. Lab analysis found significant discrepancies between what the labels claimed and actual amino acid content, suggesting that many manufacturers are deliberately manipulating and overstating the protein content of their products, Naidoo said.Nine (60%) of the 15 products were non-compliant with the regulations in terms of their amino acid profile. And of the 11 SA products, eight (73%) were non-compliant.
An article based on the study, “Understanding the Amino Acid Profile of Whey Protein Products”, was published in this month’s issue of the Global Journal of Health Science. There was a “considerable” variance in the samples between what they claimed on their labels, and what the lab test revealed to be the actual amino acid content – between 16% and 48%.
As is always the case with academic studies, the names of the whey protein brands are not revealed. In the absence of any “naming and shaming”, the study authors hope their findings lead to better regulation by the authorities, and more activism on the part of consumers by holding retailers to account.
“I believe the onus on product integrity lies with the retailers,” Naidoo said. “They need to routinely facilitate lab testing to ensure that the products they are selling are safe and living up to their label claims. And one hopes that in time consumers will vote with their spend and only support retailers which protect their consumers in that way.”
Dis-Chem initiated such a commitment with its “Choose Safe Supplements” testing drive a few years ago. Dietary supplements in general aren’t well regulated in SA, Naidoo said, sitting as they do in a space between food and pharmaceuticals.
“While they are not quite foods, many of them are concentrated forms of food, but the claims they make are more closely resembling pharmaceuticals,” he said.Traditionally, Naidoo said, the protein content of whey-based products was tested by analysing the nitrogen content. But as that method is open to abuse by manufacturers, who add cheap fillers to artificially inflate the protein content, he and his fellow researchers opted instead for an amino acid analysis of the products, which is considered to be more accurate.
“The key amino acid for protein synthesis is leucine. In almost all of the products we tested, the leucine content was below what the label stated, and that’s because leucine is one of the more expensive amino acids. So most consumers investing in whey protein are not getting the results they could be getting if they were properly formulated.”
The mislabelling of protein supplements is not confined to SA – there has been a spate of law suits in the US after lab results revealed that several companies had grossly overstated the protein content of their products.
Asked to comment on the study, Dr Harris Steinman, a medical doctor who has laid scores of complaints against various dietary supplements’ misleading claims with the Advertising Standards Authority since the early 2000s, said it was a valuable contribution to the debate in SA.
“The methodology of the study is good and the argument is sound; that is, for one to benefit from additional protein for building muscle, it has to be balanced in amino acids. If not, the protein needs to get the missing amino acids from another source before building muscle, or else the ‘protein’ simply becomes fuel for the body.
“So if a person consumes a whey supplement short of a critical amino acid, unless they get it from another source (such as a vegetable that contains that amino acid), the protein cannot be used for building muscle,” Steinman said.