Your Protein Supplement The Best?
What Has Research Really Proven?
the Claims and The Science
by Phil Kaplan
Several years ago
(1998) I gained professional access to a study of commercial
protein supplements and was asked to write an article for
Muscle & Fitness. The article never made it to print as it
would have jeopardized the sales of the magazine's advertisers.
From a business standpoint, that's certainly understandable,
but . . . the public needs to know!
my friend Lee Labrada visited with me on my radio show and
we discussed the effort he has made to make certain "if it's
on the label, it's in the package." It's absurd that there
is glory in such a statement, but with the loose regulations
set upon the supplement industry, meeting label claims may
very well be the exception. That conversation with Lee prompted
me to dredge up this never published article and offer you
the information that is not readily disseminated to the supplement
I should note that
if there was anyone who would have gained from the publication
of the Protein article I'd written, it was Weider Nutrition.
Their Proton product held up respectably. In fact, you might
have seen the information I'm about to share in a Proton ad,
but it was presented "tactfully" and never in a published
Based on my personal
experience, I can attest to three manufacturers striving to
meet label claims. One is Labrada. The second is of course
is your truly as we regularly demand assays to test contents
in my EAT! formulation (and newest products as well). The
third . . . Weider.
I share this information
not as a direct product endorsement (although I am comfortable
with the three product manufacturers I've mentioned) but rather
to provide you, the consumer with a bit of insight into what
goes on behind the scenes so you can make more educated supplement
Here is the article,
never released in any other forum:
are some words that we've learned to recognize as red flags.
There are others that we tend to see as adding some semblance
of validity. For example, if something promises, "Miracle
Weight Loss" or an ad tells readers a new device will "Work
Like Magic," while many become curious, I believe we as fitness
consumers have developed the savvy to know miracles are few
and far between. Put, however, the words, "research has proven"
in an advertisement, and even the most savvy let their guards
down. "Research" sounds legitimate. After all, if some scientists
have proven something to be true . . . who are we to question?
we are the end users, the consumers, and in that, we are the
ones who should question, examine, and raise an eyebrow when
anyone quotes research as having proven anything. There are
two challenges that lie in the questioning strategy. Firstly,
most of us do not "speak the language" of research, so it
might be relatively simple for product manufacturers or advertisers
to skew research results and mislead us as to the true implications
of the study or studies conducted. Secondly, most of us do
not have access to the complete test criteria and results,
so what research has apparently "proven" might often have
been simply "suggested" at best. The first two questions we
must ask, are firstly, "Who is doing the research?" and secondly,
"What is their motivation in doing that research?"
a potato chip company decides to target a weightlifting market,
and they feed 6 weightlifters potato chips, egg whites, and
a mix of spinach and broccoli every morning for breakfast,
and they take 6 other weightlifters and feed them only celery
for breakfast, it's pretty evident which group is more likely
to show more of an increase during the "study." If the ad
for the potato chip product tells you, "research has proven
that weightlifters who ate potato chips achieved greater increases
than those that didn't," you might have a hard time disputing
the statement. After all, they can quote their study. I give
this absurd example simply to illustrate how simple it is
to misinterpret research information for the sake of selling
You may remember the
great "boron" explosion. Apparently research had proven that
boron would boost testosterone levels. More testosterone .
. . drug free! Boron sales skyrocketed. The ads even quoted
a specific study (Nielsen FH, et al. Effect of dietary boron
on mineral, estrogen, and testosterone metabolism FASEBJ,1987;1:394-397).
few bothered to reveal is, that while boron was "proven in
research to increase testosterone," and the ads were targeting
men in quest of muscle, the research study quoted was done
on post menopausal women!
There were the "research
has proven" ads selling single amino acids as great growth
hormone releasers, and now, the protein quality battle rages,
with the front runners holding up "research" as the hallmark
by which they are being judged. Let me help you to "understand
the language," and then learn to make your own evaluations
based on actual information that comes directly out of the
laboratory without passing through copy writers, advertising
gurus, and those who learn to twist and tangle information
so you, the consumer, become confused and vulnerable. Let
me offer you information that leads to clarity.
"language" has become sophisticated. I remember we used to
eat some broiled fish, egg whites or chicken and know we were
getting high quality protein. We even learned to judge proteins
by the now antiquated Protein Efficiency Ratio (PER). Now
we attempt to decipher the ads and labels and we are thrown
a curve by being asked to take into account factors such as
amino acid profiles, peptide chains, and molecular weight.
Whaaat? Research all you want, but what we want to know is
very simple . . . which product is the best?!?!?!
The nice thing about
research is, it does drive supplement companies to live up
to a higher standard as it allows us to recognize those standards.
The Poullain study is the study referred to repeatedly in
the most recent "we have the best protein" ads. Let's put
aside the double talk and make way for a bit of true comprehension.
First of all the study was conducted by Dr. Marie-Gwanaelle
Poullain and was published in the Journal of Parenteral and
Enteral Nutrition. If you ever want to actually look at published
studies, try a University or Medical library. Many can even
be accessed now on the internet. To find the Poullain study
(which by the time you finish this article you probably won't
need to do) pull up Volume 13, No.4, in the year 1989. You'll
find it reported under the title "Effect of Whey Proteins,
Their Oligopeptide Hydrolysates and Free Amino Acid Mixtures
on Growth and Nitrogen Retention in Fed and Starved Rats."
Hmm. Big words. Scientific
jargon with too many syllables? Let me help. Proteins are
made up of amino acids and these amino acids are structured
in chains. You know that. The amino acid profile of a protein,
or the comparative amounts of the specific amino acids, will
likely have an effect on the human bodies willingness to convert
the building blocks of that protein into cells. When you want
to build muscle, you want to get the highest value out of
the proteins you ingest. I don't believe I've ever met a single
bodybuilder or physique athlete who has not found a protein
supplement to be an aid in obtaining all of the material optimal
for muscle maintenance and growth. Since we are likely to
use protein supplements, it would certainly be beneficial
to determine which of the protein supplements out there truly
offer the greatest biological value. With that point made,
let me get back to translating the jargon.
When the amino acid
chains are broken completely apart, we are left with free
form amino acids. When the chains are fully intact, we are
dealing with intact proteins. Easy so far, right? There are
the free form aminos, the intact proteins, and then there
are the "in betweens." A hydrolyzed protein leaves you with
chains of varying amino acid lengths. A di-peptide is a two-amino
acid chain. A tri-peptide is a three amino acid chain. A chain
that is more than three amino acids in length, but doesn't
usually contain more than 10-12 amino acids in total is an
oligopeptide. There. That's not so confusing now, is it?
Now that you understand
the language, understand what Poullain did. Using a whey
protein hydrolysate (oligopeptides), an intact whey
protein, and an equivalent free form amino acid mixture,
Poullain compared the three substances to determine which
would be most efficient in bringing about anabolism or weight
gain in rats. Whey Protein Hydrolysate was the winner. Poullain
also measured nitrogen retention, a component in muscle maintenance
and growth, and found that the Hydrolysate fed rats excreted
less nitrogen. This suggests that nitrogen retention was greater
with the Hydrolysate than either the intact protein or the
amino acid mix.
Poullain study, quoted often in ads for protein products,
indicated that Whey Protein Hydrolysate is more likely
to contribute to anabolism than an intact Whey Protein or
a comparable mix of Free Form Amino Acids. Now you understand.
So what do you do? Begin trimming and splicing the amino acid
chains in your proteins? Of course not! If, however, you are
going to use a protein supplement in quest of muscle growth,
you are now a bit more educated in which ones evidence suggests
will provide the greatest biological value . . . sort of.
We'd like to believe that if a product manufacturer quotes
the Poullain study and suggests or even states that the protein
included in that supplement matches Poullain's hydrolysate,
we're looking at statistical fact based on what "research
has proven." Some insight into a report complied by Lisa M
Unlu on September 18, 1997 might alter your willingness to
The Actual Study
(warning - this
gets a little scientific, a bit clinical, and just a smidge
technical. It's as if you just skiied over the bunny slopes,
and now you're headed for the Black Diamond. Turn your brain
up a notch)
available protein products were analyzed to measure the validity
of their label and ad claims. The analysis procedure is a
bit complex. A process called size exclusion chromatography
was used to determine the molecular weights of the peptides
in each of the commercial products. This allows a profile
of the amount and size of proteins and peptides contained
in a sample. These can then be compared to molecular weight
profiles of reference proteins to determine the true nature
of the protein.
To simplify this,
by breaking down the contents to tiny little components, differences
become apparent. The differences can be held up against reference
proteins so the true contents can be determined. One of the
reference materials was the profile of the whey hydrolysate
used in the Poullain study. Another reference was an intact
Whey Protein Isolate (intact protein). You getting the picture?
Good, we'll go on.
Anyone can make any
claim, and it's pretty darn close to impossible for the average
person to determine whether ingredient claims are true. Thanks
to the ability to examine materials in a laboratory at a microscopic
level, claims can be placed under much more careful scrutiny.
The results of this analysis were interesting.
The four products
- Designer Protein
- Vyo Pro
- Pro-Score 100
Let's look at Designer
Protein first. In an ad for Designer Protein run in Muscle
& Fitness, November, 1997, the copy reads as follows,
"No other protein
in America contains Designer Protein's WPH-Whey Peptides.
Clinical research shows low molecular weight WPH - Whey Peptides
give muscles over 68% more nitrogen than regular whey or free-form
In parenthesis it
then references as follows, (JPEN 18:382, 1989). You now know
that reference to be the Poullain study. Knowing what you
now know, you'd believe that short paragraph and reference
to indicate that the hydrolysates I discussed as proving superior
in the study are the primary ingredient in Designer Protein.
Let's take a look at what the molecular weight profiling revealed.
The molecular weight
profile of the sample of Designer Protein looked remarkably
like the sample of the intact Whey Protein Isolate. In fact,
based on the profile, there does not appear to be any ingredient
in the Designer Protein sample which resembles the hydrolyzed
protein used in the Poullain study. Before I get into the
other three, let me get just a tiny bit more into the science
so you get a better grip on these profiles are analyzed.
you get on the scale, you measure your weight in pounds. Well,
even on a molecular level substances have weight. The unit
used to measure molecular weight is a Dalton. When looking
at the molecular profile of the reference intact protein,
you'll find most of the peptides fall within the molecular
weight range of 10,000 Dalton - 50,000 Dalton. Since a hydrolyzed
protein of course has smaller peptide chains, the molecular
weight of the peptides will be far less. Most of the peptides
in the hydrolyzed protein used in the Poullain study fall
into less than the 1,000 Dalton range. None of the peptides
in the Poullain study hydrolysate fall above 10,000 Dalton.
When comparing molecular weight profiles, it's pretty clear
to see that if one of the substances analyzed contains a substantial
percentage of its peptides falling above 10,000 Dalton, it
is a different substance than the Poullain referenced hydrolysate.
Designer Protein's molecular weight profile indicated that
a good proportion of the peptides (47%) were in the 10,000
- 50,000 Dalton range.
OK, on to Vyo Pro.
Vyo Pro Whey Protein was also advertised in the November 1997
Muscle & Fitness. The Vyo Pro ad also makes reference to the
Poullain study quoting the study's results and indicating
that the Vyo Pro Protein is the same as the oligopeptides
found to be superior in the study. When the Vyo Pro sample
was analyzed it contained 53% of its peptides to be greater
than 10,000 Dalton. Remember, when holding the molecular weight
distributions side by side, you should see similarity if the
content is of the same material as the reference. I'll remind
you here that the Poullain study hydrolysate contained none
of its peptides weighing in at over 10,000 Dalton.
Is this method of
analysis perfect? Nope. It's just a nice way of closing in
on the truth. If, for example, a product adds some single
or free form amino acids, a greater percentage of the contents
will show up in the under 2,000 Dalton range since single
amino acids have substantially less weight than peptide chains.
Keep that in mind as we move on to Pro-Score 100.
Hold on. Do you
need to take a few breaths. Come back to the real world for
a moment or two before going back into the realm of molecular
science? Breathe. That's good. As a point of reference, all
that you've read so far can be simplified as follows: the
proteins mentioned did not appear to meet claims. If you're
ready to go on . . . we'll go onto the next product:
On the Pro-Score
100 label, the first ingredient is listed as follows:
chain amino acid hydrolyzed whey protein concentrate."
When the Pro-Score
sample was analyzed, the profile indicated that it contained
near 40% of its peptides over 10,000 Dalton suggesting intact
proteins. Since the ingredient list also contains L-glutamine,
L-histidine, and L-valine (free form amino acids), this will
account for some of the material showing up in the under 2,000
Dalton range. It's therefore hard to determine whether or
not hydrolyzed proteins were added to the product at all.
Hey, I told you this
wasn't perfect, but it sure is a nice tool in evaluating the
validity of ingredient claims. There is another determinant
which was used in this analysis. Amino acid profiles were
compared. We'll get to that in a moment. Let's first look
at the final product of the four as we remain on the criteria
of molecular weight.
the following claim on its label:
Hydrolysates." "Proton is the first powder to deliver 65%
of its protein as di- and tripeptide rich hydrolysates, enzymatically
predigested...to be far more bioavailable than protein concentrates
or isolates from any source."
The Proton sample
showed near 90% of its peptides in the less than 10,000 Dalton
range. It does not claim to contain "only" protein hydrolysates,
and lists on the ingredient label added caseinate and whey
protein concentrate (intact proteins). That would account
for the small percentage of peptides showing up over 10,000
Dalton. Of the four products analyzed, Proton was the most
similar, in its molecular weight profile, to the hydrolyzed
protein used in the Poullain study.
Finally, I mentioned
that amino acid profiles were also examined. Remember, proteins
are made up of amino acids, so if we compare the proportions
of "building blocks" to those of the reference sample, we
can further evaluate the true ingredients in protein formulations.
I won't go into great detail here, but I will share the conclusions.
The amino acid profiles of Designer Protein, Pro Score 100,
and Vyo Pro all closely resemble the amino acid profile of
intact Whey Protein Isolate. Remember, the Poullain study
showed the Whey Protein Hydrolysate to be superior
to the intact Whey Protein Isolate. This appears consistent
with the conclusions that can be extracted from the molecular
It should also be
noted that all of the products examined claim to be "Glutamine
Enhanced" or "Glutamine Enriched." When their amino acid profiles
were examined, Proton was shown to have substantially more
Glutamic Acid (Glutamine) than the other three samples. Although
all four contained Glutamic Acid, Designer Protein, Vyo Pro,
and Pro-Score 100 did not have Glutamic Acid levels higher
than those found in intact whey proteins suggesting that they
did not have additional Glutamine added.
we determine that this type of testing will help us hone in
on the perfect protein product? Hmmm. Perfection is a term
we use, but I don't know that it truly exists when it comes
to human beings. The perfect amino acid profile with a vile
taste would not offer a "perfect" supplement, nor would a
delicious product with inferior proteins. People won't always
readily eat what laboratory rats do, nor do I believe they
should! Research is many leaps away from the real world, but
a comprehension of valid research does allow us to make more
educated choices in the things we create and/or invest in.
I believe it's important to continue to research, however,
as research continues to "prove," we must open doors for greater
insight into and understanding of the research being conducted.
We are not, nor do we all strive to be, scientists, and we
need to take laboratory results and learn how to utilize those
findings for benefit in the real world.
All I've done in this
article is allowed you a window into "examination" of "research."
I did not conduct the research, nor did I compile the report.
I simply reviewed the information before me, and based on
my interpretation of that information, allowed you a bit of
a greater understanding. With that I hope I offered a bit
of protection. The message, "don't believe everything the
ads say," should come through loud and clear. I believe continued
scrutiny will frequently reveal discrepancy between claims
and reality, and if that drives the nutrition and supplement
industries toward a higher commitment toward quality and honesty,
so be it!
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