Is Your Protein Supplement The Best?
What Has Research Really Proven?

Re-Examining 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!

Recently 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 buying public.

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 "editorial" format.

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 selections.

Here is the article, never released in any other forum:

The Article:

There 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?

Well, 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?"

If 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 products.

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).

What 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.

Protein "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.

Review: The 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 blindly believe.

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)

Four commercially 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 analyzed were:

  • Designer Protein
  • Vyo Pro
  • Pro-Score 100
  • Proton

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 amino acids."

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.

When 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:

"High branched 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.

Proton contains the following claim on its label:

"65% Protein Hydrolysates." "Proton is the first powder to deliver 65% of its protein as di- and tripeptide rich hydrolysates, enzymatically 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 weight profiling.

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.

Do 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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