Protein powder is one of the most important bodybuilding supplements, yet it's the one that's most vulnerable to manufacturer monkey business.
Let me throw this hypothetical at you: How would you know if the protein powder you're using is any good?
It's not like poor quality stuff would make you feel any worse, and if you didn't add any muscle during the time you were using it, you'd likely blame it on your diet, your training program, or even your mom and pop for passing on some rotten genes.
Your protein powder is probably the last thing you'd blame, but unfortunately, that's exactly what some scurrilous protein manufacturers are counting on.
Your Honor, Let Me Present My Case
I've been involved at some level in the design, manufacture, or marketing of various high-quality protein powders for almost 30 years. While making good protein powders was a moral imperative, it was also a selfish endeavor because I wanted to personally use protein powder that works as advertised.
I'm a lifter and I want to be healthier, so there's no way in hell I'd want to contribute my efforts or expertise to something that didn't meet my needs.
But I've seen some things, ugly things, along the way. Below are a few of them and I've broken these various tactics down into two categories: "misdemeanors" and downright "crimes."
The misdemeanors are things that weren't exactly dishonest, but end up costing you extra money for no reason, while the crimes I describe are exactly that – crimes – done with nothing but profit in mind and no regard for the consumer. Hopefully, this info will help protect you from making poor protein powder purchases in the future.
Fair warning, though: At the end of the article, I'm going to act in a self-serving manner and tell you that the protein powder you should use is the one made by Biotest, the company I work for, but I'll do it in good conscience because I know it's a terrific, honest product.
Misdemeanor – Ready-to-Drink (RTD) Protein Products
The idea of grabbing a cold can of a pre-prepared protein drink out of the gym cooler as you head out the door is hugely appealing, but these drinks pose a couple of problems.
First of all is the high price, but you're not really paying for any exotic, muscle-building proteins contained in the formulation. Instead, you're paying for water.
Let me explain. The main ingredient in these products, by necessity, is water. Water weighs a lot. Water costs a lot to ship. What you're paying for is directly related to what UPS or the USPS or Fed-Ex charges for shipping heavy items.
Gasoline costs money. Jet fuel costs money. The meth long-distance truckers use to stay awake costs money. The herniated discs the workers suffer from having to hoist the heavy boxes and pallets on and off trucks costs money.
To make up for those added expenses, manufacturers are forced to use lower-quality proteins. Additionally, the FDA requires that RTDs be pasteurized, so it'd be of little use to include expensive proteins in the first place because the heat from pasteurization would destroy a lot of the delicate peptides, glycomacro- and otherwise, that make certain proteins highly desirable.
Don't get me wrong, you're still getting protein from these drinks, but as far as nitrogen-retention and all that other good, muscle-building stuff, it's not much better than the protein in your nana's SlimFast.
Crime – Using Chinese Proteins
China has long been a place where you can buy really cheap protein powder. They pay their workers really poorly and they don't have to conform to any of those pesky regulations that plague American companies, so manufacturers can charge low prices and still make big profits. The trouble is, the lack of regulations allows them to cut a lot of corners.
A few years ago, Consumer Reports did a study on 15 popular whey protein powders – several of which originated in China – and found that regular use of these products could expose their consumers to toxic levels of heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, and lead.
Not all of that contamination was intentional, though, as at least one-fifth of all farmland in China is contaminated with these aforementioned heavy metals and the cows can't help but turn into walking chemical waste dumps.
What appears to be intentional, though, is the other contaminants routinely found in Chinese protein powders, among them melamine, a chemical compound used in the production of glues, laminates, adhesives, and flame-retardants. It does not grow muscle.
While this problem was supposedly taken care of after a huge, stateside ruckus, no one's recently bothered to see if the use of melamine has resumed. It's a mess. Then there's the specter of other contaminants. Various non-protein "health" products from China have also been found to contain heavy metals, pharmaceutical drugs, and even DNA from endangered species like snow leopards.
I can't even venture a guess as the reason for that last one.
Of course, with the advent of the trade war and the imposition of a 25% tariff on Chinese whey proteins, American manufacturers might soon be seeking alternative sources to these previously cheap Chinese proteins. Let's just hope that the next thing they use is a little less ruinous to health.
Crime – Using Garbage Proteins
Raw whey protein concentrates (WPC) come in different "strengths," much like erectile dysfunction drugs or mouthwash. At the low end of the scale is WPC34, which is only 34 to 36 percent protein and between 48 to 52 percent lactose. At the high end is WPC80, which is 80 to 82 percent protein and only 4 to 8 percent lactose.
Guess which one protein powder companies use when they want to save money? Guess which ones are likely prevalent in the "really good deal" two-pound tubs you see on the shelves at the drugstore?
Misdemeanor – Organic, Grass-Fed Protein Powders
At first glance, protein powder from grass-fed cows sounds like a great idea. It's bound to be healthy, right? Sure, more essential fatty acids, no antibiotics, and no bovine growth hormones to make weird tumors sprout from your body. And forget about sprinkling it around the floorboards to kill vermin because it's also pesticide free.
But here's the thing: Virtually all legitimate, quality protein powders are antibiotic free and pesticide free, just like grass-fed, organic varieties.
Isolating whey, especially the top tier varieties, is a delicate, laborious process. You have to effectively separate out and concentrate individual whey components while removing almost all fat and fat residues. That process removes any potential contaminants like antibiotics and even pesticides.
The end result is a product as clean as any grass-fed, organic protein powder, so it's ridiculous to shell out more money for grass-fed versions that are likely riding high on the aura of purity and health associated with all things grass-fed and natural rather than science.
And while it's true that milk from grass-fed cows has a better fatty-acid profile than milk from corn or grain-fed cows, the difference is negligible. Dietitian and sports nutritionist Sean Casey points out that in the processing of standard whey protein, manufacturers take out almost all the fat, leaving maybe about 2 grams per serving.
Using a little math, he calculates that the average 25-gram serving of protein from the milk of grass-fed cows would contain roughly 8 mg. more essential fatty acids than an equivalent amount of protein powder derived from conventional cows.
If you consider that a serving of high-quality, concentrated fish oil capsules contains over 3,000 mg. of essential fatty acids, 8 extra mg. of essential fatty acids is hardly enough to thump your chest about. Paying extra for grass-fed protein is pointless.
Oh, one last thing regarding organic protein powder: the alleged lack of bovine somatotropin (bST, or growth hormone). Here's the thing: ALL cows produce growth hormone naturally, and the levels of it found in milk range from zero to 10 parts per billion, but more importantly, the levels of bST found in the milk of cows treated with the drug hasn't been found to be any higher than levels found in cows not treated with it. So there.
Misdemeanor – "Fake" Caseins
People generally choose casein over whey because they want a slow-digesting protein that provides the body with a steady influx of amino acids while not dramatically raising insulin levels.
The trouble is, bargain basement proteins that you often find at drug stores next to the hemorrhoid cream are often composed of sodium or calcium caseinate, which are absorbed by the body as quickly or more quickly than whey proteins. As such, they cause a rapid rise of insulin and likewise don't provide sustained levels of amino acids.
While they're not exactly fakes, they're certainly not doing the job caseins are supposed to do. They're like the knock-off Gucci purse your girlfriend picked up at the flea market that pops a stitch every time she opens it.
Crime – Protein Spiking
Protein, amino, or nitrogen "spiking" is the practice of selling supplements spiked with cheap fillers that are passed off as complete protein. Complete proteins are of course made up of the nine amino acids the body can't make, and we need complete protein to build muscle.
But that's not what you get in some protein powders. According to reports, one company's protein powder allegedly contained only 19 of the 40 grams of protein per serving it claims to have. Another company claimed 27 grams of protein on the label but tested out as containing only 12. Yet another company claimed 50 grams on the label. The actual amount? Nineteen grams.
Think about it. You're probably aiming to get a certain amount of protein per day and a portion of that probably comes from a protein supplement. You jot down 150 grams of protein in your food log coming from one of these protein powders, but in reality you're only getting 57. Think that might throw off your planned macros just a bit?
What these scoundrels are doing is reducing their manufacturing costs by only putting in a bit of whole protein and then "spiking" it with cheap amino acids like taurine, glycine, glutamine, and even creatine.
Companies get away with it because the amount of protein in a product is measured by the amount of nitrogen it contains. Protein is made up of amino acids and all amino acids contain nitrogen, but the normal tests don't differentiate between complete proteins and amino acids, hence the discrepancy between label claims and reality.
While these individual amino acids are all important in human nutrition and using them to supplement your amino-acid intake is sometimes reasonable, counting them as complete proteins that your body can use to build muscle is a muscle-losing proposition.
The prosecuting attorneys stepped in and some companies got in big trouble for all this chicanery, but we still need to remain vigilant to this sneaky, immoral practice.
Okay, What Protein Powder Should I Use?
As you can glean from the preceding, I've seen what some companies have done to make crappy protein powders, or protein powders/drinks that cost more than they should for reasons that are either inaccurate, dishonest, misleading, or have nothing to do with the quality of their product (organic protein powders/RTDs).
As such, I know what things count in making a good protein powder.
Here's where I get a bit self-serving. While I didn't create Biotest's Metabolic Drive®, I played a small role in its development and I'm adamant that it remains one of the best – possibly the best – protein powders on the market.
And you can be damn sure it's not guilty of any of the protein crimes and misdemeanors I've listed above. Quite the contrary, it's made of the highest quality, most advanced, best muscle-building proteins available.
For one, it contains a substantial amount of micellar casein, which is composed of soap bubble-like molecules (micelles) that form a bolus in the stomach when we consume them. As such, they digest really slowly.
It's really hard to make a protein powder from micellar casein. You have to handle it with kid gloves and leave the milk proteins largely unmolested. As I'm fond of saying, it's almost like catching snowflakes in Maine and shipping them intact to California with a truck driver who stops outside a bar in the Mojave Desert to slam down a few tequilas.
That's why micellar casein products are relatively rare and have a higher price.
It's well worth it, though, because micellar casein is the only protein that's been shown to be anti-catabolic (Boire, 1997), meaning not only does it increase protein synthesis, it helps prevent muscle breakdown during and after intense exercise.
Metabolic Drive® also contains the highest quality whey isolate, but let me tell you why we chose whey isolate instead of one of the other two types of whey. Whey concentrate contains the greatest amount of immunoglobulins (proteins that help the body put a hurt on viruses and bacteria), but it's the poorest muscle-building subspecies of whey proteins.
Whey hydrolysate, on the opposite end of the whey spectrum, is the most expensive type of whey. It contains no fat or cholesterol and is quickly digested, but sadly it contains no immunoglobulins.
That makes whey isolate, for most purposes, the best choice of the three types of whey protein. It's fast acting, gently membrane-filtered to minimize lactose, carbohydrate, and fat, and then instantized for superior dispersibility. It's ideal for jumpstarting the muscle-building process and it also retains a portion of the previously mentioned immunoglobulins.
The fact is, the proteins used in Metabolic Drive® are so pricey that the product would be prohibitively expensive if we sold it at stores, possibly costing two or even three times what you can get it for through the on-line Biotest store.
That's because when you sell your product in stores, you have to mark it up big-time to pay for all the middlemen and the shelf space and Larry the stock boy's insurance. So, when you see a two-pound tub of protein on the shelf that sells for under 30 dollars, you pretty much know that it's composed of some of the worst proteins in existence. Treat it like radioactive waste.
Oh yeah, one more thing: A few years ago, Men's Health gave Metabolic Drive® an award for "Best Tasting Protein Powder," if things like that matter to you.
Lots of Good Ones Out There, But...
I want to be very clear in stating that not all other supplement companies spike their protein powders, get them from China, use garbage proteins, or plain, flat-out lie their asses off about their product. There are probably several that are damn good. The only trouble is, even I'm not sure which ones they are. As I've made clear in this article, there are just too many ways to be sneaky about it.
All I can say with complete confidence is that our stuff, Metabolic Drive®, is made with the highest regard to integrity and, equally important, building muscle.