Protein Powder Scams – Spiking and Melamine


Are you getting fake and/or low-quality protein?

Written by Joachim Bartoll, November 2, 2015

Classic Muscle Newsletter, January 2016 (issue #16)

In the past months (end of 2015) several websites have reported about fake protein, mislabeled protein powders and nitrogen spiking. It all began with several class-action lawsuits have been filed on behalf of consumers who unknowingly purchased spiked protein products. You can read one such lawsuit here: Classactionnews.

A lot of the dishonesty that occurs in the supplement industry in the USA, is often blamed on the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, passed by Congress in 1994. This new law permitted greater freedom for companies to produce products that previously may have had to have undergone rigid safety and efficiency testing before it was allowed on the commercial market. With the new law, the burden of safety shifted from the manufacturers to the government. In short, the government, specifically the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), had to prove beyond a doubt that a product or ingredient offered for sale was a danger to public health.

Amino acid spiking

“Amino-spiking”, “protein-spiking” or “nitrogen-spiking” is a widespread practice today and it’s an easy way to save money on manufacturing costs. A basic whey-concentrate-protein cost manufacturers around 5 to 6 dollars a pound, which is about 500 to 600 percent more than what it used to cost in the early 90’s. However, a high-quality whey protein cost the manufacturer as much as 18 dollars or more a pound. While the raw product has become more expensive, the early price wars on the Internet has made the consumer very sensitive to the pricing of protein powders. The margins are very low, so many manufacturers will do almost everything to cut the cost on these products.

Amino acid spiking involves adding extraneous amino acids, including glutamine, glycine, taurine, branched-chain amino acids (BCAA), and others to a cheap whey protein powder. Most of these amino acids are produced in China through the chemical synthesis of keratin, which is derived from throwaways like hair, feathers, and fur, and thus sells for less than a dollar a pound. By buying the cheapest whey protein, with a protein content of about 60 %, and then spike it with cheap amino acids will make the product look like a high-quality protein powder yielding more than 80 grams of “protein” per 100 grams.

While some manufacturers do this secretively, some companies actually use it as a marketing ploy. These companies feature the added amino acids prominently on the label and on their advertisements for the products. The most common ones are “enhanced with creatine and amino acids”, “sustained release protein (casein) with amino acids for longer muscle building benefits”, “amino acids for recovery and muscle growth”, and so on. The companies are counting on the nutritional ignorance of the consumers, who may not be aware that whey protein is particularly rich in amino acids, which is the main reason why it’s a superior protein to begin with! They are leading consumers to believe that the addition of these superfluous amino acids makes a great product even greater, and thus justifies its higher price.

In other words, some companies use a cheaper basic protein, which saves them a lot of money (cutting costs by two thirds!) Then they add a bunch of cheap amino acids, which they follow up by actually raising their products price even further, making a really nice profit from unsuspecting consumers.

Now, you could argue that some amino acids such as glycine or BCAA can be very beneficial. This is true in certain scenarios. Glycine, for example, supports collagen production, supports the liver, and has a calming effect on the nervous system. However, if you have a special need for them, it’s a lot cheaper and more convenient to buy them separately, which allow you complete freedom of managing your own servings and portion sizes. Also, if your protein powder has added amino acids, it’s very difficult to determine the actual quality of the protein used in that product. The more added amino acids and other fillers, the higher is the probability that the manufacturer have used a very cheap and unfiltered protein powder.

So always make sure to read the list of ingredients. If there are individual amino acids listed on the label and in the list of ingredients, things like glutamine, glycine, taurine, valine, isoleucine, and even creatine, it’s been added and you should be cautious (not to be confused with a separate amino acid profile).

False label claims

If we look at the US alone, the FDA has recalled over 237 dietary supplement products over the last nine years, because they contained pharmaceutical drugs that were not listed on the product label. 40 percent of the recalled supplements were sexual enhancement products; 31 percent were bodybuilding supplements; and 27 percent was weight-loss supplements.

In Europe, label claims are much more restricted and monitored by the countries equivalent to the FDA. Some manufactures will try to fool you however, by printing the contents in “dry form”. If you come across a label stating a content of “dry matter” or “dry weight”, be aware that the contents have been calculated from 100 grams totally avoid of water. In real life, this is impossible as a protein powder always have about 4 to 5 percent of “moist” and a protein- or sports bar has 20 to 25 % water contents – otherwise, it would simply be dust.

What about adding potentially harmful ingredients?

Consider the companies that spike their protein powders whit cheap amino acids and try to conceal it. These companies are probably motivated by greed. So, the logical question is… what’s to prevent them from resorting to other methods that boost protein content of the products, but may also pose a significant threat to long-term health?  What if, for example, the makers of such products opt to boost the protein content by adding substances that look like protein when tested (in that they are nitrogen-based), but provide no actual protein activity? What if the protein companies start adding something like melamine to the products?

Back in 2007 a huge pet food recall was issued. Menu Foods announced the recall of dozens of well-known and respected commercial brands of cat and dog food after finding that the food was contaminated, and had been the cause of death in hundreds of cats and dogs. Analysis of the suspected products by the FDA revealed that the food contained melamine, which had been substituted for a common protein ingredient in the food (gluten). Melamine tended to form crystals in the pet’s urine, which then led to kidney damage and in many cases, death of the animal. That same year, New York Times published a story on how Chinese food companies added melamine into fish and livestock to artificially boost the protein content of the foods.

And in 2008, melamine showed up in infant formula products produced in China. Children exposed to this formula often suffered from kidney stones, and some died from renal failure. By December 2008, 300,000 people had become ill, with 50,000 infant hospitalizations and six deaths. Children exposed to melamine show a 7-times greater incidence of kidney stones.

So, why was melamine added to these foods? Simply to cut costs and to make the illusion of a high protein content. You see, melamine contains an average of 66 percent nitrogen, and protein is the only macronutrient that contains nitrogen. However, natural protein foods average only 12% nitrogen. So, if you wanted to falsely inflate the protein content of any food or supplement, you would just dilute it with melamine. Since the concentration of protein content is determined by measurement of its nitrogen content, it’s easy to understand how melamine can stand in for real protein and thus provide a falsely elevated calculation of the protein content of a food or supplement. But unlike real protein, melamine offers no actual nutritional value. It is a synthetic chemical that does have some useful industrial uses, but it should never be added to any food for human or animal ingestion. Melamine is linked to kidney stones and cancer in humans, along with chronic kidney inflammation and even bladder cancer. Other studies show that melamine may cause sperm abnormalities, resulting in eventual infertility. Besides the kidneys, melamine has also showed up in such tissues are the brain, liver, bladder, and spleen. It’s not yet known what these accumulations of melamine does to these organs, but considering what we already know, it’s probably pretty bad.

Has melamine showed up in protein supplements?

There actually was a group of researchers in South Africa who looked into this in early 2015. The researchers issued a questionnaire to athletes across the country to find out which supplements were the most popular. They then purchased and analyzed 138 supplements from their survey.

The analysis showed that 47 percent of the products tested positive for melamine. Of these, 82% were manufactured and sold locally in South Africa and 58 % of the products imported into South Africa tested positive. The testing showed that 38% of the powder supplements contained melamine.

The median concentration estimate for melamine in the products tested were, 6.0 μg/g for the 138 supplements tested, 8.9 μg/g for South African produced products, and 6.9 μg/g for products imported into South Africa.

The melamine levels detected in the nutritional supplements were within the Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) limit guidelines of 200 μg/g as set by WHO and other organizations. However, this “guideline” might very well be considerably lowered in the future as more cases of melamine poisoning surely will surface.
Avoiding a synthetic chemical with no nutritional value and potentially harmful effects should be a no-brainer. 

Note that melamine, being a synthetic chemical, is not found naturally in any protein product made from a food source. As such, its presence in these products would mean that it was added to the product, likely to falsely boost the stated protein content.

So, what can you as a consumer do to avoid products spiked with melamine? One step is to avoid any products that contain ingredients originating from China. China still has a huge surplus of melamine they are sitting on, and they are just itching to dump it. Avoiding any food products and supplements with ingredients from China is actually a taller order than you might think, since the majority of raw nutritional materials used in both American and European supplements are imported from China. A few years ago, when complaints about gastrointestinal distress surfaced in those who used creatine and glutamine supplements, those supplements were traced to Chinese sources, who hold back on the purifying process to save on manufacturing costs.
The final suggestion is to insist that any company that you purchase a protein supplement from can present a certificate of analysis from an independent lab capable of detecting the presence of any melamine or other toxic substance in the product. The companies I’ve worked with has always had certificates for all their products. In other words, honest companies should have no problem sending you a copy.

Melamine contamination in nutritional supplements – Is it an alarm bell for the general consumer, athletes, and ‘Weekend Warriors’?
Gary Gabriels, Mike Lambert, Pete Smith, Lubbe Wiesner, and Donavon Hiss.
Nutr J. 2015; 14: 69.
Published online 2015 Jul 17. doi:  10.1186/s12937-015-0055-7

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