Over the years, there have been many scandals in the supplement industry, especially from less reputable and smaller brands. Many of these scandals fell into one of three major categories:
- The inclusion of undisclosed ingredients – A common occurrence, especially in pre-workouts; companies using this strategy are often small, up-and-comers wanting to bolster the popularity of the product through using banned ingredients which had a definite effect but may result in dangerous side effects.
- Using dangerous ingredients – Often not deliberate, the use of potent novel compounds and botanicals by companies may result in negative side effects further down the track leading to the ingredient to be banned.
- Mislabelling – Protein powders and amino acid supplements are the biggest culprits whereby the stated values of protein and amino acids are lower than what is suggested and outside the acceptable error range.
More recently however, there has been talk of a new strategy that certain companies are using to minimise the costs of their protein powders and this method is known as ‘amino acid spiking’.
What is Amino Acid Spiking?
Amino acids as you may or may not be aware of are the building blocks of protein. There are 22 standard amino acids that are used to make protein in the human body with 9 of them being known as essential amino acids. That is, we require these 9 essential amino acids in the diet as our body cannot make them. Current analysis of protein content in protein powders is based on total nitrogen, which isolated and single amino acids can contribute to. As such, there has been much scrutiny on the act of ‘amino acid spiking’, in which companies are said to ‘spike’ their protein powders with cheap and non-essential amino acids such as glycine and taurine. As a result, the protein content is driven right up without having to use actual and expensive protein powder such as whey, casein and the like.
Amino Acid Spiking with Glycine
While many trainers and people in the supplement industry consider glycine to be a filler ingredient, there is some new research to suggest that glycine may be more useful than originally thought. Previously, glycine has been used in the clinical setting as an anti-inflammatory agent, an immunomodulatory agent, an antioxidant and a cytoprotective agent1. While this mechanism has not been explained, it is thought that glycine’s role as a raw material for glutathione synthesis may be the answer. Glutathione is a potent antioxidant in the body which is made up of the three amino acids, cysteine, glutamic acid and glycine.
A very recent study2 by Ham et al used this initial information as a basis for their latest experiment looking at the role of glycine on cachexia; a skeletal muscle wasting condition in cancer patients. Interestingly, the administration of glycine was able to attenuate or blunt loss of muscle mass in tumour bearing mice. In addition, neither the amino acids alanine or citrulline were able to elicit the same beneficial effects. While this was an animal study and one that looked at a clinical condition, further research may support glycine’s role as an anti-catabolic agent protecting against muscle breakdown.
Furthermore, another recent study3 looking at the effects of different protein diets on metabolism found that high shellfish protein diets resulted in the most positive body composition parameters. That is, mice eating high fat and high sugar diets along with shellfish as their prime source of protein gained the least amount of fat and kept the most amount of lean muscle. Interestingly, shellfish protein is also the highest in the amino acids glycine as well as taurine. While this was a joint industry and government study, there is hope that diets higher in glycine and taurine may be able to assist with obesity management.
Amino Acid Spiking with Taurine
Taurine is another one of those cheap amino acids that many ‘amino acid spiking’ spruikers suggest as being a main culprit ingredient. As shown above, taurine may have a beneficial role in the management of obesity in the face of high fat and high sugar diets so prevalent today. In addition, taurine supplementation has been shown to support reduction of muscle soreness4 and muscle breakdown5 as well as enhanced fat oxidation6, exercise performance7 and even testosterone increases8.
Of course, there aren’t enough studies to conclusively support taurine supplementation, however there is promise that the addition of taurine to protein powders may also be more beneficial than originally thought.
Amino Acid Spiking with Creatine
Creatine is another ingredient that some suggest as being utilised by companies who spike their protein powder. Because it is an inexpensive raw material made from the amino acids glycine, arginine and methionine, it can also boost the protein content of a protein powder. While most people understand that creatine is one of the best and most effective supplements around, many also believe they have no place in a protein powder. However, this is simply not the case. The majority of people only require less than 3g of creatine to benefit from its effects in the long term9. In addition, because it has been established that protein can elicit an insulin response10, the inclusion of creatine with protein can help to supports its absorption.
Further research has shown that creatine is also best taken post-workout as opposed to pre-workout for best effects on body composition and strength11, and since the majority or protein users tend to consume their protein post-training, it makes perfect sense to include creatine in a protein powder.
Amino Spiking is Acceptable
There are certain situations where added aminos is acceptable and rather than use the term "amino spiked", it's more prudent to use the term "amino enriched" or "amino fortified". Here are three situations where the addition of aminos is often considered a fitting practice.
- Addition of Leucine to Protein - Leucine is well known as the most anabolic amino acid around and the addition of extra leucine is always welcome.
- Addition of Glutamine to Protein - Glutamine is one of the most abundant amino acids, but those that train regularly and at high intensity's will find that their glutamine levels can decline leaving their immune system at risk. As such, the addition of glutamine in protein may help to support a healthy immune system post workouts and help get you back into the gym faster.
- Addition of Creatine to Protein - As previously mentioned, creatine is considered one of the most ergogenic ingredients around and it's addition to protein powders is handy, especially for those who aren't taking creatine.
How Do I Know If My Protein is Amino Spiked?
While there’s plenty of evidence to support these most common additions to protein powders including glycine, taurine and creatine; no doubt some companies are utilising this method to jack up their protein powders protein content. So how can you tell if your protein powder is being amino spiked?
1. From the studies so far, you only need 7-10g of glycine and up to 2g of taurine to help elicit their proposed benefits. Therefore, if you see glycine and taurine together in the ingredients list straight after the main proteins, the product has most likely been spiked. A good protein powder should have more added BCAAs (branched chain amino acids) and glutamine than added glycine.
2. You don’t really need more than 3g of creatine per serve of protein, so if the company does not advertise the amount of creatine they have and it’s fairly high on the ingredients list, you might be seeing a ‘spiked’ protein. However, this is not always the situation and one should analyse each protein on a case by case basis.
3. If you see any other fairly odd amino acid quite high on the ingredients list (except leucine and glutamine), you may be looking at a ‘spiked’ protein.
4. Does the protein packaging list a full panel of its amino acid constituents? Company's who are willing to fully disclose the amounts of amino acids in their protein powder are less likely to be amino spiked.
Amino Acid Spiking in Protein
Of course, the above is only a guide to tell if a protein powder might be spiked with aminos and creatine. With increasing evidence to support the benefits of supplementing with different types of amino acids however, there’s no telling whether or not many of these amino acid additions are beneficial in the long term. This article wasn’t written as a support for amino spiking, rather it examines in-depth the whole picture and how it’s not as black and white as some people make it out to be. Knowing that the practice does occur, the benefits of the ingredients in question as well as how to weed out obvious ‘spiked’ proteins will help you make a better and more informed choice about which protein you should be buying.
What Are The Best Protein Powders That Aren't Spiked?
While there are plenty of proteins that match this criteria, here is a quick top 6 list of some of the best protein powders you can get:
- Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey - Optimum Nutrition are one of the biggest protein companies in the world and their powders are of the highest quality with a protein content that is pretty much bang on to what is advertised. Gold Standard 100% Whey is exactly that, a gold standard to what a good protein powder should be.
- Cellucor COR-Performance Whey - Cellucor are also one of the better companies in the industry and are best known for their pre workout Cellucor C4 Extreme. Their protein powders have never come under scrutiny and they don't use any added aminos.
- Elemental Nutrition 100% Whey - One of the premier Aussie brands, Elemental Nutrition 100% Whey is a super high quality whey protein that has added leucine for improved muscle building. It's an easy to mix powder which is suitable for any type of trainer.
- Max’s SuperWhey - Another great Australian institution, Max's supplements are considered by many in the know to be some of the best supplements around. Their recent releases and reformulations have made their supplements even better and are definitely one of the most trusted brands around.
- Dymatize Nutrition Elite Whey - Dymatize Nutrition have really turned their image around since its early days and are considered one of the better and more prominent supplement brands around. Their Elite Whey utilises a great mix of whey protein isolate and whey protein concentrate with plenty of peptide fractions to help get the amino acids faster into your system.
- Pure Supps 100% Whey - Pure Supps may be a relatively new brand, but they're already making their mark in the industry. Their 100% Whey is completely transparent in their amino acid profiles and has a full spectrum of added vitamins and minerals to support good health. It's a cost effective Aussie made product which will provide you with all the right ingredients to grow and recover.
Again, this is far from a definitive list and you should never discount a protein powder simply because it has added aminos or creatine without really analysing the supplement in detail.1. Zhong Z, Wheeler MD, Li X, Froh M, Schemmer P, Yin M, Bunzendaul H, Bradford B, Lemasters JJ. ‘L-Glycine: a novel antiinflammatory, immunomodulatory, and cytoprotective agent.’ Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2003 Mar;6(2):229-40.
2. Ham DJ, Murphy KT, Chee A, Lynch GS, Koopman R. ‘Glycine administration attenuates skeletal muscle wasting in a mouse model of cancer cachexia.’ Clin Nutr. 2014 Jun;33(3):448-58. doi: 10.1016/j.clnu.2013.06.013. Epub 2013 Jun 26.
3. Tastesen HS, Keenan AH, Madsen L, Kristiansen K, Liaset B. ‘Scallop protein with endogenous high taurine and glycine content prevents high-fat, high-sucrose-induced obesity and improves plasma lipid profile in male C57BL/6J mice.’ Amino Acids. 2014 Mar 23.
4. Ra SG, et al. Additional effects of taurine on the benefits of BCAA intake for the delayed-onset muscle soreness and muscle damage induced by high-intensity eccentric exercise. Adv Exp Med Biol. (2013)
5. da Silva LA, Tromm CB, Bom KF, Mariano I, Pozzi B, da Rosa GL, Tuon T, da Luz G, Vuolo F, Petronilho F, Cassiano W, De Souza CT, Pinho RA. ‘Effects of taurine supplementation following eccentric exercise in young adults.’ Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2014 Jan;39(1):101-4.
6. Rutherford JA, Spriet LL, Stellingwerff T. The effect of acute taurine ingestion on endurance performance and metabolism in well-trained cyclists. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. (2010)
7. Balshaw TG, et al. The effect of acute taurine ingestion on 3-km running performance in trained middle-distance runners. Amino Acids. (2012)
8. Yang J, et al. CSD mRNA expression in rat testis and the effect of taurine on testosterone secretion. Amino Acids. (2010)
9. Buford T, Kreider R, Stout J, Greenwood M, Campbell B, Spano M, Ziegenfuss T, Lopez H, Landis J, Antonio J: International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: creatine supplementation and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 2007, 4:6.
10. Pal S, Ellis V. ‘The acute effects of four protein meals on insulin, glucose, appetite and energy intake in lean men.’ Br J Nutr. 2010 Oct;104(8):1241-8.
11. Antonio J, Ciccone V. ‘The effects of pre versus post workout supplementation of creatine monohydrate on body composition and strength.’ J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013 Aug 6;10:36.