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Dangers at the Gym: Misleading Protein Supplement Claims May Harm Consumers

The New Year brought with it new opportunities to begin and maintain a fitness regimen. In addition to purchasing exercise equipment and sports club memberships, many consumers will turn to protein powders and supplements to boost results at the gym. Indeed, according to the International Food Information Council Food and Health Survey, 50 percent of respondents claimed that they were either planning to consume a certain amount of dietary supplements or would be consuming as much protein products as possible.

Popularity of Protein-Rich Diets May Lead to “Protein Spiking”

As diets such as Paleo gain popularity, protein supplements have shifted from the purview of body-builders to those interested in weight-loss and a healthy lifestyle. Marketed as an alternative to carbohydrates and essential to sustaining energy and increasing satiety after a meal, protein is in high demand by consumers. However, this has led to a phenomenon called “protein spiking” by unscrupulous companies.

There are two main types of protein spiking: the first involves the use of melamine or urea and the other is the use of amino acids such as glycine. Both types of additives are less expensive than the base protein powder that is marketed, leading to higher margins for the manufacturer. While this is clearly a fraudulent business practice and decreases the performance of the product, the more dangerous outcome for consumers is that the inclusion of the additives will likely alter the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) which may cause health issues for some. Specifically, while amino acids are a key component of protein, they do not possess the same beneficial effects. For example, the human body is less able to properly absorb and digest certain amino acid fragments.

Further, the greater risk lies with “spiking” protein supplements with melamine which is a nitrogen-rich chemical used to make plastic and fertilizer. Though melamine has natural sources such as wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate, studies have shown that human infants who consume large amounts of melamine-laced infant formula experienced kidney and urinary tract infections. In some cases, infant fatalities have also been recorded.

Regulation of Protein Supplements

According to the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations for foods and supplements allow protein to be calculated as a factor of nitrogen content. Yet, the sources of nitrogen are not required to be disclosed on the label. To ensure clarity for consumers, as well as to reach a consensus on the standard among manufacturers, in March 2014, AHPA issued a voluntary guidance on the labeling of protein in food and dietary supplement products and suggested a six-month time frame to adhere to the guidance. These recommendations includes:

  • Defining protein as “a chain of amino acids connected by peptide bonds” for labeling purposes;
  • Using calculations to include only proteins that are “chains of amino acids connected by peptide bonds”; and,
  • Excluding any “non-protein nitrogen-containing substances” when counting total protein content.

At The Pittman Firm, we are dedicated to fighting to protect consumers who use dietary and sports supplements. If you have been misled by a protein manufacturer labeling claim, contact us for a case review to determine if you may be eligible for compensation.


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