Is Your Protein Powder Labelled Correctly?

Do whey protein supplements contain what they say they do?
September 2012

Consumers have a huge range of brands and protein powders to choose from these days. Choice is always a good thing. However, with choice comes the issue of making a good choice, the correct choice or, at the very least, not a bad choice!

There has been consistent upward pressure on the price of whey protein powder for a number of years. The focus of the increase is mainly on WPC80 (an 80% whey protein concentrate) which is beyond the control of the sports supplement nutrition market. This inevitable price increase has led to the introduction of several protein powders of questionable quality and wide variation in company practice. So, how can a consumer protect themselves from poor quality proteins? The following should act as a guide...

Firstly, one needs to understand the different proteins that are used in protein products. The main ingredient in most whey protein blends is a WPC80. A WPC80 will range in protein percentage from 79-83% and this is done on a dry basis. Dry basis basically means that the moisture present is included in the percentages listed above. Moisture varies but 4% is a good average. Therefore, when sold to a consumer in an unflavoured state, we can see that a WPC80 will virtually never be 80% on an as-is basis. As-is means that the moisture is subtracted to get the real percentage; it will range from 75-79%. If we take the average we see that unflavoured on a as-is basis will be comfortably 77%.

Now we need to add the colour, flavour and sweetener. These are not used in large quantities, but you will lose anywhere from 1-9% depending on the type of flavours used. A 9% loss would be for a chocolate with 6% cocoa added and non-concentrated flavours. We have heard of companies using as much as 8% cocoa. Let’s be generous and take 4% for all the flavours, colours and sweeteners, now our WPC80 is 73%. This is still fine and is a good percentage of protein in our opinion.

What does all this mean to you? It means that no WPC80 flavoured on its own can be 80% on an as-is basis. It is mathematically impossible although many claim their products to be 80% or even better. Perhaps some companies will add in some when protein isolate (WPI) to bring up the percentages. Please note that a WPI costs, on average, 30% more than a WPC80.

WPI is typically 90% on an as-is basis. Let’s assume for the demonstration that the WPI is 88.5% as-is (after moisture is subtracted). So, lightly flavoured WPC sample is testing at 73%, how much WPI must be added to take it to 80%? It is only a mere 7% extra protein that we need, so it cannot be much, right? Unfortunately, that is wrong. The isolate, let us not forget only contains and extra 11.5% protein. The actual answer is about 50%. So, to get the mix to 80% overall you would need a 50/50 ratio of WPC to WPI. Is this financially viable as isolates are more expensive than concentrates?

We understand that some companies might only use 1% on their flavours, colours and sweetener. The above example is just that an example; it is a good assessment of what needs to be done to achieve 80% flavoured in a tub on an as-is basis. This is the reason that companies have resorted to underhand tactics in order to maintain or increase profit margins.

The simplest method to con the consumer is simply to not meet your label claims; your protein may say it is 80%, but in reality it could be anywhere from 80% down to 10%; yes, just 10%! Surely, as a savvy consumer you’d notice? Well, we’d all like to think so, but the reality is you won’t. If you test it then you would find out how good or bad the product really is. The good news testing costs less than the cost of your tub of protein!

If it is not protein what is it? Dextrose, maltodextrin or some other carb powder that costs about 10% of the cost of a WPC80.

Hold on, with all the negativity, my supplier tests their tubs now and again that means they must be ok? These guys would know a good tub of whey from a bad one wouldn’t they? Perhaps it is ok and perhaps they are knowledgeable. However, many are not knowledgeable and many do not care. Many companies use a contract packer and many do not know what they are getting despite what they will say.

If the whey tests in the 70 percentile we are happy, but now there’s another potential issues: it could have been cut with soya protein or pea protein both of which are isolates and cost about a third that of a WPC80. There is nothing wrong with pea, soya, dextrose or maltodextrin, the problem is when these are labelled as whey and sold at a comparable price.

When a company sells you a flavoured protein product of 70-85%+ product ask some key questions of the company and exercise your own common sense:

  1. Are the protein contents listed on an as-is or dry basis?
  2. Are the protein contents based on unflavoured or flavoured? Very common.
  3. Is there soya, pea or any added carbohydrates in the blend?
  4. Does the company deal directly with a dairy? Dealing directly with dairy means that there is no contract manufacturer repackaging the protein product for the company. The advantage of this is firstly, a shorter supply chain so the company’s profit margin will be higher so there is less need to contemplate supplying inferior product, and secondly, as there are less people involved in the supply and distribution of the product, there is less chance of interference at any stage that may compromise product quality.
  5. Do they test their products independently and if so did they ever consider an amino acid test to prove the non-existence of other protein sources.

As an intelligent consumer, ask yourself:

    Is the price too good to be true? Do I trust this company? Who supplies this company? Is it a dairy or contract packer? Does this product taste amazing yet still claim 80% protein?

For information on whey protein types, check out our article The Complete Guide to Whey Protein Supplements in Health & Fitness