MIDDAY SPECIAL: Are labels on protein supplements deceptive? Experts reveal how

20 May,2024 07:26 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Ainie Rizvi

Popular protein supplement brands like Herbalife, Nutrela, Quista Pro Himalaya have been found to carry deceptive labels, according to a self-funded study published in Medicine Journal

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An open study from the Medicine Journal by Lippincott has found traces of arsenic, lead, copper and other life-threatening elements in 25 Indian protein manufacturing brands like Herbalife, Nutrela, Quista Pro Himalaya.

Earlier in May, The Indian Council of Medical Research released 17 dietary guidelines for Indians that caution against the use of protein supplements.

The study notes that protein supplements are often mislabelled and deceptive in their contents. "Both arsenic and lead exposure, even at low levels, impact human health in the form of an increased risk of cancer, blood disorders, gastrointestinal diseases," reveals Dr Cyriac Abby Philips who has led the research at Rajagiri Hospital, Aluva in Kerala.

Findings from the study:

1. 25 protein supplements out of 36 (69.4 per cent) were mislabeled in protein content.
2. Most protein supplements did not meet the labelled and advertised protein content, while certain brands surpassed the stated levels, raising concerns about 3. potential "protein/amino-spiking."
3. In addition, the major brands contained detectable fungal toxins and pesticide residues.
4. Herbal and dietary supplements (HDS), including protein-based formulations with or without added botanical ingredients, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and other natural or synthetic products, are a growing concern for hepatotoxicity and are associated with liver injury, failure, and death.
5. Compared to multinational manufacturing brands, Indian protein brands were of lower quality, associated with higher chances of contamination and poor manufacturing practices, and were at risk of including multiple liver toxic ingredients, mostly in the form of herbal blends.
6. Briefly, 16 (64 per cent) brands out of 25 that had mislabeled protein content were made by India-based manufacturers.
7. Heavy metals that negatively impact human health such as lead and arsenic were found within many major formulations.

A wake-up call looms on the horizon for those consuming protein supplements for bodybuilding or dietary purposes. Given how major food companies including BournVita, Nestle, MDH, Everest Masale and more have come under FSSAI's radar for selling mislabeled products, it becomes imperative to scan the labels.

How to read labels on protein supplements

While consuming protein supplements, one must know how to read the labels accurately. Functional nutritionist Suyash Bhandari, Chief of iThrive Essentials, shares key factors to consider before investing in high-quality protein supplements:

Check how clean the supplement is
Look at the ingredients list for any additives such as artificial sweeteners, flavours, colours, emulsifiers and preservatives. Ideally, a clean protein supplement should have minimal ingredients, primarily the protein source. If sweeteners are included, natural options like stevia or monk fruit are preferable.

Determine the type of protein used in the supplement
This could be whey protein (concentrate or isolate), plant-based proteins (such as pea or brown rice), essential amino acids, or animal-based proteins (such as beef or chicken). The source of the protein can affect its bioavailability and how well your body can absorb and use it.

Consider the bioavailability of the protein
This indicates how easily your body can absorb and utilise it. Essential amino acids generally have the highest bioavailability, followed by whey protein. Plant proteins tend to have lower bioavailability because they are harder for the body to break down and absorb.

Look for certifications ensuring quality and safety

This includes third party lab testing, certifications for being free from banned substances (important for athletes), and testing for contaminants like pesticides, insecticides and other toxins. Check whether the use of the supplement is authorised by regulatory bodies like the FSSAI.

"Label Padhega India" initiative by Food Pharmer: Revant Himatsingka, a Kolkata-based content-creator has started a health movement against misleading food products. While encouraging people to read labels is just the beginning, it is equally crucial to comprehend the implications of that information, remarks Bhandari.

Merely reading labels isn't sufficient. Consumers need to be educated on how to interpret the information provided and how to make decisions based on it. This involves understanding not only what the labels convey but also how to utilise that knowledge to make healthier and more optimal choices.

Identify mislabelling on protein supplements

Aman Puri, founder of Steadfast Nutrition, a sports nutrition and wellness brand remarks that in the case of buying herbal or ayurvedic alternatives, consumers need to check the percentage of the content that actually benefits their health. If a product steers clear of the quality, taste or composition testing, then it is a clear indicator that the supplement is not fit for standard consumption.

If a plant protein supplement claims to be highly bioavailable or to contain all essential amino acids, it could be misleading. While these claims might be chemically accurate, plant proteins are generally harder to digest and absorb, meaning the body might not utilise all the amino acids effectively, adds Bhandari.

Another indicator is the use of numerous unnamed additives and preservatives. These might not match what is listed on the label, or they might not be fully disclosed, which can mislead consumers about the product's actual content.

Incomplete labelling is a clear giveaway of non-genuine products. This includes missing details about the ingredients, nutritional facts, protein source and whether the product has been tested for allergens like soy and gluten. Some supplements might list only a few ingredients while omitting others, or use vague terms like "acceptance" to conceal preservatives and additives. Lack of transparency in these areas can indicate potential mislabelling, stresses Bhandari.

Potential health risks

Gym enthusiasts, athletes, and young people have increasingly turned to protein supplements as a lifestyle choice for muscle-building, Dr. Puneet Bhuwania, Consultant Nephrologist & Transplant Physician at Wockhardt Hospitals, Mira Road tells Midday.

"Consuming mislabelled protein supplements can lead to compromising muscle growth and recovery goals, gut problems mainly diarrhoea, bloating, dehydration, abdominal distress, and leg cramping," informs Bhuwania.

The contaminants such as heavy metals, pesticides or impurities in the protein supplements induce kidney and liver damage over time. Mindless use of protein supplements increases the glomerular filtration rate or eGFR and even creatinine levels by impairing the kidney functioning in the long run and one may even need dialysis or a transplant for survival.

Protein supplements are packed with added sugar leading to abnormal blood sugar levels and type 2 diabetes. Consuming mislabeled protein supplements can cause various health issues like nutrient deficiencies and muscle weakening resulting in malnourishment and muscle loss, putting excessive stress on the body. It is the need of the hour for everyone who takes protein supplements to beware of the risks and read labels without fail.

Are organs at risk?

One's kidney and liver are at a higher risk of getting damaged due to mislabeling of protein supplements. Continuously consuming these protein supplements containing undisclosed contaminants can lead to a piling of toxins in your kidney further leading to the development of chronic kidney diseases (CKD) and chronic liver diseases (CLCD).

Protein supplements are packed with added sugars, artificial sweeteners, and flavours that can disrupt your digestion process and cause abdominal pain.

Excessive protein consumption strains the liver which is responsible for metabolising and breaking down proteins. When a higher amount of protein is consumed, the liver has to work harder to process it.

However, this leads to liver damage in later life. A large number of protein supplements contain added ingredients and chemicals that can be harmful to the liver when taken in large quantities without the knowledge of an expert.

Get your daily dose of protein naturally

To meet your daily protein quota through meals rather than supplements, Bhandari recommends focusing on incorporating animal-based foods into every meal. This strategy ensures you receive adequate protein and essential amino acids to meet your daily needs. Here are specific strategies:

Incorporate sources such as eggs, chicken, beef, buffalo, or duck meat in each meal. Opt for free-range options to ensure higher quality and nutrient content.

Aim to have animal protein in all three main meals of the day. This consistent intake helps spread out your protein consumption, making it easier to meet your daily quota.

Prioritise free-range animal products. This not only supports better nutrition but also promotes sustainable and ethical farming practices.

For vegetarians and vegans, meeting the protein quota can be challenging without supplements due to the absence of animal proteins, which are rich in essential amino acids. However, it is still possible with careful planning and combination of various plant-based protein sources, though supplements may still be necessary to fully meet daily protein needs.

Also Read: Your no-nonsense meal plan to eating healthy

Know your protein

For those who consume proteins, Bhandari suggests that understanding the ingredients commonly found in supplements involves focusing on the presence and quality of amino acids. Proteins are broken down into amino acids, which are essential for the body's absorption and utilisation of protein.

A complete protein supplement should contain all nine essential amino acids: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

Whey protein, derived from milk, typically includes all essential amino acids and is considered a complete protein. Plant-based proteins may lack one or more essential amino acids individually, but when combined, such as rice and pea protein, they can offer a complete amino acid profile.

Animal-based proteins, like paleo or beef protein, derived from dehydrated animal muscle, also provide a complete set of essential amino acids. Collagen supplements, although containing amino acids, lack one or two essential ones and are not considered complete protein supplements.

Additionally, conditionally essential amino acids, which become necessary under stress or illness, are beneficial in a protein supplement. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine, and valineâ are crucial for muscle protein synthesis, with leucine being particularly significant.

A good protein supplement should have a high ratio of leucine. For individuals with gut health issues or poor protein absorption, essential amino acid supplements are recommended because they are pre-digested and more easily absorbed. In summary, when choosing a protein supplement, look for one that contains all nine essential amino acids, has a high ratio of BCAAs, particularly leucine, combines multiple sources if plant-based for a complete amino acid profile, and ensures high bioavailability and ease of digestion, especially for those with gut health concerns.

While evaluating whey protein quality, different variables come into play. For instance, whey protein isolate and hydrolysate are more bioavailable than casein, whey protein concentrate, and plant protein. Protein quality depends upon the proportion of protein and the amount of amino acids present. While evaluating, also check for the amount of carbohydrates, fats, sugar, and added additives.

The ratio of BCAAs (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) should be 2:1:1. Physical properties of whey protein also depend upon palatability, mixability, texture, composition, smell, and consistency. Deciding which form of protein to opt for also depends on individual requirements, daily intake through diet, activity and tolerance level, adds Bhandari.

Also Read: ICMR's new dietary guidelines advise against protein supplements

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