Protein Powder Fact and Fiction

Seven shortcomings of meal replacements

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I love meal replacement drinks (MRPs) and protein powders in general. I can't imagine life without them. But, truth be told, one of them damn near killed me once.

I was 18 years old and had just finished sharing a joint with my girlfriend (okay, it was one of those youthful indiscretions that you hear so much about lately). I was feeling hungry but, more importantly, I was feeling silly, big-time silly. In what must have been a THC-induced short circuit of my brain neurons, I opened up a jug of one of the primitive protein powders of the time, pulled out a heaping tablespoon's worth, and shoved it in my mouth.

It instantly sucked out every last bit of moisture that my salivary glands were able to produce and hardened into a bolus, kind of like adding a small bucket of water to a wheelbarrow full of cement. It must have formed a perfect mold of my palate, inner cheeks, and uvula. Had I died at that moment, anthropologists of the distant future would have found it and been able to construct a realistic reproduction of the oral tract of homo moronicus.

Trouble was, I almost did die at that moment because the bolus also blocked my airway. I made what I thought was the international sign for choking — wildly thrashing around the apartment like some movie monster that had just been doused with powerful acid.

My girlfriend was paralyzed by fright (at least I thought so, but in retrospect, I kinda' remember her lying on her back laughing hysterically while pointing at me). Just before I started to black out, I inserted the handle end of the spoon into my mouth and dug some of the still-hardening protein plaster out of my mouth to create a breathing hole. I was able to dig out the rest of it with my finger, but I aspirated several grams of powder. For weeks afterwards, every time I sneezed, I created a miniature protein snowstorm.

That was one of my first experiences with protein powders. Back then, they tasted bad, they often caused digestive upset, and they were made with inferior proteins. They were also dangerous, as the preceding tale illustrates.

Needless to say, things have come a long way. Meal replacement powders are a valuable part of the bodybuilder's dietary tool chest. They provide predetermined amounts of protein, carbs, and nutrients. How else can you ingest upwards of 40 grams of protein in a single sitting without eating an entire cow?

They're also convenient and, when they're properly formulated, they don't cause stomach upset. They even, occasionally, taste good.

Still, meal replacements/protein powders are an evolving beast. As high-tech as some of these products portend to be, they've still got a long way to go. Here, then, in no particular order, are some of the beefs that I have with most meal replacements.

Labeling hijinks

Below is the first ingredient listed on a package of a popular MRP:

MyoPro (unique blend of whey protein concentrate from specially filtered and ion-exchanged whey protein, calcium caseinate, milk protein isolate, taurine, L-glutamine, sodium caseinate, egg albumin, and calcium alpha-ketoglutarate [AKG])

Let me clue you into a little supplement manufacturer's secret. There ain't no such thing as MyoPro, or Metamyosyn, or any other such mystical protein blend.

The FDA has labeling laws, and one of them mandates that food manufacturers list the ingredients by quantity. The ingredient that makes up the bulk of a product must be listed first, and the subsequent ingredients have to be listed or ranked by how much of those ingredients are in the product. If the product contains 100 grams of Substance A, 50 grams of Stuff B, and 1 gram of Chemical C, Substance A must appear first on the label, followed by the other two ingredients.

Well, if you applied this rule literally to almost any of the meal replacements on the market, you know what the first ingredient would be? Maltodextrin. A cheap, sweet, carbohydrate powder.

However, if you collectively group the proteins in your product — all of which are pretty standard and available to anyone who wants to design or manufacture a meal replacement — you can trademark the concoction and give it a fancy name. This also means that your hyped-up protein blend is now the main product in the meal replacement and can now take top billing on the list of ingredients.

Why do they do this? It's just window dressing. If anyone were to compare the lists of ingredients from a couple of similar products, they would want to see some sort of protein listed first. No one in his right mind would buy a meal replacement if maltodextrin or corn syrup solids were listed first, would they? Probably not.

Bad fatty acid profiles

Most meal replacements were born back in the days when fat was thought to be the devil's paunchy mistress. If something had fat in it, you'd likely toss it back on the grocery store shelf, wash your hands, and seek absolution from a holy man.

Well, we know better now. We understand that the right kinds of fat are vital for maintaining a healthy body. Eating proper amounts of the right kinds of fat can even help you burn body fat.

Don't get me wrong, though. These old-fashioned meal replacements contained fat, all right. But unfortunately, it was the wrong kind of fat. Most meal replacements contain palm oil, or partially hydrogenated oils. Palm oil is notorious for being a saturated fat — it can clog your arteries. Likewise, partially hydrogenated oils contain what are known as trans-fatty acids, which the body recognizes and treats as if they were saturated fats.

Now, it's true that these primitive meal replacements didn't contain very much of these bad fats, let alone any kind of fat. But if you drank or ate them two to three times a day for long periods of time, you were asking for trouble. Sooner or later, the cardiologist version of the Roto-Rooter man would come calling.

Ideally, a meal replacement would contain healthy quantities of flax-seed oil. Unfortunately, though, the very properties that make something like flax-seed oil a healthy oil also make it unsuitable for inclusion in a meal replacement. Flax-seed oil is unsaturated, so it may become rancid without refrigeration.

Until the particular problem is solved, MRP manufacturers should opt for creating products that contain greater amounts of fat, from non trans-fatty acid sources.

Lack of fiber

I once lived on MRPs. Since I was able to get them for free, I sucked down about four of them a day. As such, I inadvertently avoided normal food for several months. Gone was the chewing; gone was any kind of mastication. The easy-to-digest food simply passed through my digestive tract with merely a passing nod from my stomach, intestines, or bowels. They didn't have to do any work. They might as well have retired to live in a shack in Bora Bora while native girls shucked coconuts for them.

Ahhh, but the real problems started when I began eating normal foods again. Anything with more fiber than a popsicle caused my stomach to cramp up. I developed so much gas that the only social engagement where I felt comfortable was the Funny Car races, where the roaring engines and stench of nitro-fuel masked my digestive problems.

The problem was that I hadn't been eating any fiber. I had allowed the virtually fiber-free meal replacements to become my sole source of sustenance. No vegetables, no fruits, and no fiber.

Well, we need fiber. It keeps the digestive tract functioning normally and it probably helps in warding off serious problems like colon cancer.

Historically, meal replacements don't contain any measurable amounts of fiber. They generally can't — it causes the product to become unduly thick when you blend it up.

What's my point? Don't live off these things. Eat your fruits, eat your vegetables. Make your momma happy.


Meal replacements taste much better than they once did. Years ago, when given the choice of drinking arsenic-laced, gas station toilet water and a protein drink, you'd choose the former. Nowadays, many meal replacements are downright palatable. It's only when supplement manufacturers start treating their products as something more than food that something goes terribly, terribly wrong.

MRPs should not contain weird herbal extracts that might just as easily be contained in a pill. They shouldn't contain allegedly growth-promoting chemicals that are generally contained in separate supplements. Carnation doesn't add Nyquil to its Instant Breakfast, does it? Slim-Fast doesn't put Doan's Little Liver Pills in its diet drinks. Why should supplement companies dump in extraneous ingredients that foul up the product's taste?

In my humble opinion, consumers should realize that, by and large, none of these products will make you grow muscle any better than another, regardless of what chemicals they've added or which exotic protein they've included. Meal replacements are simply food, and if all other factors are equal, they should pick the best-tasting food.

Micronutrient profiles

For some reason, MRP manufacturers think of their products as existing in a vacuum. It's as if they were asked by NASA to develop a space food that would keep their astronauts from suffering from any possible vitamin or mineral deficiency. Well, NASA didn't ask them to develop squat. This is the planet Earth, and we don't live in a vacuum.

Down here on terra firma, we eat a lot of different foods, and woe be to the scurvy dog that depends on one food and one food only to supply all of his nutritional needs. Nowhere on Earth is there one food that supplies all of the essential vitamins and minerals. There's a reason for that, and maybe supplement companies should learn a lesson from nature.

The thing is that certain vitamins and minerals, taken together, either interact or negate each other's desired effects. Copper competes with zinc for absorption. Magnesium interacts with a bunch of minerals that may reduce its absorption. Vitamin C decreases the absorption of copper. There are many other possible interactions. Furthermore, some micronutrients may work best when taken on an empty stomach — not with a 400-plus calorie drink.

An honest MRP should contain only those nutrients that help your body use the protein, carbs, and fat that it contains. Want complete nutrition? Eat a complete, well-balanced diet and eat various vitamin and mineral pills in specific amounts at specific times of the day.


By far, the most common sweetener used in MRPs is aspartame. Personally, I've got no problem with aspartame. It's a combination of two amino acids that happens to have a very powerful, sweet taste. It's also incredibly low in calories, and bacteria that cause tooth decay can't use it as a nutritive source. Pretty good stuff, all in all.

However, there remains a really big controversy over the use of aspartame. There are those who say that it causes panic attacks, seizures, and even brain tumors. These same people lobby tirelessly for the removal of aspartame from the market.

I find their evidence to be weak.

The latest, greatest aspartame study, recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (1998:68:531-7), found no adverse effects from incredibly large amounts of aspartame ingestion. They used 48 healthy volunteers, and the dose used was nearly 20 times the 90th percentile average daily intake. They found no adverse behavioral, neuropsychologic, or neurophysiologic effects. They also concluded that aspartame is safe for the general public.

Regardless, I doubt that the controversy over aspartame will fade away. Aspartame naysayers may soon have a reason to celebrate, though. The FDA has recently approved a new sweetener that doesn't have any of aspartame's baggage. It's called Sucralose. The revolutionary sweetener is made from sugar, tastes like sugar, and may be used anywhere that sugar can, including baking and cooking. It has no unpleasant aftertaste, and it's very low in calories. What's more, no one's saying that it causes brain tumors.

Various soft drink manufacturers will soon be using Sucralose. Why, then, haven't MRP manufacturers adopted the sweetener? Simple supply and demand. The Sucralose manufacturer (Johnson and Johnson) has a small supply, and the soft drink manufacturers have a big demand.

It's only a matter of time, though, before this stuff is everywhere, including your favorite MRP. But, for the time being, most MRPs are stuck with aspartame.

Trumped up claims about protein blends

Take four guys with identical genetic make-ups. Have them train the same way for a year. Feed them the same diets. Have them live in the same house and use the same toothbrush, for Christ's sake. The only difference? Have each of them use a different protein blend: one on a whey protein (hydrolyzed, isolate, or ion-exchanged, whatever), one on milk protein, one on egg protein, and one on the protein from my shorts. Will any one of them show more progress than any other? It's very, very unlikely. As long as they're using high-quality protein, each of them will, in all likelihood, do just as well as any other.

Protein blends are often the last frontier of desperate marketers. In order to give their product an edge over others, they trumpet the superiority of one protein type or blend over another. Unfortunately, it probably makes very little difference.

The bottom line

We looked at all of the shortcomings of protein powders and meal replacements. We bought them, studied them, drank them, and did everything short of building little protein sand castles out of them. And then we set about creating a meal replacement that rectified at least some of the problems associated with all other meal replacement products.

In short, we created Grow!? It's a simple name, but ultimately, it's a simple product. We took a blend of the purest proteins (and we included most of the ones available, just in case one type ever proves to be better than another). We put in some extra glutamine because of a decent amount of evidence that it's conditionally essential amino acid. We added a healthful amount of non-hydrogenated, non trans-fatty acids. We put in only those nutrients that help you utilize the protein in the product. We avoided nutrients that might interact with each other.

Above all, we made it taste like a French chef had invented it for the queen. It blows away all other meal replacements in taste. In fact, we often can't wait to chug the next one down.

Did we alleviate all of the shortcomings? No. We still didn't put in any fiber. It would make it too thick and, ultimately, unpalatable. No matter. We don't want you to live off Grow!, anyhow. It's not meant to take the place of all food in your diet. We didn't use aspartame, either, and instead we opted to go with natural sweeteners while at the same time making sure it had a good — no — great glycemic index so your blood sugar wouldn't bounce up and down like a conga dancer on speed.

Oh, and we didn't have to pull the same labeling hijinks that most of the manufacturers practice.

No, Grow! isn't perfect, but it's as close as you can get with today's technology. Don't try to eat it with a spoon, though, even though you might be tempted to. Trust me, I know.