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Whey Overstated

Read labels, the experts say - that’s the only way to make informed buying choices. But what if the labels are misleading, as we’ve seen with the recent honey scandal, the fish mislabelling and the gluten-free baked goods which contained predominately wheat flour?

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Pexels / Victor Freitas

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Government regulators should be protecting us by doing regular lab tests to ensure that that beef mince contains no other species, for example, and that the “herbal” weight loss supplement doesn’t contain any banned substances.

The reality is that they’re overstretched and that oversight role just isn’t a reality. So we consumers usually only get to know about food fraud when consumer-led bodies such as the Cape Town-based Topic (Testing of Products Initiated by Consumers), concerned consumers, journalists, retailers and academics pay private accredited labs to test certain products.

 Enter Durban pharmacist Kiolan Naidoo: 

As part  of his Masters research in the field of pharmacy, he and two others had an accredited lab in Pretoria analyse 15 of this country’s top selling whey protein products to compare their content with what was stated on their labels, and with what the health department’s food labelling regulations provide as a guideline in terms of amino acid content.

Whey protein is widely consumed by fitness enthusiasts to build and maintain lean muscle.

The results were published in this month’s Global Journal of Health Science.

Eleven out of those 15 products are made in South Africa.

In short, there were large discrepancies between what the labels claimed and what the lab test found in terms of amino acid content, suggesting that some, in fact, most of the manufacturers are deliberately manipulating and overstating the protein content of their products.

Nine (60%) those 15 products tested were non-compliant with the regulations in terms of their amino acid profile.

And of the 11 South African products, eight  (73%) were non-compliant.

Traditionally, Kiolan says, protein content was tested by analysing the nitrogen content, but that’s open to abuse by manufacturers, who add cheap fillers in the form of amino acids, artificially inflating the protein content.

So in his tests, an amino acid analysis of the products was done, which is considered to be more accurate.

Read: Hey big spender - now you’re an importer

“A key amino acid for protein synthesis is leucine -  in almost all of the products tested was below manufacturer indicated quantities, and that’s because leucine is one of the more expensive amino acids, so consumers using whey protein are not getting the results they could be getting if they were using a properly formulated product,” Kiolan says.

This mislabelling of protein supplements issue is not confined to SA - there has been a spate of law suits in the US, after lab results revealed that several companies had grossly overstated the protein content of their products.

The study does not name the 15 whey protein products which were tested, nor “name and shame” those nine which overstated their protein content, as is always the case with academic studies.

It was the same story about seven years ago when those Stellenbosch University researchers found that quite a few butcheries were selling sausages and burger patties with traces of animals not named on their labels, including the infamous donkey and water buffalo. They didn’t name the offending butcheries either.

Read: Have you ever come across a UFO (Unappetising Foreign Object)?

But what Kiolan is hoping for in terms of the impact of the findings, is that it leads to more regulation by the authorities, for one thing, and stimulates consumers to put pressure on retailers to do their own tests for label accuracy and prohibited substances, something which Dis-Chem pioneered in this country a few years ago with its ‘Choose Safe Supplements’ drive.

“I believe that the onus is on the retailer to ensure product integrity,” he says. “Retailers needs to facilitate studies to ensure that the products they are selling are safe. And I believe that consumers would vote with their spend and only support retailers that choose to have the products they sell tested."

The study findings have also prompted Kiolan to create an Instagram profile containing other published studies and articles as a counter to the biased information supplied by the supplement manufacturers. “I hope it will help consumers make informed choices about whether they wish to use supplements and if so, which products to use,” he says. On Instragram look for Supplement_Pharm.

Asked to comment on the study, Dr Harris Steinman, a medical doctor who has lodged complaints about many a dietary supplement to the Advertising Standards Authority on the grounds that they can’t substantiate their claims, said the methodology was good. "The argument is sound, that is, for one to benefit from additional protein for building muscle, it has to be balanced in amino acids.”

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