Things to Consider When Grading Protein Supplements for Their Bodybuilding Value
by Vince Andrich
Ever since physique athletes realized (often against mainstream science) that protein is the only nutrient that can build and repair muscle tissue, we have witnessed major Protein Wars that have waged on some relative science and more importantly pure marketing hype. Indeed, because of the huge demand for this critical macronutrient companies realize the competition to find the best bodybuilding protein is really a business strategy to realize extreme financial rewards.
That said, it’s not surprising that I was recently asked by a serious bodybuilder what my opinion was on the flood of supplements that just recently hit the bodybuilding scene that tout beef as the main protein source? I gave a brief answer to this on the Muscle Insider website (http: //muscle-insider. com/), but was asked by Scott Welch, Owner or Muscle Insider to elaborate on this topic as it is gaining more interest within the hardcore bodybuilding scene.
Putting Beef On Trial
As I said in my brief answer on this topic online, I believe it’s wise for all physique athletes to have their guard up on this topic. My reasoning is simple. Think about it, beef, or as it is more fondly referred to as “red meat” or “steak”, has carried near mythical status as a bodybuilding food, yet has been virtually non-existent as a modern protein supplement. Actually, it hasn’t been since Argentinean beef liver tabs were being promoted in the late 70’s and early 80’s that we had a supplemental beef protein that physique athletes took seriously.
In essence, the initial question made me realize it’s time we put beef on trial with respect to it’s true bodybuilding value. So, if you want to make the best gains possible, read on as I take us through a broader look at the bodybuilding value of beef proteins and include their use as food as well as when taken in supplemental form.
Grading Protein Supplements for Their Bodybuilding Value
When evaluating a protein source as a food or for use as a supplement, here are the three primary characteristics I consider most important:
1–the individual amino acid profile or breakdown per 100-grams of a particular protein
2–digestion characteristics or release kinetics, which simply means––how long will it take for the protein to be digested so that the amino acids become available in your bloodstream
3–cost per gram
If the end product is a supplement to be taken in the form of shakes and or bars, then the last item to consider is; how difficult will it be for a food scientist to flavor the protein to make into a product athletes will take religiously?
For this discussion let’s assume that the beef source protein (s) can be flavored to taste good enough to hang with the best tasting protein supplements on the market, and from what I hear the stuff is not that hard to work with.
Milk Is NOT For Babies, So Where is The Beef?
In order to properly rate the concept of beef as a protein food and supplement, we also need a comparison protein. For this comparison I chose milk proteins since they are widely available commercially, and they’ve also racked up an impressive list of scientific studies that back up their use as part of a physique athletes/athletes diet––in fact NO OTHER proteins have such an impressive research record in athletes. Let’s look ay how beef stacks up.
Round One––Amino Acid Breakdown Per 100-Grams
When comparing the protein composition for different foods or supplements the only way to create a “level playing field” is to take 100-grams (total) of each protein and compare their individual amino acid levels. Using this method allows me to spot any highs and lows for key amino acids in each protein. Plus, since I’m looking at equal amounts of amino acids for each protein (imagine holding a cup with 100-grams of protein in each hand), I can be sure this is a straight up comparison.
Let’s first take a look at the amino acid breakdown for beef to see how this simple comparison works.
On paper the amino acid profile/breakdown for beef represents the following positive features (totals averaged on sources including; hydrolyzed beef isolate, beef tri-tip, round steak and raw beef liver, etc. );
1—very high levels of Proline and Hydroxyproline, which are two non-essential amino acids that play a very significant role in the formation of collagen i. e., great for joints and connective tissue, and
2––very high levels of Arginine, another non-essential amino acid that has been shown to facilitate tissue repair and wound healing (additive to the effects of the protein itself).
The Beef––Strength Connection
When you stop and think about it, the analysis above actually starts to make sense of the widespread belief that beef makes you stronger. That’s because the strength of your muscles can never exceed the strength of your joints and connective tissue. Remember though, we are assessing the amino acid levels in an absolute total of 100-grams of beef protein (not 100-grams of beef, which has fat, etc. ), so having high levels of the three amino acids mentioned above means we will have relatively low levels of other amino acids to make up the 100-gram total.
With beef that difference is found in subpar levels (compared to milk proteins) of branched chain amino acids (BCAA’s) which are; leucine, isoleucine and valine. By way of comparison the milk proteins deliver about 23% of the total amino acid array as BCAA’s, while cooked beef (tri-tip) barely tops 17%.
Switching On Muscle Protein Synthesis––Milk Rules
The information above tells us that beef is good for connective tissue, yet falls short in another critically important muscle building arena. That is, the BCAA levels delivered via beef proteins are around 35% lower than the milk proteins, and over time this can greatly impact your ability to put on lean muscle.
Regular readers of Muscle Insider already know that BCAA’s are critical to muscle repair, and gluconeogenesis (making glucose from amino acids). What’s more important however, is that through sophisticated research techniques and gene markers we now know that one of the three BCAA’s, leucine, is the preeminent signaling agent for muscle protein synthesis.
Simply put, leucine is the nutritional hammer that can initiate and amplify the specific cascade of events (generally referred to by scientists as the mTor complex) that turns-on muscle protein synthesis. For physique athletes this is the starting point that leads to the repair and or creation of additional lean muscle mass.
Loads of Training––One Primary Goal
Since we all lift weights to gain muscle and lose fat, and for most this means improving body composition, our primary goal each and every day is to maximize what scientists refer to as; muscle protein synthetic rates or muscle protein synthesis.
For physique athletes this means one of your daily nutritional benchmarks must be; to ingest meals that are not only high in protein, but also rich in the BCAA’s AND leucine. This is particularly true for the meal you eat upon awakening, since your body has been subjected to an overnight “fast”, and the post-workout protein feeding that should occur within an hour after training.
As stated above, milk proteins, which include supplements and dairy products deliver the highest concentration of BCAA’s, and leucine (individually) per 100-grams (of total amino acids). On supplements you will see milk proteins listed as; milk protein isolate or milk protein concentrate, whey isolate/concentrate or casein. The abundance of BCAA’s AND leucine in the two principal proteins found in milk (whey and casein) is why we see such an enormous amount of institutional marketing dollars being spent reminding physique athletes and athletes of the value of milk proteins. This is also why milk proteins are getting the lion share of research funds from protein researchers who are looking to prove muscle building and fat loss claims with athletes.
To recap round one; we’ve seen that milk proteins are best for stimulating muscle protein synthesis, and beef proteins can help build stronger connective tissue. A quick recommendation would then be to use milk proteins in the AM and or post-workout and take a beef protein supplement 1-2 times per day during the strength phase of your training cycle. However, especially when it comes to protein supplements, the amino acid array is just part of the riddle we are solving. As you’ll see, protein digestion characteristics, or the time it takes to get the amino acids into your bloodstream can dictate the true functionality of different protein rich foods and supplements.
Round Two––Fast, Slow or Both: The Great Protein Digestion Debate
If you’ve been around bodybuilding circles for any length of time you know that there’s been an enormous amount of advertising, and articles written on the topic of protein digestion. For quick reference, here are the definitions for, and main advantages of, “ultra fast acting” as well as “slow acting” proteins.
Fast Amino Acid Availability
Fast acting or short digestion times typically signifies that peak levels of the amino acids in the source protein will be in the bloodstream within 1-3 hours, and will decline at roughly the same pace. Speedy delivery serves to augment the initiation of muscle protein synthesis, by delivering high amounts of leucine to the signaling complex mentioned above. To better understand why delivery of amino acids can be an advantage to physique athletes, just imagine either a fast, or slow bowling ball rolling down the lane ready knock down a set of bowling pins. The bowling balls represent the speed of the amino acids becoming available. So then, the ball rolling faster arguably knocks down more pins than one going at a snails pace. This “knock down” power is why researchers believe fast acting protein (high in leucine) amplifies the initiation signal for protein synthesis (mTor).
Protracted or Slow Amino Acid Availability
In contrast, a slower acting protein of course takes more time to digest, and this typically means the majority of the amino acids will peak in the blood AFTER 3 hours and slowly dissipate at roughly the same speed. The benefit here is that once protein synthesis is initiated, having a belly full of slow digesting protein becomes a big advantage. This is because keeping a constant supply of amino acids on the “muscle building assembly line” is necessary for the body to stay in sync with the time dependent nature of manufacturing new lean tissue.
Slow Is Steady, and Steady IS Fast
I am not a scientist, but in my view the predominant nutritional factor required for laying down fresh muscle must solve for a complex and time dependent process which calls for a constant supply of amino acids. I take this position by considering that the muscle building process was honed through years of biological hardwiring and is perfectly matched to how our ancestors evolved. Remember, not that long ago humans had to hunt, cook, chew and digest any foodstuff, BEFORE they could get at the muscle building amino acids.
So, while ultra fast delivery of amino acids can be great to trigger protein synthesis, they are not suited to properly support the entire tissue building process. In reality, one could make the case that fast delivery of amino acids IS NOT REQUIRED to stimulate protein synthesis, because the advent of whey protein supplements has only recently made it possible (circa 1990) to consume vast amounts of “ultra fast acting” protein.
Digestion Rates for Beef and Supplemental Beef Proteins
When comparing the release characteristics for different proteins, the isolated then hydrolyzed forms of beef used to make the recent herd of powdered supplements behave much differently than their whole food counterparts we commonly refer to as “steak”. In the case of beef eaten as real food, the body must do a lot of work to dismantle the proteins from the fat and connective tissue that bind it all together.
Once ingested, and after you get some reps in with your jawbone, your gut still needs time to tear apart the protein and cut it into the peptides and amino acids that will be delivered into your bloodstream. In fact, it is likely that real beef will still be delivering amino acids in the bloodstream well past the 5-hour mark, which offers the preferred rate of speed for “tissue assembly”.
This slow influx of amino acids is followed by a similar rate of dissipation. The flow generates constant amino acid levels in blood (less spikes), and therefore prolongs amino acid availability that can help offset any need to tear down muscle protein to make glucose––a process that is switched on 24/7 as a backup to support the brains constant need for glucose as fuel. But, while the beef you eat carries some evolved delivery traits that make it well suited to support muscle building, the marketers of beef protein supplements seem to be going the other way. Here’s why.
Beef Disguised as Whey?
The type of beef used in these new supplements is marketed as “hydrolyzed beef isolate”. This means that the protein is already separated from the tissue (unlike a real beef), and predigested (hydrolyzed), then broken up further into a powdered form. I don’t have release data specific to these products, but it is my guess that these supplemental beef protein supplements will likely be finished delivering amino acids to build muscle after about 2-4 hours. This faster release is being used by marketers of these new beef supplements to the point where they make comparisons to whey––the fastest digesting protein of all.
But, remember beef does not carry the heavy dose of BCAA’s or leucine that are found naturally in the milk proteins. From a practical standpoint it’s a good bet that beef has always been considered muscle building food, because it delivers amino acids slowly, when taken in supplemental form you may be giving up this natural advantage. Now, you may say that marketers of beef protein supplements have taken away this inherent negative attribute by adding in free BCAA’s, but in my opinion this is still a flawed concept, albeit slick marketing.
Remember, when we graded the amino acid array for these proteins we used a “per 100-grams of protein standard”. Another reason we did that is so that when manufacturers add in things like BCAA’s to offset a deficit in their source protein, you naturally dilute any advantage that protein has with respect to abnormally high levels of other key amino acids.
It’s basic math, and in the case of beef with added BCAA’s, you are essentially saying “I know the BCAA’s are low so I will add them in”, but at the same time you must tell your consumers that the high percentages of collagen producing aminos have been diluted down to make room for the BCAA’s. As I said, 100-grams of amino acids versus 100-grams of amino acids is the only way to level the playing field.
Scoring Round Two––What’s Relevant in the Protein Digestion Debate
When it comes to fast acting, the milk proteins, namely whey isolate and concentrate provide the fasted delivery, since most of the amino acids are actually picked up in the gut itself. Plus, due to their high levels of BCAA’s, this expedited amino acid delivery actually enhances the “signaling effect” on muscle protein synthesis. In my opinion, this means there is really no need to “engineer a better beef protein” that acts like whey. That is, whey is actually already custom built for this benefit.
In contrast to ultra fast acting whey, properly processed milk protein isolates and or concentrates contain native proteins that include casein micelles (think of the curd in cottage cheese). Upon ingestion these micelles expand in the gut, creating a time-released effect, much like eating whole food/tissue protein. Here again, I believe that to get prolonged amino acid delivery into your bodybuilding diet, milk protein isolates or concentrates with native micelles will perform much better than a plain powdered beef protein supplement, because the micelles action in the gut is unique in its action on digestion.
The best thing about milk protein isolate/concentrates is that they contain 80% casein and 20% whey, the ratio’s found in nature, and therefore deliver the best combination of amino acids AND release kinetics to initiate and maximize the process of muscle protein synthesis.
My recommendation with respect to putting beef into your nutrition plan would be to consume it as would be deemed appropriate by a health practitioner (or your own good judgement). That decision should be made by honestly considering your; 1) current health markers, 2) fitness level and 3) primary bodybuilding goal. For most of us 2-4 meals with lean beef per week is a pretty safe bet. And if you want to ensure maximum strength gains, I think the current crop of powdered beef supplements (with the saturated fat taken out) would be a great way to round out your total amino acid intake each day, and get additional quantities of those key amino acids that can help build strong connective tissue.
But, I would not make it my main supplemental protein.
Liquid Beef Protein Supplements––Bull of a Different Color
If marketers weren’t trying to “engineer” beef to seem like it is better than whey, I would suggest, just based on the added connective tissue strength benefits, that regular powdered beef supplements or even beef liver tabs (which I still like) would be a smart addition to your total protein intake. The trouble is, the beef brigade doesn’t stop with powdered versions, but rather marketers have taken this concept in to liquid ready-to-drink-form.
Liquid Beef Aminos (LBA’s) as some websites call them are not at all similar to their powdered counterparts––the big difference is what manufacturers need to do to get the amino acids into solution (liquid).
Now, I don’t want to pick on specific marketers of liquid beef supplements. I do want to give consumers some much needed insight into the liquid protein supplements, (whey or beef) that are sold in the test tubes that look like sex-toys. I won’t bore you with the science, but when you create a ready-to-drink-protein supplement you are dealing with ratios that dictate how much protein, (including the type), that can go into solution. In other words, if the brand wants their finished RTD to have 25 grams of protein and come in 16-ounces, that pre-determined combination must be tested by a food scientist to see if in fact it’s feasible.
This main determinant that needs to be considered to meet the pre-determined criteria will be the solubility of the proteins used in the formula.
So, if the brand wants to put 30-50-grams of milk isolate and whey protein (into a specific amount of liquid) for an RTD (like ABB Pure Pro, Oh Yeah and Myoplex etc., you see in your local gym cooler), you need to understand that the final “protein to liquid numbers” are a ratio that must be tested by food scientists. And you may not know that there are limits to the amount of protein solids/per water that will work before the protein turns into something thicker than pudding.
Bottom-line, when you deal with highly concentrated liquid proteins supplements (like those that look like a test-tube), one of the tricks food scientists can use (to make them even more concentrated) is to use hydrolyzed collagen or what’s commonly known as gelatin protein. But for physique athletes looking to enhance muscle mass this relying on collagen protein needs to be viewed with extreme caution.
Collagen/Gelatin Protein––Don’t Expect Big Muscle Gains
So, as the concentrated test tube protein products try to convince you that they are the next big deal is protein convenience, consider the following:
• Hydrolyzed collagen consists of degraded animal protein. The protein is broken down into peptides (short chains of amino acids) and free amino acids. When ingested, the peptides are further broken down into free amino acids. Amino acids then become the building blocks for protein in the body.
• Gelatin however, is an incomplete protein. Four amino acids — glycine, proline, hydroxyproline, and glutamic acid — typically constitute approximately 70 percent of the amino acid content of gelatin. Tryptophan is essentially absent, with hydroxylysine, methionine, histidine, tyrosine, and cystine making up less than one percent each of the amino acid content.
• If you want added joint support the most cost effect method is to add a packet or two of Knox gelatin to you daily diet
• Do NOT use the concentrated liquid protein supplements in the test tube as it is easy to see on the ingredient deck that to get that level of concentration you are paying for gelatin, which is great for your skin and nails, but falls way short as a muscle building tool.
The above information is why early high protein liquid diets were banned, because consumers were becoming seriously ill due to becoming deficient in key amino acids necessary to support critical physiological functions. Due to the well-documented health hazards, the better designed modern liquid diets are now made in powdered from to be mixed with liquid and use much higher quality proteins from soy and egg whites, which make these products much safer.
MY PICK FOR BEST PROTEIN––Separating Marketing Spin from Real World Application
As you might have already guessed, when it comes to commercially available protein supplements MY OVER-THE-COUNTER PRESCRIPTION IS TO spend your money on the milk proteins. The whey isolates and concentrates are perfectly suited to enhance the “signaling effect” on muscle protein synthesis. Most importantly, properly processed milk protein isolates and or concentrates (MPI or MPC) contain native proteins that include casein micelles (think of the curd in cottage cheese). Upon ingestion these micelles expand in the gut, creating a time-released effect, much like eating whole food/tissue protein.
Native Milk Proteins (MPI and MPC) contain 80% casein and 20% whey, just like that found in nature, and therefore deliver the best combination of amino acids AND release kinetics to initiate and maximize the process of muscle protein synthesis.
Information provided on this blog is solely for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Do not use this information for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing of any medications or supplements.
Please consult your healthcare provider before starting any supplement, diet or exercise program, before taking any medications or receiving treatment, particularly if you are currently under medical care. Make sure you carefully read all product labeling and packaging prior to use. If you have or suspect you may have a health problem, do not take any supplements without first consulting and obtaining the approval of your healthcare provider.
© 2011 Vince Andrich Real BodyBuilding, Vince Andrich Uncensored, & www.vandrich.com. All Rights Reserved.