When people thought of sports nutrition products in the past, they used to think of body builders and professional athletes. Over recent years, sports nutrition products have become more mainstream and are also used today by general consumers who are seeking to adopt a healthy lifestyle. With new markets, however, come new challenges. One of these challenges is protein spiking, a practice some companies use to artificially boost the protein content of their products—something that can potentially mislead consumers. So, is there a way to tackle this issue at a time when sports nutrition products are becoming ever more popular?
The answer ultimately lies with the European Union. The EU over the past years has made some positive changes to its food legislation. Where it had previously regulated sports food under a legislative framework that identified athletes as a vulnerable group, it has now placed this food category under the General Food Law Regulation, acknowledging that these products are now used by a vastly diverse consumer base.
However, there is still room for improvement when it comes to EU food law, particularly in relation to the Food Information to Consumer Regulation (FIC), which brings together EU rules on food labelling. The FIC defines protein as the protein content calculated using the formula: protein = total Kjeldahl nitrogen x 6.25. This definition allows less scrupulous companies to declare a higher protein content, when their products are in fact formulated using nitrogen, containing ingredients of lower cost and lower nutritional value than proteins. This is where consumers are misled and the market for honest food businesses in the EU gets distorted.
This is not just a problem for the sports nutrition sector. Indeed, the whole health food industry is affected as any company selling a product claiming high protein content could potentially spike. As health-conscious consumers are becoming increasingly interested in the nutritional value of their products, and high protein products are currently being sold on the mass market, it is crucial to tackle protein spiking as soon as possible to maintain consumer confidence and ensure fair competition for food businesses.
So, what can the EU do? The immediate thought is the definition of protein should be amended or clarified in the FIC. The EU has been reluctant so far to introduce such changes, as they will have a significant impact on the entire food industry and there is no scientific consensus as to how protein should be defined. That isn’t to say nothing can be done here though. Some additions to the current definition can be made to exclude the possibilities of protein spiking—a line could be added stating when calculating the quantity of protein, only proteins that are a chain of amino acids connected by peptide bonds should be included, or that non-protein nitrogen ingredients should not be counted towards total protein content on product labels.
With these minor additions, the EU can uphold its regulatory framework while making a tremendous difference in the fight against protein spiking—all while achieving their aims of protecting consumers and honest companies alike across the EU.
In the meantime, as we wait for the EU to tackle this, the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA) are pioneering activity to tackle spiking in Europe through self-regulation via the protein roadmap, which we encourage all businesses to make good use of.