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Protein Wars

Vince Andrich

Ever since bodybuilders realized (often going against mainstream science) that protein is the only nutrient that can build and repair muscle tissue, we’ve witnessed major protein wars that have been waged based on some relative science and 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 recently hit the bodybuilding scene that tout beef as the main protein source. 

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 break down per 100 grams of a particular protein;

2. Digestion characteristics or release kinetics, which simply means how long it will take for the protein to be digested so that the amino acids become available in your bloodstream; and

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 diffi cult it will 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’s the Beef?

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 have also racked up an impressive list of scientific studies that back up their use as part of a bodybuilder/athlete’s diet. In fact, no other proteins have such an impressive research record in athletes. Let’s look at how beef stacks up.

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, which is great for joints and connective tissue; and

2. Very high levels of arginine, another nonessential amino acid that has been shown to facilitate tissue repair and wound healing (additive to the effects of the protein itself).

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’re 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 the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), leucine, isoleucine, and valine. By comparison, the milk proteins deliver about 23 percent of the total amino acid array as BCAAs, while cooked beef (tri-tip) barely tops 17 percent.

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 percent lower than the milk proteins, and over time, this has a great impact on your ability to put on lean muscle. Regular readers of MUSCLE INSIDER already know that BCAAs 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 BCAAs, leucine, is the preeminent signaling agent for muscle protein synthesis. Simply put, leucine is the nutritional hammer that can initiate and amplify the specifi c cascade of events (generally referred to by scientists as the mTOR complex) that turns on muscle protein synthesis. For bodybuilders, 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 bodybuilders, 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 BCAAs and leucine in particular. This is particularly true
for the meal you eat upon awakening, since your body has been subjected to an overnight fast, and for the postworkout protein feeding that should occur within an hour after training. Milk proteins, which include supplements and dairy products, deliver the highest concentration of BCAAs 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 BCAAs, particularly 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 bodybuilders and athletes of the value of milk proteins. This is also why milk proteins are getting the lion’s share of research funds from protein researchers who are looking to prove muscle-building and fat-loss claims with athletes.

Preliminary Review

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 morning and/or after your workout and take a beef protein supplement once or twice 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.

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 protein or short digestion times typically signify that peak levels of the amino acids in the source protein will be in the bloodstream within one to three 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.


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 three 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 musclebuilding assembly line is necessary for the body to stay in sync with the time-dependent nature of manufacturing new lean tissue.

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 various protein bars and supplements behave much differently than their whole-food counterparts that 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’s likely that real beef will still be delivering amino acids in the bloodstream well past the five-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 brain’s 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 some supplements and bars is marketed as “hydrolyzed beef isolate.” This means that the protein is already separated from the tissue (unlike real beef), predigested (hydrolyzed), then broken up further into a powdered form. I don’t have release data specific to these products, but it’s my guess that these supplemental beef protein supplements will likely be finished delivering amino acids to build muscle after about two to four 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 doesn’t carry the heavy doses of BCAAs, particularly leucine, that are found naturally in 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 it’s 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 BCAAs, but in my opinion, this isn’t the complete story.

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 such as BCAAs 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 BCAAs, you’re essentially saying, “I know the BCAAs are low, so I will add them in.” But at the same time, you must tell your consumers that the high percentages of collagenproducing aminos have been diluted down to make room for the BCAAs. 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 proteins, milk proteins, namely whey isolate and concentrate, provide the fastest delivery, since most of the amino acids are actually picked up in the gut itself. Plus, due to their high levels of BCAAs, 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. 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 their action on digestion. The best thing about milk protein isolate/concentrates is that they contain 80 percent casein and 20 percent whey, the ratios found in nature. Therefore, they 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 deemed appropriate by a health practitioner (or your own good judgment). 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, two to four 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. Rather, marketers have taken this concept in to liquid ready-to-drink form. Liquid beef aminos (LBAs), 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 the solution (i.e., 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. I won’t bore you with the science, but when you create a ready-to-drink-protein supplement, you’re dealing with ratios that dictate how much protein (including the type) that can go into solution. In other words, if the brand wants the finished RTD to have 25 grams of protein and come in 16 ounces, that predetermined  combination must be tested by a food scientist to see if it’s in fact feasible. This main determinant that needs to be considered to meet the predetermined criteria will be the solubility of the proteins used in the formula.

My Best Pick for Protein

As you might have already guessed, when it comes to commercially available protein supplements, my overthe- 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 percent casein and 20 percent whey, just like those 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.

About the Author:
For over 24 years, Vince Andrich has been the driving force behind many of the most innovative and successful companies in performance nutrition and sports supplements. His success developing go-to-market product strategies, as well as authoring numerous books and articles, have one common theme: find the science or concept that actually helps bodybuilders in the real world.