Muscle Milk has no milk in it, and little science to support its claim of containing muscle. Still, Muscle Milk remains a popular item on our campus and across the country. The drink is marketed to “promote healthy sustained energy, lean muscle growth, and recovery from exercise with a milkshake-like taste” and is good for anyone that has the “desire to maintain lean muscle mass.” While there is some science to support the idea of increasing protein intake to build muscle, there is little science or logic in the preference of drinks like Muscle Milk over real foods with high protein content, like eggs, milk and chicken.
This 14 oz. muscle elixir is sold for a $4.92 at campus dining facilities. The beverage was originally introduced on campus due to popularity at other universities and demand for Muscle Milk has remained steady over the last two of years at Stony Brook, according to Angela Agnello, Director of Marketing and Communications for the Faculty Student Association at Stony Brook.
The sports-nutrition market, of which these drinks are a part of, now bring in more than $2.7 billion dollars a year in revenue. Cytosport Inc., which distributes Muscle Milk, reportedly earned $200 million in 2008 and received the “Small Company of the Year Award” at the 16th annual Beverage Forum presented by Beverage World magazine and Beverage Marketing Corporation, for it’s “breakout success.”
Like most other business success stories, the story of Muscle Milk’s success is not the story of successful science or successful health, it’s the story of successful marketing. Protein supplement providers promote their products as being “athletic,” using images of muscular active men to create an association between their product and being muscular and lean, and consumers appear to have bought into this idea. The FDA has little oversight over these manufacturers and their products, both as to the safety of these products and the validity of their claims. The only time the FDA has intervened in the supplement market was in the case of Hydroxycut (a fat burning supplement) after 23 health cases and one death were reported as related to the product. In the words of Jim Edwards, a drug market analyst formerly at Adweek, “Unlike with meat, eggs, spinach, tomatoes or Lipitor, the FDA is limited to waiting until people actually die before the law permits it to inspect and ban a product.”
Edwards says the “diet supplement industry [is] an official wild west of dubious claims and big profits.” There is little regulation by the FDA to fact check the broad promises these products promote. There have been some lawsuits by the National Advertising Division and Nestle against Muscle Milk for their false marketing and these cases were referred to the Federal Trade Commission. Meanwhile, the supplement lobby, The Council for Responsible Nutrition, is lobbying for even leaner oversight over the claims made by manufacturers. Their official position as sighted in their report given to the FTC, is “an advertising claim that you don’t believe can’t hurt you.”
Yet, walk into the campus cafeteria and you see how many do believe these claims. The promises of easy muscle or “bulk” seem to work their trick. Campus Dining says they don’t track who consumes their products, but Muscle Milk seems to be mostly popular with young men, eager to get that desired physique and willing to overpay for a bad tasting drink that promises it all.
The market and the demand are there, but the science isn’t. A closer look at the protein contained in Muscle Milk reveals that “milk” isn’t the only way they trick customers. The scam is in the muscle, and the idea that you need this drink, at $4.92 a bottle, to get it.
Researchers Jay R. Hoffman and Michael J. Falvo from the Department of Health and Exercise Science at The College of New Jersey published an overview of protein intake and benefits in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. In their paper they address the different ways in which you can measure protein value and quality. There are two popular approaches, the Biological Value, which measures the amount of nitrogen absorbed from a protein source, and the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS), which measure the amount of amino acids consumed compared to the amount needed by pre school age children (who have the highest nutrition requirement), the score is then corrected for digestibility.
The Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization now use the PDCAAS system to assess protein value. The trouble with the Biological Value system is that it measure protein potential, the amount of protein it could provide, instead of the amount of protein you digest when you eat it. Additionally, the Biological Value was based on animal tests of protein intake, not humans. The PDCAAS tries to correct that value by measuring the amount of protein humans need and including in its calculation the amount of protein excreted (there has been some debate about this method, since not all protein that isn’t excreted is used for synthesis, see Schaafsma, 2000, Journal of Nutrition)
Protein supplement manufacturers like to quote the Biological Value of their product, since according to the Biological Value scale their products do better than natural products, such as milk and eggs. But if you use the more accurate PDCAAS scale, the products lose the superiority.
Whey protein, which Muscle Milk uses in their drinks, has a PDCAA score of 1.00, the highest score possible according to this rating system. But here’s the secret, according to Hoffman and Falvo, so do eggs and milk. Eggs, milk and whey protein all have a PDCAA perfect score of 1.00, the first two are natural whole foods, the third has fructose and flavors added. The first two cost somewhere between one and two dollars, the third is almost five.
David VanDyke is the director of Speed, Strength and Conditioning here at Stony Brook. He and his team are responsible for the athletic development of Stony Brook’s student athletes. Working with coaches and players VanDyke devises training plans for the teams as a whole and the athletes individually. At the end of each workout session at the Speed, Strength and Conditioning facility the athletes get a scoop of Muscle Milk Collegiate to consume after their workout.
VanDyke himself says he is skeptical of the protein supplement market, “it’s buy and beware” he says. Muscle Milk suggests taking four scoops of powder, he only gives his athletes one. “They just want you to consume as much as possible,” he explains. He insists that he and his team do not do diet plans, but they do discuss nutrition with their athletes. They evaluate their athletes and those that they assign as “hard gainers,” individuals who naturally gain little weight they give extra supplements.
Ultimately the protein market comes down to convenience, explains VanDyke. “Many teens have never had a real breakfast” he says, “students ask me what’s the best whey to get body mass and I say: tuna, eggs…I stress whole foods.” But in the end, VanDyke says, students “lack the organization, skill and money to eat whole foods.” In these cases protein supplements become an easy way to get the protein an athlete needs.
But using the supplements as meal replacements and not pairing it with a rigorous workout schedule is a waste according to VanDyke. The result you get from taking high amounts of protein supplements, he explains, is that “you get expensive urine.”
A $4.92 bottle of bad tasting Muscle Milk has everything that it takes to be a successful product. It promises its buyer status. Sitting with two eggs and two glasses of milk says little about you, but holding a bottle of Muscle Milk advertises you to all onlookers and to yourself as someone focused on his body and strength. Sure, you can get the same amount of protein for cheaper, but it won’t feel that good or that manly. Its bad taste and ridiculous price are all part of the game, so when you drink it you feel like you are doing something inconvenient, like you are sacrificing something to improve your physique. But essentially all you did is over pay for a bottle of faux-milk that makes your urine more expensive than the guy pissing right next to you.
The allure of a five-dollar magic muscle drink is that it makes it seem easy. It makes getting fit and muscular seem like an easy process instead of the strenuous process of physical labor it actually requires. Instead of a commitment to work and sweat, it asks for a commitment to spend, and for consumers that’s an easy choice to make.
Getting a fine physique and building muscle are both difficult and demanding processes. Nothing is really that easy. The only thing easy is mixing a drink and getting young men to pay five bucks for it. All you need is a few images of “ripped” guys, a name that suggests strength (that also sounds natural) and you have yourself a 200 million dollar company with a popular five-dollar drink.
Apparently, that’s the only thing that’s easy, and that’s the problem.