Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Math For Bodybuilders

If you're looking for a quick way to refuel after a brutal workout, it's tough to beat a protein shake. Mix some powder with water, and in seconds you've got a high-protein, low-carb drink. The only downside is the taste...the packaging on protein powder can be very misleading in that area. Without fail, the flavors listed on the bag sound incredibly delicious, with choices like chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, chocolate hot fudge sundae, peanut butter, banana split, and similar dessert-y names.

When it comes time to actually drink one of the shakes, however, disappointment is inevitable. In reality, despite what the bag might suggest, you're likely to experience a taste from one of the following categories: chalk, dirt, cardboard, or truck stop men's room floor. Most of my protein shake experiences involve plugging my nose, holding my breath, chugging the liquid, then downing a bunch of water to rid my mouth of the dreaded aftertaste.

I've learned that those delicious names on the package are more descriptive of the color of the powder than the actual flavor of the beverage. With my wealth of knowledge and experience in this area, I've built a handy guide for a few of the common flavors to help the less experienced users out there:
  • Chocolate = brown
  • Vanilla = white
  • Strawberry = pink
  • Peanut butter = light brown
  • Banana split = off-white
  • Chocolate hot fudge sundae = dark brown
 Flavor = Chocolate; Color = Brown; Taste = ???

As for the taste, it's anyone's guess what you'll end up with.  That's why, in those rare occasions when I stumble upon a product with an acceptable flavor, I hold onto it for dear life.   There was a glorious stretch during which Sam's Club carried E.A.S. protein powder--mixed with water, it wasn't too bad, and mixed with milk, drinking it was actually enjoyable.  Not only that, it was reasonably priced!

How did Sam's Club handle this big win-win situation?  Like all good things, they destroyed it and stopped carrying E.A.S. protein.  Club stores are notorious for their rotational/seasonal offerings, and Sam's opted for a more expensive, taste-bud-offending product from a lesser competitor.  Devastated, I drank my way through several bitter experiments with alternative brands, to no avail.

I was almost ready to give up when Sam's Club started carrying a brand I hadn't seen on their shelves before: MuscleTech.  A friend at the gym tried it first and said the taste was unspectacular, but tolerable.  I picked up a bag labeled "Vanilla" and tried it for myself...the flavor definitely wasn't great; it reminded me of that artificial butter you find on movie theater popcorn, which is rather unappealing when downing 16 ounces at a time.  But it was certainly better than the bottom-of-the-shoe taste from the other brands I'd tried recently, so I decided to stick with it.

When I'd emptied the bag, I returned to Sam's Club to pick up another, and I was very concerned with what I saw on the bag.  The flavor had changed from "Vanilla" to "Deluxe Vanilla," and there was a big red burst on the package:

New & Improved Flavor!?  This was not I'd found an acceptable product, and MuscleTech decided to tinker with the formula. The logo on the bottom of the package claimed that this new and improved version had received some kind of award from the American Masters of Taste, but I was still leery.  It had to do a Google search to confirm that this was even a real organization.

Having already exhausted all of my options with the other brands, I went ahead and bought it anyway.  When I finally tried it for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised.  The flavor was, in fact, improved, and I was absolutely astonished at the taste: an actual hint of vanilla!  One other item on the package caught my eye...but I'll get to that in a minute...

Within the past few years, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute came up with the "Facts Up Front" nutrition labeling system for food products.  The basic idea was that moving key nutrition information to the fronts of packages would help people make more informed and healthier eating decisions.  This represents a huge leap forward for people who are genuinely concerned about their health, but not concerned enough to pick up a package and turn it. And the $50 million the two organizations spent on a consumer education program was clearly money well spent.

Here's a quick example that shows how Facts Up Front works. The lower left corner of this package of Jimmy Dean's breakfast sausage/croissant sandwiches includes one of the new labels.

I'm no health expert, but something tells me that there are healthier ways to start your day than with sausage and croissants.  Facts Up Front pulls everything consumers need to know directly in their line of sight:

The best part is that food manufacturers have some discretion on which items to highlight on the front of the package, so they try to paint their product in the most positive light possible.  Look--these Breakfast Minis are loaded with protein and are low in sugar!  And have only four grams of fat (wait...that's four grams of saturated fat, not total fat...). But whatever--I'm convinced these aren't so unhealthy after all.  Take that, common sense!  Facts Up Front is based on the underlying assumption that Americans are too lazy to pick up a package and examine the standard black and white "Nutrition Facts" section on the back.

Who has the time or energy to turn the package all the way around?!  (By the way, this is not the actual nutrition information for Jimmy D's Breakfast Minis)

But I digress...the item that caught my eye on the front of the protein bag was reminiscent of Facts up Front.  Since protein powder is a supplement and not a traditional food product, MuscleTech included nutrition facts that bodybuilders would be most concerned about: protein, fat, and aspartame (an artificial sweetener).

MuscleTech's information panel is apparently based on the belief that bodybuilders are too dumb for simple math.  First, MuscleTech points out that one scoop of protein contains twenty grams of protein and one gram of fat. That's fairly useful information...but MuscleTech takes it one step further: for muscle-bound meat-heads who can't figure out what the nutrition profile would look like if they decided to go with two scoops of protein, MuscleTech does the math for them: forty grams of protein, and two grams of fat!

I'm mildly insulted, but then again, I'm not big enough, strong enough, or in good enough shape to call myself a I guess I feel a little better about my intellectual abilities and much, much worse about my physical appearance.  It all evens out.  I'm just thrilled that for the time being, I know where to purchase protein powder with a taste that's at least vaguely reminiscent of the flavor listed on the bag.  I better stock up before Sam's Club decides to ruin this for me.

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