I recently had a discussion about label compliance with a group of regulatory experts. This question arose: “When a label claims 5g of protein, is there a legal issue because it really contains only 4.65g?”
The consensus of the group was that the claim was fine, and from a regulatory perspective, I agreed. Federal regulation 21 CFR 101.9 requires you to round protein to the nearest gram. I’ll bet you’re anticipating that even though I agreed, I’ve got a lot more to say on the subject. You are correct!
Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with rounding dosages on a label; it's just that not all companies have your best interest in mind when doing it, especially in the sports supplement industry, which brings me to the point of this rant. Federal regulations should be there to protect you, but unscrupulous players in the industry often find ways to use those regs in their favor, while taking advantage of you along the way.
The "Rounding Scam" is often used to make supplements appear better then they are. To understand how this works, first, let me show you the rounding rule for protein, then give you an example to help you better understand it. Then we’ll get into the meat of this week’s rant.
In this case, a protein claim of 4.65g must be rounded up to 5g. Although legal, there can be ethical issues that arise when a marketing claim is made on a rounded number. Here, the 5g claim is overstated by 7%—a significant deficiency and enough to raise the issue of misleading advertising with the FTC. More importantly, consumers don’t expect to get shorted 7% of the principal ingredient they are purchasing because of a technicality or loophole in the regulations. We must give consumers what we promise them, regardless of what we can get away with.
I caution brands against rounding up in a situation where the protein is the primary purpose of the product. Although rounding complies with FDA regs, it doesn’t comply with the consumer’s belief in what they are purchasing, and in the end, consumer compliance is just as important as regulatory compliance.
At NutraBio, I don't allow rounding up for protein claim; instead, we adjust the formula to meet final label claim. In this case, we would have increased protein from 4.65 to 5g, so that real protein matched label claim and rounding wasn’t necessary. So if I say there is 25g of protein in a serving of a NutraBio product, that is exactly what's in it. No games - and to prove it we publish 3rd-party lab results of every single batch viewable online by product lot number.
While 7% is significant, you might be thinking it only comes out to 0.35g, so who cares? Well, that was just an example to show how rounding works, now let's get to the scam: Legally ripping off consumers using the rounding rules:
I once had a dispute with a company that I felt was deceiving consumers by misusing the rounding rule on its protein powder. Their label claimed to have zero fat and sugar, which wasn’t possible since it was made predominantly of whey concentrate. The label claimed 5g of protein while suggesting the consumer take six servings to get 30g of protein. To the consumer, everything appeared fine on this label, but I recognized the 'dosing scam' immediately.
I believed the product was purposely formulated with 4.51g of complete protein per serving so the company could legally round it up to show it as 5g on the label. That doesn’t sound like much, but multiply it by six to get one serving, and it adds up. Before confronting them, I sent a sample of their product to the lab. The results proved my theory correct. Talk about playing the system. They deliberately reduced the serving size so low that rounding created a significant shortfall in protein. The scheme was great for them because it lowered their costs, but bad for their customers because they got ripped off.
Let’s look at the math to understand how they used rounding rules to rip off their customers. They ultimately want you to take 30 grams of protein (six 5g servings). Had they used one large 30g serving, they would have been limited to using the rounding rule only once—to round 29.51g up to 30g, shorting you only 1.6%. By using six smaller servings, they were able to round 4.51g up to 5g six times, enabling them to short you 10% of the total protein claimed on the label. So each scoop was only short about a half a gram, but since you needed 6 scoops you were shorted a total of 3g.
The scam gets even worse. By using the six smaller servings, they were able to use rounding to manipulate the fat and sugar so the label showed zero even though the fat was 2.41g and the sugar was 1.78g. So let’s look at the rounding rules for fat and sugar and the math to see how they cheated you.
Let's start with the fat. So each serving of 4.51g of protein comes from 5.9g of whey concentrate, which, at 7% fat, yields 0.413g of fat.* Since the total fat is under 0.5g, it gets rounded down to zero on the label. You need six servings, and 6 times 0 is 0, so the consumer thinks there's no fat. However, the real calculation should be 0.413g times 6, which gives us 2.48g of fat per serving.
*(WPC80 is around 76% protein value on an "as is" basis so 4.51g/0.76=5.9g, WPC80 is about 7% fat so 0.7*5.9g=0.413g)
Let’s look at the sugar. Whey concentrate is about 5% sugar, so 5.9g would yield about 0.292g of sugar, which would get rounded down to zero on the label. Once again, the consumer thinks 6 times 0 is 0 when in reality 6 times 0.295 is 1.77g of sugar.
Consumers paid for and believed they were getting 30g of protein with zero carbs or fat when in reality they got 27g of protein with 2.48g of fat and 1.77g of sugar. Welcome to the rounding scam.
Here is the worst part: what this company did is a well-known industry practice; they create a small “convenience serving” then recommend you take as many of them as you need to fulfill your protein requirements, suggesting 30g as the norm. The consumer thanks to the company for making such an easy way to measure out protein, while the company says your welcome by giving them the finger.
As a caveat to this rant, I need to mention that regulations require us to use the rounding rules for the calories, macros, micros and even the Daily Values. So, unfortunately, sometimes what you read on a label is not exactly what you get in the bottle, there is just no way around it.
Over the years, many of you have sent me examples of competitor labels where the macros didn’t add up to calories, and I have often defended them. Now you understand why: the rounding rules! You might see a label where the calorie/macro ratio is off by 9%. It doesn’t necessarily mean the label is wrong; it could be that the calories had to be rounded from 85 up to 90, creating a 6% discrepancy, while the macros rounded down by 3%. Sometimes, it’s not the brand cheating you; it’s just the regulations forcing these label discrepancies.
A trustworthy brand will always do its best to keep its label as accurate as possible while abiding by the rounding rules. Honest brands will work the formulation to match it as close as they can to the rounded claim so, in the end, the label is an honest representation of the supplement. But buyer beware, there will always be scammers out there trying to rip you off by using the rounding game to their advantage. These are often the same companies that use amino spiking and other industry scams I have exposed in the past. The more educated you are, the better you can protect yourself.
In 1974, Sy Syms coined the saying “An educated consumer is our best customer.” I believe wholeheartedly in that slogan, and nowhere is education more critical than in the supplement industry. It’s why I have devoted so much time over the last 20 years exposing industry scams through my seminars, videos, and rants like the one you’re reading now. Companies expect you to trust them; but I don’t have much confidence in trust, I believe in verification and so should you. Demand transparency on supplement labels, question proprietary blends, ask for lab results. It’s your body. You have the right to know what you’re putting in it.
NutraBio Labs, CEO