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What’s in This?: Chocolate Muscle Milk

All 25 ingredients in this get-buff-quick drink, explained (yep, even sodium hexametaphosphate)

We’re often told that you should never eat anything if you don’t recognize everything on the ingredients list. But since most of us have no idea what xanthan gum or potassium benzoate are — or more importantly, what they’re doing to our bodies — we’re decoding the ingredients in the many things Americans put in (and on) themselves with the help of an expert.

This edition: Muscle Milk, which is made from 25 separate ingredients that we’ve broken down in the exact order they appear on the company’s website.

The Ingredients

1) Water: This acts as a base for the other ingredients.

2) Milk Protein Isolate: Milk protein isolate is a concentrate that provides the same proteins found in fresh milk. “It comes as a powder that can be added to products to keep them moist, boost their protein content, enhance flavor, extend shelf life and improve texture,” explains Dagan Xavier, ingredient expert and co-founder of Label Insight. In simple terms, this ingredient puts the “muscle” in Muscle Milk, which contains 25 grams of protein per serving. For reference, a 175-pound man should consume 61.25 grams of protein daily, so topping off a single meal with Muscle Milk may provide you with more than a day’s worth of protein.

3) Calcium Caseinate (Milk): Calcium caseinate is a single protein derived from the casein — a larger group of proteins known as phosphoproteins — found in milk. “Bodybuilders use calcium caseinate because this type of protein breaks down more slowly than whey protein, providing a sustained release of amino acids,” Xavier adds. Generally speaking, this ingredient contributes to muscle building and a feeling of fullness.

4) Sodium Caseinate (Milk): “Sodium caseinate is a sodium salt derived from the milk protein casein that acts as a stabilizer, texturizer and thickener,” Xavier says. “The GMP [good manufacturing practice] states that it must be added to products in the smallest amount required to achieve the desired outcome.” What might happen if you were to consume loads of sodium caseinate remains an understudied topic.

5) Alkalized Cocoa Powder: Also known as Dutch process cocoa powder, this has a more earthy flavor than your average cocoa powder. “Consuming large amounts of alkalized cocoa powder is possibly unsafe due to the caffeine content,” Xavier warns. “This can cause problems for pregnant women, where the caffeine could cross the placenta and enter the bloodstream of the fetus.” Cocoa may also trigger migraines in those susceptible to them.

6) Soluble Vegetable Fiber: This is essentially vegetable-derived fiber, which aids digestion (something that’s vital considering the many diarrhea-inducing ingredients found in this product, which we’ll touch on shortly). Be warned, though: “Consuming too much fiber can cause cramping, bloating, gas and abdominal discomfort as your body attempts to work through the bulk,” Xavier explains. So go easy on this stuff.

7) Natural and Artificial Flavors: These provide Muscle Milk with flavor. While natural flavors are literally flavors derived from an actual food source — e.g., chocolate flavoring taken from real cacao seeds — artificial flavors are chemical compounds created in a lab that mimic a natural flavor in some way. While that may sound unhealthy, as physician and biochemist Cate Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, told us during our exploration of all 26 ingredients in nacho-flavored Doritos, these flavorings are added in such small quantities that they shouldn’t cause you any harm.

8) Canola Oil: According to Shanahan, consuming too much vegetable oil (sunflower, canola or corn) — which is easy to do, considering Shanahan says roughly 45 percent of the average American’s calories come from refined oils — has serious repercussions (i.e., fatty liver disease, insulin resistance and migraines). While it’s nearly impossible to eliminate vegetable oil from your diet altogether — major contributors include processed foods, fried foods, frozen pizzas, cakes, cookies, margarines and coffee creamers — it’s best consumed in moderation.

9) Sunflower Oil: See above.

10) Dipotassium Phosphate: “Dipotassium phosphate is an acidity regulator, antioxidant, sequestrant [a food additive which improves the quality and stability of foods] and stabilizer,” Xavier explains. Studies suggest those with kidney disease should monitor their dipotassium phosphate intake, as too much phosphorus in the blood can contribute to developing bone, heart and kidney disease.

11) Magnesium Phosphate: This ingredient functions as an antioxidant, an acidity regulator and an anti-caking agent. It also can be used as a laxative, which means large amounts can (and will) induce diarrhea and vomiting.

12) Cellulose Gum and Gel: Cellulose gum and gel are common thickening agents. Consuming large amounts of it may add bulk to your stool and have a laxative effect, according to the FDA. You’ve been warned.

13) Maltodextrin: An artificial sugar made from maltose (aka malt sugar) and dextrose (a sugar derived from starches), maltodextrin is usually used as a thickener or filler ingredient to add bulk to processed food and to increase its shelf life. (Maltodextrin itself has a shelf life of two years.)

14) Potassium Chloride: Potassium chloride is added to food for two reasons: 1) To act as a salt substitute; and 2) to enhance the amount of potassium — an essential and widely under-consumed nutrient — found in the product. While small amounts — like that found in Muscle Milk — shouldn’t do you any harm, nutritionist David Friedman, author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction, previously warned us of consuming too much of the stuff. “Potassium chloride is used to induce cardiac arrest during executions by lethal injections,” he says. “That should speak volumes as to whether this ingredient belongs in our food supply.”

15) Sodium Hexametaphosphate: This is commonly added to foods as a sequestrant, thickener, emulsifier and texturizer. It’s generally recognized as safe by the FDA, but animal studies have found some shocking side effects of consuming large amounts of this ingredient: Pale and swollen kidneys, increased kidney weight, bone decalcification, muscle fiber size changes, hyperplasia (which may lead to the gross enlargement of an organ) and severe skin irritations. Yikes.

16) Carrageenan: This is widely used in the food industry for its gelling, thickening and stabilizing properties. Some animal studies argue that there’s a connection between carrageenan ingestion and inflammatory bowel disease; however, the FDA lists the ingredient as a Generally Recognized as Safe Substance. And more recent human studies take the FDA’s side on this one.

17) Acesulfame Potassium: Acesulfame potassium is an artificial sweetener, and as we learned in our analysis of the eight ingredients in Diet Coke, artificial sweeteners suck for a few reasons. Not only do they promote weight gain (visit the link above for an in-depth explanation on how that works) — despite being marketed as doing the very opposite — recent rodent studies also suggest that long-term consumption of acesulfame potassium may cause cognitive damage. That said, as with all rodent studies, further research is required to fully understand the effects this ingredient has on humans.

18) Potassium Citrate: This is yet another acidity regulator and stabilizer.

19) Medium Chain Triglycerides: These are partially man-made fats. “Athletes sometimes use medium chain triglycerides for nutritional support during training, as well as for decreasing body fat and increasing lean muscle mass,” Xavier notes. Those with liver disease or diabetes should avoid these, as they can put a lot of pressure on the liver.

20) Salt: Salt is sometimes added to sweet-tasting drinks to balance out the sweetness.

21) Ascorbic Acid: This is just a fancy name for vitamin C.

22) Sodium Phosphate: Sodium phosphate is a generic term that may refer to any sodium salt combined with phosphoric acid (which prevents the growth of mold and bacteria). They’re usually added as texturizers and emulsifiers, which allows for the uniform dispersion of numerous ingredients. One study suggests phosphate additives contribute to the prevalence of chronic kidney disease, and the FDA even issued a safety warning concerning the use of over-the-counter sodium phosphate products to treat constipation. All in all, this is an ingredient to be wary of.

23) Sucralose: This is another artificial sweetener, more commonly known as Splenda. In addition to all the other problems posed by artificial sugars, studies suggest that sucralose in particular increases the populations of bacteria in our gut that pull energy from our food and turn that energy into fat. In other words, sucralose may make us fat.

24) Vitamin A Palmitate: This is simply a compound that acts as a source of vitamin A.

25) Vitamin D3: This is a solid addition to Muscle Milk, considering studies show that a vitamin D deficiency can reduce testosterone levels and motivate early-onset erectile dysfunction — both of which may put a real damper on your motivation to workout.

The Takeaway

All in all, there are a whole bunch of ingredients found in Muscle Milk that are capable of sending you on constant (and painful) trips to the toilet: Soluble vegetable fiber, magnesium phosphate, cellulose gum and gel and carrageenan. There are also quite a few capable of damaging your kidneys: Dipotassium phosphate, sodium hexametaphosphate and sodium phosphate. Even worse, Americans already consume far more protein than they need (which defeats the purpose of drinking Muscle Milk).

Knowing this, you’re probably better off avoiding Muscle Milk altogether unless you’re a bodybuilder or an ultramarathoner.