We’re all faced with a common problem on a monthly basis. One more serious and life-changing than making sure the mortgage, car note, or electric bill is paid, though those are certainly important. No, the problem we’re talking about is directly tied to your quest to make gains on a weekly basis at the gym - replacing your now empty tub of pre-workout.
Walking into your local supplement shop (or clicking to your favorite online retailer), you’re hellbent on finding the “perfect” pre-workout that while enhance your performance and infuse you with the motivation to crush every workout. Scanning the plethora of pre-workout products, you’re inundated with by a pair of words that strike a mix of confusion, contempt, and curiosity.
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Those two words? Proprietary blend.
These two words have been the bane of all supplements, not just our beloved pre-workout, for well over a decade. We're here to give you a full rundown of what proprietary blends are, why they’re a complete sham, and why you should avoid them at all costs.
What Are Proprietary Blends?
Normally, the FDA requires manufacturers to list the amounts of each ingredient in a product (by mass) in the “Supplement Facts.” However, thanks to a “loophole” in the regulations, manufacturers can lump a bunch of ingredients together with a “blend” and just list the total amount of the blend, and not the individual amounts of each ingredient.
Now, each ingredient within the proprietary blend must be listed in order of predominance of dosage (highest to lowest), meaning that the first ingredient prop blend contains an equal or higher dose than the second ingredient, and the second ingredient is equal to or higher than the third, but not more than the first ingredient, and so on.
Sounds pretty harmless right?
With a little know-how and some rudimentary understanding of proper supplement dosages, you could probably reverse engineer the proprietary blend and figure out the corresponding dose of each ingredient.
However, not all companies have your best interest at heart, nor are they interested in giving you the optimal doses of each ergogenic in their product. This means that even though we know the clinically effective dose of creatine monohydrate to be 3-5 grams, just because it’s listed in a proprietary blend, does not mean that the formulators have actually included that much in the product.
All of that may sound a bit confusing, so let’s look at a real-life example of a proprietary blend found in a common pre-workout.
Deciphering Proprietary Blends
As you can see, we’ve got a 2.6g “Endurance + Ripping” Matrix consisting of undisclosed amounts of:
- Green tea extract
- Guayusa extract
That’s 8 total ingredients in a 2.6 gram proprietary blend, the vast majority of which are stimulants. Now, we know from the scientific studies that have been conducted with beta alanine, that the effective dose is right around 3.2 grams (but can be higher). 
But, seeing that the entire proprietary blend is only 2.6 grams, we’re not getting anywhere near 3.2 grams. So, let’s say the product manufacturers decided to provide half the clinical dose and put in 1.6 grams of beta-alanine into the product. That leaves us with 1 gram of product to split between seven other ingredients.
The second ingredient is caffeine. Research has used varying amounts of caffeine in exercise studies ranging anywhere from 100-600mg+.  So, how are we supposed to know how much caffeine is in this pre-workout? Furthermore, what is the guayusa extract standardized for? It could be caffeine or any one of another 100+ compounds inside the plant, and how are we supposed to know?
We don’t, and that’s the gigantic problem with proprietary blends.
We have absolutely no clue how much of each individual ingredient we’re getting. It could 100 mg of caffeine, it could be 600mg, we just don’t know, and that’s unsettling for athletes, especially those who are particularly sensitive to caffeine.
Having proprietary blends opens the door to endless possibilities and combinations of dosages of the different ingredients. Continuing on with our example, this product could have 1 gram of beta-alanine, 1.6g, or even 2g.
How then are we supposed to know how much caffeine, TeaCrine, Rauwolscine (an extremely powerful stimulant), or any of the other “auxiliary” ingredients contained within this massive prop blend?
We’re not, and that’s done on purpose by the supplement company.
Why Use Proprietary Blends?
The primary reason that supplement companies use proprietary blends can be easily explained in a single word:
By using a proprietary blend supplement companies don’t want you to know how little of each ingredient they’re sprinkling into a product. Rather than openly disclose the dose of each ingredient so that you can be certain you’re getting the truly efficacious doses of each ingredient, they pixie-dust in minute doses of products hidden by the proprietary blend in the hopes you trust them to do right by you.
In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Supplement companies want to make money first and foremost. They’re not really concerned about your performance, fat loss, productivity, etc. They’re in business to make money, and using prop blends is a bonafide cash cow for these businesses.
Supplement companies who do embrace proprietary blends will often cite a number of reasons why they’re using the blends, including:
Supplement companies will often say they’ve come up with a “magical” or “game-changing” stimulant blend, which they choose to hide behind a proprietary blend because if they openly disclose the formula, their competitors will steal it and make their own formulas.
This is a complete falsehood, and just an excuse guilty supplement companies use to soothe their consciences. The truth is, if a competitor really wanted to steal another company's formula (even if it was hidden in a prop blend), all they would have to do is buy a bottle of their competitor’s product and send it to a 3rd party lab who could run a chemical analysis and find out the exact amounts of each ingredient in the blend.
It really is that simple. Therefore, protecting your precious “stim blend” that you’ve “worked” so hard to formulate is complete garbage.
Here’s another BS reason companies will use proprietary blends. They will claim that certain ingredients synergize with each other, and therefore, you can get be with a lesser amount of each ingredient due to the synergistic effects of the compounds. As such, they will say they’ve done the “research” and found the magic ratio of underdosed compounds that still somehow work, and then enclose it in a proprietary blend to protect their time investment in research the compounds.
Again this is a steaming pile of crap. The truth is, there is a small set of ingredients that have been proven to improve performance in humans, and everyone knows those dosages.
There is no “secret sauce” or synergism behind a proprietary blend that underdoses creatine and beta alanine (or any other combination of ingredients) and gives superior results to actually consuming the full research-backed doses.
Having successfully debunked the primary reasons supplement companies use proprietary blends, that leads us back to what we said up top - GREED.
By listing a bunch of ingredients in a proprietary blend, supplement companies lead you to believe you’re getting a fully-dosed supplement, when in reality, they’re sprinkling in minuscule amounts of well-known ingredients. This creates a tremendous profit margin for the companies.
It’s far more expensive to include a full 3.2 grams of beta-alanine along with 5 grams of creatine and 2.5 grams of betaine, than it is to make a proprietary 2.5-gram “strength & power matrix” that includes those same three ingredients.
Using proprietary blends allows supplement companies to cut corners and make more and more money, and all you’re left with is less money and a glorified caffeine pill that does little to actually improve your performance.
But that only begins to scratch the surface of the problems with proprietary blends.
More Reason to Dislike Proprietary Blends
Let’s say for a moment that there is a phenomenal product on the market that uses a proprietary blend. Let’s call this product Mind Warp, and its designed to be used as a nootropic/productivity supplement.
Flipping over the bottle, you see a 2-gram proprietary blend of:
- Alpha GPC
- Lion’s Mane
- Mucuna Pruriens
- Bacopa Monnieri
Now, we’re going to trust the company has included the research-backed doses of these ingredients since there have been such rave reviews about the product, which means we’re probably getting around 600mg Alpha GPC, 500mg Lion’s Mane, 150mg Bacopa Monnieri, etc.
The first run of the product is a huge success, and Mind Warp is sold out in the blink of an eye. So, the supplement company who created Mind Warp does a second run of the product, but here’s where the bait and switch happens.
In an effort to increase their profit margin, they start “tweaking” their formula a bit. Rather than use the same standardizations of the herbal extracts (Lion’s Mane, Bacopa, Mucuna), which are very expensive, they go with broad-spectrum extracts that save them a considerable chunk of change in manufacturing costs.
And here’s the worst part…
The consumer is none the wiser. What may look like the same formula on the outside of the bottle is in fact completely different. Sure the labeled ingredients are the same, but the quality, contents, and potency of those extracts is significantly worse, meaning you’ve just spent a boatload of money on a product that isn’t going to do much for your cognition, but it does increase the bottom line of the supplement company making the product.
This is the bigger and less known, scam with proprietary blends. This “bait and switch” from one batch to the next is perfectly legal too! It’s also a big reason one batch of a pre-workout may seem to hitter harder than others do.
And guess what…
This problem isn’t just plaguing pre-workouts and fat burners, it’s also infesting your protein powder, a.k.a your tub of gains, as well.
Let’s say you purchase a protein powder that has a whey protein blend of:
- Whey protein concentrate
- Whey protein isolate
- Whey hydrolysate
And it contains 25 grams of protein, 4 grams of carbohydrates, and 2 grams of fat per scoop. You fall in love with the taste, and the macros easily fit into your diet. Months go by, and you continue purchasing this product and never really give much thought to the ingredients or profile with each subsequent purchase.
Then, one day you happen to look at the tub and realize the macros have changed!
Now, your beloved protein only contains 20 grams of protein per serving, 9 grams of carbohydrates, and 5 grams of fat.
What the heck happened?!
Quite simply another batch-to-batch bait and switch has been done by the manufacturer in an effort to cut costs and increase their profit margin. But there’s not only one way they can do this with protein either.
You see, they could merely adjust the ratios of concentrate to isolate to hydrolysate, upping the amount of concentrate and barely putting in a couple of grams of isolate and hydrolysate. That’s the more obvious switch, but there’s another…
Swapping in a cheaper grade of whey protein concentrate into the formula. You see, whey concentrate can range in between 35-80% protein by mass, which is a HUGE range of variability. One batch the manufacturer could be using WPC-80 (the “good” stuff), and in the next, they could be using WPC-50, WPC-60, or WPC-70, and you’d be none the wiser.
Well, maybe you’d experience some more GI upset than usual, if you’re lactose sensitive, but if you’ve got an iron stomach, you’d be none the wiser unless you scrutinize the label facts each and every time your purchase your protein.
Just like our previous example, this one again is perfectly legal, and serves to highlight the glaring problem with proprietary blends -- we don’t know the exact amounts of the ingredients we’re consuming, or the quality of those ingredients!
Just Say No to Proprietary Blends!
In this day and age, there is absolutely zero reason to use proprietary blends in supplements. The only reason supplement companies use them is to deceive you, the consumer, and increase their bottom line. Proprietary blends are essentially legalized fraud. Loopholes in the FDA regulations allow supplement companies to legally deceive you; there’s no other way to say it.
Claims of “trade secrets” or “industry magic” are completely bogus. The effective ingredients and dosages are out in the open for everyone to know, and if a company isn’t using those ingredients and doses, they’re selling you a load of hooey.
The truth is, if a company isn’t willing to tell you exactly what is in their products, it is because they don’t want you to know how badly they are underdosing the ingredients in their products. It’s as simple as that.
Sure, they’ll say that the “synergism” of the ingredients means you can get by with amounts less than that documented in research, but these are untested, unverified, and untruthful claims backed up by absolutely nothing. This is all done by clever marketing agencies to help a supplement company “pull one over” on the consumer.
Supplement companies know what the proper dosages of ingredients are, and they know it’s expensive to dose everything properly. They’re also counting on the fact that you don’t know the proper dosages, and that you’re too lazy to check on the effective amounts. This creates the perfect storm for products with proprietary blends to fly off the shelf.
Do not support these kinds of products.
The best case scenario is that you’ve wasted our money on a product that won’t do anything for you. Worst case is you take a heaping helping of stimulants that send you to the emergency room.
Why waste your money or risk your well being by taking a gamble on a product from a company who is willingly hiding things from you?
It does not make any sense whatsoever.
Proprietary blends are a clever ploy by supplement companies to prevent you from knowing what and how much you’re taking, which puts your wallet and well-being at risk. They have no place in supplements, especially ones containing high amounts of stimulants.
Purchasing open-label, fully disclosed products ensures you get the best value for your money and it’s the only way to have certainty that you’re getting the proper doses of the ingredients you want in a pre-workout.
References1) Culbertson JY, Kreider RB, Greenwood M, Cooke M. Effects of Beta-Alanine on Muscle Carnosine and Exercise Performance:A Review of the Current Literature. Nutrients. 2010;2(1):75-98. doi:10.3390/nu2010075.
2) Trexler ET, Smith-Ryan AE, Stout JR, et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: Beta-Alanine. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2015;12:30. doi:10.1186/s12970-015-0090-y.
3) Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Military Nutrition Research. Caffeine for the Sustainment of Mental Task Performance: Formulations for Military Operations. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2001. 5, Doses and Delivery Mechanisms.Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK223795/
4) Goldstein ER, Ziegenfuss T, Kalman D, et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: caffeine and performance. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2010;7:5. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-7-5.