Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will be well aware that protein powders are big business. Nowadays protein powders, bars and even brownies can be picked up in airports, gas stations and local convenience stores. Gone are the days when your Whey protein was sold in a shady part of town by a man resembling the Hulk.
According to a 2013 report by Euromonitor International, annual sales of protein powder in the US alone rose from $1,200 million to just over $2,000 million from 2008 to 2013. Furthermore the group estimated that by 2018, sales could be as high as $3, 000 million. Its big business, and despite what people many think, its a business that is becoming increasingly scrutinised.
While the FDA and other government bodies are often criticised for slackness in their testing mechanisms, the average consumer has begun to take an interest in the contents of their powder, resulting in a series of freely available test results on which supplements are the real deal.
So with all this money and scrutiny in today’s modern climate, it seems a good time to examine Bob Hoffman’s ‘Hi-Proteen’ protein powder. A supplement devised in the 1950s that lays claim to being one of the first ever bodybuilding protein powders. While today’s producers use labs and testing, Hoffman’s methods were a little more lax to say the least.
Who was Bob Hoffman and why did he create ‘Hi-Proteen’?
Regular readers of this website will be familiar with Bob Hoffman, the owner of York Barbell and coach of the United States Weightlifting team from the late 1940s to early 1960s. In the weightlifting game, Hoffman was of the the pivotal figures. Only to be displaced by the Weider brothers in the 1970s.
His word was highly regarded and his York Barbell company was associated with some of the biggest names in bodybuilding, powerlifting and of course, olympic weightlifting. He also ran the physical culture magazine Health and Strength, which further soldified his power.
Although Hoffman was all of these things and more, he was no dietician. Something which begs the question…
Why did Hoffman create ‘Hi-Proteen’?
This is an important question to ask for a number of reasons.
Hoffman had been contacted in the 1940s by the famous American nutritionist Paul Bragg about creating a line of weightlifting supplements to which the Muscle Man had displayed an incredible lack of interest. Furthermore in his late 1930s articles Hoffman was often steadfast in his belief that good nutritious food was all the modern weightlifter needed.
What changed Hoffman’s mind was the changing nature of the weightlifting market. Yes despite all the modern rhetoric about fitness being a business, the iron game has long been motivated by selling. Heck even Eugen Sandow sold supplements in the early 1900s!
But back to our story…
In the early 1950s, Irving Johnson (later called Rheo H. Blair) began selling “Johnson’s Hi Protein Food” through Hoffman’s Health and Strength magazine. Despite the fact that as recently as September 1951 Hoffman admitted he was not convinced by the need for food supplements, Johnson’s sales of protein and before/after pictures seem to have altered Hoffman’s opinions on the matter.
By 1952 Hoffman had severed links with Johnson and begun marketing his own ‘Hi-Proteen’ blend that was remarkably similar to Johnson’s. Nevertheless Hoffman saw it as a distinctly new product.
What was Hi-Proteen Like?
Coming in chocolate, vanilla, black walnut, coconut and plain flavours, Hoffman’s protein powder promised better nutrition and quick results. For just $4 (roughly $40 in current money), aspiring muscle fanatics would get a four pound bag of the newest supplement on the market.
Furthermore Hoffman’s supplement was marketed as the latest in advanced technology. In March 1952, Hoffman told his readers as much…
The production of a ‘miracle food,’ such as High-Protein, is not a hit-or-miss affair. A world famous food research laboratory is put to work. Their chemists and the doctors, who are a part of their organization, work out the product. They profit by their years of study, experience and research.
After a lengthy period of research and testing, the proper blend is obtained. It must be nutritious, containing—as far as possible—all the necessary amino acids, and it must be pleasant to the taste, so that using it is a pleasure. The blend has been prepared and then the aid of a big, nationally known packing company, is enlisted. It is their work to fill the prescription or formula, to prepare the food as outlined by the research laboratories. The ingredients must be handled in a sanitary manner, properly packaged and prepared for shipment. All of this was done with the Hoffman products. We never leave anything to chance.
Despite waxing lyrical about the ‘scientific’ research going into his products, Hoffman was a little bit more lax about standards in real life. Jim Murray, Hoffman’s managing editor later revealed that Hoffman’s product was actually created by Hoffman in the old York enterprises.
Hoffman would dump a bag of Hersey’s sweet chocolate into a vat and stir in soy bean flour with a paddle. Stirring vigorously Hoffman would would continue to taste the blend until he found a palatable mixture. So much for scientific research eh?
Given Hoffman’s ‘unique’ methods, it is perhaps unsurprising that Hoffman’s ‘Hi-Proteen’ gained something of a poor reputation. Though many lifters bought the supplement owing to Hoffman’s advertising, the results were mixed to say the least. In more than one gym across the United States, the standing joke was that you would know who was using Hoffman’s supplements by the stinking gas they emitted! Given that Hoffman was also responsible for the world’s first fish-based protein powder, its fair to blame the York man for the foul smelling gyms of the 1950s and 1960s.
Somewhat interestingly, Irving Johnson, the man who inspired Hoffman to create his own brand of protein supplements, went on to create one of the most popular protein powders of the 20th century. Perhaps Hoffman should have stuck with Johnson’s formula!
Although faded from the modern lifters’ consciousness, Hoffman’s ‘Hi-Proteen’ supplement was a pivotal moment in the iron game. It set the template for other producers to market their own growing supplement lines. Hoffman marketed his powders through articles, athlete endorsements and of course, advertisements. It was a fully fledged marketing campaign that many producers still use today. This of course, makes skepticism about supplements an invaluable tool for the modern lifter!