Scour the shelves of a health food store or natural food market and you’ll see an abundance of protein supplements. These powders are housed in colorful canisters with intriguing marketing jargon on the front to make you think you MUST have it. These days, you can find the more traditional dairy or egg-based protein powder, but you also can choose from an abundance of plant-based protein powders made from peas, hemp, brown rice, soy, or a mixture of these components.
It’s not surprising that protein powders are so popular. If you don’t have time for a high-protein meal, you can quickly mix up a high-protein shake and sip it on the way to work. Sounds convenient, doesn’t it? But convenience might come at the price of safety. Unfortunately, safety is a concern for some protein powders. In fact, independent testing by various firms shows that more than a few protein powders are contaminated with, among other things, heavy metals. How concerned should you be?
How Widespread is the Problem of Protein Powder Contamination?
You might think that heavy metals and other toxins in protein powders are only an issue with inexpensive brands, but the problem appears to be widespread. When the non-profit group Clean Label Project tested 134 different protein powders and supplements, they discovered ingredients that aren’t listed on the label. In fact, all of the powders they tested had detectable quantities of one or more heavy metals. In addition, over half tested positive for bisphenol-A (BPA).
The findings are disturbing for anyone who enjoys the convenience of sipping an easy-to-prepare protein drink. 74% of the samples they tested contained cadmium, a heavy metal linked with kidney problems and a higher risk of some forms of cancer. Once cadmium enters your body, it’s hard to eliminate since it has a long half-life of around 38 years. This means that only half of it is eliminated over this period of time. So, cadmium hangs around for a long time as is stored in the body, usually in the kidneys and liver. 70% of samples also tested positive for arsenic, another toxin that builds up in the body. According to the World Health Organization, arsenic is a known carcinogen.
You might assume that certified organic protein powder would fare better. Surprisingly, the organic protein powder samples tended to contain MORE heavy metals than non-organic. In fact, the organic samples the scientists tested had, on average, 2-fold the number of heavy metals that the non-organic powders they tested had. Plant-based protein powders didn’t fare well either. They tended to have more contamination with heavy metals than the egg-based powders they tested.
This isn’t surprising. The plants used to make protein powder may come from soil that already contains heavy metals, like arsenic, and plants can easily absorb those metals. Plus, the water they use to irrigate the plants may contain heavy metals as well. We tend to think of plant-based protein as healthier, but not when it’s contaminated with metals that are foreign to your body! In fact, 75% of the plant-based powders tested contained lead. Protein powders from animal sources may contain fewer heavy metals because the animals absorb and eliminate some of the metals.
You might think that low levels of contaminants in protein powder shouldn’t necessarily pose a problem. However, some of the products Clean Label tested exceeded the amounts that are allowable by the FDA. In addition, your body eliminates heavy metals very slowly. If you consume a protein shake most days of the week, you may be taking in substantial quantities of heavy metals.
What about BPA?
Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a component in plastics and resins. The FDA recently banned it for use in some children’s products out of concern that it disrupts hormones. 55% of the protein powders the Clean Label Project tested had substantial contamination with BPA. That’s not reassuring! BPA in animals is linked with infertility, thyroid disruption, and a higher risk of some forms of cancer. Unfortunately, most of us are already exposed to BPA from plastic products. Even food packaging contains BPA. Do you really need more from your protein powder?
Whole Food Sources of Protein Are Best
Protein powder sounds like a quick and convenient option, but as with most processed items, there’s a risk of contamination. Strive for getting your protein from whole food sources. Eggs contain the highest quality protein of any food and you can prepare them in so many ways. If you prefer plant-based protein or avoid animal products, fermented soy, like tempeh, edamame, lentils, beans, quinoa, hemp seeds, nuts, nut butter, chia seeds, flax seeds offer protein in a whole food form. Plus, hemp, chia, and flaxseeds are one of the best sources of plant-based omega-3s.
When you consume whole food sources of protein, you get the additional vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that nature adds rather than synthetic, cheap vitamins and fillers that protein powder manufacturers add to a product. Rather than stick to one type of protein, vary your protein sources. A more diverse diet is linked with a healthier gut microbiome.
If you don’t want to give up your protein powder, do your research. The Clean Label Project listed the best and worst of the brands they tested. Choose something from the “best” list and avoid ones that tested poorly. Try to eliminate the frequency with which you drink a protein drink. You can even make your own protein powder using ingredients like dried milk or dried egg powder. If you prefer plant-based protein, you can grind dried chickpeas or split peas to make a powder and add other ingredients like hemp seed or flaxseed. Don’t use other beans or lentils raw though since they contain toxins that are destroyed by cooking. You can even find recipes for plant-based and non-plant-based protein powders online. Be aware that if you make your own, the shelf life will be shorter since you aren’t adding preservatives.
The Bottom Line
Contamination of plant protein powder with heavy metals appears to be widespread. If you use a protein powder, look for one that passes the heavy metal test. Even better, get your protein from whole food sources.
Consumer Reports. “Arsenic, Lead Found in Popular Protein Supplements”
Clean Label Project. “2018 Protein Powder Study”
World Health Organization. “Arsenic”