A new study shows that many of the top-selling powders and drinks may contain concerning levels of heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead, and toxins like bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in some plastic containers and food can liners.
The substances identified in the study have been linked to cancer, brain damage, and reproductive issues.
The new study from the Clean Label Project, (a nonprofit organization that examines labeling safety issues) found that virtually all of the 134 products tested contained detectable levels of at least one heavy metal and 55 percent tested positive for BPA.
“These toxins accumulate in your body and can stay there for years,” says Tunde Akinleye, a test program leader in Consumer Reports’ Food Safety Division. “Frequent consumption of foods that contain them can have adverse health effects over the long run.”
A prior test conducted in a 2010 Consumer Reports’ study detected arsenic, cadmium, lead and/or mercury in samples of all the 15 powders tested.
The Clean Label Project measured the levels of heavy metals, BPA, pesticides, and other contaminants (more than 150 in all) in protein powders and drinks.
The contaminant levels were measured in a single serving of the products, however, Jaclyn Bowen, executive director of Clean Label Project, points out that many consumers use protein products multiple times per day.
Products made from sources of plant protein such as soy or hemp fared worse than those made from whey (milk) or egg, containing on average twice as much lead and measurably higher amounts of other contaminants.
Plant-based proteins may have higher contamination levels because the plants are especially prone to absorbing heavy metals from soil, says Sean Callan, Ph.D., a neuroscientist, and director of operations at Ellipse Analytics, the lab that tested the protein products.
Whey and egg proteins may have lower levels of heavy metals because the source of the contamination would likely be the feed given to the animals. Callan suspects the animals' digestive systems diffuse some of the toxins.
Also important: Buying a product with an "organic" label did not reduce the chances of getting a contaminated product. In fact, organic protein supplements had higher levels of heavy metals, on average, than nonorganic.
In its analysis, the Clean Label Project assigned each product a score for four individual elements: heavy metals, pesticides, contaminants like BPA, and nutrition. Then it calculated an overall score. The heavy metal levels accounted for 60 percent of the overall score because their effects have been shown in studies to pose greater harm to health.
The five products that received the poorest overall scores in this test were:
- Garden of Life Organic Shake & Meal Replacement Chocolate Cacao Raw Organic Meal
- Nature’s Best Isopure Creamy Vanilla Zero Carb
- Quest Chocolate Milkshake Protein Powder
- 360Cut Performance Supplements 360PRO Whey Chocolate Silk Premium Whey Protein
- Vega Sport Plant-Based Vanilla Performance Protein
CR’s Akinleye says it would be very difficult to create a system where protein powders contained absolutely no trace of any heavy metals. Given this goal, he says, you have to measure how each product stacks up against the others.
“When you have a protein supplement that is very, very clean,” he says, “that proves, to the companies with high levels of heavy metals, that it is possible to do better.”
Protein products typically contain between 15 and 25 grams of protein per serving, although some contain more. Protein needs range from 0.4 to 0.6 grams of protein per pound of weight a day (that would be 64 to 96 grams per day for a 160-pound person) which also depends on the state of the human body. Protein needs increase when the body is under stress. Inversely, the amount of protein contained in a product is not as important as the amount of protein that is made bioavailable (useable to the body). Typical protein powders demonstrate poor digestibility, and despite the label claims, the body is only able to process 10-20% of the actual protein molecule. OP2 Labs FrogFuel and ProT GOLD products are proven for 100% digestibility in less than 15 minutes.
OP2 Labs performs ingredient and finished product testing on every batch of product. We test for contaminants, bacteria, yeast, mold, mildew and extensive protein analysis to ensure every batch of our product conforms to quality control and safety standards.